The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross names his favorite performances, recordings and book of 2017

January 5, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Many musicologists, musicians and music fans consider Alex Ross (below), of The New Yorker magazine, to be the best music critic in the U.S.

Besides the major awards his two books – “The Rest Is Noise” and “Listen to This” — have won, Ross has a reputation for emphasizing the new, the unknown and the neglected, and for deeply perceptive judgments and original observations.

Now, a lot of other critics, from The New York Times, National Public Radio (NPR) and Gramophone magazine as well as the Grammy nominations have named their Best of 2017.

Here is a link to a posting that contains other links to those different lists:

Yet it seems particularly important and enlightening to consider what Alex Ross has selected for his recommendations for one book, 10 performances and 20 recordings.

Here is a link to Ross’ list, which has many links to samples and reviews:

Classical music: Sexy phenom pianist Yuja Wang sees Rachmaninoff rooted in improvisation and compares him to jazz giant Art Tatum. Hear her talk – and play — on NPR. Also, Marvin Rabin, founder of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, has died at 97.

December 7, 2013

NEWS ALERT: Marvin Rabin (below, at an award dinner in 2011),  the man who founded and directed the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra back in the 1960s, after a similar history in Louisville and Boston, died at 97 (NOT 95, as I erroneously first stated) on Thursday night. He was a giant in the field of music education, and had a national and international reputation. Look for a longer blog posting tomorrow, on Sunday. He was an amazingly talented, devoted and humane person who affected tens of thousands of lives for the better.

Rabin portrait USE

By Jacob Stockinger

Was that refreshing or what?

Maybe it even shows that there is more of an NPR audience for classical music than for some of the hip-hop and Latin stuff they cover to attract younger audiences. One can always hope.

Twenty-six years old and already a superstar, piano phenom Yuja Wang proved playful and articulate as she promoted her new recording (below) for Deutsche Grammophon. It features Sergei Rachmaninoff’s famous Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor and Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, both with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under its superstar former conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who now is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. (The Madame Butterfly eye lashes on the CD’s cover are a bit much, no? It’s guilding the lotus, The Ear would say. Wang is attractive and sexy enough just as she is.)

Yuja Wang Rach 3 CD coverGD

Yuja Wang and Gustavo Dudamel make a great team, as you can hear in the excerpts in the YouTube video at the bottom. And watch how, since she is wearing s strapless dress, you can see how her shoulder and chest muscles get that big sound from a small woman.)

Relaxed and freewheeling, Wang herself proved a great improviser in an interview with NPR’s “Morning Edition” co-host Steve Inskeep as she deconstructed and eve performed parts of the “Rach 3” (below, in the NPR studio in a photo by Diane DeBelius).

yuja wang at npr Denise DeBelius NPR

Wang also emphasized the improvisational qualities of the music and compared Rachmaninoff (below top), one favorite of Vladimir Horowitz (below middle), to the blind jazz giant Art Tatum (below bottom), another favorite of Horowitz. I myself think it is very controlled improvisation, much like the music of Frederic Chopin.


Vladimir Horowitz

art tatum

You may recall that the work in question is the titanic, knuckle-busting and wrist-taxing Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor that ruined pianist David Helfgott’s sanity or at least triggered his nervous breakdown in the 1996 Australian film “Shine.”

Be sure to listen to Wang’s expressive voice and to read the Readers’ Comments. There are quite a few – and just about all positive.

Many of them see Yuja Wang as a new Vladimir Horowitz — an obvious comparison reinforced by both the way she plays and the repertoire she plays. (Why not see her as the new Martha Argerich — whom Horowitz himself said had learned much from him.)

But the readers also clearly encourage NRP to do more stories along these lines.

And guess what?

There was no talk about her attractive looks and the sexy micro-skirts and black gown with heels and thigh-slits (below) that have sparked such controversy when she played in them at the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall, respectively.

yuja wang dress times 3

Yuja Wang at Carnegie Ruby Washington NYTimes

Classical music: Could Yuja Wang be a case of early burnout or overexposure? I doubt it. So where in the world is she? What is she playing? What is she doing? What is she recording? And what is she wearing?

March 30, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

For a while there, about a year ago, the young Chinese-born and American-trained pianist Yuja Wang (below) was setting the classical world on fire. She is very exciting, as you can see at the bottom in a YouTube video.

YujaWangphotoblack dress

With four Deutsche Grammophon recordings to her credit, the photogenic and virtuosic young Wang, now 26, also had garnered two Grammy nominations.

Her Carnegie Hall debut (below) got a rave review from Anthony Tommasini, the choosy senior critic for The New York Times:

And she also gave the Times a great interview:

And Wang’s penchant for sexy concert attire – either the red micro-skirt (below top) at the Hollywood Bowl or the slit-thigh black gown (bottom) at Carnegie Hall – had stirred comments and controversy.’t-alone-in-using-her-sexy-good-looks-chic-fashion-and-in-your-face-media-remarks-to-create-controversy-and-controversy-to-advance-her-career/’s-concert-skirt-too-short-what-is-inappropriate-concert-attire-for-a-performer-male-or-female/

yuja wang dress times 3

Yuja Wang at Carnegie Ruby Washington NYTimes

So I recently wondered what Yuja Wang was up to.

I searched for news, and found precious little except for a rave review of her recent solo recital debut last Sunday in Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Hall:,0,2575431.story?track=rss

I also checked out her website ( — it seems quite out of date — and found nothing later than her going to Mumbai, India to dedicate a new Steinway concert grand. That old news! Two years old!

I also found nothing about her next recording project, although I suspect it will be Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 coupled maybe with Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3. (After a fine recording of two Rachmaninoff Concertos with Claudio Abbado, she put out “Fantasia,”an album of miniatures and encores that I was not so thrilled about. Below is a link to my review.)

YujaWang casual photo

So at my wit’s end, I am putting out a call to all readers:








Yuja Wang is far too talented to fall off the radar. So …

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Sexy superstar pianist Yuja Wang is this issue’s cover girl for BBC Music Magazine. But is the headline proclaiming “world domination” sexist or racist?

March 10, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

For sometime now, the young Chinese-born piano virtuoso Yuja Wang (below) has been gathering more and more press as well as more and more critical accolades.

For a second time, her Grammy nomination – this last one for two Rachmaninov concertos with conductor Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra for the Deutsche Grammophon label – failed to win. But it was a great recording.

No matter. Wang just she keeps on building her public profile and her professional success.

First, it was her astonishing abilities as a child prodigy. You can see many of those performances posted on YouTube, where you can also find her octave miracles in the “Flight of the Bumble Bee” performance she posted as an adult. (Also her video “The House of Flying Fingers,” made when Wang was younger.)

Then it was her last-minute substitutions for established artists and her ability to play white-hot music with steely cool nerves.

More recently, the young and attractive, leggy and sexy Wang was featured in headlines for wearing a sexy orange micro-skirt (below) during an appearance at the Hollywood Bowl where played Rachmaninov’s finger-breaking Third Concerto with ease, fluidity and strength.

Then she made her solo debut at Carnegie Hall in a more subdued black gown that featured a thigh-high slit (below, in a photo by Ruby Washington of The New York Times). But none other than New York Times senior critic Anthony Tommasini praised her musicality and virtuosity.

Her fees and the number of her bookings are both no doubt skyrocketing.

Yuja Wang is going, as they say, viral.

We will see what happens when her next recording, “Fantasia” (below) is released on April 10. It is sure to be a bestseller, I would bet.

In the meantime, the prestigious and culturally serious publication, the BBC Music Magazine has made Wang its cover story. That much is perfectly understandable, and to Wang and the magazine’s credit.

What is less understandable or justifiable to me is the headline, which asks is she is on the verge of achieving “world domination.”

Does that heavy-handed term strike anyone as not only excessive or sensationalistic but perhaps even sexist and racist, with its Cold War overtones of conflict and the “Yellow Peril.” Certainly, all things Chinese have lately been seen as the major challenge or threat confronting the Western world and Western civilization these days. Are they talking about piano playing and music and art? Or about global geo-political rivalries?

Anyway, here is a link to the story in PDF format (so it takes a few seconds to load). It has a lot of fascinating information, including Wang’s injuries and her recovery from them. She comes off as very likable as well as immensely talented.

Enjoy it.

Then let The Ear know what you think about the story, about Yuja Wang and her playing, and about the striking headline.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music news: Will Lola Astanova outstrip Yuja Wang as the sexiest pianist? Will Lola or Yuja become The Lady Gaga of Classical Music?

January 21, 2012

ALERT: This week’s “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature the Kat Trio (the violin, clarinet and piano trio,  below, is in residence this year at Wisconsin Public Radio) in larger works by Milhaud and Menotti as well as smaller works by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Ginastera and others. The concert is free from 12:30 to 2 p.m. and will be broadcast live over WPR. For more information, visit

By Jacob Stockinger

Is Lola Astanova about to upstage Yuja Wang as The Lady Gaga of Classical Music? (Both women say they admire Lady Gaga.)

Maybe you thought things has calmed down about Yuja Wang and her ruffling some concertgoer’s feathers with her red micro-skirts and her black, thigh-high slit black gown when she performs (below top, at Hollywood Bowl and below bottom, in a photo by Ruby Washington of The New York Times, at her Carnegie Hall debut this fall):

Well, think again.

Along comes the 26-year-old, Uzbekistan-born pianist Lola Astanova, clad in skimpy black and lots of skin, to up the ante on the sexy dress quotient in classical music.

She got quite the photo (below) and write-up preview in The New York Times this past Thursday, the morning before her concert. It all concerns her performing Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin (I don’t know the specific pieces, but she is billing it as an homage to her favorite pianist Vladimir Horowitz, so I expect it will be some of the same famous pieces by those composers that Horowitz often performed.)

You would also have to go pretty far and to extreme excess to top her own website for self-promotion. Here is a link, so you can check out the fashion shows she combines with concerts and her other promotional entries. Curiously, I still don’t see the repertoire listed.

Her performance served as her Carnegie Hall debut. But – here is the unusual part — it took place as part of a gala fundraiser the American Cancer Society featuring Donald Trump and Julie Andrews.

Here is a link to the preview story:

And here are links to an equally skimpy review:

And here is 2010 story with some great vintage quotes about her attitudes:

It is interesting to read about Astanova (below), who sees fashion as an expression and extension of her creativity and artistry, and to learn how her musical training went at Rice University with Jon Kimura Parker and others.

It will also be extremely interesting to see what kind of review she garners at other events — where she may not be wearing $850,000 in jewelry from Tiffany and Company or playing Horowitz’s own special Steinway.

But this much is certain: She sure knows how to attract the media and hype.

Will it help her career?

Maybe it already has – at least a bit. But she will have to sustain with substance, and not just flair. She will have to deliver the goods – and I mean the musical goods.

After all, I suspect that the brouhaha about Yuja Wang would not amount to much if she had failed to make a deep musical impression. But Yuja – who is younger and already records for a major label (Deutsche Grammophon) and has two Grammy nominations to her name — has the real stuff, the unquestionable musical talent to get away with a lot.

We have yet to see if it will be the same for Lola.

One way to judge may be from the plentiful videos she has on YouTUBE, where she seems to be following the path of Valentina Lisitsa (below) to alternative media fame with both mainstream repertoire and unusual pieces. (See just one example, a la Christopher O’Riley and his transcriptions of Radiohead songs, with more than one million hits, at the bottom).

So, who is the better pianist?

Yuja or Lola?

And who is the more striking fashion plate?

Yuja or Lola?

Who will be The Lady Gaga of Classical Music?

Yuja or Lola?

Is there a better way to attract young audiences or garner publicity?

The Ear wants to hear.

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