The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Rediscovering old piano technique is altering how the music of the classical Old Masters sounds and how easily it is played

August 26, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Sure, for a long time musicology has traced how musical styles, forms and instrumentation have changed.

But now some researchers are using computers to investigate – and revive – an older keyboard technique from the 19th century that differs dramatically from the more modern technique generally in use. (Below is a photo by Alexander Refsum Jensenius.)

old piano technique CR Alexander Refsum Jensenius

It turns out not to be as outdated or useless as many assume.

It changes not only how the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin sounds but also the ease with which the performer can play it.

Here is a story from The New York Times that the Ear had stashed from about a year ago.

But he thinks it still seems timely – and fascinating.

And he hopes you do too.

Here is a link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/science/playing-mozart-piano-pieces-as-mozart-did.html

See what you think and leave a comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: You Must Hear This -– the Romance for Viola and Orchestra by Max Bruch.

October 26, 2014
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

I saw and heard Madison-born and Madison-raised violist Vicki Powell (below) last Wednesday night. That was when the alumna of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), the UW-Madison School of Music, the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute  who now plays with the New York Philharmonic and other prestigious groups and who has participated in the Marlboro and Aspen festivals, returned from New York City to solo with the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Vicki Powell at MCO

It was a wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable performance as well as very affordable event, as you can read in the review by John W. Barker that was posted yesterday.

Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/classical-music-the-middleton-community-orchestra-opens-its-season-with-polished-viola-playing-from-vicki-powell-and-infectious-enthusiasm-from-the-entire-orchestra-in-a-dvorak-symphony/

After the concert done in the terrific 90-minute, no intermission format that I think attracts many people, there was a meet-and-greet, with cookies and punch, where the public and the musicians could mingle – and did.

MCO June 2014 reception

That’s when I went up to the lovely, gifted and poised Vicki Powell and remarked on how beautiful her playing had been with the MCO under conductor Steve Kurr (below top). I was quite taken with her reading of the rarely heard Fantasy on Themes by Mozart for Viola and Orchestra by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (below bottom).

Hummel remains a much underappeciated composer who was invited by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself to live in his house and take free lessons.

Vicki Powell and Steve Kurr MCO finale

Hummelcolor

But what really swept me away was the Romance for Viola and Orchestra by the 19th-century Romantic German composer Max Bruch (below).

max bruch

I have heard Max Bruch’s popular violin concertos – especially No. 1  in G minor — and his Kol Nidre for cello and piano as well as his Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra.

But this work was completely new and unknown to me, but captivated me from the first notes. No 10 listenings or more needed to like and appreciate this work!

“I am amazed it hasn’t yet been used for a movie soundtrack,” I said to Powell.

“Really?” she said. “So am I.”

That is how beautiful and tuneful, how accessible and emotional, it is.

And maybe you will be surprised too.

So here is a YouTube video of the work performed by violist Miles Hoffman, who also comments frequently on classical music for NPR (National Public Radio). It lasts about 9-1/2 minutes and is pure loveliness.

Miles Hoffman NPR

And maybe it has indeed been used in the movies.

If so and you know, please let us know.

And let us know what you think of the piece, which The Ear thinks deserves to be programmed much more often, even though the viola is not often featured as a solo instrument with orchestra. (All the more reason to admire the Middleton Community Orchestra and its mission.)

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra opens its season with polished viola playing from Vicki Powell and infectious enthusiasm from the entire orchestra in a Dvorak symphony.

October 25, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 20 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below) opened its fifth season on last Wednesday evening with a mix of novelties and old favorites.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

The orchestra’s new concertmaster, Valerie Clare Sanders, a senior at the UW-Madison School of Music  who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, also made her debut with the MCO.

Valerie Clare Sanders MCO 2014

The starter was the ever-popular, ever-rousing Overture to the opera “William Tell” by Rossini. The playing seemed a little less fully digested, but the piece still came off with spirit.

The unfamiliar elements were two display pieces for the young but highly gifted, Madison-born violist, Vicki Powell (below). She offered a superbly warm, rich, clearly projected tone, presented in a thoroughly professional manner— reminding us, too, how underappreciated the viola is as a solo instrument.

Vicki Powell at MCO

Her first selection was a Fantasia on themes of Mozart, by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), a protégé of Mozart and rival to Beethoven. Originally a solo piano piece of 1833, if I am not mistaken, it was arranged for solo viola and chamber orchestra by the French musician Fernand Oubradous. It proved to be charming music, beautifully played.

The second piece was a Romance, Op. 85, of 1911, for viola and orchestra. Composed in lush late-Romantic style, it could have been a movement of a concerto, and was a handsome dialogue between soloist and orchestra, realized with particularly gorgeous tone by Powell. She is a musician to watch for.

Vicki Powell and Steve Kurr MCO finale

The grand finale was the Symphony No. 8 in G major by Antonin Dvorak.

Here I must ask the reader’s patience if I indulge in a strong personal memory about this work — and a very pertinent one.

When I was a graduate student in the late 1950s at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick N.J., I attended a concert by the New Brunswick Community Philharmonic (if I remember its name correctly). It consisted of semi-professionals and amateurs of the area, under the baton of the local high-school bandmaster, one Max Pecker. This has proven to be one of the most memorable concerts of my musical lifetime, and I still recall the program vividly.

Franz Schubert’s bouncy Overture to his opera “Alfonso und Estrella” immediately revealed that this orchestra was a pretty scrappy affair in terms of discipline. BUT: the players were having so much fun in their work that it was impossible not to share their enthusiasm.

The second work was the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Camille Saint-Saëns, featuring a local keyboard whiz just back from the Paris Conservatory. For him the orchestra had made its most careful preparation, and their playing came off as quite credible.

But the final work was this very same G major Symphony by Dvorak (below). Now, the orchestra’s concertmaster was also the local newspaper’s music critic (!), and in her review of the concert she revealed the profundity of her knowledge by observing that, though this symphony was not as well-known as Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 “The New World,” it was, she insisted, “not without moments of interest” (! again). (You can hear the entrancing and beautiful symphony in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

dvorak

The important thing was that, even though the work was rough going for this ensemble, the sheer joy of the players was simply contagious. The most honest kind of musical pleasure filled the hall. As I said, this is a concert I have never forgotten, always remembered affectionately.

I had that concert very much in mind in listening to the MCO performance.

Oh yes, there were some passing fluffs here and there. But this was an orchestra that could play with discipline and coherent unity of purpose, far beyond the New Brunswickers’ capacities. The parallel was, however, that the players seemed clearly to have caught the enthusiasm for the score conveyed to them by conductor Steve Kurr (below).

Steve Kurr and MCO 2014

Better than most performances I have heard, Kurr projected an intensity and even dramatic emphases that the orchestra took up and gave back to him gloriously.

One member told me afterwards: “We enjoyed playing it.” And I found myself at times transported with delight at how this magnificent score once again came alive for me, thanks to music-making that was more than just a matter of artistic efficiency.

My point is not just a matter of nostalgia revived. It is a reminder that one does not have to have a performance by one of the super-polished orchestras of our Big Cities, or of the international world, in order to have a memorable listening experience.

A deeply committed orchestra under inspired and inspiring leadership can offer as satisfying a musical experience as can be found anywhere.

Madison audiences should therefore listen up and pay attention to Middleton’s really splendid community orchestra, taking advantage of its offerings to discover the genuine rewards.

 

 

 

 

 


Classical music: The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble offers early music rarities with verve and polish. Plus, TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. native daughter violist Vicki Powell solos with the Middleton Community Orchestra

October 22, 2014
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ALERT: A reminder that Madison-born Vicki Powell, who trained at the UW-Madison School of Music, the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School and who plays with the New York Philharmonic and other major groups, will perform two solos  TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. at the season-opening concert by the largely amateur but very good Middleton Community Orchestra, under conductor Steve Kurr.

The place is the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street, not far off of University Avenue.

On the programs is the Overture to “William Tell” by Rossini, the Fantasy for Viola and Orchestra by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, the  Romance for Viola and Orchestra by Max Bruch and the Symphony No. 8 by Antonin Dvorak. Tickets are $10; all students get in for FREE. A meet-and-greet reception for the players and audience members follows the concert.

Here is a link to the Q&A with violist Vicki Powell that The Ear posted last week:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/classical-music-vicki-powell-talks-about-why-she-took-to-the-viola-rather-than-the-violin-she-returns-to-madison-to-solo-next-wednesday-night-with-the-middleton-community-orchestra/

Vicki Powell, Viola

By Jacob Stockinger 

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 20 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below top) launched its new season in Madison last Sunday afternoon, not at its usual venue (Gates of Heaven Synagogue), but at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below bottom).

Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble composite

St. Andrew's Episcopal Madison Front

The different location contributed to an enlargement of instrumental colors this time. Max Yount not only worked the harpsichord, but made good use of the church’s handsome Baroque organ in the numerous continuo functions.

In addition, Eric Miller (below) extended from his viola da gamba to show his new talents on the cornetto, while Theresa Koenig moved gracefully between dulcian (early bassoon) and recorders, and Monica Steger alternated on flute and recorder.

Eric Miller viol

The frequent vocal collaborators, UW-Madison soprano Mimmi Fulmer (below top, seen at the Hillside Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound Taliesin in Spring Green) and mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo were on hand, and patriarch Anton TenWolde (below bottom) on cello completed the group of seven performers.

Mimmi Fulmer at Taliesin 2014

anton tenwolde

Two of the nine composers represented — the German Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and the Swede Johan Helmich Roman (1694-1758) — stood apart as almost chronological afterthoughts, though Roman’s sonata for flute and continuo was given a predictably rousing rendition by Steger.

Otherwise, the focus was on music of the 17th century, especially its very early epoch. Miller gave us gamba renditions of Giovanni Bassano’s variations on a popular madrigal by Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565), two training pieces by Christopher Simpson (1602-1669), and an unaccompanied solo by the enigmatic Sainte-Colombe (1640-1700). (An entrancing sample of solo viol music by Sainte-Colombe is in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

Koenig presented a sonata for dulcian and continuo by Giovanni Antonio Bertoli (1598-1645), then joining Steger on recorders for a duo sonata by Giuseppe Scarani of the mid-17th century.

On the vocal side, the two singers joined in an impressive cycle of eight Italian duets, with continuo, by Sigismondo d’India (1582-1629). In these, D’India, an epigone of Claudio Monteverdi (below), contrived writing of individual elaborateness for each singer while also ingeniously integrating their parts.

Monteverdi 2

Vocal music returned at the end, too, when Sañudo, joined by all the players, sang the opening aria of Bach’s Cantata 161, and then the two singers and almost all the players came together for an early carryover by Heinrich Schütz (below, 1585-1672) from his Italian training, a moralizing madrigal in German for two voices, two melody instruments, and continuo, which made a richly satisfying conclusion to the program. It was in these two last vocal works, too, that Miller forsook his gamba and took up his cornet.

Heinrich Schutz

What can we say? After some 17 years, the WBE is still going strong, offering us annual presentations of mostly rare Baroque chamber works, in elegant performances in intimate venues. They are the trailblazers in Madison’s early music scene, and they remain a vital component of that scene.

 

 


Classical music: Vicki Powell talks about why she took to the viola rather than the violin. She returns to Madison to solo next Wednesday night with the Middleton Community Orchestra. Plus, cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s SOLD-OUT recital Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater will be WEBCAST LIVE and FOR FREE.

October 17, 2014
2 Comments

REMINDER: This Saturday night, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma (below right) will make his seventh appearance at the Wisconsin Union Theater at 8 p.m. in Shannon Hall. His recital features works by Igor Stravinsky, Johannes Brahms, Olivier Messiaen, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla and others with piano accompanist Kathryn Stott (below left). The event is SOLD OUT to the general public, although some student tickets may remain. For more information, here is a link:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/season14-15/yoyoma-kathynstott.html

BUT: If you didn’t get a ticket to the sold-out Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott concert Saturday night, October 18, in Shannon Hall in the Wisconsin Union Theater, don’t fret. The concert will be webcast if you go to the page above at 8 p.m.

yo-yo ma and kathryn stott

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear loves the sound of the viola, with its mellow mediating between the higher violin and the lower cello.

And he will have the chance to hear it in some unusual repertoire this coming Wednesday night, Oct. 22, when  the Madison-born violist Vicki Powell (below top) returns to solo with the Middleton Community Orchestra (below bottom, in a photo by William Ballhorn) under conductor Steve Kurr.

Vicki Powell, Viola

Middleton Community Orchestra by William Ballhorn

The MCO opens its fifth season at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday in the Middleton Performing Arts Center, 2100 Bristol Street, that is attached to Middleton High School. Tickets are $10 general admission; students get in for FREE. Advance tickets can be bought at the Willy Street Coop West.

Middleton PAC1

The program includes the Overture to “William Tell” (which contains the brass fanfare theme to TV show “The Lone Ranger”) by Gioachino Rossini; the Fantasy for Viola and Orchestra by Johann Nepomuk Hummel; the Romance for Viola and Orchestra by Max Bruch; and the Symphony No. 8 by Antonin Dvorak.

For more information about the amateur but very accomplished ensemble, including how to join it and support it and find out what the coming season will bring, call (608) 212-8690 or visit: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Violist Vicki Powell (below) recently gave an email interview to The Ear:

Vicki Powell 2

Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers and tell us a bit about yourself, including when you started music lessons, your early preparation and your life in Madison as well as your personal interests (hobbies, etc.) and professional career plans?

Greetings from New York City, the city that never sleeps and that is certainly never lacking in cultural events. I am a native Wisconsinite, raised in Madison, but for the past eight years I have been living on the East Coast.

After earning my Bachelor’s of Music at the Curtis Institute, where I studied with Roberto Diaz and Misha Amory, I moved to New York City to pursue my Master’s at the Juilliard School, and have lived in the city ever since.

My life consists of a potpourri of musical activities, from performing with the Jupiter Chamber Players, to playing with the New York Philharmonic, to collaborating with ballet companies alongside my new music group Ensemble39. I’ve traveled across the globe and collaborated with many incredible musicians, but my most fond memories are from my time back home, the formative years of my musical being.

I began taking violin lessons with Maria Rosa Germain at the age of four after hearing my brother, Derek, play the violin. I have such a vivid memory of the moment when I decided that I wanted to play the violin: It was dusk, and I was curled up on the green shag carpet of our basement floor, the last bits of daylight leaking in through the windows above. Derek was practicing the Waltz by Johannes Brahms from Suzuki, Book Two a few feet away.

I was exhausted after an afternoon of monkeying around on the jungle gym, and the waltz was the most soothing lullaby to my ears, transporting me to that surreal state of half sleep where time seems to stand still. I felt so peaceful, so warm, so content, the effects combining to make the moment so magical that the only logical thing to me upon waking was that I would some day be able to recapture that sensation and make music as beautiful.

My main violin studies were with Eugene Purdue (below, in a photo by Thomas C. Stringfellow), of the famed “Buddy” Conservatory of Music, with whom I studied for nine years. Mr. Purdue also introduced me to the wonderful world of chamber music, taking on the role of devoted coach to my string quartet, the Élève Arte (wannabes of the Pro Arte String Quartet).

Eugene Purdue 2 by Thomas C. Stringfellow

The challenge to my string quartet was that there were three of us violinists, and no violist to speak of, so we took it upon ourselves to switch around our roles in order for us each to have a turn at playing the viola. As the years rolled on, it became clear to us that in order to compete at competitions, it was not practical for us to be lugging so many instruments onstage (there exists some comical video footage of this phenomenon).

At this point, I decided that my role in life was not that of diva (ahem, First Violin). Although I find the role of Second Violin extremely vital to the ensemble, challenging, thrilling and full of guts, I was drawn to the uniquely dark tone of the Viola.

To me the viola (below) represented the real meat and soul of the string quartet, and the tone of the viola was the perfect vehicle for expressing all of the rage, pain and suffering that I felt (Bela Bartok’s works were the perfect outlet for those emotions).

viola

Most violists also play the violin. What attracted you to the viola? What would you like the public to know about the viola, which seems less well-known and more mysterious than, say, the violin or the cello?

Having now overcome my teenage angst, I still adore the viola and its role in music -– to be entrusted with the core of harmony, the real color within every texture, gives me such a sense of quiet power with which I can subtly control the direction of a phrase and the shape of an entire work.

Mr. Purdue once shared a piece of wisdom relating to his wife, Sally Chisholm (below), who teaches at the UW-Madison School of Music and performs with the Pro Arte Quartet. She was my first formal viola teacher and the person responsible for expanding my creative horizon beyond the physical realm of music-making.

Those words of wisdom were: “People feel at ease when playing with Sally, and they easily credit themselves for sounding so magnificent. However, it is Sally who, through her playing, acts as such a strong guiding force that the flow of musical intention is undeniable.” That is a powerful statement that has stayed with me to this day, and which I strive to achieve every single day.

Sally Chisholm

Was there an Aha! Moment – an individual piece or composer or performance or recording, when you knew you wanted to pursue music as a career and be a violist?

I can’t imagine pursuing a life in anything unrelated to music and the arts, but it was not always that way.

As a teenager, I refused even to dream of becoming a musician –- I’m a very realistic person, and the idea of fighting my way through a world that is so competitive and which is not quite so financially lucrative was not one that appealed to my sensibilities. During my early high school years, I focused my attentions on math and the sciences, preparing myself for a life as a dentist or pathologist.

Then my “Aha!” moment came with my 16th birthday when I gave my debut as a solo violist on the nationally syndicated radio show From the Top on NPR (National Public Radio). It was the first time I had ever played for an audience to which I had no connection — the show was taped in Dallas, Texas — and I suppose the whirlwind story behind my debut as a violist sans string quartet helped to convince me that a life in music would never be boring.

I had such a blast meeting new people, and the thrill that came with being onstage was unforgettable that from that point forward I was hooked.

Benjamin Solomonow playing cello on NPR's %22From the Top%22

How do you think classical music can attract more young people?

We so often hear that classical music is dying, a sentiment with which I strongly disagree. Times have changed, and the world has turned to an era of short attention spans and an addiction to social media. I myself am victim to a few of these [shortcomings], but because of them, I am also aware of the enormous amount of interest in the classical world.

I believe that in order to attract more young (and old) fans of classical music, we must be conscious of providing inviting points of entry.

I am very fortunate to be privy to several hip events around New York City that target young people looking to be cultured and have a great time doing so. A few examples are: Groupmuse, Wine by the Glass, NYC House Concerts, the Le Poisson Rouge (below) nightclub. They all introduce music in a social setting where it’s cool to explore, and where you don’t feel constrained by rules of concert-watching etiquette.

Le Poisson Rouge

What can you tell us about Hummel’s Fantasy for Viola and Orchestra?

Hummel (below) was a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, both of whom played the role of mentor for their younger counterpart. Hummel is most well-known for his fantasies, which are said to be “the peak and keystone of virtuosic performance.” The Fantasy for Viola and Orchestra takes on different operatic themes, three of which appear in the version that I will be performing with the Middleton Community Orchestra. (You can hear the Hummel Fantasy for Viola and Orchestra performed in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Hummelcolor

What can you tell us about the Bruch Romance for Viola and Orchestra

The Romance by Max Bruch (below top) holds a very special place in my heart. It was the very last work I performed — with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) — before departing Madison to begin my studies at the Curtis Institute of Music eight years ago! The lush, tonal soundscape will draw in any sucker for Romantic music.

max bruch

WCO lobby

Is there something else you would like to say or add?

I’m very much looking forward to performing at home again, with people that are like family to me. Mindy Taranto, cofounder of the Middleton Community Orchestra, has been such a great friend and supporter to me throughout the years, and I am thrilled to finally have the opportunity to collaborate with her and the orchestra.


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