The Well-Tempered Ear

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: Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” is an eloquent and timely testament to Black victims of racism. It deserves to be performed in Madison and elsewhere

July 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

A reader recently wrote in and suggested that fellow blog fans should listen to “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” by the Atlanta-based American composer Joel Thompson (below).

So The Ear did just that.

He was both impressed and moved by the prescient piece of choral and orchestral music. It proved both powerful and beautiful.

The title alludes to the Bible’s depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but also to the musical setting of it that was composed by Franz Joseph Hadyn in the 18th century. But it stands on its own as a much needed and very accomplished updating, especially with the “last word” or phrase “I can’t breathe.”

It is hard to believe the work was written five years ago, and not last week or last month. But it couldn’t be more relevant to today.

It shows how deeply artists have been engaging with the social and political issues of the day, particularly the role of personal and structural racism in national life, and the plight of young Black men and women who face discrimination, brutality and even death at the hands of the police and a bigoted public.

The work was premiered by the Men’s Glee Club at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2015. This performance comes from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The SSO and featured guest University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Men’s Glee Club, led by conductor Eugene Rogers  (below) – who directs choral music and teaches conducting at the UM — premiered a 2017 commissioned fully orchestrated version of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” You can hear it in the YouTube video below.

It is an eminently listenable and accessible, multi-movement work honoring the lives, deaths and personal experiences of seven Black men.

The seven last words used in the work’s text are: “Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66; “What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16; “Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23; “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18; “You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22; “It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22; “I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43.

The Ear thinks that once live concerts begin again after the coronavirus pandemic is contained, it should be programmed locally. It could and should be done by, among others, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choir; or the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choral Union; or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Festival Choir of Madison; or the Wisconsin Chamber Choir.

They have all posted messages about standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the protesters against racism. But will words lead to commitment and action?

It will be interesting to see who responds first. In addition to being timely, such a performance certainly seems like a good way to draw in young people and to attract Black listeners and other minorities to classical music.

Here is a link if you also want to check out the almost 200 very pertinent comments about the work, the performance, the performers and of course the social and political circumstances that gave rise to the work — and continue to do so with the local, regional, national and international mass protests and demonstrations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdNXoqNuLRQ&app=desktop

And here is the performance itself:

What do you think of the work?

How did you react to it?

Would you like to see and hear it performed live where you are?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Meet the “Stay at Home” Symphony Orchestra. How do they sound so close and tight? Plus, today is May Day. What music would you play to celebrate workers?

May 1, 2020
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ALERT: Today is May Day, a time to honor workers. What music would you play to celebrate and thank all the frontline workers — doctors, nurses, EMTs, police officers, firefighters, bus drivers, cleaners and janitors, grocery store workers, delivery people and others — who are now so indispensable?

By Jacob Stockinger

Many musicians — both singers and instrumentalists (below) — are self-isolating and doing their at-home best to keep those of us also sheltering in place entertained by performing virtual concerts.

It is something listeners can be grateful for. The players do an admirable and free public service during the COVID-19 crisis and coronavirus pandemic.

Of course, the virtual performances also have practical purposes.

The musicians keep their skills sharp during isolation.

And the virtual performances help to keep the names of individuals and groups, of composers and pieces, in the public’s mind at a time when live concerts have all been canceled or postponed.

There are many, many virtual concerts to choose from – made by local, regional, national and international musicians, some amateurs and some professional.

Many of them are solo performances given by an individual member of an orchestra, chamber music group or choral ensemble as well as big-name soloists such as pianist Emanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The individual ones are appreciated and impressive, even if some of the performances seem amateur-like in the sound or awkwardness.

What really impresses The Ear is when large groups, such as symphony orchestras and choirs, perform something with all the players at home and yet somehow the whole finished product sounds incredibly tight in and incredibly professional.

Last Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera even held a four-hour online gala with singers and instrumentalists from all over the world.

It makes The Ear wonder why they sound so good. How they do it, with all the complications and variables of timing and tempo, of rhythm, pitch and dynamics?

Is it the planning?

The processing and editing?

In any case, a very good example comes from the “Stay at Home” Symphony Orchestra playing Mozart’s Overture to the opera “The Marriage of Figaro.”

You can hear the YouTube video of the performance below.

Are there other such performances that you can point out to The Ear and you would like to see posted on this blog?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: This Saturday night, Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev returns to the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos to perform popular works by Beethoven, Liszt and Gershwin

January 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday night, Jan. 11, at 7:30 p.m., the acclaimed Russian-born pianist Ilya Yakushev (below) will make his fourth recital appearance at the Salon Piano Series.

The concert will be held at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Yakushev — who studied in his native St. Petersburg and at the Mannes School of Music in New York City — has also performed several times with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

He never fails to impress with both his virtuosic technique and his insightful interpretations, whether he is playing Russian repertoire by Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev or jazzy American classics like Gershwin.

“Yakushev is one of the very best young pianists before the public today,” said the American Record Guide about Yakushev who has also won major  international competitions.

For more information about Yakushev, including critics’ reviews, a biography, concert dates and a discography, go to his website: http://www.ilyayakushev.com

The Madison program includes:

Beethoven – Sonata “Pathetique,” Op. 13

Liszt – “Six Consolations” (You can hear the famous Consolation No. 3, often learned by students and played as an encore by concert artists, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Gershwin – music from the opera “Porgy and Bess” in an arrangement for solo piano

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

Tickets are $45 in advance ($10 for students) or $50 at the door. Service fees may apply. Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event.

You can purchase tickets on line at: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/706809

For more information, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

This concert is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Salon Piano Series is a nonprofit founded to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts featuring exceptional artists. For more information about the series, including upcoming concerts and how to support it, call (608) 271-2626 or go to: https://salonpianoseries.org.

 


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Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


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