The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/arts/music/jeremy-denk-chopin.html

Enjoy!

Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Conservative Republican presidential candidate and Evangelical Christian Ted Cruz wants to ban the tritone – or Devil’s chord – from classical music. NOT. Then again, maybe he does

March 21, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the first day when you can vote early via absentee ballot for the presidential primary election in Wisconsin on Tuesday, April 5, when you can also vote to fill a seat on the state Supreme Court.

And tomorrow, Tuesday, brings more presidential primaries for both Republicans and Democrats in the Western states of Arizona and Utah. Plus, there will also be Democratic caucuses in Idaho.

So the following political piece — a pseudo-news report — seems timely and appropriate, especially given the drive by establishment Republicans to rally and choose the ultra-conservative U.S. Senator Ted Cruz from Texas (below) as a way to stop New York City businessman Donald Trump.

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Sure, it’s a satire.

But it is a very well done satire — about something that was indeed banned in the Renaissance and Baroque eras by the Roman Catholic  Church.

But like so much satire, it is fun that also cuts close to the bone and contains more than a grain of truth about Cruz and about his many “first day on the job” promises if he gets elected president.

Cruz, the son of an evangelical minister, is such a devout and intolerant Christian fundamentalist, it is almost as if he is waging his own jihad, much like the Islamic terrorist state ISIS, on any culture he considers unChristian and heretical to his personal faith and what he considers to be the inerrant and literal truth of the Bible.

Hmm. Does that qualify him as an extremist or radical?

To The Ear, what is really and truly scary is Cruz — not the music.

And it is hard to say who is more threatening as a potential president: Donald Trump or Ted Cruz?

Well, make up your own mind, fellow music-lovers.

Here is the satire from submediant.com. It’s a good read with lots of details, specific composers and food for thought.

http://www.submediant.com/2016/03/15/citing-evangelical-faith-ted-cruz-calls-to-ban-satanic-tritone/

And here is a YouTube lesson in music theory that offers an explanation with examples of the Satanic tritone:


Classical music: Today is the Winter Solstice. So The Ear offers you Schubert’s “Winterreise.”

December 21, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight we turn the corner.

At 10:48 p.m. CST we will experience the Winter Solstice.

winter solstice image

That means that from now until late June, the days will start getting longer and the nights shorter.

True, so far we have not had much cold or snow, thanks to El Nino.

But we still have the coldest months of the season – January and February – to look forward to.

One of The Ear’s winter rituals is to listen to the song cycle “Winterreise” – winter journey – by Franz Schubert  (below) on or around the first day of winter.

Franz Schubert big

It is such a unique and astonishing work, so modern in so many ways.

And there are so many outstanding recorded versions of it that The Ear likes: Mark Padmore with pianist Paul Lewis; Matthias Goerner with Christoph Eschenbach; Thomas Quasthoff with Charles Spencer; Peter Schreier with Sviatolsav Richter; Hermann Prey and Karl Engel; and of course the legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore, Joerg Demus and later with Alfred Brendel.

More locally, he also likes the version, complete with black-and-white photographs by Katrin Talbot that was done by UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe with UW-Madison pianist Martha Fischer. (It is published by the University of Wisconsin Press.)

But probably The Ear’s favorite version of the amazing cycle so far is the one done by British tenor Ian Bostridge with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. The Ear prefers the higher tenor range to the baritone range. He also likes not only Bostridge’s transparent sound and outstanding diction, but also his kind of singing speech style — Sprachstimme – that adds to the storytelling of the cycle.

The complete 70-minute cycle is available from YouTube but only by going  through the 24 different videos, one per song in the cycle.

And there is a preface that features both Bostridge and Andsnes talking about the work and about performing it.

By the way, an excellent companion to the cycle is the book and e-book that Bostridge has published –- a doctoral thesis called “Schubert’s Winter Journey” Anatomy of an Obsession” (Knopf).

It is a comprehensive look at the aesthetic, historical, cultural and the literary aspects of the astonishing work and analyzes each of the 24 songs in the cycle. The Ear has read it and highly recommends this definitive study by someone who knows the famous song cycle inside and out after performing it more than 100 times.

Here is a set-up piece with pianist Jeremy Denk interviewing Ian Bostridge about his book:

And here are Bostridge and Andsnes talking about the cycle:

And “Gute Nacht” (Good Night) here is the opening song of “Winterreise”:

And “Der Leiermann,” the closing song of “Winterreise”:

The Ear urges you to sample many more, in order or out of order.

Let The Ear and other readers know which performers you prefer and which songs in the cycle are your favorite?

 


Classical music: The Ear gives shout-outs to guest University Opera director David Ronis – who should be hired permanent full-time by the UW-Madison — and longtime Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra conductor Andrew Sewell because they both know how to make Mozart our contemporary. Plus, here are the results of The Final Forte.

March 26, 2015
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ALERTS:

1) In case you don’t already know them, here are the results of last night’s Final Forte: First Prize went to violinist Julian Rhee; Second Prize went to pianist Vivian Wilhelms; and Honorable Mentions went to harpist Maya Pierick and pianist Isabella Wu.

Here is a link to a complete story about the high school concerto competition:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/classical-music-education-this-wednesday-night-the-annual-the-final-round-of-the-bolz-young-artist-concerto-competition-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-will-be-broadcast-live-on-wisconsin-public/

Final Forte 2015 4 finalists

2) This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, to be held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison at 900 University Bay Drive, will feature soprano Consuelo Sanudo (below) and pianist Jeff Gibbens who will perform music by Henri Duparc, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schubert.

Consuela Sanudo

By Jacob Stockinger

It has really  been a busy past couple of weeks, with so many concerts that The Ear couldn’t even preview all of them. So it’s time to catch up and offer some critical appraisals of what I heard.

Let me begin with some background.

The supremely gifted, articulate and critically acclaimed American pianist Jeremy Denk, who has performed two solo recitals in Madison for the Wisconsin Union Theater, is fond of saying the he strives to make music sound as radical today as it was when it was first composed and first heard.

There is wisdom in that approach, which balances out the other great movement of the 20th-century that opened up our ears to another kind of difference. I am referring to the use of period instruments and historically informed performance practices to recapture how the music originally sounded.

But lately I had two examples that showed me just how exciting such an established “museum” composer as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below)  can be if made to sound and look contemporary and radical to our modern ears without going backwards.

Mozart old 1782

The two examples I have in mind are from recent performances of late works, when Mozart was in full command of his art: The opera “The Magic Flute” as presented by University Opera under the guest stage director David Ronis, who hails from New York City and teaches at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and the City University of New York as well as at Hofstra University; and the well-known penultimate Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, as performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell.

THE MAGIC FLUTE

The award-winning David Ronis did several things to The Magic Flute that The Ear  really liked and found effective.

He made some judicious cuts in an otherwise overlong work.

He used surtitles for the German text.

He used spoken contemporary vernacular English for the dialogue. That not only made the opera understandable, but also lent drive to push it along and give it momentum as well as contemporaneity.

Most of all, Ronis also used cinematic Bollywood-like dance gestures and choreography (below, in photos by Michael R. Anderson) – along with the bright fusion of East-West hybrid costumes and sets that added such movement and energy,  color and humor, to the score.

I mean, don’t we see enough of opera singers just standing still, arms outstretched, with only their mouths moving?

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

Of course, some people and critics did not like the changes, and found them downright treasonous and disrespectful or just plain wrong.

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

Silly them. The Ear says the updating worked just fine. Great art is there to experiment with, not just depict. Art lives in time. It is why director Peter Sellars is such a forceful and creative influence in the world of classical music. If only classical music could be less classical and more musical! Entertainment is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, after all, why the performing arts exist.

I also think the changes are one reason why there were four sold-out performances -– not just the usual three -– and why I saw so many young people in the audience. It was, in short, a fun production.

To my eyes and ears, this production — coupled with his production of Benjamin Britten‘s “Albert Herring” in the fall — showed what a smart move it would be to hire David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) full-time to lead the University Opera. He clearly knows how to get the best out of students, has a very personal artistic vision and is willing to shake things up – which both we and The Great Artists such as Mozart can use.

David Ronis color CR  Luke DeLalio

THE BIG G-MINOR SYMPHONY

As for the Mozart symphony – the big late one in G minor not the little  early one — it was just part of an outstanding concert turned in by Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the impressive guest cellist Amit Peled (below) and his unbelievably resonant cello that belonged to and was played by Pablo Casals. Together, man and instrument justifiably brought down the house.

Amit Peled playing

But other parts of the program, which included works by Frank Bridge and David Popper, should not be overlooked or underestimated.

Conductor Andrew Sewell (below) has long demonstrated his ability to work with such Classical-era composers as Franz Joseph Haydn and Mozart as well as Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven. And here, in a very familiar work, you could hear why.

andrewsewell

While Mozart was one of music’s great melodists, Sewell’s interpretation emphasized tempo, rhythm and repetitive motifs even as he brought out the various voices, counterpoint and melodic lines.

This Mozart had drive and pep. (You can hear the familiar first movement, with an interesting abstract graph profile, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

In fact, the third Minuet movement sounded downright modern – a kind of percussive precursor to minimalism.

This was exciting Mozart, far from the genteel and primly elegant and blandly pleasant Mozart that The Ear refers to as Music-Box Mozart.

Andrew Sewell BW

This playing by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) was precise and dramatic. It made you sit up and take notice. It engaged you.

It also showed why Mozart was such an exception to his age –- why his contemporaries and those who followed him so revered his talent and music. He was a radical in his day but we often overlook how he pushed the boundaries of music closer to modernism.

WCO lobby

So The Ear offers shout-outs and hearty thanks to both David Ronis and Andrew Sewell for helping us to hear Mozart once again as a contemporary — not just a statically beautiful blast from the past.

Both cases proved to be an exciting and unforgettable experience. The Ear hopes we are in for more of them, particularly in Mozart’s symphonies and piano concertos.

Did you hear the opera and/or the symphony?

What did you think of the approaches to Mozart?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Historic Steinway Hall in Manhattan to be torn down and moved.

December 29, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

I think of Steinway Hall the same way that some people think of and advertise Sedona, Arizona: A kind of navel to a spiritual world.

For many pianists, anyway, such is the case.

Steinway Hall (below is the hallmark rotunda of the famed building) is a landmark building where a historic meeting took place between composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff and keyboard virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz.

steinway hall

For generations it is where the greatest keyboard artists have gone to select the proper instrument for the Carnegie Hall and other solo recitals, chamber music concerts and concerto appearances at other venues such as Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center.

To be selected and named a “Steinway artist” was the highest professional accolade, whether you were Arthur Rubinstein or Van Cliburn or Emanuel Ax or Pierre-Laurent Aimard or Jeremy Denk or Daniil Trifonov. And there have been countless others.

But nothing can block “progress.”

Especially the progress officials call economic development.

So soon the old Steinway Hall will move to a new location, and the old Steinway Hall will be demolished to make room for upscale luxury condominiums.

Maybe it is just another example of the old real estate saying: Location, location, location.

After all, Steinway Hall is not very far from Carnegie Hall (below).

carnegie-hall-address

Talk about prime locations and reputable or prestigious addresses.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/12/27/372730314/steinway-bids-farewell-to-its-historic-hall

Here is a link to an earlier story and less complete story, with less background, from March 2013 in The New York Times. Be sure to read the Reader Comments:

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/26/steinway-to-sell-its-famed-showroom-building/?_r=1

 

 


Classical music: The well-named Nonesuch Records turns 50 –– and keeps being a pioneer in music from budget baroque, electronic music and contemporary classical music to folk, ragtime, rock and world music.

September 14, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you judge solely by the size of an operating budget and the number of albums released in a year, Nonesuch Records surely does not rank among the industry titans like Deutsche Grammophon, Decca or Sony Classical.

But what the label does, it does exceptionally well.

Of late, I am especially taken with Nonesuch because they feature two of my favorite pianists -– Richard Goode and Jeremy Denk (below) –- and of one my all-time favorite singers, soprano Dawn Upshaw, as well as the great Kronos Quartet.

Jeremy Denk, 2013 MacArthur Fellow

Here is a link to the label’s website with forthcoming releases and a list of recording artists:

http://www.nonesuch.com

In addition, I find the sonic engineering Nonesuch provides is also top-notch. Much as I loved the old Emerson Quartet, when it moved from DG to Sony, it received inferior sonic engineering that favored an echoing or overly resonant ambient sound. Myself, I prefer a clean and close-up microphone that lets my own living room provide the performance space acoustics.

Anyway, I was listening to National Public Radio Wednesday afternoon last week and heard this terrifically informative report on the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch, which is based in New York City and the anniversary of which is being celebrated with special concerts and special releases.

The story particularly emphasized the foresight of the label’s longtime top boss Robert Hurwitz (below, on the left next to Kronos violist Hank Dett and producer Judith Sherman, who also recorded the world premiere commission of the Pro Arte Quartet centennial at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.)

Using his own taste and instinct, Hurwitz anticipated the best-selling popularity of electronic music, Cuban music, ragtime music and many other genres. (Below in an interview he did at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that can be found on YouTube.) One person, it seems, can make a huge difference.

211033-D162

I do wish Hurwitz had offered a fuller explanation of why the wonderful and cheap budget recordings of Baroque music and early music that Nonesuch issued in the 1960s and 1970s -– the ones with the great art on the covers and the ones that hooked so many of us on relatively littkle-known works as well as masterpieces –- have not been remastered and reissued on CD.

Old Nonesuch cover

But in any case, the NPR story provided a fascinating look at how a record company continued to expand and branch out – not by following listeners’ tastes and desires, but by ANTICIPATING them. It is kind of like what happened with Sony and the success of the Walkman.

Some things you just cannot judge by polls and surveys, no matter what the branding and PR experts say. They take personal vision and leadership and risk-taking. That is what the Nonesuch way.

Anyway, here is the link to the NPR story. I hope you find it compelling as The Ear did.

http://www.npr.org/2014/09/10/347155810/nonesuch-at-50-a-record-label-without-borders

 

 


Classical music: The New Yorker magazine opens up its on-line archives. You can read for FREE fascinating profiles of pianists Lang-Lang, Helene Grimaud and Jeremy Denk; of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato; and of violinist Christian Tetzlaff. Follow these links on NPR.

August 16, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Two of the best sources for reading about classical music are NPR (National Public Radio) with its Deceptive Cadence blog; and The New Yorker magazine, which features Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Alex Ross (below) on its staff.

AlexRoss1

These days a lot of publications are figuring out how to “monetize” their websites and on-line stories since they are losing readers of printed editions.

Perhaps David Remnick, the reporter-turned-editor of the The New Yorker who has more than doubled the magazine’s circulation and inaugurated a series of best-selling books of story and cartoon collections, may have a new and unorthodox approach. He seems to be thinking “outside the box” and in reverse: Use the web to increase the profile, and profitability of the print edition.

That approach may mean opening up to FREE ACCESS some of the stories that will give people a taste of what they are missing if they do not subscribe to or regularly read the source.

Whatever the reasoning, The New Yorker has opened up its archives to classical music fans with five not-to-miss profiles and stories about high-profile musicians.

They include the Chinese phenomenon and superstar pianist Lang-Lang (below), who is often dismissed by critics as “Bang-Bang” for his Liberace-like flamboyance and unmusicality, but who remains the most sought-after classical pianist in the world. (At bottom, you can see and hear the opening of a BBC documentary about Lang Lang on YouTube.)

Lang Lang Liszt cover

Others include the American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is highly articulate about the world of singing and opera; the French woman and highly individualistic pianist Helene Grimaud, who aims for unusual interpretations; the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, who is renowned for eschewing the customary path of virtuosity; and the famous essay on taking piano lessons “Every Good Boy Does Fine” by American pianist Jeremy Denk (below), who recently won a MacArthur  “genius grant”; who has performed recitals twice in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater; and who will be releasing a book-length volume of his essays and postings on his acclaimed blog “Think Denk” this fall.

Jeremy Denk, 2013 MacArthur Fellow

The weekend is a good chance to catch up on such reading. You will learn a lot if you read these stories.

And maybe you, like The Ear, will also become a loyal New Yorker reader. When it calls itself “the best magazine in the world,” it is not kidding.

That goes for politics, social trends, art and culture, and even poetry.

Here is a link, which also features some audio samples:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/08/12/339560307/read-these-while-theyre-still-free

 


Classical music: Here are the top six essays on and writings about classical music – with runners-up — from 2013, as chosen by famed radio station WQXR-FM in New York City. Plus, marimbist Nathaniel Bartlett will perform on Saturday night.

January 3, 2014
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ALERT: Madison-born marimba player and composer Nathaniel Bartlett (below, in the setup he will use), who specializes in hi-tech, 3-D computer music and experimental new music, will return from Philadelphia to perform at 8 p.m. on Saturday in the Promenade Hall of the Overture Center. Tickets are $9-$16 at the Overture Center box office (608) 258-4141. The program includes the premiere of his own new work “In Balance”as well as “Vivre” by Allan Schindler, who teaches at the Eastman School of Music. Here is a link for information and tickets:

http://www.nathanielbartlett.com

http://overturecenter.com/production/nathaniel-bartlett-marimba-computer

Nathaniel Bartlett in set up

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, the calendar says it is 2014.

But there is still some unfinished business from 2013 to take care of.

This lag happens almost every year for a couple of reasons.

One is that so many local live music events take place around the holidays – including the concert by the Madison Bach Musicians (below) — and that is where I put my blog’s priority in previews and reviews.

MBM Bach canata 2013 Dec

Another reason is that so much blog space in December is justifiably devoted to holiday gift-giving guides that name the best recordings of the past year as chosen by NPR, The New York Times, The New Yorker magazine and other sources. (Box sets, below, were big this year.) I always hope they are helpful and that putting them in one place makes it easy to follow them.

NPR boxed CD sets

In any case, here is an usual year-end offering that I don’t recall from previous years.

A blog at the famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City put together a list of the best essays and writings about classical music from 2013.

I would tweak it bit and put the memoir-essay by prize-winning pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk (below, in a photo from the MacArthur Foundation) about piano teachers and piano lessons in The New Yorker magazine – it was titled “Every Good Boy Does Fine” — higher up on the list than an Honorable mention. A lot of people take piano lessons — or music lessons some kind — and Denk’s essay was a terrific summing up of what goes into being a great student and a great teacher.

Jeremy Denk, 2013 MacArthur Fellow

But there are a lot of good choices, and – best of all — the blog post provides links so you can read them all at once or parcel them out to, say, one a day.

Anyway, The Ear hopes you enjoy them. The range is terrific from an assessment of Van Cliburn’s early and formative career (below top) asit began while he was a young boy to a piece about Richard Wagner and an African-American opera singer by Alex Ross (below middle). Also included are a piece on orchestras in crisis and two essays about the centennial of composer Benjamin Britten (below bottom).

rememberingcliburn

Alex Ross 2

Benjamin Britten

And if you have any other suggestions to recommend for reading, please leave a comment or send me an email.

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/top-essays-classical-music-2013/

Despite some severe problems, the state of Classical Music still seems pretty healthy or at leafs not hopeless, judging from this pieces. So here’s looking forward to 2014!

Cheers to you all!


Classical music: Maestro John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera is The Ear’s “Musician of the Year” for 2013. Plus, “New Year’s Day From Vienna” will be broadcast Wednesday once on Wisconsin Public Radio and twice on Wisconsin Public Television.

December 31, 2013
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REMINDER: “New Year’s Day From Vienna,” with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performing waltzes, polkas and marches under Daniel Barenboim, will be broadcast live on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio, and then air at 1:30-3 p.m. and again at 7-8:30 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television.

Vienna Philharmonic

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the day last of the old year, New Year’s Eve — which means it is that time of the year again when The Ear looks back over the past year and decides who deserves to be named “Musician of the Year.”

That is never an easy decision, especially in a city with as much fine classical music and as many fine classical musicians as Madison has. There are so many talented individuals and so many outstanding groups or ensembles in the area that any number of them could qualify for the honor.

It was particularly difficult this year because, due to personal circumstances, The Ear didn’t get to attend a lot of live events he wanted to.  Even so, this year the choice seemed somewhat obvious.

For example, here is a link to an insightful overview of the 2013 season offered in Isthmus by critic John W. Barker, who often is a guest writer on this blog. You just have to scroll down through the long story until you find Barker’s spot-on assessments of the year in classical music. It should make any classical music fans envious and proud to be in Madison:

http://www.thedailypage.com/scroll/2013/arts2013/index.html

So on to the man who happens to be the most common denominator among Barker’s Best Picks: John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) is the Musician of the Year for 2013.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Let’s start at the beginning.

It has been 20 years since maestro John DeMain came to Madison as the Music Director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Artistic Director of the Madison Opera. And he is a supremely articulate — he often does interviews on TV and radio — and cordial advocate of his own causes, as you can hear for yourself in a video at the bottom and in more than a dozen video on YouTube.)

Even before he arrived here, DeMain had a high profile as the artistic director of the Houston Grand Opera, where he commissioned and premiered John Adams’ “Nixon in China” and has a long history with the City Opera, where he conducted while still a student at the Juilliard School. He had also won a prestigious Grammy Award for his landmark recording of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess.”

But coming to Madison, DeMain had a chance to show his strength as an organizational  builder and planner -– with results that the Madison public could easily see, hear and be impressed by.

John DeMain inherited a fine organization for an amateur or semi-professional orchestra, one that had been built up especially by Roland Johnson during his long tenure.

But once he took over, DeMain vastly improved the playing and then programmed more ambitious pieces for the players, and developed his approach to them. His Brahms now is tighter and leaner and more exciting than when he arrived. John DeMain (below in a photo by Greg Anderson) is devoted to lifelong learning and improvement, and doesn’t take even the music he already knows and performs for granted.

John DeMain conducting MSO CR Greg Anderson

Over his tenure, DeMain has discovered and booked exciting and affordable young guest soloists – pianist Philippe Bianconi, violinists Augustin Hadelich and Henning Kraggerud, cellist Alisa Weilerstein tenor Stephen Costello — although The Ear would also like to see some big and more expensive figures brought to town to allow us to hear these artists live. Plus, DeMain listens to dozens of auditions each year and unerringly picks great young up-and-coming singers for the Madison Opera’s season including the popular Opera in the Park each summer.

opera in park De Main_001

I also find it noteworthy and important. DeMain is in demand elsewhere and every season has many opportunities to guest conduct out of town — for the now defunct New York City Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York and many others.

John DeMain conducting 2

No less important is his willing to expand out into the local scene. In addition to the opera, he has conducted the chamber groups Con Vivo the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. He continues to play the piano — he was trained as a pianist before turning to conducting.

As an administrator and organizer, he has demonstrated great skills at putting together a team. True, the orchestra has suffered somewhat during the Great Recession and its aftermath – as did all artistic groups. It had to cut back its season by one concert, which DeMain says he hopes to restore to the subscription season.

But the same labor strife that has led to great damage to the Minnesota Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and so many others has not touched the MSO. DeMain’s contained the damage.

Having inherited double performances, DeMain took the MSO to three performances of each concert, reaching about 5,000 people or so with each “triple” performance. He continues to experiment with programming, and in late January will try out the “Behind the Score” series of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak (below).

dvorak

And while some listeners might complain about the lack of more adventurous contemporary music, DeMain has seats to fill and still manages to program contemporary works every season, even with many experimental offerings nearby at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

DeMain attends concerts at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, and is a tireless promoter of music education from the televised “Final Forte” Bolz concerto competition to the matinée Young People’s concerts (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson).

MSO Fall Youth kid greg anderson

And let’s not forget that DeMain was instrumental in getting the impressive Overture Center built and then programming concerts for the orchestra’s and opera’s home in Overture Hall (below).

Overture Hall

I am sure there is more I am overlooking.

Do I have some disappointments? Sure.

I thought his 20th anniversary season would be a bit more ambitious and adventurous, and feature some big works by Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner. I would like to see few more big-name and hot young soloists, including pianists Joyce Yang, Daniil Trifonov and Jeremy Denk (below), who has done two recitals at the Wisconsin Union Theater but has yet to perform a concerto. And there are so many young talented soloists out there today, we should be hearing more of them live and while they are still affordable in our market.

Jeremy Denk playing 2

I also get impatient with what I call “playing the Gershwin card” too often -– including again for this year’s season finale -– because the important and identifiable George Gershwin (bel0w) had such an easy-listening and crossover pop-like musical style that it unfailingly draws so many listeners. I loved DeMain’s last concert version of “Porgy and Bess,” but there must be other solutions.

gershwin with pipe

But in the end I have to defer to his judgment. The excellence that John DeMain has brought to the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera has extended to the entire city and to other groups. The rising tide he brought has lifted all boats.

If any one individual can take credit for the ever-increasing quality of the classical music that wehear in Madison, that person is John DeMain (below in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

DeMainOpera

Little wonder, then, that on this 20th anniversary of his arrival in Madison, maestro John DeMain is the Musician of the Year for 2013.

Thank you, John DeMain. We all – listeners and performers alike — are in your debt.

Cheers and good luck in the coming years!


Classical music: Listen to American violinist Hilary Hahn revive the old tradition of salon music by playing the 27 short encores she commissioned from today’s important composers.

November 23, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

A frequent critic and gifted guest reviewer on this web site recently referred to Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine as the most exciting violin talent to emerge on the American scene.

Well, Barton Pine is indeed special and very gifted, as she proved earlier this month when she opened the Wisconsin Union Theater season with the magnificent Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms, performed with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra conducted under the baton of UW alumnus and Madison native Kenneth Woods.

Here is a link to that review:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/classical-music-the-wisconsin-union-theater-opens-its-new-season-with-a-winning-blockbuster-program-of-brahms-and-shostakovich-performed-by-native-son-conductor-kenneth-woods-chicago-violist-rachel/

But The Ear has to respectfully disagree.

For my money, or my taste, or my values — whatever you want to call it —  the most exciting violin talent on the American scene is Hilary Hahn (below).

hilary_hahn

Hahn performs the classics and the great masterworks terrifically, with a great sense of architectural shape and beautiful tone, plus exciting but not exaggerated or distorted interpretations.

She also plays modern works and commissions works, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto by Jennifer Higdon (below) who teaches composition at the same Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where Hahn trained.

And her two recitals with the then relatively unknown pianist Valentina Lisitsa at the Wisconsin Union Theater were among the best performed and most originally programmed recitals that I have ever heard.

Jennifer Higdon and cat Beau

Oh, and Hilary Hahn also blogs, by the way.

And she also did her own interviews, posted on YouTube, with the 27 composers — including Max Richter, Lera Auerbach and Avner Dorfman — who composed the encores.

Check out her website: http://hilaryhahn.com

Now the heirloom record label Deutsche Grammophon has released the “The Hilary Hahn Encores in 27 Pieces,” which features 27 recently composed pieces, all commissioned by Hahn for her use as concert encores. It is a welcome throwback, in a way, to salon music and to composers like virtuoso violinist Fritz Kreisler.

Hilary Hahn Encores CD cover

I don’t know how they did it – I suspect it was some kind of swap for advertising space – but NPR has terrific classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” and a feature called “First Listen” that also allows you to hear some music before it is released commercially. (But, as I understand it, you can’t download it or recorded it from the NPR site.)

NPR did the same for Jeremy Denk’s acclaimed new recording for the Nonesuch label of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations.

Anyway, here is a link to the new Hilary Hahn CD of encores. Enjoy the music and listening to it.

http://www.npr.org/2013/11/03/242090716/first-listen-hilary-hahn-in-27-pieces-the-hilary-hahn-encores

And let us know your Top 5 picks of the 27, or even just your Top Pick.

It will be interesting to see if there is a consensus and what ones are liked the most.

The Ear wants to hear.


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