The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Today is the start of Fall. Here is autumnal music by Richard Strauss. Plus, UW-Madison soprano Jeanette Thompson makes her FREE debut tonight at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall.

September 22, 2017
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ALERT: UW-Madison faculty soprano Jeanette Thompson gives her FREE debut recital tonight at 7 p.m.  in Mills Hall. Guest performers are pianist Thomas Kasdorf and faculty colleague baritone Paul Rowe.

Thompson has put together a concert of some of her favorite love songs, though not always typical of love songs:  some of them are about a love that is lost, some of them are about a love desired, and some of them are about a love for God.

These songs include excerpts from Gustav Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and Johannes Brahms’ Volksbuchlieder. In addition to Rückert, they include some of her favorite poets like Charles Baudelaire and Eduard Möricke. She will perform songs by Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and will be joined by baritone Paul Rowe to sing two of the most beautiful “Porgy and Bess” love duets ever written.

Thompson (below) will conclude the concert with some of her favorite spirituals, including her mother’s favorite song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.“

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the autumnal equinox, which arrives at 3:02 p.m. CDT. It marks when the day has an equal amount of daylight and night.

It also means that today is the first official day of Fall.

And despite the hot weather right now, Fall is often a great time to start returning to indoor activities.

That makes it a good time for listening to classical music.

There are the usual candidates such as Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and its modern counterpart “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” by tango master Astor Piazzolla.

If you want to hear other season-appropriate music, YouTube, Spotify, Classical-music.com and other websites have generous compilations. Just Google “classical music for autumn.”

But today The Ear want to feature just one selection to celebrate the season. It is soprano Jessye Norman singing “September” from “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss.

What is you favorite music to greet autumn with?

Use the COMMENT section to let us know, along with a link to a video performance if possible.


Classical music: Can you sing? Famed diva Jessye Norman thinks you can -– and should try. She says it is good for your physical health and mental health.

December 26, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

We have just come through Christmas and the holiday season where the instrument of choice – quite appropriately – is the human voice, both solo and in choruses.

Do you sing?

Can you sing?

The famous Grammy Award-winning soprano diva Jessye Norman (below) thinks you can -– and should, or at least try to.

In an interview with the Deceptive Cadence blog for NPR (National Public Radio), Norman explains why all  people can sing.

She also explains why you should: Singing, she says, is healthy for your body and mind.

Jessye Norman

She may be 69, but Norman, who was born in Georgia but now lives in France, is not retiring from singing, even if she is cutting down on professional appearances. She is following her own advice and so continues to sing, as she recently did on The David Letterman Show in New York City.

The interview traces her career from her earliest years in Augusta, Georgia, through training at the famed Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It has samples of her fabulous voice, and also her remembrances of great voices she has admired in others, such as the great history-making African American contralto Marian Anderson (below, during her historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial).

anderson

She also names some favorite orchestral music and instrumental music, including a prelude from the opera “Lohengrin” by Richard Wagner, as conducted by James Levine (below top) of the Metropolitan Opera; a cello sonata by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma (below middle); and a Beethoven piano concertos performed by pianist Alfred Brendel (below bottom) and the conductor Simon Rattle along with the Berlin Philharmonic.

James Levine conducting

yo-yo ma

Brendel playing BIG

Norman also singles out American jazz composer Duke Ellington (below) for praise.

Duke Ellington at piano

And the NPR interview includes some fine music audio samples.

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/11/25/364758676/guest-dj-jessye-norman-from-augusta-to-valhalla

And here is one of my favorite and landmark or legendary performances by Jessye Norman: “Im Abendrot.” It is one of the “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss that was recently used in the movie “The Trip to Italy” to such great and repeated effect:


Classical music: Today, Sept. 22, 2014, is the first day of Fall. So The Ear plays two of Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs.” But what would you listen to to mark the coming of Autumn?

September 22, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the first day of Fall in the Northern Hemisphere. The Autumn Equinox arrives tonight at 9:29 p.m. CDT.

autumn-leaves

This year, the timing of the season and the music I recently listened to worked out just perfectly.

Last week, you see, The Ear went to see the film “The Trip to Italy” (below), a sequel with British funnymen Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. It was made by the award-winning director Michael Winterbottom, who also directed the first installment.

Steve Coogan and Rob†Brydon in†Camogli, Italy

I loved the first one, “The Trip,” in 2010. But like so many sequels, this film suffers from self-indulgence. There was too little plot, a lot of impersonations that are not immediately recognizable or entertaining, and the film goes on for too long.

The movie has its enjoyable, entertaining  and touching moments. to be sure.  But the really outstanding characters in this film are the Italian landscape and Italian cuisine, captured in stunning cinematography.

But, oh, the music! That was the high note, so to speak, for The Ear.

A recurrent theme is from “Four Last Songs” by the Late Romantic Richard Strauss (below, in 1914). It is “Im Abendrot,” and it strikes the right notes, even for The Ear, who not a big voice fan, whether in choral music, opera or Lieder and art songs.

richard strauss in 1914 Hutton Archive Getty Images

I was thinking of some appropriate music to play for the coming of the new season. There is always “Autumn” from “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi or the new “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires” by Astor Piazzolla.

Then there is the late piano music and chamber music of Johannes Brahms, so often and aptly described as “autumnal.” Of course, the symphonies and songs of Gustav Mahler qualify as do many of the songs of Franz Schubert. And there is more, much more.

But this year, perhaps because of personal circumstances and sheer coincidence, anyway I found the Strauss songs — which were composed in 1948, a year before Strauss died at 84 — perfectly appropriate and fitting in mood.

Here are two of them, found on YouTube video and sung by the incomparable soprano Jessye Norman with Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on the Philips label.

The first is “In Abendrot” (At Sunset). The poem or text, written by Joseph von Eichendorff — which is translated on the YouTube site if you click on “Show More” – – does not deal with autumn per se, but with loss and death. So the mood is surely autumnal and, I find, deeply moving. And it is a common motif in the film:

And then there is “September” from the poem by Nobel Prize-winning German writer Hermann Hesse.

I hope you enjoy these two songs by Strauss and also find them fitting to the season, just as I hope we have sunny and warm, a long and colorful Fall.

And I would love to know what other music best expresses the new season for you.

Just leave your suggestions, with YouTube links if possible, in the COMMENTS section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society triumphs and gets a standing ovation from a full house for bringing dramatic story-telling to the romantic music of Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

June 25, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

It was nothing short of a triumph for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

The Ear surely couldn’t be the only listener who came  away Saturday night deeply moved from the Overture Center’s Playhouse — and from the fourth concert of the six that the Madison-based BDDS is offering this month — with one overpowering thought: We need more of this!

We need more concerts with first-rate songs and first-rate singing. And we need more concerts that have a narrative and tell the personal story behind the music and musicians they feature.

BDDS deuces are wild logo

A lot of musical groups and individuals today offer brief introductory remarks to help prepare audiences. And that is fine. Experts say that providing that kind of listener-friendly context will help draw younger, newer and bigger audiences.

In this 22nd summer season, when the theme of card playing is highlighted, BDDS trumped that wisdom and raised the stakes by going one better, by upping the ante: Co-founder and co-director pianist Jeffrey Sykes, who got his doctorate at the UW School of Music and now teaches at the University of California-Berkley, showed his inventive theatrical side by creating an original story about the complex romances of Robert Schumann, his wife Clara Wieck Schumann and the young Johannes Brahms –- whose photographic portraits were projected on the backdrop (below).

BDDS 4 backdrop photos

Moreover, Sykes’ two-act mini-drama -– an experimental scissors-and-paste tapestry woven together with snippets of letters, diary entries and of course music -– proved successful on every count. It was greeted with cries of Bravo! and an enthusiastic, prolonged standing ovation.

BDDS 4 ovation

Of course, Sykes was not alone in bringing this successful experiment off. He had the help of his co-founder and co-director flutist Stephanie Jutt.

Most importantly, for this concert he had the top-flight talents of bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below top), whose diction and tone are superb, and of the UW-Madison graduate and Lyric Opera of Chicago soprano Emily Birsan (below bottom), who possesses equally beautiful tone and excellent German as well as French.

Timothy Jones posed portrait

Emily Birsan less tarty 2 NoCredit

BDDS also drew on the talents of Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera maestro John DeMain, a willing sport who did terrific double-duty as a pianist and as Clara’s difficult father Friedrich Weick. The singers also did double duty with Jones playing Robert Schumann and Birsan playing Clara Weick.

Flutist Jutt played Romances by both Robert and Clara Schumann, the first transcribed from the oboe and the second from the violin. Her performances and her readings too were expressive and fit right in with the playing and recitations from others.

The excerpts that Sykes chose from song cycles were spot on, especially from the heart-wrenching cycle by Schumann’s “A Woman’s Life and Loves.”

But nowhere was the formula of tinkering with tried-and-true classics more successful than in Robert Schumann’s song “Widmung” (Dedication), which was used to mark the consummation of the romance when a German court decides, over father Friedrich Wieck‘s libelous objections, that Roberta and Clara can indeed marry.

The song, usually sung by either a male or female voice, was shared. (For the usual interpretations, see the YouTube videos at the bottom with Jessye Norman and Hermann Prey.) And the duet was profoundly moving as Jones’ Robert and Birsan’s Clara walked free and in love off the stage and arm-in-arm to conclude the first half (below).

BDDS 4 Timothy Jones, Emily Birsan

Similarly, when Birsan’s Clara sang “Now you have hurt me for the first time” after her beloved Robert had died, was there a dry eye in the house? Not where I sat – and I doubt where many others sat too.

Sykes wove his tapestry seamlessly. He also took a letter about a short musical theme or motif that came to the delusional Robert Schumann in the insane asylum, where his wife Clara was forbidden from visiting him until two days before he died. And then he wrapped a letter by Robert around it as well as a letter that Brahms later wrote to introduce to Clara his variations on that theme same for piano-four-hands, performed by Sykes and DeMain as the conclusion finale.

Of course one can nitpick. Given how much solo piano music, filled with bittersweet longing, that both Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms composed, I kept wondering why the program didn’t include the short and deeply moving Romance in F-sharp Major by Schumann which Clara asked her grandson Ferdinand to play while she lay expiring on her deathbed. (It is below top, in a YouTube video) Or play the late Romance in F Major, Op. 18, No. 5, by Brahms (below bottom, in a YouTube video by Evgeny Kissin). How The Ear would have loved to hear Sykes, with his rich tone and natural lyricism, perform these miniature gems.

But you can’t have everything and what we got was plenty generous. It cohered. It moved you. And it provided an intelligent context for understanding the romance behind the great Romantic music of these Romantic composers.

All paintings need a frame, and so does a lot of music. This frame could not have been better designed and executed or more beautiful.

But that Schumann-Brahms drama-concert was not the only reason to take in the second of the three weekends of music by the BDDS.

Just the night before at the refurbished Stoughton Opera House, the group used the same singers to perform another great concert. The program was timely and relevant, given both the Afghanistan War and the anniversary of the America Civil War.

The musical offerings featured Timothy Jones in Ned Rorem’s movingly spiky and grim “War Scenes” songs drawn from Walt Whitman’s Civil War notebooks (“The real war will never get in the books’) and Emily Birsan in “Sonnets to Cassandra” by the French Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard by the underplayed and underrated Swiss composer Frank Martin.

BDDS 3 Timothy Jones Ned Rorem

BDDS 3 Emily Birsan Frank Martin

The concert began with a flute quartet by Ferdinand Ries, a student of Beethoven who nicely fit the theme of a “Stacked Deck” since history has largely overlooked and forgotten him. (But, you know, Beethoven really wasn’t much of a flute guy anyway.)

BDDS 3 Ferdinand Ries flute quartet

The real gem came when several local string players – violinist Suzanne Beia and cellist Parry Karp of the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet and principal violist Christopher Dozoryst of the Madison Symphony Orchestra – joined pianist Sykes  in playing a superb rendition, by turns turbulent and lyrical, of Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. in G Minor (below).

BDDS 3 Faure piano quartet 2

It was yet another reminder of how, like BDDS, Faure is a first-rate composer, with a sound and style unmistakably his own, who deserves a much higher profile and a much wider hearing.

Next weekend brings two final BDDS concerts — in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green — with violinist Naha Greenholtz (concertmaster of the Madison Symphony) and San Francisco Trio members violinist Axel Strauss (now teaching at McGill University in Montreal) as well as cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau in music by Copland, Mozart, Brahms, Korngold, Beethoven and Dick Kattenburg.

For more information about the times and venues, the programs, the performers and tickets, here is a link:

http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org

If you love classical music, to miss these BDDS performance is to deprive yourself of great pleasure and great insight, of new exposure to works both well-known and neglected. Why would you want to do that?


Classical music: You can help produce a local concert production of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” with a small or large donation.

November 4, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Some loyal fans of this blog, longtime local businesspeople who are also loyal concert-goers and loyal supporters of local music, have informed The Ear about a very worthwhile project.

So The Ear gives a hearty Shout-Out and Thank You to Carol “Orange” Schroeder and Dean Schroeder (both below), the owners of Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street who put their money where their ears are.

The project involves local soprano Jennifer Sams, who is using a public funding website – akin to Kickstarter, but called IndieGoGo — to launch a local early music project: A concert product (without sets and costumes) of the opera “Dido and Aeneas” by Henry Purcell (below). And if you wonder what it might look and sound like, listen to Jessye Norman singing “Dido’s Lament” at the bottom.

Here is a link to the contribution site:

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/256868

Sams (below), who graduated from the University of Wisconsin School of Music with a doctorate and who sang with the University Opera, has established a fine reputation for herself.

Here is a link to Sams’ website, which also a current biography and lists her upcoming concerts in Madison and Wisconsin:

http://www.jennifersams.com/jennifersams/Welcome.html

It looks like all she wants or needs to raise is $1,000 to get the project a green light, and has so far raised about half of that.

My guess with such a small sum is that she will have no problem raising what she needs.

I recall local performer and composer Jerry Hui using Kickstarter to raise enough money — $6,000, if I recall correctly — to stage his Internet opera, done for his UW doctoral thesis, “called “Wired for Love.”

Here’s hoping that Jennifer Sams has as much success.

Don’t be shy.

Giving a large amount would be great – she can always exceed the target – but lots of small amounts could help too. After all, that is how President Obama, raised a lot of money for his first successful run in 2008.

 


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