The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This coming weekend, pianist John O’Conor returns to play a Beethoven concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Friday night and then a solo recital at Farley’s on Saturday night

May 7, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The acclaimed Irish pianist and teacher John O’Conor (below) returns to Madison this weekend for two concerts that will close out the season for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Friday night and the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Piano on Saturday night.

For more about John O’Conor‘s impressive background as a performer, a recording artist, a pedagogue and a juror for international piano competitions, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_O%27Conor

WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

The first event with O’Conor is an all-Beethoven concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell.

The WCO concert is on Friday night, May 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State St.

The program features the Overture to “King Stephen”; the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, with O’Conor as soloist; and the popular, dramatic and iconoclastic or even revolutionary Symphony No. 5 in C minor.

Such repertoire from the Classical period is one of O’Conor’s strong suits as well as one of the WCO’s. When the two last performed together in 2016 O’Conor and the WCO played works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Irish early Romantic John Field.

Plus, O’Conor studied Beethoven with the legendary Beethoven interpreter Wilhelm Kempff.

So this concert promises to be a dynamic experience with perfectly paired players.

Tickets are $15-$80 with student tickets available for $10.

For more information about O’Conor and about how to obtain tickets, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-v-3/

SALON PIANO SERIES

Then on Saturday night, May 12, at 7:30 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, located at 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near the West Towne Mall, pianist O’Conor will give a solo recital to close out the Salon Piano Series.

The program includes the Sonata in B minor by Franz Joseph Haydn; Four Impromptus, Op. 90 or D. 899, by Franz Schubert; Nocturnes Nos. 5, 6, and 18 by the Irish composer John Field (below), whose neglected works are a specialty of O’Conor; and the iconic “Moonlight” Sonata in C-sharp minor by Ludwig van Beethoven. (You can hear O’Conor perform the exciting and virtuosic last moment of the “Moonlight” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A reception follows the concert.

Tickets are $45 in advance and $50 at the door, with student tickets available for $10.

For more information and to purchase tickets, call (608) 271-2626 or go to these two web sites:

http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2995003


Classical music: The music of John Field remains underappreciated. Pianist John O’Conor will perform concertos by Field and Mozart this Friday night with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

April 19, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), under its longtime music director Andrew Sewell, will close out its current Masterworks season this Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

WCO lobby

The program – which features guest pianist John O’Conor (below) – includes the Piano Concerto No. 1 by John Field; the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 (“Elvira Madigan”), by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra by Igor Stravinsky; and the Symphony No. 1 by Carl Maria von Weber.

john o'conor pink shirt horizontal

Tickets are $15-$80.

For more information, including a full biography of John O’Conor and the purchasing of tickets, visit:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks-v-1/

John O’Conor, who has an extremely busy career performing, teaching, recording and judging piano competitions recently agreed to a Q&A with The Ear:

john o'conor with piano

John Field is best known as the precursor of Chopin when it comes to composing nocturnes. How right or wrong is that perception and how would you change it? What else should we know about Field, his stylistic roots and his influence, especially through his other piano music, in particular his concertos?

John Field (below) is indeed the originator of the Nocturne form for piano music. He realized that the usual forms of music of the 18th century (sonatas, variations etc.) were not really suitable for after-dinner performances at the residences of the nobility in the 19th century, so he published various short pieces entitled “Pastorale” and other such names until he happened on the idea of the “Nocturne” in 1814 (when Chopin was only 4 !!) when he published his first three.

They were an immediate sensation and he quickly published many more. It is said that one of his Polish students in St. Petersburg went back to Poland in the 1820s, played some of his Nocturnes, Chopin heard them and wrote his own and the rest is history.

John Field

Field was a prodigy in his native Dublin where he was born in 1782. His father recognized his talent and spent the enormous sum of 100 pounds to apprentice him to Muzio Clementi in London when he was only barely in his teens. Clementi was not only a famous pianist and composer but also a piano manufacturer.

He soon realized that when Field demonstrated his pianos, he sold more pianos! So he brought him on a promotional your around Europe in 1802. They visited Paris and Vienna and then St. Petersburg, when winter set in and they had to stay there until they could travel again in spring.

But during the winter the very handsome Field became the darling of the salons and all the daughters of the nobility wanted to study piano with him. So when Clementi (below) left in spring, Field stayed on. He spent most of the rest of his life in Russia and died in Moscow in 1837.

Muzio Clementi

What would you like the public to know about the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major by Field that you will perform in Madison?

Apart from Nocturnes, Field also wrote four sonatas and seven piano concertos. The concertos were tremendously popular in the 19th century and his second concerto was often the debut concerto of young virtuosi — in the same way that Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 2 became so in the 20th century.

The problem with the concertos is that they often lack an advanced sense of form and meander quite a bit — but quite beautifully!

I love the first concerto because it is the most concise and best organized of the concertos. It is full of youthful exuberance and he obviously wanted to show off his considerable technique in the flying fingers of the outer movements.

The middle movement is a set of variations on a Scottish folk song and though he composed this piece while still living in London with Clementi you can already hear the gentle filigree figurations that became such a characteristic of his later Nocturnes.

The Piano Concerto No. 21 by Mozart (below) is best known for its slow movement that was used as the soundtrack to the popular film “Elvira Madigan.” What else would you like to point out about this particular concerto to the public? In your view, where does it rank among Mozart’s 27 piano concertos?

There is no connection between Field and Mozart that I know of. But the Mozart Concerto is another example of a composer showing off his virtuosity. Both the outer movements sparkle with vivacity and charm, and the beauty of the slow movement needs no introduction from me. It is one of the most beautiful movements that Mozart ever wrote. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video — with 39 million hits!~ at the bottom.)

Mozart old 1782

You are very well known internationally as a both a teacher and an award-winning performer. For you, how does each activity inform the other?

I love teaching. I have always loved teaching piano. To some people, it might seem like drudgery, but I hope none of my students have ever felt that.

Nowadays I have incredibly gifted students who regularly win prizes at international piano competitions. But even when I started teaching, I hope I made the music fun for all my less talented students. It is a privilege to give them a love of the art that will keep for the rest of their lives.


Classical music: On Saint Patrick’s Day, The Ear explores Irish classical music and classical music in Ireland -– who composed it, who played it and how important it has been.

March 17, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day.

ST PATRICK'S DAY logo

There will be big, loud. colorful and music-filled parades (below top), complete with leprechauns, around the country and around the world wherever the Irish gather and celebrate their heritage. Even the Chicago River even turns green (below bottom).

And a lot of us who aren’t remotely Irish will nonetheless eat the traditional Saint Patrick’s Day dinner of corned beef and cabbage.

saint patrick's day parade albany 2010 leprechaun

Green Chicago River on Saint Patricks Day

So The Ear asks: What about Irish classical music? And what about classical music in Ireland?

After all, the Irish seems a deeply musical culture. But there must be more to Irish music than Riverdance (below top), Celtic Woman, The Irish Tenors and The Chieftains (below bottom), don’t you think?

riverdance

The Chieftains

For all the immense popularity of Celtic music these days, for all the justly famous Irish literature by William Yeats, James Joyce, John Millington Synge, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien, Roddy Doyle, Maeve Binchy and many others –- especially fiction, poetry and plays -– one never hears very much about Ireland and classical music.

(To be fair: The Ear does recall a memorable and rare performance a couple of seasons ago of a John Field piano concerto by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell, who also happens to be an adventurous programmer.)

So today seems a fitting occasion to take a look both those issues.

Oh, there are some well-known composers.

In the 19th century John Field (below), who spent much of his career in Russia, is said to have invented the nocturne form that Frederic Chopin turned to and mastered and made famous. He also wrote quite a few piano concertos and a piano quintet.

John Field

Of course Irish singing and fiddling are justly famous. But how did it affect the classical music tradition.

These days the early 20th-century composer E.J. Moeran (below) seems to be undergoing something of a revival. He had strong Irish roots, but is technically an English composer if you look at his biography.

e.j. moeran

So who are the Irish classical composers – and their masterpieces – that we should know about?

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford seems to be one candidate. 

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford

What about Irish classical music performers? Perhaps the most well-known candidate today is the prize-winning and award-winning pianist John O’Conor, who, concertizing and teaching at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, has championed Irish piano music as well as the piano music by Ludwig van Beethoven and other standard classical composers?

John O'Conor_1

And what about the role that some famous, non-Irish classical music composers and performers –- including George Frideric Handel, who premiered his oratorio “Messiah” in Dublin, the violinist Paganini and the pianist Franz Liszt -– played in the history of Irish culture?

Here are some links to help you explore the question of Irish classical music and classical music in Ireland.

http://classicalartsireland.com/archive-project/

http://basilwalsh.wordpress.com

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Irish_classical_musicians

And here are two sound samples to help celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day.

The first is the Irish Rhapsody No.1 by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford:

And the second sound sample is the lovely Nocturne No. 2 in C minor for solo piano by John Field as performed by John O’Conor:

HAPPY SAINT PATRICK’S DAY!

And the chances are good that some of you readers know more about Irish classical music and classical music in Ireland than The Ear does.

So be sure to leave what you know in the COMMENTS section along with links to websites, blogs and YouTube videos that will illuminate me and other readers.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music review: If you want to hear the difference between talent and genius, compare the music of John Field and Frederic Chopin — and thank the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

March 19, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night, I went to the penultimate concert of this season by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in the Overture Center‘s Capitol Theater. (This season’s last Masterworks concert is at 8 p.m. on Friday April 13, and features Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony.) In so many ways, it was an enjoyable event with an appropriate sense of occasion for Saint Patrick’s Day.

Under the baton of Andrew Sewell, the WCO (below) just keeps sounding better and better. And the audiences just seem to grow bigger and bigger, and more and more enthusiastic.

Clearly, the WCO is on the march, as its expanded next season shows:

http://wcoconcerts.org/performances/future-season/

I was particularly impressed with the performances of two well-known and frequently perform classics: Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture and Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony. These are great works that received great performances.

The overture by the transitional Mendelssohn (below) had precise Classical-era part playing and a clarity of texture. Yet the evocative reading also had Romantic color. You could feel the ocean swells and the Scottish mystery, the dark, almost Gothic atmosphere of the seashore cave that the work was meant to convey.

In the “Haffner,” I was impressed by the muscularity of the Mozart (below). The very opening bars had sharp and strong attacks, and that sense of energy kept up right to the closing measures. I like grace and elegance, but not when it descends into music-box Mozart and preciousness. This reading was decidedly NOT music-box Mozart. It was hearty and robust as well as refined.

The WCO is clearly mastering the playing of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and they should include more of those masters on each program. Lord knows there are enough pieces by each to choose from given overtures, symphonies and concertos.

In between came other pieces on the “Celtic Celebration” theme chosen to mark St. Patrick’s Day and to bring us neglected works.

Granville Bantock’s “Celtic” Symphony for string orchestra and six – yep, six harps a harping — was a gratifying piece with some lively moments. But like Vaughan Williams, to whom Sewell aptly compared Bantock (below), it lacked depth and had major moments of lateral drift. The plainsong aspect of the harmony and the Celtic dance rhythms proved particularly captivating. All in all, it proved a rarity worth well unearthing and hearing.

That kind of creative and original programming has become typical of WCO music director Sewell (below).

The major work of the first half was a performance of Irish composer John Field’s rarely heard Piano Concerto No. 4 in E-Flat Major. One of seven concertos by Field (below), it was performed to perfection by the remarkable UW pianist Christopher Taylor, who was superbly accompanied by the orchestra.

On the radio, in a Q&A for this blog and in his playing, Taylor made a convincing case for reviving this curiosity. And it does have a certain period charm, especially in a kind of proto-Chopin way that is looser in form and feeling than the powerful and stricter, less lyrical Beethovenian and Germanic traditions.

After all, you may recall it was Field who pioneered the form of the piano nocturne that Chopin, 11 years his junior, later perfected.

But if you ever want to take the measure of the difference between someone who is talented and someone who is a genius, then just listen to Field and compare him to Chopin (below) — either nocturne-to-nocturne (at bottom), or concerto-to-concerto.

Chopin gives you heart-breaking and memorable melodies and harmonies that you carry with you out of the concert hall. Field’s music seems, sad to say, forgettable as soon as the playing is over. You are glad you heard it, but would you hear it again right away, would you go home and put on a recording of it? I suspect not.

Like Chopin’s writing, Field’s score uses a lot of notes in the passagework. And how they sparkled under virtuosic fingers of Taylor (below). But overall the concerto lacks substance and that bel canto sense of singing or vocal line that makes Chopin so irresistible and seductive.

In a museum or gallery, I find that looking at a great painting or photography makes me wish I could paint like that or use a camera tike that. I want to go out and make a painting or a photograph of my own.

Chopin does the same. His music makes me want to go home and play the piano, and especially his works.

Field, however, does not leave with the listener with that desire. I find myself, saying: OK, I’m glad I heard it, but once every 10 or 20 years is enough.

Chopin’s music simply has, and deserves, a much longer shelf life.

So I guess what I am saying is that I hope the WCO books Taylor again — this time in one of the two Chopin concertos, and probably No. 2, which is more suited to the chamber ensemble than No. 1, the concerto that actually was composed later on a bigger scale. But either would do the job nicely.

Now that would be something memorable indeed.

Anyway, here are links to the other reviews since you may wonder: What did the other critics in town have to say?

We pretty much agree, but we differ in what we make of our minor disagreements.

Here is the review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=36238

Here is Mike and Jean Muckian’s review for the magazine Brava and their blog Culturosity:

http://culturosity.wordpress.com/

Here is the review by Lindsay Christians of the Wisconsin State Journal and 77 Square:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/wco-s-celtic-night-offers-delightful-mix/article_4f71f520-702b-11e1-8e78-0019bb2963f4.html

Here is Bill Wineke’s review for WISC-TV’s Channel 3000.com:

http://www.channel3000.com/entertainment/30700799/detail.html

And here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and the blog Classically Speaking:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/March-2012/Wisconsin-Chamber-Orchestra-Proves-All-of-Us-Are-Lucky-This-St-Patricks-Day/

But every listener is his or her own critic.

So, what did you make of the works by John Field and Bantock?

What part of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Celtic Celebration” pleased you the most and why?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music Q&A: John Field’s Piano Concerto No. 4 shows there is much more to the Irish composer than being the inventor of the nocturne, says UW pianist Christopher Taylor who will perform it Friday night with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

March 13, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Saturday is Saint Patrick’s Day.

Little wonder, then, that the theme of the concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) under conductor Andrew Sewell on Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater is “A Celtic Celebration.”

Like many people, I know of John Field (1782-1837, below) as the Irish composer who pioneered the form of the Nocturne, which was then carried to perfection, most would agree, by Chopin. 

But there is much more to Field than his nocturnes, says University of Wisconsin-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, who will perform Field’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in E-flat Major.

Also on the program are: Mendelssohn’ s famous  “The Hebrides Overture,”  Op. 26; the “Celtic” Symphony for string orchestra and six harps by 
the rarely heard British composer Granville Bantock (below); and Mozart’s well-known Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385 “Haffner,” which was composed the same year as the birth of John Field.

Field, was born in Dublin, but spent much of his adult life abroad. A gifted pianist, he became Clementi’s protégé, eventually settling in St. Petersburg. Highly regarded by his contemporaries, his playing and compositions influenced Chopin, Brahms, Schumann and Liszt. 

Tickets are $15-$62. For more information, call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or visit: 

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks/28/event-info  

Taylor (below) recently talked about John Fields in an email interview with The Ear:

How would you describe John Field as a composer and compare him musically and historically to other early and important Romantics, especially Chopin?

John Field (below) was a real prophet of Romanticism.  Just 11 years younger than Beethoven, his music sounds very different — an unfailingly lyrical melodic sense, considerable formal freedom, and a virtuoso approach to the keyboard emphasizing brilliance and sparkling grace. The more intellectual, Classical, prototypically Germanic values are much less in evidence with Field.

I find it quite suggestive that it was two composers from Europe’s periphery — Field from Ireland and Chopin from Poland — who played so instrumental a role in blazing a new, emancipated path for 19th-century keyboard music.

Do you consider Field undervalued or underplayed and in need of more performances?

I’m always in favor of bringing new and less familiar repertoire into the concert hall, particularly when they have the sort of historical significance that Field’s works possess.  His music has tremendous charm, and there’s no reason at all that audiences can’t come to love it.

Tell us how learning the Piano Concerto No. 4 in E-Flat affected or changed your opinion of Field?

I admit my knowledge of his work was previously restricted to a few nocturnes; hence I had some appreciation of how he influenced that facet of the music of Chopin (below). But this concerto shows that his influence extended well beyond the nocturnal.  This work, written when Chopin was just four years old, anticipates much of the brilliant style found in Chopin’s early works, including his piano concertos.

While its construction is a bit loose, even rambling, by the standards of Mozart and Beethoven, it demonstrates a composer in complete technical command, full of creative ideas.

Like the Italian composers of the early Classical period, Field has been overshadowed by his successors, but I find his music much more interesting and appealing than his reputation as a mere harbinger would suggest.

What can you tell us about the Field piano concerto and your performance or interpretation of it? What should the audience especially listen for and pay attention to?

Listening to this work should not require intense effort, nor any undue patience or forbearance from the audience.  The imposing first movement is consistently tuneful, with bubbly passagework that befits its author’s status as one of the era’s great virtuosos.

The middle movement, a gentle Siciliano, is much more modest in scale but features a charming interplay between soloist and orchestra vaguely reminiscent of Beethoven’s fourth concerto.

The finale is again a substantial bit of writing, with a recurring rondo theme suggestive of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata’s finale, with similarly evocative pedaling suggestions.

Learning it has been a great pleasure, and I hope that this opportunity to perform it will not be my last.


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