The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What is your favorite Sousa march for the Fourth of July? What other classical music celebrates the holiday?

July 4, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Fourth of July, Independence Day, when we mark the day and the Declaration of Independence when the U.S officially separated from Great Britain to become not a colony but its own country.

Over the past decade The Ear has chosen music from many American composers to mark the event – music by Edward MacDowell, Charles Ives, William Grant Still, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, William Schuman, Joan Tower, John Adams and so many others.

And of course also featured around the nation will be the “1812 Overture” by Peter Tchaikovsky.

You will probably hear a lot of that music today on Wisconsin Public Radio and other stations, including WFMT in Chicago and WQXR in New York City.

Here is a link to nine suggestions with audiovisual performances:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/nine-best-works-independence-day

But The Ear got to thinking.

It is certainly a major achievement when a composer’s name becomes synonymous with a genre of music. Like Strauss waltzes. Bach cantatas and Bach fugues. Chopin mazurkas and Chopin polonaises.

The Ear thinks that John Philip Sousa is to marches what Johann Strauss is to waltzes. Others have done them, but none as well.

So on Independence Day, he asks: Which of Sousa’s many marches is your favorite to mark the occasion?

The “Stars and Stripes Forever” — no officially our national march — seems the most appropriate one, judging by titles. “The Washington Post” March is not far behind.

But lately The Ear has taken to “The Liberty Bell” March.

Here it is a YouTube video with the same Marine Band that Sousa, The March King, once led and composed for:

And if you want music fireworks in the concert hall to match the real thing, you can’t beat the bravura pyrotechnical display concocted and executed by pianist Vladimir Horowitz, a Russian who became an American citizen and contributed mightily to the war effort during World War II.

Horowitz wowed the crowds – including fellow virtuoso pianists – with his transcription of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” in which it sounds like three or four hands are playing. Judge for yourself. Here it is:

Of course, you can also leave the names of other American composers and works to celebrate the Fourth. Just leave a word and a link in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear!

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Classical music: A Halloween treat of music for multiple pianos was served up by the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos

October 31, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger 

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

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Salon Piano Series offered by Farley’s House of Pianos on Madison’s far west side continues to be a project of imagination and inspiration, with concerts offering a range of visiting performers and unusual repertoire.

It was quality and quantity in the program offered on Friday night, which was then repeated the following evening. A team of four—count ‘em, four— highly accomplished pianists, who are used to performing together as a team, gave a remarkable concert of multi-piano splendor.

The four (below, from left) are: Spaniard Daniel del Pino, Canadian Lucille Chung, Israeli Alon Goldstein and Italian Roberto Plano. Their collaborative facility is linked to utter enthusiasm in their work.

four-on-floor-players-jwb

For this program, Farley’s assembled four superlative instruments. Three are vintage Mason & Hamlin pianos, one made in 1907, the other two dating from 1914; plus a Steinway grand made in 1940. The array of these instruments—all four in the center of the salon, with circles of chairs all around for the audience—was itself an inspiration, and a fine success.

four-on-the-floor-piano-layout-jwb

The opening piece was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 381, for piano four hands, a kind of “miniature” introduction, and beautifully played by Chung and Goldstein at the Steinway.

four-on-the-floor-mozart-goldstein-and-chung-jwb

“All hands,” as it were, then turned out for the remainder of the program.

A four-piano arrangement of the Dance Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns was knowingly made in 1874 by Ernest Giraud, a contemporary and colleague of the composer.

This was followed by a more recent effort, a Fantasy on Themes from Bizet’s “Carmen” (1994) contrived by the distinguished Mormon musician Mack Wilbert. Both of those works built up spectacular effects of sound and color, in music certainly familiar in their original forms.

Also familiar, of course, is Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, played in this program in a four-piano arrangement by Jacques Drillon (1992). Here, I felt that such an arrangement was a bit forced. All those hands made the repeated rhythmic foundation that much more pounding and more relentless than in the orchestral original, while the colors available from the pianos could not quite match the wonderful varieties that Ravel could draw from his wider range of orchestral instruments.

Particularly disappointing, I found, was a four-piano expansion (1886) by Richard Kleinmichel of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. While the single-piano original is dense, its division among four players was mainly a matter of doubling up the players on the same parts: more analytic than the original, this treatment does not really improve anything.

As an encore, the four delivered a Horowitzian transcription of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. (You can hear Vladimir Horowitz perform it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Responding to endless audience enthusiasm, the four then sat down together at the Steinway to play a Galopp by one Albert Lavignac, written for one piano, eight hands. The four players had a ball climbing all over each other to do this novelty piece as intended.

four-on-the-floor-encore-jwb

One interesting feature of the program was the opportunity to hear and compare these four fine pianos against each other. And the four performers added to the experience by constantly rotating who played which instrument.

To my ears, the Mason & Hamlin instruments could deliver a marvelous richness and power. But the Steinway could combine those qualities with an added brilliance and coloristic range.

But, then, that was to my ears.

Whatever, a dazzling keyboard evening was had by all.


Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July or Independence Day when many American composers will be featured. But the music of composer Charles Ives best embodies the spirit of American Independence.

July 4, 2013
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Each year, there are usually two holidays on which American classical music is featured: Thanksgiving and TODAY, the 237th Fourth of July, or Independence Day.

fireworks

Radio hosts and concert programmers come up with all sorts of patriotic, all-American choices.

Many are names that are common and predictable — like George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, John Philip Sousa, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Duke Ellington, John Adams, Virgil Thomson, Philip Glass, John Corigliano and Steve Reich.

Others are less well-known American composers. They include Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Amy Beach, William Grant Still, Edward Joseph Collins, Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, John Harbison, Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell and John Cage.

In between are the known and the unknown you will find Charles Ives (1874-1954, below), the Yankee iconoclast who was asked to give up his music career as a church organist because of his daring harmonic improvisations on hymn tunes.

Charles Ives BIG

Trained at Yale University, Ives did quit music as a profession and went into the insurance business in his native Connecticut. He made a fortune while he continued to compose new and modern music with only his own standards and pleasure in mind.

Ives loved to use multiple keys at the same time, to use polyrhythms and to mix vernacular music with original music.

So today The Ear offers two Charles Ives pieces of very different natures.

To celebrate in the usual way, here is a YouTube video of Ives’ extroverted and celebratory “Fourth of July” movement from his “Holidays Symphony.” The conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is Michael Tilson Thomas. Try to hear the traditional tunes treated in a his own untraditional way:

But perhaps the most beautiful and haunting piece by Ives is “The Unanswered Question.” I offer this video (also by Michel Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) because I am haunted this holiday by my own question concerning liberty and patriotism: Why are second-rate politicians in Wisconsin and elsewhere trying to ruin a first-rate state, a first-rate university and a first-rate country?

And whatever your answer or whether you agree with the question or not, I hope you enjoy the music. And I hope you pass a memorable and enjoyable Fourth of July.

So as an encore, I’ll throw in a third spirited audio clip. It is of Russian-born piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz playing his own astonishing and knuckle-busting piano transcription of Sousa’s march “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” which I believe he came up with to mark his new status as an Americanized citizen in 1945.

Happy Fourth of July!


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