The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here are memorable local concerts in 2016 from critic John W. Barker and The Ear. What ones would you add?

January 4, 2017
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ALERT: The FREE Friday Noon Musicales at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, resume this week after a break for Christmas, New Year’s and other holidays. This Friday, from 12:15 to 1 p.m., pianist Olivia Musat will perform music by Olivier Messiaen, Isaac Albeniz and Paul Constantinesco.

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems a tradition throughout the media to offer a roundup of the Year’s Best with a local slant.

The Ear already offered a national and international roundup. Here is a link to that, especially to the surprisingly rich roundup that he unexpectedly found on Wikipedia:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/02/classical-music-wikipedia-and-wfmt-in-chicago-offer-a-review-of-classical-music-of-2016-that-includes-important-performances-new-music-and-deaths/

For a more local perspective, The Ear trusts and generally agrees with critic John W. Barker (below), who writes frequently for this blog and more often for Isthmus.

John-Barker

Here is a link to Barker’s list of memorable concerts in the Madison area, Because Isthmus mixes classical with other genres like pop, folk and jazz, you have to scroll down to “Classical cornucopia”:

http://isthmus.com/music/year-in-music-2016/

Although I agree with all the concerts that Barker mentions, he left out some that The Ear really loved. One was the absolutely riveting and moving performance in November by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain of the momentous Fifth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich.

For example just about everything that the Pro Arte Quartet does at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music is first-rate and memorable, whether they play in Mills Hall or on “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen Museum of Art.”

But this past fall, a free noontime concert by the Pro Arte with legendary pianist Leon Fleisher especially stood out. Together (below), they performed the Piano Quintet in F Minor by Johannes Brahms – an unquestionable masterpiece in an unforgettable performance.

leon-fleisher-and-pro-arte-quartet-2016

The Ear would also add two events, both violin recitals, at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Last spring Hilary Hahn (below top, in a photo by Peter Miller) turned in a stunningly superb recital. Then this fall, superstar Joshua Bell (below bottom) did the same. Both artists displayed terrific musicality combined with terrific virtuosity in generous and first-rate, ambitious programs.

Hilary Hahn 2016 CR Peter Miller

joshua-bell-2016

He would add several summer concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, especially the sizzling dueling violin concert (below) where the BDDS interspersed “The Four Seasons” buy Antonio Vivaldi with “The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires” by Astor Piazzolla.

axel-strauss-bdds-2016-piazzolla

The Ear would also add an experimental concert at which UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below) unveiled his reworked two-keyboard “Hyperpiano.” While the concert, which featured the “Goldberg” Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach, wasn’t successful musically, it certainly was intriguing, unusual and highly memorable, even with imperfect digital technology.

Hyperpiano stage

And The Ear also recalls a fine concert by the Rhapsodie Quartet (below) of the Madison Symphony Orchestra at the Overture Center.

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

And let’s not forget the University Opera’s production of “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi that was impressively and successfully updated to Hollywood by director David Ronis.

uw-falstaff-benjamin-schultz-left-paul-rowe-and-jiabao-zhang

The Ear is sure there are more memorable concerts that escape him right now. Madison just features so much wonderful music-making in the course of a year.

Moreover, The Ear is also sure you have your favorites – whether they are individual plays; small chamber music groups such as duos, string quartets and piano trios; larger ensembles like the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Union Theater; or entire events like the UW Brass Festival.

I am sure that fans of the innovative percussion group Clocks in Motion and the acclaimed Madison Choral Project have a concert or two to nominate.

So please use the COMMENT section to tell us what were your most memorable classical concerts in Madison during 2016.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Juilliard violin professor Laurie Smukler continues a great season of string playing on Saturday night with a FREE recital at the UW-Madison

November 18, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is a post about a very appealing FREE concert by Juilliard violinist Laurie Smukler (below) on this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.

laurie-smukler

But for The Ear, some context seems fitting.

Some seasons are memorable for great singing or great piano playing or great orchestral playing. And there certainly has been, and will continue to be, lots more of all three this autumn and winter.

But what has really stood out to The Ear this Fall is the string playing, especially the violin.

stradivari-solomon-ex-lambert

Actually it started in the summer with a sizzling, white-hot performance by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. The BDDS interspersed Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires.”

Violinist Suzanne Beia (below top) played the Vivaldi seasons and McGill University violinist Axel Strauss from Montreal (below bottom) played the Piazzolla seasons. The dueling violins were something to behold and to hear! And the alternation kept listeners from tiring of one particular composer or style. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly memorable concert. 

suzanne-beia-bdds-2016-vivaldi

axel-strauss-bdds-2016-piazzolla

Then came an unforgettable performance of the Violin Concerto by Tchaikovsky, played with intimacy and clarity as well as stunning virtuosity by the prize-winning Russian-born Ilya Kaler with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell.

ilya-kaler

Then came wonderful performances by Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud of the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Max Bruch and some works by Kraggerud himself, accompanied by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain.

Henning Kraggerud playing

Over at the Wisconsin Union Theater, superstar Joshua Bell didn’t disappoint. Appearing in a recital with pianist Alessio Bax, Bell played music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, Eugene Ysaye, Pablo de Sarrasate and Manuel Ponce. Violin recitals just don’t get better.

joshua-bell-2016

In between came several performances by the four always reliable and always outstanding string players of the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below top, in a photo by Rick Langer) as well as the newly reformed Ancora String Quartet (below bottom).

Pro Arte 3 Rick Langer copy

ancora-2016-group-1

And there were many other events.

But The Season of Strings isn’t over yet.

This Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, there is a FREE recital by Laurie Smukler, a violin professor at the Juilliard School who is also doing a guest residency here that features master classes in the violin and chamber music.

Smukler was invited by and will be joined by Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt), who teaches violin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and whose debut recital last year still lingers in The Ear’s ear.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino CR caroline bittencourt

Both women, who are personal friends, are terrific musicians and highly accomplished violinists.

The intriguing program, with the distinguished pianist Victor Asuncion, features the popular work “The Lark Ascending” by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams; the Sonata for Two Violins by Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev; and the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor by Brahms. (You can hear the heart-rending slow movement of the Brahms, played by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Daniel Barenboim, in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information about all events related to the Smukler residency, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/distinguished-guest-artist-residency-laurie-smukler-violin-free-event/

 


Classical music: A rare early music recital on a locally built clavichord is this Sunday afternoon at the Gates of Heaven Synagogue

November 4, 2016
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ALERT: The recital by violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Alessio Bax on this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater is SOLD OUT. But a few extra tickets will be released on Saturday at 6 p.m. at the WUT box office, where interested persons should go in person to buy them.

By Jacob Stockinger

On Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., Farley’s House of Pianos owner Tim Farley will unveil his latest handmade clavichord (below) at the historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue, 302 East Gorham Street in James Madison Park. (Photos are by Tom Moss.)

F.clavichord p3

If you wonder about the difference between the clavichord and the harpsichord, fortepiano and piano, here is a link to a definition on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clavichord

David Schrader (below), a professor at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts Music Conservatory, will perform on the instrument. Details of the program have not been announced.

david-schrader

A $20 cash or check donation to Farley’s House of Pianos is suggested. The ticket donation goes towards Schrader’s fee and the venue rental.

Farley created the German clavichord using reclaimed Spanish cedar and redwood from Broadwood pianos dating back to 1880, and shipwrecked walnut wood that had been underwater for nearly 60 years. The clavichord was built over three years by Tim Farley and another worker.

F.clavichord p1

Farley chose Schrader to perform specifically for this concert. Schrader has a background in early keyboard and church music. He also performed on Farley’s 1976 Steinway Centennial Grand piano for the Madison Early Music Festival this year.

“In the times we live in today, we never truly experience absolute quiet,” Farley says. “We don’t have that white space background like performers had in the 19th century. Gates of Heaven Synagogue has a perfect acoustical ambience for a clavichord. No question, this is the most personal, sensitive, intimate keyboard instrument ever made.”

Adds builder Farley: “This clavichord is after the eminent clavichord builder, Friederici, who worked in the Silberman workshop. It has many of the attributes of the famous clavichord built by Silberman for Johann Sebastian Bach.

“Unlike Silberman’s clavichord that had 53 keys (C to E), the Friederici has five full octaves.  It is perfectly suited to much music by Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and even some by Ludwig van Beethoven.

farley-clavichord-with-hands-tom-moss

“I am indebted to my colleague Dietrich Hein, the German instrument builder, who sent me his drawing of the instrument and that is what I used.

“All of the other wood on the inside of the instrument is wood that had a previous musical life from such pianos as Broadwood, Steinway, Mason and Hamlin, and Chickering.

farley-clavichord-inside

“The lid has new walnut veneers.  On the inside of the lid, the woods are bookmatched. The outside of the lid features individual pieces of figured walnut. The trim is fiddleback soft maple.

“It took about three years to complete the instrument including turning the legs for the case.  It is 72 inches long.  It has a deep, rich sound and a long sustain duration.”

Here is a YouTube video with much more information about the clavichord:


Classical music: The Nov. 5 recital by Joshua Bell at the Wisconsin Union Theater is close to sold-out

September 30, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following word:

Fewer than 140 tickets are still available for the concert by violinist Joshua Bell (below top) and pianist Alessio Bax. The Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall (below bottom) seats about 1,100.

joshua-bell-2016

Bell’s performance kicks off the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert Series on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 8 p.m. in Shannon Hall.

The all-masterpiece program includes: the Sonata in A Major, Op. 12, No. 2, by Ludwig van Beethoven; the Sonata No. 3 in D Minor and the Scherzo in C Minor from the FAE Sonata, both by Johannes Brahms; the Sonata No. 3 in D minor by Eugene Ysaye; the Sonata in G minor by Claude Debussy; and the “Carmen” Fantasy by Pablo de Sarasate. (You can hear Joshua Bell play the opening movement of the Debussy sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Shannon Hall UW-Madison

Ticket prices are: UW-Madison students are $25; Union Members and non-UW students are $62, $56 and $25; UW Faculty and Staff are $64, $58 and $25; and members of the general public are $68, $62 and $35.

Tickets should be purchased soon and can be purchased on the website – https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/theater-tickets/  – or at the Memorial Union box office or by calling 608 265-ARTS.

Joshua Bell is one of the most celebrated violinists in the world, with numerous Grammy wins and nominations including Best Instrumental Soloist Performance with Orchestra and Best Engineered Album, Classical. He was one of the first classical artists to have VH1 feature a music video, and has performed on the Grammys twice.

Bell has performed for three different U.S. presidents and the president of China, and has taken part in several award-winning collaborations. He was the subject of a BBC documentary and received the Humanitarian Award from Seton Hall University. Bell is devoted to charitable causes, and has received the Academy of Achievement Award in 2008.

The vast experience of pianist Alessio Bax (below) in the music industry includes performing as a soloist with over 100 orchestras, including the London and Royal Philharmonics. He won the 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant, and his impressive repertoire has continuously increased since he graduated from a conservatory in Bari, Italy, at the age of 14.

Both artists have performed several times in Madison, always to large houses and enthusiastic receptions.

Alessio Bax 1


Classical music: Violinist Alexander Ayers gives a FREE recital on Monday night at Taliesin in Spring Green 

June 25, 2016
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Due to technical difficulties beyond his control at the web site host, The Ear cannot publish a new post today that has many links in the text. He apologizes and will let you know if and when the problems are solved. In the meantime, he will offer what he can.

By Jacob Stockinger

The following announcement has been sent for posting by The Ear by the Rural Musicians Forum:

Widely praised for his shimmering virtuosity and technical precision, violinist Alexander Ayers performs a FREE recital at 7:30 p.m. on this Monday, June 27, in a concert sponsored by the Rural Musicians Forum in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside Theater at Taliesin, south of Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Ayers (below, in a photo by O’Brien Photos of Waukesha), a native of Waukesha, Wisconsin, joined the Milwaukee Symphony in 2013. He was previously a member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

After studying nine years at the String Academy of Wisconsin-Milwaukee he studied at Indiana University, and in 2006 he won the grand prize of the Milwaukee Symphony Stars of Tomorrow Competition. This resulted in performances of the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Sergei Prokofiev with the MSO. He has performed collaboratively with Joshua Bell, Alex Kerr, Jaime Laredo, Gilles Apap and Soovin Kim.

Alexander Ayers 1 CR O'Brien Photos

Ayers’ June 27 program is international in scope. It includes works by German-born Ludwig van Beethoven and Parisian Camille Saint-Saens as well as the Belgian violinist and composer Eugene Ysaye and virtuosic Polish violinist Henryk Wieniawski, who was regarded by many as an exciting and flamboyant re-incarnation of Niccolo Paganini.

About the concert RMF Artistic Director Kent Mayfield said, “We are honored to work in close collaboration with Taliesin Preservation Inc. to host much of this year’s series at Taliesin’s Hillside Theater (below). It provides an especially dramatic but intimate setting for Ayers’ performance which will be totally consistent with Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision: imaginative, bold and beautiful.”

taliesin_hillside2

Hillside Theater is located at 6604 Highway 23, Spring Green.

The concert is not ticketed and is open to the public. A free-will offering will be taken to support the concert series.

For additional information and driving directions, see www.ruralmusiciansforum.org

 


Classical music: Learn about old and new violin-making, and about making violins in Wisconsin.

June 4, 2015
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Are all Stradivarius violins good or outstanding?

Stradivarius violin

Antonio Stradivari

The answer might surprise you.

A piece for “Wisconsin Life” discussed the question this week. It was broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio in the morning. It was part of a story about Brian Derber, a North Woods violinmaker, or luthier, in Wisconsin.

Brian Derber Violin maker

In case you missed the piece, here it is:

http://www.wisconsinlife.org/story/old-world-violin-making-wisconsin


Classical music: Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz explains Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade,” which she will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend in concerts that also feature Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

May 7, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear supposes that Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for violin and orchestra  qualifies as program music since it aims to translate Plato’s famous dialogue about love — “Symposium” — into music. (At the bottom, is a YouTube video of Joshua Bell performing the work with the New York Philharmonic under conductor Alan Gilbert in 2013.)

This much is sure. The 1954 work by Bernstein — to be performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) — is part of what makes this weekend’s one of the most interesting programs, maybe THE most interesting, of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Naha Greenholtz [playing

The combination of Romantic and post-WW II modern music includes the performance of a major symphony that is beloved around the world: the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, also known as the “Choral” and Ode to Joy” symphony.

That was the symphony that Leonard Bernstein himself famously conducted in Germany to celebrate to fall of the Berlin Wall. So, what better offering is there to accompany it than something composed by Bernstein?

(John DeMain talked about the Beethoven symphony in a Q&A here earlier this week. Here is a link to that post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/classical-music-maestro-john-demain-talks-about-the-challenges-and-rewards-of-beethovens-ninth-the-choral-or-ode-to-joy-sympho/ )

Love and joy: Can there be a better way to finish out a season?

The program will be performed under the baton of longtime MSO music director John DeMain, who studied and worked with Leonard Bernstein. It will feature the Madison Symphony Chorus, as prepared by MSO assistant conductor Beverly Taylor, who heads the UW-Madison choral department.

Guest vocal soloists are: soprano Melody Moore; contralto Gwendolyn Brown; tenor Eric Barry; and bass Morris Robinson.

Performances are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center. Times are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $12-$84.

For details, go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org or call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, including audio samples and a link to program notes by MSO bass trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen, visit: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/beethoven

Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) recently agreed to do an email Q&A about Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade” with The Ear:

Naha Greenholtz profile

How would you compare Leonard Bernstein’s work to the great historical violin concertos by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius? What about to modern and contemporary violin concertos by, say, Samuel Barber and Philip Glass, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich? Are there any you would draw parallels or contrasts to?

The five-movement format in Bernstein’s “Serenade” differentiates it substantially from some of the 18th and 19th century classics. While there’s no literal program, there is the suggestion of a basic narrative in Bernstein’s re-imagination of Plato’s communal dialogue. This element alone connects the work more closely to the late 19th and 20th century sub-genre of “program music.” (Below is a portrait of Leonard Bernstein composing at the piano in 1955, around the time of the “Serenade.”)

In its familiar tonal language — combing modal and traditional harmonic elements — it has some resemblance to the Barber concerto. I don’t think middle-of-the-century American composers like Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein were consciously adhering to style parameters.

That said, there is a distinctive “American-ness” to their works.  Much the same way music by Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev has a “Russian” sound, without necessarily being nationalistic.  It’s subtler than that.  It is more like these composers shared some common aesthetic DNA due to their national and cultural origins.

Leonard Bernstein composing in 1955

Where do you place it among Bernstein’s body of works? Is he generally underappreciated as a composer compared to his work as a conductor and his music for the Broadway theater?

To the latter question, this is certainly true.  He was such a charismatic public figure in music, especially in his work as an educator, conductor and composer of popular music. In light of this, I think his remarkable contributions to “art” music are easily overlooked.

In the Serenade he manages to blend many stylistic elements.  I hear the Devil’s Dance from Igor Stravinsky’s “Histoire du Soldat” and, in the fourth movement, glimpses of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.  The instrumentation is a nod to Bela Bartok in his “Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste” and the tonal language shows Paul Hindemith’s influence.

But despite all of that, Bernstein’s unique language is apparent within the first five seconds of the piece when the rising augmented 4th resolves up a half step.  That’s what is so remarkable about Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell) — he manages to blend disparate elements of other great artists without losing his own intrinsic style.

Leonard Bernstein CR Jack Mitchell

How does Bernstein express the idea of Platonic dialogue?

Each of the movements is loosely based on the themes of the seven speakers in the work by Plato (below is an ancient sculptural depiction of the philosopher). The concerto begins with the soloist alone in a rhetorical statement and the piece unfolds as each orator presents his perspective on the topic of love. By the end of the fifth movement, drinking seems to have taken over the gathering, leading to a thrilling depiction of a boisterous dinner party.

Plato

How is the idea of love as a carnal and spiritual subject that the guests discuss get expressed?

On describing the duality of love, as a force that cuts both ways, Bernstein is explicit. For example in the third movement Erixymathus, he uses the soloist and orchestra as warring factions. The orchestra explodes with a three-note jab. Then the soloist introduces a quasi-tone row that’s passed back and forth with contrasting intensity. Further into the movement, he piles these themes on top of each other in a frenetic fugue that expresses the mystery and ecstasy of love.

In contrast, the next movement Agathon features the same three-note motive that opened the previous movement, but stretched to 10 times its initial length, utterly transforming it into a spiritual and intimate aria. Bernstein does this all over the piece, taking material from previous movements and showing them in a new light. (Below is a fresco depiction of the Symposium.)

Fresco of Symposium USE

What do you think of the work itself and how its fits with Beethoven’s Ninth? Have you played it before or is it new to you?

Until last year I’d only known the Serenade by recording, so I was thrilled when John suggested we perform it here with the MSO.

It’s strangely neglected in the solo violin repertoire. Maybe that is because of the unconventional five-movement format, or that the title “after Plato’s Symposium”   is somehow intimidating or off-putting.

It’s clearly one of Bernstein’s great orchestral works and is a firework of a showpiece for the violin. As far as pairing with Beethoven’s Ninth, the themes of brotherhood and platonic love feature prominently in both works.

How challenging is it to play and what are the challenges both technically and interpretively? What would you like the audience to pay special attention to?

I find all music challenging. Mozart is simpler in terms of notes and patterns than, say, Shostakovich or Bernstein, but in its own way it is just as hard to play and requires just as much diligent work to pull off.

The Bernstein is full of musical challenges and requires lots of imagination and characterization to communicate the narrative of Plato’s dialogue.

That being said, it’s a major 20th-century solo work so it’s also chock full of technical hurdles. Isaac Stern (below, in 1977) – for whom this piece was written — has left us fingering and bowing suggestions, so I know the thorny passages are at least theoretically possible!

Isaac Stern in 1979

In any event, I’m really looking forward to these performances and think these will be fantastic concerts for anyone who loves great music.

 


Classical music: Let Us Now Praise – and rediscover — pianist and teacher extraordinaire Seymour Bernstein. The Ear wants his books about amateur music-making reprinted affordably and made into e-books. Plus, this morning at 11 a.m. you can hear and see, live and for FREE, UW-Madison alumna Brenda Rae Klinkert sing in a Richard Strauss opera in Munich.

October 5, 2014
4 Comments

ALERT: Some local-related news came in too late to include yesterday.

This morning, UW-Madison School of Music alumna and Appleton native Brenda Rae Klinkert (BA, 2004 and seen below in costume) is singing with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich in Richard Strauss’ opera “Die Schweigsame Frau” (The Silent Woman, 1935) and the performance is being broadcast LIVE on the Internet. You can watch the free audio-visual transmission at 11 a.m. via http://www.staatsoper.de/en/staatsopertv.html (Staatsoper.TV).

Please pass the word to any students and professors, friends and fans who might be interested in this opera and this performer. Adds local opera fan Dan Shea: “Brenda Rae currently is continuing a series of major breakthroughs in her operatic career, an amazing arc of success in Europe and the U.S. with  major roles in major operas. Just take a look at her schedule at brendarae.com

“Personally, I’ve seen a lot of “Traviatas” all over the world, but hers at Santa Fe in the summer of 2013 was especially wonderful, and in a class by itself — as the reviews attested.”

Brenda Rae Klinkert in costume

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday I wrote about violinist Joshua Bell — a superstar who is both a renowned performer and a devoted teacher, all at the same time.

Today I want to write about someone who established a big performing career when he was young – but then walked away from it all at the same age Joshua Bell is right now, about 50, in order to devote himself to teaching, writing books and composing.

Chances are you haven’t heard about pianist Seymour Bernstein (below), or heard only a little bit if anything. 

Seymour bernstein 1

But it turns out that might all change, thanks to the movie star Ethan Hawke (below left with Bernstein on the right), who met Bernstein at a dinner party and ended up directing a documentary about Seymour Bernstein, who is now 87 years old and still active.

It happened especially after Bernstein help the screen-veteran Hawke to overcome his stage fright, which itself is a fascinating story.

It was also fascinating to read that Bernstein doesn’t think the concert world is the way for classical music to go today. He wants instead to recapture the joy of amateur music-making.

I read a great story about the movie and how it came about in The New York Times. Here is a link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/27/arts/ethan-hawke-films-seymour-an-introduction.html?_r=0

Ethan Hawke and Seymour Bernstein

I got so intrigued that I tried to order some of his books by going to Amazon.com.

It turns out they are all out of print and some go for hundreds of dollars as rarities.

PLEASE NOTE A MISTAKE AND A CORRECTION: The Ear just got a post-posting correction to this error, for which he apologizes. If you go to a Reader Comment by Pru Palachek, you will find out that Seymour Bernstein’s books are indeed available — for a higher price — from a small music publisher, Manduca, in Portland, Maine. You can also visit Bernstein’s own website for more information. Just Google “Seymour Bernstein.”

Well, there is always the library. But being an avid amateur pianist, I would like my own copies to mark up and keep near the keyboard.

So I am hoping somebody can persuade Amazon to reissue them as both regular books and especially e-books. Maybe the success of the movie will help. Maybe Hawke’s fame will help.

And what I read isn’t hype.

It turns out The Ear knows someone who herself took some piano lessons from Seymour Bernstein and played for him. This pianist says Bernstein is all he is cracked up to be -– a cordial and kind man, an excellent teacher and an outstanding performer.

Seymour Bernstein playing piano

I did find some YouTube videos based on his books “With Your Own Two Hands.” At the bottom is the second of several that are all good and all whet your appetite for more:

In the meantime let us hope for two things:

1. That the movie, which might win some awards and garner a big audience, gets wide circulation.

2. That Amazon, or some other publisher, agrees to reprint the books in regular and e-book formats.

What do you know about Seymour Bernstein?

Did you ever heard him live or in recording?

Did you ever read his books or use his methods?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music education: Superstar violinist Joshua Bell talks about the importance of music education and reaching people in unusual places — like subways. Plus, his terrific new all-Bach CD merits your attention.

October 4, 2014
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The perennially boyish Joshua Bell, now a veteran of the concert stage and recording studio for more than 25 years, is in his third season as the artistic director of the famed British chamber orchestra Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

joshua Bell

Sony Classical has just released his new recording – which has a program that is all by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). It features two violin concertos plus three arrangements, including the famous Chaconne from the Solo Partita No. 2, for violin and orchestra. (His previous release as conductor and concertmaster of the ASMF players was a fine reading of Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7 by Ludwig van Beethoven.)

And despite his Pretty Boy status, Bell — who has performed recitals here at the Wisconsin Union Theater and concertos with the Madison Symphony Orchestra — once again shows himself to be a gifted and serious musician. The Ear finds that he makes sense of notes that often get passed over by other violinists. Bells finds patterns in scales of climbing notes that help give the music momentum and melodic appeal. When he wants, Bell can be absolutely revelatory.

The Ear is not alone in his admiration for Bell at his best. Read the review by New York Times critic Steve Smith when Bell performed the glorious Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at this past summer’s “Mostly Mozart” Festival.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/22/arts/music/joshua-bell-plays-mostly-mozart.html?_r=0

Joshua Bell Bach CD cover

But perhaps the achievement these days it that Bell has become an adamant advocate of music education.

Joshua Bell with students

In that capacity he recently was featured in a 30-minute HBO special program about master classes with 9 students.

The Ear recently heard and saw him defend music education as a means not just to raise musicians but to give student more self-esteem and self-confidence. Playing music also brings other benefits, he adds, from better grades and a better sense of teamwork to a lower likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse.

But it is best to let Joshua Bell speak for himself.

Here is a link to an interview his did with NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/09/29/352494911/three-quick-lessons-from-the-violin-wunderkind-who-became-a-master

And here is a link to a television interview Bell did with reporter Jeffrey Brown of PBS’ The NewsHour as well as to the second, and final, subway appearance. (You may recall how his first anonymous appearance, at the bottom in a popular YouTube video with more than 5 million hits, made such a splash and even won the reporter a Pulitzer Prize.)

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/violinist-joshua-bell-turns-train-station-concert-hall-encourage-arts-education/

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/grammy-winning-violinist-joshua-bell-takes-another-turn-at-a-subway-concert/

Here is a 10-question video interview Bell did with Time magazine, in which he also discusses his love of gambling, his $5-million violin and possible alternative career choices:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9grpRj-KvtU

And here is the original “anonymous” “Stop and Hear the Music” subway busking “concert” with more than 5 million hits:

Do you have any thoughts about Joshua Bell?

The Ear wants to hear. 


Classical music: Pianist Jeremy Denk is named a MacArthur “genius.” Here is a sampler of his immense talent as displayed in concerts at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at NPR, in his blog “Think Denk” and on his latest Nonesuch recordings of Bach, Beethoven and Ligeti.

September 28, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, classical pianist Jeremy Denk (below) received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” this week. The stipend is $625,000 to be paid over five years and to be used for whatever the recipient wants, no string attached.

Here is a link to the MacArthur Foundation announcement (curiously, yet another year has gone by without any recipients from the UW-Madison):

http://www.macfound.org

Jeremy Denk 1

Several observations and interpretations come to mind.

One is that Jeremy Denk, a trained chemist as well as pianist, has already performed in Madison – TWICE – at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Both programs were mammoth undertakings. I met and worked with Denk both times, especially the first, and he is a remarkably deserving artist who is honest, droll, articulate and original. I also very much like his philosophy that radical music should stay sounding radical, no matter how many years later.

The first recital featured J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations on the first half with Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 1 on the second half. Whew!

While here for that concert, Denk, a master blogger as you can find in “Think Denk,” he gave a public master class for young pianists (below), a fascinating talk on pedaling in Chopin at the UW School of Music, and a panel on blogging. As you can tell, Denk is a terrifically gifted musician with many different achievements to his credit.

Jeremy Denk teaching 1

Then last season, Denk appeared again in recital, in Mills Hall, to a regrettably small audience, and he played Franz  Liszt and Bela Bartok, followed by J.S. Bach and Beethoven. It was nothing short of phenomenal and utterly convincing.

Both concerts were outstanding events.

And both events point to the wisdom of the Wisconsin Union Theater in finding and booking up-and-coming talent.

Not that Jeremy Denk is young.

At 43, Denk is a seasoned concert veteran and he has taken the time to make the music he plays his own. He is not fresh out of some competition win at 23 or 24, and still stretching to find his maturity and a personal point of view. He is writing a book for Alfred A. Knopf based, to be published this year, based on some articles (on making his first recording and on being a piano student under various teachers) that he wrote for The New Yorker magazine and on his blog “Think Denk.”

Denk is also a devout Francophile who loves Proust and Balzac as well as great food and drink. The Ear thinks that helps to explain the sheer beauty and sensuality as well as logic of his playing.

Jeremy Denk street 1 

If you have any qualms about the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series this year –which features violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below top) with the UW Symphony Orchestra under UW alumnus conductor Kenneth Woods on Saturday, Nov. 2, the Miro String Quartet (below middle, in a photo by Jim Leisy) on Friday, Feb. 21; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal tuba player Gene Pokorny with the UW Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, March 8; and pianist Inon Barnatan (below bottom) on Friday, April 18. The MacArthur’s high-profile recognition of Jeremy Denk is a good reminder to trust the WUD series, however unexpected its choices may seem.

Here is a link to the Wisconsin Union Theater series:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/season2013-14.html

Rachel Barton Pine

Miro Quartet Jim Leisy

Inon Barnatan

Here is a link to Jeremy Denk’s blog:

http://jeremydenk.net/blog/

And here are links to NPR, where Denk was an artist-in-residence  for a week and where you can hear both interviews and excerpts from his first Nonesuch recording of etudes by Gyorgy Ligeti and Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111; and excerpts from his CD and DVD of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (the famous opening Aria is at the bottom in a YouTube video) that will be released this coming week. (He also recorded a fabulous album of Turn-of-the-20th-Century French violin sonatas with Joshua Bell for Sony Classical.)

http://www.npr.org/event/music/155236091/in-practice-jeremy-denk

jeremy denk ligeti-beethoven CD

http://www.npr.org/2013/09/21/224429650/first-listen-jeremy-denk-j-s-bach-goldberg-variations

jeremy denk bach golbergs cd

Personally, The Ear hopes Jeremy Denk records a lot more repertoire, and soon, especially now that he is a house artist of the prestigious Nonesuch Records label, which gives the notoriously difficult-to-record piano  outstanding sonic engineering. Several requests come to mind: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, for which he is well-known; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, which he is touring with right now; the six Piano Pieces, Op. 118, by Johannes Brahms; some shorter J.S. Bach preludes and fugues as well as various suites; some sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti; and some works by Frederic Chopin, preferably the thorny and often underplayed mazurkas and the ballades that are so rich for fresh interpretation.

Did you hear Jeremy Denk perform in Madison?

Have you listened to his recordings?

What do you think of Denk’s playing and writings?

The Ear wants to hear.


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