The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Your warhorses are my masterpieces — and I want to hear them

June 3, 2017
6 Comments

ALERT: This Sunday afternoon from 12:30 to 2 p.m., “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature Madison keyboard artist Trevor Stephenson performing on a restored 1855 Boesendorfer grand piano. The program includes music by Chopin, Granados, Brahms, Wagner, Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg and Satie.

You can attend it live for FREE in Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the UW-Madison’s art museum. But you can also stream it live using the link on this web page:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-6-4-17/

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the year again when music groups announce their new seasons.

And it seems to The Ear that the word “warhorse” is again being tossed around a lot, especially by experienced listeners who use the term pejoratively or disapprovingly, in a snobby or condescending way, to describe great music that is performed frequently.

But more than a little irony or inaccuracy is involved.

For example, a some people have referred to the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms – scheduled next season by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — as a warhorse.

Yet The Ear has heard that symphony performed live only once – perhaps because programmers wanted to avoid the warhorse label.

The same goes for the iconic Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, which will be performed next year by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below). It was a revolutionary work that changed the course of music history, and it is a great piece of engaging music. (You can hear the opening movement, with an arresting graphic representation, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here’s the irony: I have heard the Piano Quintet by Brahms, the Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert and the String Octet by Felix Mendelssohn – all great masterpieces — far more often than I have heard those “warhorse” symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. Can it be that connoisseurs usually seem more reluctant to describe chamber music masterpieces as warhorses? (Below in the Pro Arte Quartet in a photo by Rick Langer.)

The Ear is reminded of a comment made by the great Russian-American musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky (below): “Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is not great because it is popular; it is popular because it is great.”

So yes, I don’t care what more sophisticated or experienced listeners say. I still find the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Peter Tchaikovsky to be a beautiful and thrilling work that rewards me each time I hear it. It never fails.

Add to the list the popular symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, several piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Jupiter” Symphony and Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And one could go on and on.

They are all great masterpieces more than they are warhorses.

Plus, just because a piece of music is new or neglected doesn’t mean that it is good or that it merits a performance.

Otherwise, you could easily spend the rest of a life listening to second-rate and third-rate works out of curiosity and never feel the powerful emotional connection and deep intellectual insight that you get with a genuine masterpiece that rewards repeated hearings.

Of course, some warhorses do leave The Ear less than enthusiastic The “1812 Overture” comes immediately to mind. Boy, do the crowds like that potboiler — on the Fourth of July, of course, when it has a traditional place.

But often enough your warhorse is my masterpiece, and I want to hear it without being thought of as a philistine.

It might even be that playing more warhorses — not fewer — will attract some new audience members at a time when music groups face challenges in attendance and finances?

It may not be cool to say that, but it might be true, even allowing room for new and neglected works that deserve to be programmed for their merit — not their newness or their neglect.

So-called “warhorses” have usually survived a long time and received many performances because they are great music by great composers that speak meaningfully to a lot of listeners. They deserve praise, not insults or denigration, as well as a secure and unapologetic place in balanced programming.

Of course, it is a matter of personal taste.

So …

What do you think?

Are there favorite warhorses you like?

Are there warhorses you detest?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Christopher Hogwood is dead at 73. But the early music pioneer was no purist.

September 27, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Christopher Hogwood (below, in a photo by the Associated Press), who, along with Trevor Pinnock, Gustav Leonhardt, John Eliot Gardiner  and Frans Bruggen, became synonymous for many us with the movement to promote early music with authentic instruments and historically informed performance practices, has died.

He died Wednesday and was 73, and he had been ill for a brief time. He died at his home in Cambridge, England.

Chrisotpher Hogwood conducting AP

There are many things that The Ear loved about Hogwood, but nothing more than his recordings of string concertos by Antonio Vivaldi for their verve and of symphonies and concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for their sweetness and transparency, energy and clarity. (You can hear Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music in  2009 in Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Japan. They are playing the spectacular and virtuosically contrapuntal last movement of Mozart’s last symphony — Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter”– at the bottom in a YouTube video. Just listen to the cheers!)

Hogwood’s version of the popular oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel is still my preferred one. Hogwood always seemed to serve the music first and foremost, and not fall into the kind of goofy or quirky readings that, say, Nikolaus Harnoncourt often did. Everything he did seemed balanced and just plain right, but nonetheless ear-opening in its originality. He made you say: THAT’S the way it should sound. 

But curiously, Hogwood (below, in a photo by Marcus Borggreve) seems to have understood other people and performers who prefer early music played in more modern approaches or idiosyncratic or individualistic manners. The Ear likes that kind of non-purist and tolerant approach to early music, to all music really. He is what Hogwood said in one interview:

‘THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH PLAYING THINGS HISTORICALLY COMPLETELY INCORRECTLY: MUSIC IS NOT A MORAL BUSINESS, SO YOU CAN PLAY ABSOLUTELY IN A STYLE THAT SUITS YOU AND PLEASES YOUR PUBLIC. IT MAY BE COMPLETELY UNRECOGNISABLE TO THE COMPOSER BUT SO WHAT, HE’S DEAD.’

christopher christopher hogwood CR Marcuys Borggreve

Here are some links for you to learn more about the achievements of Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, which he founded and is now directed by Richard Egarr.

Here is a fine story from NPR (National Public Radio):

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/09/24/351193303/remembering-christopher-hogwood-an-evangelist-for-early-music

Here is a comprehensive obituary from The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/26/arts/christopher-hogwood-early-music-devotee-dies-at-73.html

Here is a story from The Washington Post:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/christopher-hogwood-conductor-who-gave-new-drive-to-classical-warhorses-dies-at-73/2014/09/25/a148ff2a-44cb-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html

And here is a small story that appeared in Hogwood’s native Great Britain, even though Hogwood also directed American groups in Boston, St. Paul and elsewhere:

http://www.classicalmusicmagazine.org/2014/09/christopher-hogwood-10-september-1941-24-september-2014/

Here is a link to a 70-minute podcast that the magazine Gramophone did to mark Hogwood’s 70th birthday:

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/remembering-christopher-hogwood

 

 

 

 


Classical music Q&A: What makes Haydn, Haydn and Mozart, Mozart? Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra maestro Andrew Sewell, discusses the composers and music he will perform this Friday night at the Overture Center. Plus, at noon on Saturday the Madison Bach Musicians will perform a FREE concert of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Corelli at Grace Episcopal Church.

February 20, 2014
2 Comments

ALERT: This Saturday from noon to 1 p.m., Grace Episcopal Church (below), downtown on the Capitol Square at 116 West Washington Avenue, will present a FREE early music concert of  works by J.S. Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli, Scarlatti and Handel by the Madison Bach Musicians under the direction of keyboardist Trevor Stephenson.

Grace Episcopal harpsichord

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) will perform a concert of Haydn, Mozart and Vittorio Giannini.

WCO lobby

The concert will open with a modern Concerto Grosso by the 20th-century Italian composer Vittorio Giannini, another of the WCO discoveries of neglected or unknown composers. Then the young and critically acclaimed cellist Joshua Roman will join the WCO (below) in Franz Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D Major. The concert will close with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s masterful Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter.”

Tickets are $15-$67 and can be obtained from the Overture Center box office 212 State Street or by calling (608_ 258-4141. You can also visit http://wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks/70/event-info/ http://ev12.evenue.net/cgi-bin/ncommerce3/SEGetEventList?groupCode=WCO_E&linkID=overture&shopperContext=&caller=&appCode=

Haydn and Mozart (below, left is Haydn and right is Mozart) are often mentioned in the same breath and the same sentences if they were identical or fraternal twins — much like Beethoven and Schubert, or Ravel and Debussy.

Haydn (left) and Mozart (right)

So The Ear really likes this kind of contrast-and-compare program that helps to underline the similarities and especially the differences between two composers who were contemporaries and sometimes even colleagues who learned from each other and played in the same string quartet. In that spirit, I recently asked WCO’s longtime music director Andrew Sewell (below) to discuss the program and especially the Classical-era composers whom he is so convincing at interpreting:

andrewsewell

Haydn and Mozart are often lumped in together as Classical-era contemporaries. What makes each composer so distinctive? What makes Mozart, Mozart and Haydn, Haydn?

It’s a question of style. They both used classical conventions and were each experimenting constantly, seeing what worked for their audiences. Haydn (below top) was for the longest time confined to writing for a specific audience, at the Esterhazy Palace in Eisenstadt as opposed to Mozart (below bottom), who moved from Salzburg to Vienna, and spent time in Paris as well.

The geographical demands of each musical center framed, I think, the level of sophistication being determined by their audience and who they were writing for. Mozart’s symphonies written for the Parisian orchestra and audience had more virtuosity factored in. They had clarinets, and a slightly bigger wind section. They used “flash and sparkle.”

Haydn’s 12 symphonies commissioned by Salomon for the London Salon Concerts were more refined and experimental than before. Again the orchestra was larger, and he had top quality musicians at his disposal, achieving a greater level of virtuosity.

Haydn

mozart big

What can you tell us about the Concerto Grosso by Vittorio Giannini (below)? How did you find out about it and why are you attracted to him and to that work? Why do you think it is so little known and rarely performed?

I first conducted a work by Giannini with a high school orchestra in Salem, Oregon in 2012 while guest conducting the Salem Chamber Orchestra. It included several school visits as part of a week-long residency. The work was Prelude and Fugue for String Orchestra. I kept a copy of the score, and was both enchanted and curious about other works by this composer.

He was born in Philadelphia, was a prodigy on the violin and spent time studying at the Milan Conservatory and the Juilliard School. He founded the North Carolina School of the Arts, as a “Juilliard of the South,” in 1965.  His music is both Romantic and Expressionist. He wrote five symphonies and five concertos and several radio operas in the 1930s. His father was an opera singer as were two of his sisters, who sang at the Metropolitan Opera.

After conducting the Prelude and Fugue, I was curious about his Concerto Grosso. It is Baroque in form as the title suggests but stylistically would remind one of Hindemith.  Written in 1955, it reflects the current trends at the time that took music to more strident, poignant and angular sonorities.

I hope performing his music will rekindle interest in his music, and I may program his Prelude and Fugue at a later date. Why did I choose this piece? Because in contrast to the very familiar names of Haydn and Mozart, this presents the other extreme.  In fact, with a name like Vittorio Giannini, one is apt to mistake him as a period equivalent to say, Handel or Vivaldi, and the composition is entitled Concerto Grosso!

Vittorio Giannini

What would you like to say about the young cello soloist Joshua Roman and how he came to your attention to book for the WCO?

I first heard Joshua Roman perform with the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra in November of 2012, and was very impressed by him. He played the Dvorak Cello Concerto, and afterwards I asked him what he would like to play if he were to return to perform with the WCO? He chose Haydn. His pedigree is such that at the age of 22, he won the Principal Cello position with the Seattle Symphony. He did this for two years before embarking on a successful solo career.  He is a very engaging performer who makes the cello literally “sing” when he plays.

Joshua Roman 3

Do you have any other programming plans in the works like this Haydn-Mozart program to “compare and contrast” major composers -– say with, perhaps, Beethoven and Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, Debussy and Ravel?

I think one is always putting together programs that compare and contrast each other. Whether consciously or otherwise, it’s what fits together in a balanced program. This Haydn-Mozart program wasn’t a conscious “compare and contrast” decision.  It really stems from a more fundamental question of programming. Once you establish the soloist’s repertoire, it’s a matter of putting a program together within the context of the five-concert Masterworks season.

But you do raise a good point. I chose Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, as it is his last and, in my opinion, greatest symphony. The last movement (below in a popular YouTube video with more than 1 million hits) is incredible, particularly as it contains a fugue, the subject of which is introduced in a very subliminal way at end of the trio of the previous movement. It is pure genius and so joyful. In contrast, the genteel nature of the last movement of the Haydn Cello Concerto makes that piece seem jaunty in comparison. Yet they are both highly sophisticated pieces.

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