The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Did Beethoven borrow from Beethoven? And how do you think the Madison Symphony Orchestra did with Beethoven’s Ninth? Plus, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) finish up their spring concerts this weekend.

May 15, 2015

REMINDER: This weekend the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) finish up their spring concerts at Mills Hall and Overture Hall, where the music students will perform a Side-by-Side concert with the professional players of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

Here is a link to more information and details:

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, you have to hand it to music director and conductor John DeMain as well as the orchestra players, the chorus members and the guest soloists: The Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) sure knows how to finish up a season with a bang.

A very Big Bang.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Last weekend in Overture Hall, they closed the current season with a stratospheric performance of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Sure, all parties — especially concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) — also did a terrific job in performing Leonard Bernstein’s violin concerto-like “Serenade” (after Plato’s “Symposium”), which preceded the iconic Beethoven symphony.

Naha Greenholtz [playing

But it was the Beethoven symphony that grabbed everyone’s ears and didn’t let go, earning a well-deserved and instant standing ovation.

This was Beethoven at his exciting best.

All the musicians played tightly and DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) managed to make the old radical piece sound radically new, with a driving rawness and roughness (lots of loud and highly accented percussion) coupled with flawless precision and great balancing of the winds and strings as well as the brass.

This interpretation was both dramatic and transparent in a way that both thrilled you and helped you to understand the music and its structure.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

A couple of years ago I remarked that DeMain – who came here from the Houston Grand Opera as primarily an opera conductor – had developed into a great Brahms interpreter.

Now I can say the same thing about his having become an outstanding Beethovenian.

But I did have one question:

Am I the only one who hears the slow movement of Beethoven’s early “Pathétique” piano sonata in the opening of the slow movement of his Ninth Symphony?

Listen for yourself and decide by using these YouTube videos:

First, here is the Pathétique’s slow movement, played by Daniel Barenboim, that has been used as a theme song by many musicians including Karl Haas:

And now here is the slow movement, also with Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made up of Israeli and Palestinian students, of the Ninth Symphony:

Maybe I am hearing things that aren’t there.

Or maybe musicologists have long established the similarity between the early and the late work as fact -– though I cannot recall having seen it mentioned.

What do you think of the comparison?

Can you think of other pieces that sound as if they were twins separated at birth? Leave names – and maybe a YouTube link – in the COMMENTS section.

And what did you think of the final concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Pianist Jeffrey Siegel leaves Madison, after 26 seasons of his “Keyboard Conversations,” as a victim of his own success.

May 20, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

A couple of weeks ago, after 26 consecutive seasons, pianist Jeffrey Siegel (below) gave what is likely to be his last “Keyboard Conversation” in Madison at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. “Music and Mistresses” focused on Romantic music that was inspired by love and composed by Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt and Claude Debussy. (For an introductory sample of that program, listen to the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Jeffrey Siegel 2014

That is a fine record of enviable longevity for a unique program that started at the old Madison Civic Center, then moved to the Overture Center and finally ended up at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

For more about his concert-conversation format and the cities where he still performs, visit:

As a fond farewell, I want to tell the public and Jeffrey Siegel how welcome and successful he was.

Not that the series didn’t run into trouble. But I expect there were many reasons why the attendance at the concert-discussion series finally fell to the point where no amount of cutting back or finagling could save it or keep it financially viable.

One reason was the perception, true or not, that Siegel’s concerts began to seem repetitive and predictable, even though he played a wide range of repertoire that also included works by  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Sergei Rachmaninoff and many others.

Another reason was the overall arts competition in Madison and specifically that more exciting pianists and contemporary or unusual piano programs — Christopher Taylor comes to mind — came on the local scene and cut into his appeal.

Scheduling was one another reason.

My own life became complicated when I started teaching an evening class in journalism at the University of Wisconsin while I also worked my regular day job as a reporter, writer and editor at The Capital Times. The mid-week days just became too long.

For some listeners, I expect, the tickets also became too expensive, especially if you weren’t a UW-Madison student.

But an even bigger factor probably, I suspect, was the explosive growth of the Madison classical concert scene since Siegel first started here 26 seasons ago. For example,  the Madison Symphony Orchestra now gives three performances of its subscription concerts and the UW School of Music hosts some 300 FREE events, including concerts by the Pro Arte Quartet (below, with Juilliard Quartet violist Samuel Rhodes). People, music fans included, are unbelievably busy.

Pro Arte with Samuel Rhodes

But I also want to propose that another major reason why Jeffrey Siegel ended up losing his series in Madison is that his approach proved so popular that other competing musicians adopted it.

In that way, Jeffrey Siegel was ahead of his time in learning how, as a performer and not just musicologist, to cultivate music appreciation, how to grow new and younger audiences for classical music. He was among the first to link musical performance with music education.

In that sense, Jeffrey Siegel -– who first discusses a piece of music and then plays it in its entirety -– was a pioneer who eventually became a victim of his own success.

After all, when The Ear first started attending the concerts by Siegel -– who always proved a generous and genial interview as well as a fine musician -– few or none of the serious “longhair” performers talked about their program. Pre-concert lectures were the exception, NOT the rule.

True, Leonard Bernstein (below) had done the Young People’s Concerts, which might have been a model for Siegel. But there were precious few followers.

Leonard Bernstein conducting

But these days I hear prefatory remarks from performers done regularly by conductor John DeMain at the Madison Symphony Orchestra; by conductor Andrew Sewell at the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; by general director Kathryn Smith of the Madison Opera; by cellist Parry Karp of the Pro Arte Quartet; and by virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

I have heard it done at the Madison Early Music Festival by Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman Rowe. Every MEMF concert has a pre-concert lecture.

And I have learned that the upcoming Piano Arts Competition in Milwaukee will even require participants to talk about the music they will play, and judge them on how they do.

On the air, the late Karl Haas and now Bill McGlaughlin (below) of the nightly “Exploring Music” series on Wisconsin Public Radio, take a similar approach.

Bill McGlaughlin at  microphone

In short, concert etiquette these days seems to prefer the Siegel approach of providing a frame for the painting, of giving listeners a historical and aesthetic context and not just assuming that the music can speak for himself.

In Jeffrey Siegel, classical music found a powerful ally and inventive advocate.

In that way, the end of Keyboard Conversations should be seen as vindication of Siegel’s approach and as a success, not as a validation that it was somehow wrong-headed or outdated and so proved a failure.

So The Ear doesn’t know what else to say except: Thank you, Jeffrey. I — and no doubt many others — wish you success in other places and with other ventures.

Imitation, the old saying goes, is the sincerest form of flattery. And so the classical music in Madison will continue to pay homage to you -– even without your presence.

That may not be just or fair. But that seems to be the way it is.

Classical music here and elsewhere owes a debt to you. You can and should be proud of that legacy. You were not a failure, but a success. It’s just that success can exact as severe a price as failure does.

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Classical music: Celebrate the 328th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach this Thursday morning from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. with radio host Rich Samuels and many local performers on WORT 89.9 FM radio.

March 19, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Hurry up! It’s time to set your alarm clocks and tune in your radio.

This Thursday morning from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. on WORT-FM 89.9 FM, Madison’s community-sponsored radio station (below is a photo of WORT’s funky headquarters in Madison) will honor the 328th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

WORT FM 89.9

What makes it special is that radio host Rich Samuels (below), who is also a sound engineer,  has recorded local performers — some prominent an professional, others more amateur — playing and singing works by Bach in their own homes and studios. He will premiere and feature those recordings during the special birthday broadcast.

Here is a link to the 1-minute promotional Samuels recently did for WORT.

Rich Samuels WORT use this

You may recall that Samuels wrote earlier to The Ear to announce the performance possibilities, which I see as a wonderful way to take up where Wisconsin Public Radio faltered by canceling Bach Around the Clock after the departure of former music director Cheryl Dring for an Austin, Texas-based radio station.

Here is a link to the original post by and about Samuels’ project:

And here is a link to the background about BATC 3 and the unfortunate decision abput BATC 4 by WPR:

BATC 3 2012 logo

BATC 3 Confident kids

And here is a link to live streaming from WORT, so you can use your smart phonek iPod, iPad or computer to listen to local Bach:

WORT logo

And who might you expect to hear? Samuels recounted some of the local Bach fans whose recorded performances will be highlighted:

Writes Samuels (below): “You’ll hear some familiar voices on the promo (though not all of those whose performances will be heard.) I’m working up to the wire on this: the last music will not be recorded until Tuesday, March 19 on account of schedule conflicts (the last entry will be soprano Rachel Eve Holmes (below top) who, with oboist Kostas Tiliakos and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom), will be performing the aria “Sich ueben im Lieben” from the “Wedding” Cantata No. 202 (in a YouTube video at bottom).

The exact order of performers, Samuels adds, won’t be determined until the last minute.

Rachel Eve Holmes big

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

But the remaining performers include organist Bruce Bengston (Luther Memorial), pianists Renee Farley, Karlos Moser (below top) and Tim Adrianson; harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson (below middle), mezzo-soprano Kathy Otterson (below bottom, with pianist Michael Keller and a violinist to be determined when I see who shows up at a recording session at Christ Presbyterian); alto Ena Foshay (speaking on behalf of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble); saxophonists Dennis Simonson and Pete Ross.

BATC 3 Karlos Moser


Kathleen Otterson 2

I asked Rich Samuels, a transplanted Chicagoan, about how he came by the idea, the inspiration, if you will, for the local Bach celebration, which The Ear thinks is great and deserves a BIG SHOUT-OUT! as well as  donation to WORTs recent pledge drive.

Here is his answer: “This week’s effort is a belated sequel to the video piece I did on March 21, 1985 on Chicago’s WMAQ-TV on the occasion of Bach’s 300th birthday.

“My introduction to Bach (below) came as a kid when I went to the Wilmette (Illinois) Public Library and checked out the 3-LP box set of the Brandenburg Concertos issued in 1952 on the Westminster label. The performance was by the London Baroque Ensemble conducted by Karl Haas.

“I became enough of a Bach fan to make a pilgrimage in the spring of 1990 (during the waning days of the German Democratic Republic) to the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany, and the birthplace of Bach in Eisenach. I also stopped off at Sanssouci in Potsdam, where Bach, on a new-fangled fortepiano, improvised on the theme devised by Frederick the Great.”


And since the results were so good for the first attempt in Madison, what about the future?

“Hopefully, I can do another Bach tribute next year, perhaps on the eve of his birthday when I have a show scheduled.

“It would be nice to find a multi-generational ensemble willing to perform the six Brandenburg concerti. And perhaps someone could also write a fugue, making use of the idioms and instruments of the 21st century.”

And what about those who can’t or won’t listen to the early broadcast this Thursday? asked The Ear who hopes the local performers will be rebroadcast, perhaps on another show, in a more popular time slot?

Samuels says: “I’ll eventually upload all of the specially recorded segments with local performers to my personal website, although that will probably take some time, given the list of uncompleted tasks that presently faces me.”

I hope he lets me know, because then I will pass on word to you.

In any case, here is a link to his website with its extensive index:

So tune in and drop in and help celebrate the 328th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach – the Big Bang of Western classical music!

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