The Well-Tempered Ear

NPR names relevant classical albums in a musical Diary of the Plague Year of the pandemic, racial protests, wildfires and hurricanes

December 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

For an unusual and difficult year, NPR (National Public Radio) and critic Tom Huizenga have found a new and unusual way to recommend this past year’s top classical music recordings.

On the  “Deceptive Cadence” blog for NPR, Huizenga kept a personal month-by-month diary of “music and mayhem.”

For last February, for example, this ancient image of The Dance of Death inspired contemporary composer Thomas Adès to compose his own “Totentanz” or Dance of Death. (You can hear an excerpt from the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Some of the thematically-related music is modern or contemporary, some of it is from the Baroque or Classical era.

In June, as protests against the death of George Floyd (below top) flared up and spread worldwide, NPR names a recording of the “Negro Folk Symphony” by African-American composers William Dawson and Ulysses Kay (below bottom), thereby helping to rediscover Black composers whose works have been overlooked and neglected in the concert hall and the recording studio.

Devastating wildfires on the West Coast, Presidential impeachment and hurricanes on the Gulf Coast also found their way into the choices of music to listen to.

It is an unusual approach, but The Ear thinks it works.

See and hear for yourself by going to the sonic diary and listening to the samples provided.

Here is a link to the NPR album diary:

But many roads, if not all, lead to Rome, as they say.

What is also interesting is that a number of the NPR choices overlap with ones listed by music critics of The New York Times as the 25 best classical albums of 2020.

Some choices also are found on the list of the nominations for the Grammy Awards that will be given out at the end of January.

In other words, the NPR diary can also serve as yet another holiday gift guide if you have gift cards or money to buy some new and notable CDs, and are looking for recommendations.

Here is a link to the Times’ choices, which you can also find with commentary and a local angle, in yesterday’s blog post:

And here is a list to the Grammy nominations:

What do you think of the NPR musical diary of the plague year?

Do you find it informative? Accurate? Interesting? Useful?

Would you have different choices of music to express the traumatic events of the past year?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The German hunka-hunka tenor Jonas Kaufmann is profiled at length as he heads into the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Massenet’s “Werther” and prepares for his Carnegie Hall debut next Sunday. Plus, Sony releases his CD of Schubert’s “Winterreise.”

February 15, 2014
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ALERT:  The University of Wisconsin School of Music’s Guest Artist series will present flutist Sarah Frisof (below) of the University of Kansas and pianist-composer Daniel Pesca in a FREE recital on this Sunday night at 7 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.  The program includes Ballade by Frank Martin; Sonata in E minor by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach; “A Memory of Melisande” and “Brief Pause” by Daniel Pesca; and Sonata No. 1 in A Major for Violin by Gabriel Faure (transcribed by Stallman).

Frisof trained at the University of Michigan, the Juilliard School theEastman School of Music. She was a semi-finalist in the 2009 Kobe International Flute Competition, and 2nd Prize winner of both the National Flute Associations’ Young Artist Competition in 2008 and the Heida Hermann?s International Woodwind Competition in 2007. Dr. Frisof is the principal flute of the Dallas Wind Symphony and a frequent performer with the Dallas Symphony. She has performed with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony and Boston Symphony. Daniel Pesca (b. 1985) is currently pursuing a DMA in Composition at the Eastman School of Music. He is the recipient of many commissions; his work for wind ensemble. Pieces by Pesca have been performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the Huntsville (Alabama) Symphony Orchestra, and Eastman’s Musica Nova.

Sarah Frisof

By Jacob Stockinger

The 40-year-old German heart-throb tenor from Munich, Jonas Kaufmann is on a roll.

jonas kaufmann leather coat

Well, truth be told, he has been for years.

But this week seems a kind of trifecta for Jonas (pronounced Yonas) Kaufmann.

On Friday, Feb. 17, Maestro Hunka-Hunka opens the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of French composer Jules Massenet’s “Werther,” the opera based on the famous and influential early 19th century Storm-and-Stress novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Jonas Kaufmann in %22Met's Werther%22

Then two days later, Kaufmann makes his Carnegie Hall debut – presumably and unfortunately, if you have seen his Met production of Wagner’s “Parsifal” (below, in a photo by Sara Krulwich of The New York Times), with his shirt on — with a recital of Romantic songs by Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. It seems rather late for his first appearance at Carnegie Hall, but I bet it is a sell-out.

The Ear hopes they have some smelling salts handy, just in case.

Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal Sara Krulwich NYT

All that plus Sony Classical is releasing an album of Franz Schubert’s famous and season-appropriate song cycle “Winterreise” (Winter Journey, below top) on the heels of Kaufmann’s bestselling and critically acclaimed CDs for Decca Records of arias by Richard Wagner (below  bottom) and Giuseppe Verdi (below bottom and in a YouTube video of “La donna e mobile” from “Rigoletto” at the bottom of the post).

Jonas Kaufmann Winterreise CD cover

Kaufmann Wagner CD

Well, what can you say such success?

Not much.

But you can read about how Kaufmann’s career has developed and what kind of rather modest and thoughtful person lies behind the glamorous and charismatic tenor, who may be the first really BIG vocal and operatic talent to emerge in this century.

I mean, Kaufmann has it all: strength and endurance, great tone, variety and handsome looks.

Did I mention handsome looks?

Yep. Kaufmann is thoroughly beautiful in his singing and thoroughly believable in his acting. Now that is a combination devoutly to be wished, don’t you think?

Here is a link to the comprehensive profile of Jonas Kaufmann by Zachary Woolfe that shows just how much consideration goes into Kaufmann’s personal life and professional career. All that talent, plus he seems like a nice guy:

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Classical music: It is Wagner Week with the Middleton Community Orchestra tonight and the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” production of “Parsifal” with German tenor Jonas Kaufmann this Saturday.

February 27, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

It almost seems like Wagner Week in Madison, a good time to start this year’s bicentennial celebration of the birth of the still controversial and larger-than-life composer.

Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will perform two well-known excerpts: “Elsa’s Procession” from “Lohengrin” and “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” from the last Ring opera, “Gotterdammering” or “The Twilight of the Gods.”

Admission is $10 adults, student are free. For information about tickets and joining or supporting the orchestra and about the program, visit:

Middleton Community Orchestra by William Ballhorn

Then on this Saturday, the next production of “Live From the Met in HD” will offer Wagner’s last opera “Parsifal,” in an acclaimed updated staging by Francois Girard for the Metropolitan Opera, at the Point and Eastgate cinemas.

Much of the music by Wagner (below) is hauntingly beautiful — I love the Prelude — though at 5 hour and 40 minutes, it will be a long, long afternoon, starting at 11 a.m. and ending at almost 5 p.m.

Richard Wagner

The title role of the innocent Knight of the Round Table who quests to find The Holy Grail will be sung by the young Munich-raised, German tenor Jonas Kaufman, which is pronounced “Yonas KaufmaHn.” (Below is a preview of his Kaufmann’s performance in “Parsifal” from a video on YouTube.)

And here is a review by senior critic Anthony Tommasini who calls the new production “brilliant”:

Here is a link with more details, including a synopsis (if you can follow it) and a cast list as well as a video:

Perhaps like me, you last saw Kaufman last season in the Met’s latest production of Wagner’s “The Ring.”

This young singer (below) seems to have everything. He is handsome and trim, so he is visually believable in both heroic and romantic roles on stage. He acts well. He sings superbly and beautifully. And to top it all off, he is smart and very articulate.

jonas kaufmann leather coat

Decca has just released a terrific album by Kaufmann simply called “Wagner” (below) that includes music from all the major periods, early to late, of Wagner’s amazing artistic output. The music includes excerpts from The Ring and other operas as well as the early “Wesendonck Songs.”

Now, I am not a big Wagnerite, or a Wagnerite at all, really. Small doses do me just fine. I love his orchestral overtures more than I do his entire operas, which sit with me much like a 15-course dinner. For me, Wagner suffers from opera gourmandise.

But I am enthralled with Kaufmann’s Wagner, and think his album, in which Kaufmann is partnered with Donald Runnicles conducting the German State Opera Orchestra and Chorus, is a great candidate for a Grammy next year, much like Renee Fleming’s CD of French songs, which won this year.

Kaufmann Wagner CD

Why do I like Kaufmann’s Wagner’s singing so much? Well, he always seems pitch-perfect, and I love his big sound and rich tone coupled to relative lack of vibrato. He never shows a sense of strain or exaggeration, which you cannot say of many Wagnerian Heldentenors.

Kaufmann’s talent seems so comprehensive and total. To me he is the perfect and natural blend of the Italian and German opera styles, of the lyrical and the profound. He should have a very great future. Perhaps Jonas Kaufmann is the German Pavarotti.

Jonas Kaufmann face

I am especially impressed by an interview he recently did on National Public Radio to promote his CD and the upcoming opera appearance. Kaufman recalls how he came to Wagner in his youth and in his family; but he also understands and does not shy away from the anti-Semitism of this great composer or how Hitler’s Third Reich used and abused Wagner. I like his candor, and his appeal to let the music speak for itself apart from the composer.

Here is a link to that interview:

I think Jonas Kaufmann’s time has come. The Ear predicts that this year or next, he will break out into The Really Big Time — and maybe even superstardom.

What do you think of Jonas Kauffman?

And of Wagner?

And, of course, of Jonas Kauffman’s new recording “Wagner”?

The Ear wants to hear.

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