The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What is it like to play music with a spouse? Local wife-and-husband violinist and cellist open the winter Masterworks season of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Brahms Double Concerto this Friday night

January 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. — NOT 7 as first stated here mistakenly — in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) and music director-conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom) will open the WCO’s winter Masterworks season.

The program is typical of Sewell’s eclecticism. It features well-known and lesser-known works from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

It includes the Sinfonia in A minor by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach; the Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9, by Arnold Schoenberg; and the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op. 102, by Johannes Brahms.

Tickets run $15-$80 with $10 student tickets available.

For more information about the concert, the performers, tickets and pre-concert dinners, call (608) 257-0638 or go to the website:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-i-3/

The highlight of the concert is sure to be the wife-and-husband team who are soloists in the Brahms concerto. They are violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and cellist Leonardo, or Leo, Altino, who teaches full-time at the Wheaton College Conservatory near Chicago and occasionally privately in Madison.  Together they have also recorded for the MSR Classics label the CD “En Voyage” with sonatas for violin and cello by Zoltan Kodaly, Maurice Ravel and Paul Desenne.

If a small ensemble such as a string quartet or piano trio has special personal dynamics to contend with, imagine how intense a husband-and-wife pairing can be.

What is it like for spouses to make music together?

That is what The Ear wanted to explore and the two soloists (below) graciously responded with the following Q&A:

Is playing together any different from playing separately or alone? How so?

Soh-Hyun: Playing together and separately are completely different experiences because of the types of listening that are involved. When we play together, our ears are immediately drawn to how our playing is matched or not in terms of articulation, shape, and decay of the notes and phrases.

We have different strengths and weaknesses that we’re now well aware of after 16 years of playing together, and we naturally rely on each other’s strengths in preparing for performances.  We have played together a lot in string quartets, piano trios  and also as a duo; I definitely feel at ease if Leo is part of the ensemble.

Leo: Absolutely! Allow me to explain it this way. Preparing for a concert is much like preparing a great meal. There are a lot of steps that go into it. You must have a clear idea or vision of what dishes you want to serve, how they complement each other, what ingredients to get, the quality of the ingredients, the proportions when combining, prepping the ingredients and on and on.

Playing together is like cooking with someone whom you’ve cooked with for decades. We anticipate each other’s moves a lot better. There is little explaining needed. We have performed together during the entirety of our marriage, and it has brought us closer together musically and emotionally. We come easily to agreement on musical issues, but we also agree philosophically – why we play and how we view each performance. We also support each other a lot and have become each other’s best teacher.

How do you resolve differences of interpretation and other issues in a given work or score?

Leo: We try each other’s ideas wholeheartedly. We make sure to give our best effort to each other’s ideas, make suggestions and try again if necessary, and often record ourselves playing so that we can be more objective. Then we make the decisions together. Sometimes, we simply go with the person with the stronger opinion about a passage.

Soh-Hyun: In the beginning of our relationship, we used to talk a lot to explain our interpretations and how to play them. Now we are convinced that the end results that we want in any passages are pretty similar; therefore, there is less talking and more trusting.

From time to time when our ideas do seem different, we go straight to recording ourselves and listen to it together. That usually stops any further arguments.  On a practical level, as parents of a seven-year-old, rehearsing together is often costly; we either need a babysitter or rehearse late in the evening. This encourages us to be efficient in our discussions and listen better in order to resolve our differences.

What role has making music together played in your relationship and your marriage?

Leo: Because we’ve played so much together, we have learned a lot about one another – how we think, what we value, each other’s pet peeves, etc. Music has helped us learn to talk – even resolve conflicts – about things that we each feel passionate about in a constructive way. (You can hear them play part of the Piano Trio No. 2 by Felix Mendelssohn in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Soh-Hyun: We are both teachers of music, and that means that we are in the business of helping others listen and play better. I think in the first several years of our relationship, I used to struggle a lot with receiving constructive criticism from Leo. I guess I felt as though I should have been able to fix the problems myself.

But now I feel lucky that I can have a free lesson whenever I want. It’s common that I will pop into the kitchen and say, “Which sounds better?” and play a few different versions of a passage. Leo gives me his preference and even tries out the passage holding my violin like a cello (which, by the way, I don’t always feel at ease about).

What else would you like to say about performing together, the Brahms Double Concerto, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or any other topic?

Leo: This was the first piece we performed together after we got married. It’s wonderful to go back to it after all these years. Writing a concerto for two solo instruments is a big challenge for any composer. The way Brahms (below) wrote for the violin and cello is almost like describing the relationship between two people who know each other deeply. Each has a unique personality. The two argue, but ultimately discover how to have a unified voice.

For example, the concerto begins with a dramatic cadenza in the cello, which winds down at the end to prepare for the more introspective entrance of the violin. The two instruments exchange ideas, raise their voices, and soon culminate in a unified manner at the end of their cadenza to invite the orchestra in.

It is a powerful and beautiful piece. I also think that great composers like Brahms wrote pieces like this almost like a tone poem in that every voice has a very significant role. Often during the concerto, even while the soloists are playing, other instruments may have equal or more important parts.

BOTH: It’s an honor to perform the Double Concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and conductor Andrew Sewell, and we’re really looking forward to our working together this week.

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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players and guest artists give two performances of a holiday program this coming Sunday afternoon

November 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their 2017-2018 season series “Journey” with a concert titled Quest on  this coming Sunday, Nov. 26, at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

Both concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors and $5 for students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

At the heart of this holiday-themed concert is British composer John Rutter (below) and his imaginative story about the origins of the holiday favorite In dulci jubilo.

Believed to have been sung by angels as an inspired gift to a medieval monk, the musical fable traces how life’s distractions can sometimes interfere with sublime gifts.

The quest for the carol’s completion is told with heart-warming humor.

Narrator Buzz Kemper (below) will bring the whimsical story’s characters to life along with instrumentalists and a vocal quartet.

Canadian-Slovenian composer Marjan Mozetich (below) characterizes his music as that which explores the spiritual by showing introspective and meditative qualities. Written for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet his evocative Angels in Flight is poignant and layered with a shimmering melodic framework.

The animated short of Raymond Brigg’s children’s story The Snowman was set to music by British film composer Howard Blake (below). A string quartet arrangement of his uplifting music for the film highlights the memorable moments. The suite includes the delightful “Walking in the Air” capturing the moment when imagination brings the snowman to life and it flies a young boy toward the North Pole.

The program will also include Ralph Vaughan Williams’ March Past of the Kitchen Utensils (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) and George Shearing’s jazzy arrangement of Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind. UW-trained composer and pianist Scott Gendel (below) wrote a Christmas piece — It Was My Father’s Custom — in 2011, and it will be presented by the ensemble and singers.

Guest vocalists are: Mari Borowski, Lauren Gruber, Robert Goderich and Jace Nichols.

Guest instrumentalists are: Scott Gendel, piano; Margaret Mackenzie, harp; Thalia Coombs, violin; Katrin Talbot, viola; and Jennifer Morgan, oboe.

This is the second of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2017-2018 season series entitled Journey. Remaining concerts will take place on Jan. 13 and 14; March 10 and 11; and May 19 and 20.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

The Oakwood Chamber Players is a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


Classical music: See and hear what happens at the Metropolitan Opera just before show time. You will be amazed and entertained

July 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most illuminating and entertaining stories The Ear has seen recently came in The New York Times.

It does exactly what great journalism does: Take you to a place where you cannot go yourself.

The Times went behind the scenes at the famed Metropolitan Opera House in New York City (below) – the Met, for short – to see what was going on before show time.

And it was a lot more than opera.

There is so much to see and listen to, as suggested below in the 1966 drawing of the Metropolitan Opera House by David A. Mackay.

From the sets, props, wig and costume shops to rehearsals by the Met and the American Ballet Theatre and the Metropolitan Orchestra and even to the kitchen and dining room, to say nothing of the classes, hallways and stage.

What emerged was an enthralling story – full of impromptu serendipity — that made good reading in the newspaper and humanized the arts. Here is the text index version (click on the picture and then on the triangle you will see):

But then The Times took advantage of the Internet to create an interactive look at the same material that features only audiovisual clips and runs 7 minutes and 21 seconds.

https://www.nytimes.com/video/arts/100000005201650/what-happens-just-before-show-time-at-the-met-opera-in-12-rooms-youll-never-see.html

The final result is impressive, both for the great videography of the shoulder-held cameras and for the succinct labeling and explaining that doesn’t interrupt the flow.

What resulted should win some kind of prize or award. It should also serve as a model for what many other media – especially television – can do with various media tools at hand.

One last observation: Is The Ear the only person who thinks the driving drum soundtrack sounds suspiciously similar to the soundtrack of the 2014 Oscar-winning film “Birdman”?

What do you think about the video?

Did you like it?

Did you learn anything?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Today is Thanksgiving Day 2016. Classical music fans should give thanks for Wisconsin Public Radio, which has lots of holiday fare to listen to throughout the day. Plus, famed New York City radio station WQXR offers its Top 5 musical expressions of giving thanks.

November 24, 2016
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Thanksgiving Day, 2016.

Music is such a integral part of Thanksgiving Day, from hymns and songs, solo music and chamber music, symphonies and oratorios.

Today, Wisconsin Public Radio — on both the Ideas Network and the News and Classical Music Network — will feature a lot of music and informative shows, all with the theme of Thanksgiving and giving thanks.

Here is the announcement from WPR, which keeps many of us in classical music year-round:

“Wisconsin Public Radio has prepared a variety of food, music and entertainment programs to keep you and your guests engaged this Thanksgiving.

“Turkey is the star of the show on America’s Test Kitchen Radio Thanksgiving Special, 10 a.m. on WPR’s Ideas Network stations. Host Bridget Lancaster is promising a tender, juicy, perfect turkey with all the trimmings, dessert and a dash of fun that will make you a Thanksgiving rock star.

At 11 a.m., Lancaster changes her apron and joins Lynne Rossetto Kasper for more tips on the Ideas Network with the Splendid Table’s Turkey Confidential. This live two-hour Thanksgiving Day tradition returns to take listener calls for culinary help.

In the kitchen this year you’ll also find Mario Batali, Francis Lam, Melissa Clark and Chris Thile, the new host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” sharing fun and helpful advice for the novice, and the experienced, Thanksgiving home cook.

thanksgiving dinner

After the feast, you may be in the mood for a good story. How about ten of them? Starting at 1 p.m. the Ideas Network presents Best of the Best: Third Coast Audio Festival Winners. With more than 500 entries from around the world, you’ll hear the ten best that will intrigue, inform and inspire you.

While the Ideas Network serves up helpful advice and engaging stories, WPR’s NPR News & Classical Music Network delivers a generous helping of music for you to enjoy throughout the day.

At 10 a.m., tune in for this year’s Wisconsin School Music Association Honors Concerts (below). The two-hour music special highlights top performances of students from across the state. Middle school and high school choirs and orchestra will be featured.

“It’s one of the highlights of the year with some of our state’s most talented young performers,” said WPR’s News & Classical Music Network Director Peter Bryant.

wpt state honors concert 2014

Then, at 1 p.m. join host John Birge and his special guest, legendary Chef Jacques Pepin as they share conversation and music on Giving Thanks: A Celebration of Fall, Food and Gratitude.

Here is a link to the WPR website with program guides and playlists:

http://www.wpr.org/hear-special-programs-thanksgiving-day

WPR new logo

But you might also be interested to stream some other music. WQXR, the famed classical music radio station in New York City, has put together the Top 5 musical expressions — including the famous Sacred Song of Thanksgiving from a late string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven — of giving thanks. The website has audio and visual performances of the works that you can stream.

Here is a link:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/top-five-expressions-thanks-classical-music/

And if you have other ideas about music that is appropriate for Thanksgiving this year – perhaps a composer or work you give special thanks for — please leave them in the COMMENT section, preferably with a YouTube link if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.


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