The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Music professor John Schaffer is retiring from UW-Madison. A benefit jazz concert on Saturday, June 1, will celebrate his career as a teacher and former director of the Mead Witter School of Music

May 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Professor John Schaffer (below), who served as the director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music for 15 years from 1997 to 2012, is retiring this summer.

A jazz concert at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 1, at Full Compass Systems, located at 9770 Silicon Prairie Parkway in Verona,  will celebrate his retirement. Details and ticket information are below.

Here is a summary of his major achievements, as compiled by a colleague:

During his tenure as director, John Schaffer:

• Raised more than $10 million for music scholarships, including the Paul Collins graduate fellowships and the Steenbock undergraduate scholarships, more than doubling all student support.

• Secured funding for three endowed professorships: Pro Arte Quartet first violinist David Perry; piano virtuoso and Van Cliburn International Piano Competition bronze medal winner Christopher Taylor; and acclaimed jazz pianist Johannes Wallmann.

• With then-chancellor John Wiley, he launched plans for the new performance facility – the Hamel Music Center — that will open this fall, and raised more than $20 million in private funds for its construction.

• Established the School of Music’s inaugural Board of Visitors, which actively connects the school with a broad community worldwide as it continues to serve in an advisory and support capacity.

• Built strong relations with community organizations including the Madison Symphony Orchestra by establishing the joint residency of the Hunt Quartet – creating further student funding opportunities – and the Independent String Teachers’ Association.

• Established the Perlman Piano Trio (below), an undergraduate scholarship opportunity funded by Kato Perlman.

• Recruited faculty professors/performers with national and international reputations.

• Collaborated with the UW Foundation and Alumni Associations to present UW student performers throughout the country and world.

• Expanded student musician performances across campus, and established the twice-annual Chancellor’s Concert Series.

• Oversaw the planning for the 100th anniversary of the Pro Arte Quartet, the school’s flagship ensemble-in-residence since 1938.

• Established the School of Music recording label, which during its active run released close to 50 albums of faculty artists.

• Created the Wisconsin Center for Music Technology, and was the founding editor of the journal Computers in Music Research.

• Revitalized the Jazz Studies program at UW-Madison that has expanded with additional faculty, new student jazz ensembles and the establishment of a major in jazz performance.

• Was actively involved in music administration on the national level by serving multiple terms on the board of directors of the National Association of Schools of Music, the national accrediting organization. He spent more than a decade training accreditation teams, and performing accreditation reviews of music schools and conservatories throughout the country.

• Served on numerous local boards including those of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Country Day School, the Isthmus Jazz Festival, and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Schaffer’s own academic work in music theory focused initially on analysis of contemporary and non-tonal music, and in artificial intelligence applications in music theory. When he returned to the faculty from being director, he re-focused his teaching on the history, theory and performance of jazz and developed new courses in the discipline and regularly coached student jazz ensembles.

After a 40-year career in academia, Schaffer is retiring to pursue other interests. For the time being, he plans to remain in the Madison area. Initially trained as a classical guitarist, his performance emphasis long ago evolved to playing jazz bass, and he’ll still be heard gigging around town, playing frequently at venues and series such as Otto’s, Capital Brewery’s beer garden, Delaney’s Steak House, Coda Cafe and the North Street Cabaret.

“The biggest reward over all my years as an educator and administrator is the impact I’ve had on the thousands of students I’ve been privileged to teach and encounter,” says Schaffer. “It’s been immensely gratifying.”

Schaffer’s contributions to music in the greater Madison area will be recognized at a benefit concert, sponsored by the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium, on Saturday, June 1, at 7:30 p.m. at Full Compass Systems, 9770 Silicon Prairie Parkway in Verona. UW-Madison Chancellor Emeritus John Wiley will offer commentary and perspective. Light refreshments will be served.

Tickets for the benefit concert are $30 at the door, $25 in advance online. A limited number of student tickets are available at $15. VIP tickets are $150 and include reserved, best-in-house seating, a private pre-concert reception at 6 p.m. and other benefits.

For more information, go to:

For tickets, go to:

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Classical music: Here are lists of the Best Classical Recordings of 2017 as named by The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes magazine and Gramophone magazine

December 16, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Just in time for last-minute holiday shopping and streaming – whether by others or yourself – some major publications and critics have published their lists of the top classical recording of 2017.

Personal preferences and taste matter, to be sure. So opinions inevitably differ.

But in some cases, the verdicts seem close to unanimous.

Take the case of some pianists.

You can, for example, find overlapping agreement on the merits of the 24-year-old Italian pianist and Cliburn Competition silver medal laureate Beatrice Rana playing the famed Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Same for the 33-year-old Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olaffson who gives revelatory readings of works by contemporary American Minimalist composer Philip Glass.

And many critics give raves to acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing neglected piano miniatures by Finnish symphonic titan Jean Sibelius. (See Andsnes discussing Sibelius in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The various lists cover all genres from solo piano music to songs, chamber music to symphonies, oratorios to operas.

You can find lots of neglected repertoire — both early and new — unknown artists and small labels.

But there are also major stars, tried-and-true repertoire and large vintage or heritage labels.

In short, both beginners and experienced classical listeners and players can find plenty to please them.

In addition, some of the lists for the past year include links to lists from previous years. And those lists too still have some excellent choices that hold up.

Here is a link to the 2017 list in The New York Times, which was compiled by several critics:

Here is a list by a critic and columnist for Forbes magazine:

Here is the list from John von Rhein for the Chicago Tribune:

And here is a list from the British Gramophone magazine, which often favors artists and groups located in the United Kingdom:

And in case you missed it before, here are lists from other sources that this blog has posted and linked to:

From famed WQXR-FM radio in New York City:

And here are the classical nominations for the 2018 Grammy awards:

Classical music: Here are the Top 20 classical recordings of 2017 as chosen by famed radio station WQXR

December 14, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

As he has done in previous years, this year The Ear is offering various compendiums of the best classical recordings from the past year.

Such lists are, of course, subjective.

But many of the “judges” have a vast experience with classical music and are worth listening to and at least considering.

The lists can give you an idea of new artists and trends as well as of new releases of famous artists and tried-and-true repertoire.

So far, The Ear has offered the nominees for Grammy Awards. But that list is chosen by the industry.

Here is a link to that Grammy list:

The famed New York City radio station WQXR seems more objective and less commercial, although you will find well known veteran artists such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Evgeny Kissin mixed in with newcomers such as pianist Beatrice Rana (below).

The genres and periods are quite mixed too, going from early music to new music, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Philip Glass and Osvaldo Golijov.

Similarly, the list has familiar labels and small, relatively unknown labels.

The list could serve as a guide to what you want to give as a gift or what you want to receive as a gift.

But you can also take the list just as more information about the classical music scene, which is under-reported in the mainstream media.

In addition, each of the 20 selections features the CD album cover and a sound sample of the recording and a compact explanation of what makes the performance exceptional or outstanding.

Here is a link:

Hope you enjoy it.

Use the COMMENT section to let us know what you think and whether you agree or disagree with the choices.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: ECM Records finally streams its entire catalogue of award-winning artists and recordings

November 18, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed and award-winning independent label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) was founded in Munich, Germany, in 1969 by the Grammy-winning producer Manfred Eicher (below).

Known for its penchant for the contemporary and even avant-garde, Eicher’s label was nonetheless a conservative hold-out when it came to the newer technology of digital streaming.

The old technology has its points besides superior sound quality. When you got an ECM CD, you usually also got one of their terrific black-and-white photographs, often a square-format landscape, as a cover. (ECM even published a book of its photographic covers.)

But as of this past Friday, ECM finally gave into the inevitable and streamed its entire catalogue. Its rationale was that it was more important for its music and musicians to be heard than to remain loyal to certain platforms.

ECM also cited the pressure from unauthorized uploads to YouTube and bootleg versions of its recordings as the reason for the decision.

So as of yesterday, ECM, which has won many awards for individual titles and artists, will be available on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, Deezer, Tidal and other streaming services.

ECM is known for its popular and critically acclaimed jazz artists including pianist Keith Jarrett (below, of “The Köln Concert” or The Cologne Concert) and saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (“Officium”). But it also included classical chamber music groups such as the Keller Quartet, the Trio Medieval, the Danish Quartet and others.

ECM is also known for championing contemporary classical composers (Arvo Pärt, below, who is the most performed contemporary composer, as well as Tigur Mansurian, Lera Auerbach, Gyorgy Kurtag and Valentin Silvestrov among others) and some outstanding crossover classical musicians, including Jarrett, a jazz great who has also recorded Bach, Handel and Shostakovich on both piano and harpsichord.

The Ear especially likes violist Kim Kashkashian and Harvard pianist Robert Levin (a frequent performer at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival) in sonatas of Brahms. He is also fond of Alexei Lubimov in various piano recitals as well as the many recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Janacek and Robert Schumann by the superb pianist Andras Schiff (below). In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Schiff in a live performance of the Gigue from Bach’s Keyboard Partita No. 3.)

And there are many, many more artists and recordings worth your attention. Here is a link to an extensive sampler on YouTube:

Who are your favorite ECM artists?

What are your favorite ECM recordings?

What ECM downloads do you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.

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