The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Today is Memorial Day – a good time to remember the civilian dead as well as the military dead. The Ear likes Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” What music would you listen to to mark the holiday?

May 27, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day, 2019, when the nation honors the men and women who died in military service. The Ear would like to see much more attention and remembrance paid to the huge number of civilians — much higher than military personnel and soldiers — who have died in wars and military service, whose lives weren’t given but taken.

In fact, why not establish and celebrate a separate holiday to honor civilian deaths in war? Perhaps it would help to know the detailed history and background of the holiday, since it is not as straightforward or modern as you might expect:

What piece of classical music would you listen to in order to mark the holiday?

There is a lot to choose from.

The Ear especially likes “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by the early 20th-century French composer Maurice Ravel. It is a “tombeau” – a metaphorical “tomb” or “grave” used by the French to mean paying homage to the dead – in two senses.

Its neo-Classical or neo-Baroque style recalls the 18th-century world of French composers and harpsichordists including Jean-Philippe Rameau and Francois Couperin. But in a second sense, Ravel (below, in 1910) dedicated each of the six movements to a friend – in one case, two brothers — who had died during World War I. So part of its appeal is that it is a very personal statement of grief.

Here is more detailed background about the piece:

The work was orchestrated later, which added sonic color but cut out two movements. The Ear prefers the original piano version, which seems a little more percussive, austere and straightforward — less pretty but more beautiful, and more in keeping with the holiday by evoking sentiment without sentimentality.

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear it in a live performance by Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt.

But there are lots of other works to choose from by many composers: John Adams (“The Wound Dresser” after poetry of Walt Whitman); Samuel Barber (Adagio for Strings); Ludwig van Beethoven (slow movements of Symphonies 3 and 7, and of the Piano Sonata Op. 26); Johannes Brahms (“A German Requiem”); Benjamin Britten (War Requiem);  Frederic Chopin (Funeral March from Sonata No. 2, polonaises, preludes and the “Revolutionary” Etude); Aaron Copland (“Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Letter From Home”); Edward Elgar (“Nimrod” from “Enigma Variations”); Gabriel Faure (Requiem and Elegy for cello); Franz Joseph Haydn (“Mass in Time of War”); Paul Hindemith (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d – A Requiem for Those We Love”);  Charles Ives (Variations on “America” and “Decoration Day”); Henry Purcell (“When I Am Laid in Earth”); John Philip Sousa (“Honored Dead” March); Ralph Vaughan Williams (Symphony No. 3 “Pastoral”); and many others, including Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Here is a list from the British radio station Classical FM:

Here is a list of patriotic music from Nashville Public Radio:

Here is another list from an American source:

Here are more sound samples from NPR:

And here is another one from Northwest Public Radio:

What do you think of a holiday commemorating civilian deaths in war?

What favorite piece of classical music would you play and listen to as you mark Memorial Day?

Let us know, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra takes The Ear over the rainbow and turns in an impressive season-closing concert that leaves him looking forward to the next season

May 3, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

To The Ear, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) just keeps getting better and better, each concert building on the last one.

Take the final concert of this season last Friday night in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

It proved typical WCO fare in the quality of the soloists and orchestra players and in the variety of the program.

WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) continues to mold his group into the tightest of ensembles. You know you are hearing precision when the rests and silences become as important to the music as the sound. And when you are listening, you feel how relaxing it is to rule out worrying about raggedness.

Here’s a rundown:

The concert opened with a tried-and-true masterpiece, the “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by Maurice Ravel (below). Each of the five dance movements pays homage to a friend of Ravel who fell in World War I, the centennial of which, the gracious Sewell explained, is being marked this year. The Ear likes such tie-ins. (The Ear also loves the original piano version, which has a sixth movement, a fabulous toccata conclusion.)

The Symphony No. 2 in C Major by Romantic master Robert Schumann is not The Ear’s favorite Schumann symphony – that would be No. 4 – and The Ear thinks that Schumann’s orchestral writing is generally not up to his piano writing, his chamber music or his songs.

Indeed, long-form music was not Schumann’s strength, as his many miniature movements in his longer suites and his fragmentary esthetic attest. Perhaps it had to do with his mental illness; perhaps it was just his preference and temperament, much as was the case with his contemporary Chopin, who also preferred the miniature to the epic.

Still, the work proved enjoyable and moving, especially in the vivacious and energetic Scherzo that was executed so precisely and then in the poignant slow movement, which was beautifully shaped with the romantic yearning that Schumann (seen below, with his wife Clara Wieck Schumann) was peerless at expressing. (You can hear the third movement, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And once again, the smaller size of the chamber orchestra — versus a full symphony orchestra — created transparency. Listeners got to hear inner voices and the interplay of parts in all sections of the orchestra that they might otherwise miss.

But the piece that everyone came to hear was the finale: The world premiere of a Two-Piano Concerto by American composer Thomas Cabaniss (below top). The WCO commissioned the piece with help from two local patrons (Jun and Sandy Lee) and the soloists, Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn (below bottom), who have ties to Madison.

The work and its three movements – “Surfaces,” “Disturbances” and “Revelation” — did not disappoint and received a rapturous reception from the large audience, which demanded and received a piano-four hands encore.

The concerto struck The Ear as perfectly fitting its title, “Double Rainbow.” You heard elements of Maurice Ravel and John Adams. But you did NOT hear the typical standout solo playing of, say, a piano concerto by Beethoven or Brahms, Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev.

This was a much more atmospheric ensemble work that shimmered and glittered, much like a rainbow. It almost seemed in many places similar to a Baroque concerto grosso, with the piano incorporated into the orchestral texture rather than standing out against it.

That is not to say the concerto, more mood than melody, wasn’t impressive. The score seemed very difficult, even virtuosic, and it certainly had moments that allowed the two soloists to show off their first-rate, Juilliard-trained chops.

Will this new concerto join other two-piano staples, such as the famous two-piano concertos by Poulenc and Mozart? It would take more hearings to be sure, but The Ear suspects not. It will surely get repeated hearings, especially from the Shinns, without becoming a go-to default piece in the two-piano repertoire. But he could well be wrong.

In any case, one would be hard put to find a better summary of the WCO approach to music-making than this outstanding concert that combined the old and the new, that mixed works from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and performed them with technical precision and moving interpretation.

Bravos to all.

And all the more reason to look forward, after the WCO’s six summer outdoor Concerts on the Square from June 28 to Aug. 2, to the next indoors Masterworks season, both of which you can find here:

Classical music: “I like tunes,” says Academy Award-winning composer Thomas Cabaniss, who talks about his “Double Rainbow” piano concerto. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and guest soloists will give the world premiere of the work this Friday night.

April 24, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), which likes to mix things and up during its winter season, the concert this Friday night is something special to close out the current season.

The WCO will give the world premiere of the “Double Rainbow” Piano Concerto by Thomas Cabaniss, which was commissioned for the WCO.

The performance will also feature husband-and-wife duo-pianists Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn.

The concert is Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Also on the program is Maurice Ravel’s Neo-classical homage to World War I, “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” and the Symphony No. 2 by Robert Schumann.

Tickets are $10 to $80.

For more information about the program, the soloists and tickets, go to:

Composer Thomas Cabaniss recently did an email Q&A for The Ear:

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your career to the reader?

I’m Thomas Cabaniss (below). I am a composer and teaching artist from Charleston, South Carolina. I have lived in New York for the last 30 years, and so I greedily claim both places as home. I teach at the Juilliard School — where I met Michael and Jessica Shinn — and I also lead arts education projects at Carnegie Hall.

After graduating from Yale in 1984, I was an assistant conductor on a variety of projects including Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place at La Scala and the Kennedy Center. Setting out to forge a career as a composer, I moved to New yolk City, which had the added benefit of being the same city where my girlfriend was attending medical school. A few years later we married and settled in Manhattan.

To start, I worked primarily as a theater composer, but I was also writing piano and chamber music on the side, and doing arts education work in between shows. In 1990 I scored and arranged a short film called The Lunch Date, which won the Palme D’Or and the Academy Award. In 1995 I joined the New York Philharmonic education programs, eventually becoming the orchestra’s Education Director.

I kept composing, and wrote a chamber opera called The Sandman, which was premiered in New York in 2002 and revived again the following season. In 2004 I was appointed to special education position with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and at the same time I wrote a series of evening length dance scores that were premiered in New York.

In 2009, I began working as composer-in-residence for the LinkUp program at Carnegie Hall, which has grown in that time to serve over 95 orchestras around the world and across the U.S. – including the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

I also helped to create the Lullaby Project at Carnegie Hall, which serves young parents in shelters, hospitals and prisons, and we are working hard to extend that work across the country through a series of partnerships.

How would you describe your musical style in general and the style of the new two-piano concerto specifically? Accessible? Tonal or atonal? Modernist or Neo-Classical? Melodic or percussive? Are there composers or works that have influenced your style?

I like tunes. I like to write songs, and I like to sing, so my music tends to value melody. My works are generally tonal, often spiked with cluster chords and other atonal devices, but I am always interested in the musical gravity of tonal centers. (You can hear a sample of Thomas Cabaniss’ music in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This piece is inspired by its soloists, Michael and Jessica Shinn (below), and by the image of a Double Rainbow (also the work’s title). I have written Michael and Jessica pieces for piano-four hands, and there is one piece they have championed called Tiny Bits of Outrageous Love. Something about the chemistry of their relationship as musicians (and as husband and wife) has inspired me to create music that is particularly exciting and intimate.

And yes, I suppose most composers embed hints of the music they love in the music they write, and I am no different. Tiny Bits was a kind of homage to the Brahms Waltzes for piano-four hands, and Double Rainbow nods to Leonard Bernstein, Olivier Messiaen, Leos Janacek and John Adams. I’m sure listeners will hear other influences, too.

What would you like listeners to know about and listen for in the piano concerto? What were the special challenges of writing for duo-pianists?

This is from the program note I wrote for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra:

DOUBLE RAINBOW is based on an experience I had with my family on the Isle of Palms, South Carolina, about 20 years ago. On this particular August day, there was a huge rain in the early afternoon, many dark clouds, thunder (but no lightning). After the storm, from the porch of our beach rental house, we saw not one, but two rainbows (below). My sister-in-law is an avid photographer, and so she coaxed us all down onto the beach so she could get a pristine angle. That alone might have been enough inspiration for a piece of music, but when we got to the water’s edge, as Julia was snapping her photos, a dolphin jumped out of the water in a vertical launch, the tail clearing the water’s surface. It was one of those moments that seemed so unbelievable that none of us said a word. 

I have always been fascinated by the search for the elusive “perfect moment,” and DOUBLE RAINBOW is a sort of study of that kind of exploration. It is all bound up in the idea of “doubleness,” represented by the two pianos. It is divided into three movements: “Surfaces” (exploring the accumulation of drops of water from tiny, atomized particles), “Disturbances” (exploring imbalances and the storms that result from them), and “Revelation” (of the Double Rainbow). Not surprising in a double concerto, there is a great deal of dialogue between the pianos, and the orchestra has more of an accompanying role in the first two movements. The final movement is different, though. Everybody is in, and the music pulses with magic. The movement seems to be headed for a big climax, but at the last moment, it suddenly slows down and there are stars.

The main challenge for me in writing a double piano concerto is all those fingers! Twenty of them, and they are capable of so much. The music I write does not usually focus on virtuosity, and yet I also wanted it to be a vehicle for them to be expressive and dynamic. I worked hard to achieve a balance between the lyricism and the fireworks – we’ll see how audiences experience it.

What else would you like to say?

I am especially excited to be able to visit Madison for the premiere. I’ll get to meet members of the family of Jessica Chow Shinn (below, she is a Madison native), and I have a former student in the orchestra (Midori Samson, Second Bassoon). My Carnegie Lullaby Project collaborators include another Madison native (Ann Gregg) and Elizabeth Snodgrass, who is originally from Appleton (I think) but recently moved to Madison. I will get to meet WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) in person. We have been doing some Skype rehearsals and phone consultations. It will be great to watch Andrew in action.

While we are here, my wife Deborah will be giving Grand Rounds at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, and my son Will leads an a cappella group at University of Chicago (Voices In Your Head), and this year they have been singing frequently with a wonderful University of Wisconsin group (Fundamentally Sound).

The last few seasons the Madison Symphony Orchestra has been offering Carnegie Hall LinkUp concerts to kids in grades 3-5, and this year is no exception. They will perform The Orchestra Moves in May, for which I wrote two of the works (Come To Play and Away I Fly) and arranged another (Cidade Maravilhosa).

This project has been a few years in the making, and so for Michael and Jessica and me, this is a kind of celebration. We can’t wait to share DOUBLE RAINBOW with you.

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Classical music: On Veterans Day, what is the best music to honor fallen soldiers? The Ear chooses Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” Plus, a FREE concert of music for flute and percussion will be held on Friday at noon

November 11, 2015

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features flutist Ivano Ugrcic and percussionist David Alcorn in music by Gareth Farr, Marius Constant, Christos Hatzis and Nebojsa Macura.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Veterans Day.

It has become a day to honor all members, living and dead, of the U.S. armed forces and their service.

That’s just fine with The Ear.

But the holiday started as Armistice Day to honor the end of World War I, which occurred at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

world war1 somme

And since the modern world we know is in large effect the result of the outcomes of World War I, The Ear likes going back to the origins.

If you accept that premise -– and of course you don’t have to — it allows us to listen to what is probably the best piece of classical music ever written to honor fallen soldiers. That piece is Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.”

The title refers to the formal structures that harken back to the underperformed and under-appreciated French Baroque composer Francois Couperin.

Each of the six movements takes a special form and each one is dedicated to a friend of Ravel who was killed in World War I. (Ravel, below, tried to enlist to fight, but was too old.)

Funny, the more I listen, the more the two 20th-century composers who matter most to me are not Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, but Maurice Ravel and Bela Bartok.

But elaborating on why is another topic for another post.


Anyway, Ravel, who was one of the greatest orchestrators of all time, orchestrated “Le Tombeau de Couperin” (literally, the tomb of Couperin – “le tombeau” being the word used for an homage to honor the dead that was also used by the French poets to honor other writers or members of the royal family, including Francois Villon, Joachim du Bellay, Pierre de Ronsard Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé.)

But The Ear prefers the original piano version, which is very difficult to play. It has color but also a certain clarity and austerity that fit the purpose of the music. He thinks you hear the distinctive dance rhythms better and more sharply, and the sections with tolling bells sounds much more, well, bell-like.

Here, dedicated to all veterans but especially to World War I and what that history-changing meat-grinder of a conflict brought us, is a YouTube video of Canadian pianist Louis Lortie playing Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin”:


Classical music: What music best commemorates today’s 70th anniversary of D-Day, which marked the beginning of the end of Nazi domination of Western Europe? The Ear offers two works by Edward Elgar and Maurice Ravel.

June 6, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is June 6, 2014 –- the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when the Allies invaded the northwest coast of France on the beaches at Normandy and started the beginning of the end of Nazi domination in Western Europe by Adolf Hitler.

D-Day landing

A lot of music commemorates war and the troops who fell in battle.

I offer two that may not be the best choices but that move me.

First, I offer the ninth variation, “Nimrod,” from British composer Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns used it very effectively in a solo piano version in his epic film about World War II called simply “The War.”

But I cannot find that version. So here is the a haunting and deeply moving orchestral performance in a popular YouTube video played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under its former music director and conductor Daniel Barenboim:

And here is the “Pavane for a Dead Princess” by French composer Maurice Ravel. He actually wrote “Le Tombeau de Couperin” and dedicated each movement to a different friend of his who died in World War I. But there is something quietly eloquent about the way Ravel uses the stately and processional dance step of the Pavane to express understated sorrow.

Ravel usually composed on the piano, and then orchestrated his own work. So here are two versions, the first orchestral and the second done on the piano and played by the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who captures just the right bittersweetness and poignancy.

You can decide which one best expresses your sentiments about today’s historic commemoration. Despite the coughing in the background, I tend to favor the simpler and more austere piano version. But both are deeply moving to me.

I am sure that many other works, from two famous funeral marches by Ludwig van Beethoven (in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” and the Piano Sonata in A-Flat Major, Op. 26) to the famous Funeral March by Frederic Chopin, would be appropriate.

Classical music –- instrumental, vocal and choral as well as operatic – offers so many appropriate choices. My guess is that NPR and Wisconsin Public Radio, like radio stations and even TV stations around the country and the world, will feature many such works in their programming for today. I would especially love to hear Requiems by Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gabriel Faure.

If you have a favorite, please leave a reply with a YouTube link if possible, plus the reasons why you like the work so much.

The Ear wants to hear.

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