The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What concerts or performances in 2019 did you most like, and do you most remember and want to praise?

January 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The concert season’s winter intermission will soon draw to a close.

So this is a good time to recall favorite concerts and performances of last year.

But let’s be clear.

This is a not a request to name “The Best Concerts of 2019.”

Calling them the most memorable concerts doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best.

Perfection or “the best” sounds so objective, but can really be quite personal and subjective. So much can depend not only on the music and the performers, but also on your own mood and your taste or preferences.

So please share the concerts or performances that you most liked and enjoyed, the one that most still linger in your mind. And, if you can pin it down, tell us why you liked them so much and why they linger for you.

There are so many excellent groups and concerts, so much fine classical music, in the Madison area that there should be lots of candidates.

Here are several performances or complete concerts that The Ear remembers with special fondness.

The MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) held a season-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as its music director and conductor. The big event came at the end: Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” – that brought together the MSO and the MSO Chorus as well as the Madison Youth Choirs and the UW-Madison Choral Union.

It proved an impressive, overwhelming and moving display of coordination and musicianship, a testament to how far DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) has brought the orchestra.

(Also memorable on the MSO season were pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin in Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in the Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony during the MSO tribute to Bernstein, with whom DeMain worked closely.)

The WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under its veteran music director Andrew Sewell, continues to test its own limits and surpass them. Particularly impressive was the last concert of the winter season with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 featuring two outstanding soloists: soprano Mary Mackenzie and bass Timothy Jones.

The playing of the difficult score was precise but moving, and the singing blended beautifully. It made one understand why during this season – when the orchestra marks 60 years and maestro Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz) marks his 20th season — the WCO has deservingly graduated to two performances of each Masterwork concert (one here on Friday nights followed by one in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield on Saturday night).

Also memorable was an impressive concert by the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA. The Ear likes amateur musicians, and for their 10th anniversary concert they really delivered the goods in Dvorak’s famous Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and, with fabulous guest soloist J.J. Koh (below — principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — in Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto.

But it wasn’t only large-scale works that The Ear remembers.

Three chamber music concerts continue to stand out.

During the summer, the WILLY STREET CHAMBER PLAYERS and guest UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (both below) delivered a performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major that would be hard for any group to match, let alone surpass, for its tightness and energy, its lyricism and drama.

The same goes for the veteran PRO ARTE QUARTET at the UW-Madison, which this fall started its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in the new Hamel Music Center to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020 when we mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The quartet played early, middle and late quartets with complete mastery and subtlety. Treat yourself. Don’t miss the remaining five concerts, which resume in February and take place over the next year at the Hamel center and also at the Chazen Museum of Art, from where they will also be live-streamed.

Finally, The Ear will always remember the wholly unexpected and thoroughly captivating virtuoso accordion playing he heard last summer by Milwaukeean Stas Venglevski (below) at a concert by the BACH DANCING AND DYNAMITE SOCIETY. Venglevski performed music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla in a new and enthralling way.

Unfortunately, for various reasons The Ear missed many other concerts – by the Madison Opera and the University Opera among others – that promised to be memorable performances.

But perhaps you can fill him in as we start 2020 concerts next weekend.

What concerts in 2019 did you like most and do you most remember and praise? Why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and guest soloists will give a FREE public concert on Friday, Dec. 27, in the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison to honor arts patrons Sandy and Jun Lee

December 15, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you are looking for a non-holiday concert to go to during Christmas week, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) — which just performed a sold-out “Messiah” and is about to play the score for Madison Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” — has a surprise gift for you.

On Friday, Dec. 27, at 8 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., at the UW-Madison, the WCO and three guest soloists will give a FREE “Winter Celebration” concert that is open to the public. (Donations to the WCO are suggested.)

The occasion is to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Sandy and Jun  Lee (below), who are generous patrons of the arts in Madison.

The three guest artists for the concert are:

UW-Madison piano graduate Jason Kutz (below), who performs with the Willy Street Chamber players and other groups, will play the Introduction and Allegro Appassionato, Op. 92, by Robert Schumann.

Local mezzo-soprano opera star Kitt Reuter-Foss (below), who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, will sing the “Habanera” from Bizet’s “Carmen” and “What a Movie” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti.” (You can hear the famous “Habanera” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Renowned Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who has played several times with the WCO and just two months ago performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will play the Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 61, by Camille Saint-Saens.

In addition, the WCO, under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz), will perform the “Poet and Peasant” Overture by Franz von Suppe; and the Overture to “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Jacques Offenbach.

Although the concert is free, tickets are required. You can go to this link to register by putting in your name and other required information: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/winter-celebration/

 


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Classical music: This Saturday, Aug. 31, at 11 a.m. in Overture Hall is the last FREE Farmers’ Market organ concert of the season. On Sunday afternoon, guitarist Steven Meyer performs at the Chazen Museum of Art

August 29, 2019
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ALERT: Madison guitarist Steven Meyer will perform a FREE concert on “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen” this Sunday, Sept. 1, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery 3. The program features music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Gustav Holst, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Fernando Sor, himself and others. Also included is music by the Beatles, jazz and folk music. For more information about the series, go to: https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen8/

This Sunday’s performance will, as always, be live streamed starting at 12:30. Here is a portal link for streaming: https://c.streamhoster.com/embed/media/O7sBNG/OS1C0ihJsYK/iqf1vBMs3qg_5 

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday morning, Aug. 31, will see the last FREE Farmers’ Market organ concert of the season.

The 45-minute concert, sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and played on the Klais concert organ, takes place in Overture Hall at 11 a.m. No tickets or reservations are needed and the public is welcome.

The performer is David Ball (below), who was trained at the Juilliard School in New York City and who is based in Orange County, California, at the Christ (formerly Crystal) Cathedral.

The program features music by French composer Jean Langlais, French composer Camille Saint-Saens, German composer Max Reger, British composer Herbert Howells, Argentinean composer Norberto Guinaldo, French composer Leon Boellmann, French composer Jeanne Demessieux, contemporary American composer Alan Terricciano and American composer John Philip Sousa. (You can hear David Ball playing a different work by Herbert Howells in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For the specific works and much more background about the performer, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/free-farmers-market-concert-2019-david-ball/


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Classical music: Was Bernard Herrmann’s love theme in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” influenced by Antonin Dvorak’s “American Suite”?

July 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear spent an interesting and enjoyable Fourth of July holiday weekend.

Two of the most enjoyable things seemed to overlap unexpectedly.

On Wednesday night, I tuned into Turner Classic Movies. That’s when I watched, once again and with great pleasure, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful “North by Northwest (1959.”

The next morning, on Independence Day, I tuned in to Wisconsin Public Radio and heard a lot of music by American composers and by composers who were inspired by America.

That’s when I heard the “American Suite” (1895) by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (below), who directed a conservatory in New York City and liked to spend summers in a Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, where he was captivated by American music of Native Americans and African-Americans.

What overlapped was the music, the love theme between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint — called “Train Conversations” — by Bernard Herrmann (below) in the film and the opening of the suite by Dvorak.

But The Ear needs a reality check: Is the Ear the only one to hear striking similarities between the two?

Take a listen to the two works in the YouTube video below, decide for yourself and let us know if you hear the same influence.

To be sure, The Ear is not saying that Herrmann – a sophisticated American composer who knew classical music and who is perhaps best known for his edgy score to “Psycho,” which is often played in concert halls – completely lifted the music or stole it or plagiarized it.

But it certainly is possible that Herrmann was influenced or inspired by Dvorak – much the same way that Leonard Bernstein’s song “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” seems remarkably close to an opening theme in the slow middle movement of the Piano Concerto No. 5 – the famous “Emperor” Concerto — by Ludwig van Beethoven. The same goes for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who, some say, borrowed tunes more than once from Franz Schubert.

Well, if you’re going to borrow, why not do it from the best? And Dvorak was among the great melodists of all time, in company with Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc, to name a few of the best known.

Anyway, listen to the two scores and let us know what you think.

Can you think of other music that was perhaps influenced by a work of classical music? If so, leave a comment, with YouTube links if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Here is patriotic music to help celebrate, including a portrait of a truly presidential president for the purpose of comparison

July 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Fourth of July – a celebration of Independence Day when the United States officially declared its separation from Great Britain in 1776.

The day will be marked by picnics and barbecues, by local parades and spectacular fireworks – and this year by armored tanks and fighter jets in yet another expensive display of military power by You Know Who: that loudmouth man who overcompensates for dodging the draft by acting more like King George than George Washington.

The “Salute to America” sure looks like it is really going to be a “Salute to Trump.”

But whatever your politics, your preferences in presidents or the festive activities you have planned for today, there is classical music to help you mark and celebrate the occasion. Just go to Google and search for “classical music for the Fourth of July.”

Better yet, tune into Wisconsin Public Radio, which will be featuring American classical music all day long.

In addition, though, here are some oddities and well-known works that The Ear particularly likes and wants to share.

The first is the Russian immigrant composer and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his own version of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” something he apparently did out of respect for his adopted country before each recital he played in the U.S.:

And the second is by another Russian immigrant and piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, who was a friend and colleague of Rachmaninoff. Here he is playing his piano arrangement, full of keyboard fireworks that sound much like a third hand playing, of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by American march king John Philip Sousa. Horowitz used the patriotic march to raise money and sell war bonds during World War II, then later used as an encore, which never failed to wow the audience:

For purposes of artistic and political comparisons of presidents, you will also find Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” – with famous actor and movie star Henry Fonda as the narrator of Honest Abe’s own extraordinary oratory and understated writing — in the YouTube video at the bottom.

And in a ironic twist The Ear can’t resist, here are nine pieces — many orchestral and some choral –chosen by the official website of the BBC Music Magazine in the United Kingdom to mark and honor American Independence Day. It has some surprises and is worth checking out:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/nine-best-works-independence-day

If you like or favor other works appropriate to the Fourth of July or have comments, just leave word and a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: As Pride month comes to an end, let us proudly recall LGBTQ classical composers and musicians. Plus, you hear a concert of queer composers and performers

June 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past weekend, this whole past month, the Rainbow flags (below) have been flying openly and high.

We saw all sorts of major Pride parades for LGBTQ rights as well as the 50th anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that eventually gave birth  to a worldwide movement to ensure that queer people receive the human rights they deserve.

Since today is the last day of June, of Pride month, it seems fitting to recall the many LGBTQ composers and performers in classical music.

The gay rights movement has opened the closet doors not only of individual lives today but also of historical figures.

So here are several lists that may teach you something new about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer musicians.

Some of the calls seem iffy, unconvincing or overstated. Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin, for example, lived when homoerotic friendship did not necessarily mean a queer sexual identity. But one way or the other, historical proof and documentation can be hard to come by. And clearly there is much more to know about the past.

But take a look. At least you will see how scholars are undertaking new research and often undermining the heterosexual assumption that has wrapped so many historical and even contemporary figures in wrong or mistaken gender identity.

And if you find someone missing, please leave the name and appropriate information in the comment section.

Freedom, acceptance and respect are not zero-sum games in which one person or group can win only if another one loses. There is enough of each to go around. All can celebrate pride.

So enjoy the information, whether it is new or not, and the respect it should inspire for the central role of LGBTQ people in the arts both past and present.

Here is a pretty extensive and comprehensive list, in alphabetical order, from Wikipedia of LGBT composers, both living and dead. It includes Chester Biscardi (below) who did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Pauline Oliveros who did a residency at the UW-Madison several years ago. You don’t have to click on each name. Just hover the cursor arrow over the name and you will see a photo and biographical blurb.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:LGBT_composers

And here is a list, also in alphabetical order and also from Wikipedia, of LGBT musicians and performers, not all of them classical. It works by clicking on sub-categories that include nationality – though one wonders if musicians from extremely homophobic countries and cultures are included.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:LGBT_musicians

Here is a more selective list from The Advocate, an LGBTQ magazine, of 18 queer composers — including Corelli — who made history and you should know about:

https://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/2017/2/08/18-queer-composers-who-made-music-history?pg=full

And here is a similarly selective list from radio station WFMT in Chicago of 15 LGBT composers — including Handel and Lully — you should know about:

https://www.wfmt.com/2015/06/25/15-queer-composers-know/

And in the YouTube video at the bottom is a Pride concert — 1 hour and 43 minutes long — recently held in New York City at the Greene Space, and hosted and recorded by radio stations WQXR and WNYC.

It features music by queer composers and performances by queer artists. Metropolitan Opera star Anthony Roth Constanzo performs. Also playing are pianists Steven Blier and Sara Davis Buechner, who have performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, respectively. The New York Gay Men’s Chorus sings. The Ear found the concert timely and moving.

If you have questions, comments or additional names, please do leave word in the comment section.

Happy Pride!

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and conductor Kyle Knox brightened a soggy spring with early Beethoven and Elgar. On Tuesday night, an organ and cello concert takes place in Overture Hall.

April 15, 2019
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ALERT: On  this Tuesday night, April 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, organist Greg Zelek and guest cellist Thomas Mesa will close out the season of Concert Organ performances sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The program includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Claude Debussy and Charles-Marie Widor. For tickets ($20) and more information about the program with detailed biographies of the performers, go to:  https://madisonsymphony.org/event/thoms-mesa-greg-zelek/

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a veteran and well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The early spring concert on last Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) at the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School was comparatively short – it had no intermission — and was devoted to only two composers.

The first was Edward Elgar (below, in 1910), whose early orchestral works included a good deal of music drawn from his youthful sketchbooks. Notable in that category were two suites, given the joint title of The Wand of Youth.

From the eight sections of the First Suite (1907), six were played, and from the six sections comprising the Second Suite (1908), four were given. All these movements are colorful and evocative little miniatures, reflecting early imagination, often touching, but many quite boisterous.

The other composer was Ludwig van Beethoven (below), as represented by his Symphony No. 2. This shows the young composer moving quite distinctly beyond the stylistic world of Haydn and Mozart into the rambunctious new symphonic idiom he would go on to create. (You can hear Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic play the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The guest conductor this time, Kyle Knox – the recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — chose to give the music a “big orchestra” approach.

For both the suites and the symphony, the lighter and cleaner textures of a chamber orchestra would seem best. But with an orchestra totaling some 91 players, Knox chose to go for volume and sonority.

His tempos, especially in the Beethoven were notably fast. As the largely amateur orchestra followed loyally, there was some raw playing at times.

Still, the MCO asserted strong character, which made a very happy impression on the audience and brightened an evening of soggy weather.


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Classical music: What music is good to listen to every day for a year? And why? Clemency Burton-Hill discusses her book “Year of Wonder” on PBS’ “Newshour”

March 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What different pieces of classical music would be good to listen to every day of the year?

And what should you know about it?

Those are the simple but ambitious questions that the British writer Clemency Burton-Hill — who now works for the famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City — tackles in her book “Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day” (below).

You can get a sample by going to the book section of Amazon.com and looking inside the book. Just click on the Introduction for an overview and then click on some specifics dates to see how it works.

But recently Burton-Hill (below) also appeared on “The NewsHour” on PBS to talk about the book, where she explained her purpose and method, especially her intent to help expand the audience for classical music.

Her remarks impressed The Ear who has ordered a copy of her book and hopes to learn from it and maybe even pass along some lessons from it.

All the genres, all the great composers (dead and living) and most of the great works are covered, as are many other neglected composers and unknown works. So the book can be considered a terrific resource for music education for both beginners and those who are experienced.

Her commentaries are also a model of brevity and engaging interest.

All in all, “Year of Wonder” seems a supremely practical, unpretentious and informative guide to daily listening, especially given how many of these works – often they are shorter sections of larger works — can be found for free on YouTube. (In fact, a playlist of music featured in the book is available on YouTube. Go to YouTube and type in “Year of Wonder Playlist” into the search engine, then look to the upper right for a list. A sample is at the bottom. Or use this direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wNTNEZYoHg&list=PLKPwLlyrD2y-1x-uKmUBzSOiAh83GhU7A

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a link to the television interview:

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/embracing-classical-music-and-its-potential-for-sonic-salvation

The Ear hopes you find the interview both informative and useful.

Happy listening!


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Classical music: On Thursday and Friday nights, brass music and a modernist homage to Martin Luther King round out UW-Madison concerts before spring break

March 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Spring Break at the University of Wisconsin-Madison starts on Saturday. But there are noteworthy concerts right up to the last minute.

THURSDAY

On this Thursday night, March 14, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the acclaimed Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below, in 2017, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) will perform a FREE concert.

The program by the faculty ensemble  includes music by William Byrd; Isaac Albeniz; Leonard Bernstein; Aaron Copland; David Sampson; Anton Webern; Joan Tower; Ennio Morricone; and Reena Esmail.

For more details, including the names of quintet members and guest artists who will participate as well as the complete program with lengthy notes and background about the quintet, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wisconsin-brass-quintet-3-14-2019/

FRIDAY

On this Friday night, March 15, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW-Madison bassoonist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) – who worked in Paris with the renowned 20th-century composer and conductor Pierre Boulez – will host another concert is his series of “Le Domaine Musical” that he performs with colleagues.

Vallon explains:

Every year, I put together a concert devoted to the masterpieces of the 1950-2000 period. We call it “Domaine Musical,” which was the group founded in Paris by Pierre Boulez in the 1950s. Its subtitle is : “Unusual music for curious listeners.”

“The series offers Madison concert-goers an opportunity to hear rarely performed music of the highest quality, played by UW-Madison faculty, students and alumni.

“The program features a deeply moving piece by Luciano Berio, O King, written in 1968 after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.” (You can hear “O King” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The all-modernist program is:

Pierre Boulez (below), Dialogues de l’Ombre Double (Dialogues of the Double Shadow) for solo clarinet and electronics.

Luciano Berio (below), O King and Folk Songs.

Also included are unspecified works by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Timothy Hagen.

Guest performers are Sarah Brailey, soprano (below); Alicia Lee, clarinet; Leslie Thimmig, basset horn; Sally Chisholm, viola; Parry Karp, cello; Timothy Hagen, flute; Yana Avedyan, piano; Paran Amirinazari, violin; and Anthony DiSanza, percussion.

For more information, including a story about a previous concert in “Le Domaine Musical,” go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/le-domaine-musical-with-marc-vallon/


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Classical music: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.


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