The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW-Madison pianist Jessica Johnson celebrates International Women’s Day this Friday night with a FREE recital of all-female composers and a special keyboard for smaller hands

March 6, 2019

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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Ukrainian pianist Yana Avedyan in solo works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Prokofiev and Franz Liszt. The program will include music from her upcoming appearance at Carnegie Hall. The musicale runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

March is Women’s History Month, and this Friday is International Women’s Day.

To mark the latter occasion, Jessica Johnson, who teaches piano and piano pedagogy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where she has won an award for distinguished teaching, will perform a program of all-women composers.

The FREE recital is this Friday night, March 8, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. Johnson (below, in a photo by M.P. King for The Wisconsin State Journal) will perform works from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, pairing works with interesting connections.

Here is what Johnson has to say about the program:

Dreaming, Op. 15, No. 3, by Amy Beach (below top) and The Currents by Sarah Kirkland Snider (below bottom) both feature beautiful lyricism and long-line phrases inspired by poetry.

“2019 is the bicentennial celebration of Clara Schumann’s birth, so I wanted to honor her and her tremendous legacy. Her Romance, Op. 11, No. 1, was composed in 1839 in the midst of the difficult year when Clara (below) was separated from her beloved Robert. (You can hear the Romance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Bolts of Loving Thunder by Missy Mazola (below) was written in 2013 for pianist Emanuel Ax as a piece that would appear on a program of works by Brahms. Mazzoli alludes to the romantic, stormy side of “pre-beard” Brahms, with exuberant floating melodies, hand crossings and dense layers of chords.

“Troubled Water (1967) by Margaret Bonds (below) is based on the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” with hints of blues, jazz and gospel traditions throughout.

“Azuretta (2000) by Chicago-based composer, Regina Harris Baiocchi (below) describes Azuretta as a musical reaction to a debilitating stroke Dr. Hale Smith, her former composition teacher, suffered in 2000. The work honors his incredible legacy by mixing classical and jazz idioms.

“Germaine Tailleferre (below), the only female member of Les Six, the group of early 20th-century French composers, wrote her beautiful Reverie in 1964 as an homage to Debussy’s “Homage à Rameau” from Images, Book I.

“Preludes (2002) by Elena Ruehr (below) draw inspiration from Debussy’s Preludes, mimimalism and Romantic piano music.

“Also, as an advocate for the adoption of the Donison-Steinbuhler Standard — which offers alternatively sized piano keyboards for small-handed pianists  — I will perform on the Steinbuhler DS 5.5 ™ (“7/8”) piano keyboard.

“By performing on a keyboard that better fits my hands — studies suggest that the conventional keyboard is too large for 87% of women — and featuring works by female composers who are typically underrepresented in concert programming, I hope to bring awareness to gender biases that still exist in classical music.

“For more information about both me and the smaller keyboard, go to the following story by Gayle Worland in The Wisconsin State Journal:

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Classical music: Today is the Summer Solstice, and nobody wrote better summer music than Francis Poulenc. Can you name someone who did?

June 20, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Summer Solstice (below) – the beginning of the summer and the longest day and shortest night of the year. It happens at 6:09 p.m. CST.

For weeks, various critics on radio, TV and the interview have been offering their suggestions for summertime reading, summertime movies, summertime food, summertime trips.

But you hear very little about summertime music.

Oh, there are certain well-known pieces, from Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto in The Four Seasons to Ralph Vaughan Williams and “The Lark Ascending” and all those early 20th century British composers who do pastoral music so evocatively and beautifully.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Summer” from his oratorio “The Seasons” does the job nicely, as do his “Morning,” “Noon” and “Night” Symphonies Nos. 6, 7 and 8 as well as his “Sunrise” String Quartet.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”) his Piano Sonata In D Major, Op. 28 – also subtitled “Pastoral” — also capture the mood of the season. And you can find Franz Schubert songs that do the same very evocatively. And a lot of the music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is unbeatably sunny, lyrical and cheerful.

Mendelssohn’s “Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream” certainly captures the right mood, as does Shakespeare’s original play. And his sunny, upbeat “Italian” Symphony is also a pretty good bet.

Then there are also wonderfully warm and moody pieces by Debussy and Ravel that are full of water and sun and breezy wind, all with a kind of seasonal torpor and lassitude.

But for my money, no one has ever done a body of work that better expresses summer than the French composer Francis Poulenc (below). For me, his music goes down as easily as a dry French rose wine with a Salade Nicoise.

Although he could also be very serious and dark, Poulenc (1899-1963) has the great French gift of lightness – beautiful melodies, poignant harmonies, all tempered with the informality and good time quality of the music hall. His music is always graceful and kind.

I also love that the same Poulenc who was a devout Roman Catholic was also an unapologetic gay man who said, “If I wasn’t homosexual, I couldn’t compose music” or words to that effect.

We just don’t hear enough Poulenc during the usual concert season – so summer is an especially good time to revisit his work, which early on, during his days as the clown of Les Six composers in France, was grossly underestimated and underperformed. Listen for yourself:

Make no mistake: Poulenc is a modern master.

So here is my offering for the summer to mark the solstice. I hope you will look at some of the wonderful collection of Poulenc’s solo piano and chamber music that are out there and agree that when the weather s warm and the light is long, that’s the perfect time to take out something by Poulenc and put it on the CD player and listen to it – to bask it during the sunny days of summer, maybe even with some great summer food in front of you. He would like that.

But if you have other pieces or other composers who you think better capture summer, just let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

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