The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Shai Wosner explains why we don’t hear more Haydn and like his music more. This Friday night at 8, Wosner performs two piano concertos by Haydn with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

February 19, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater on the Overture Center, pianist Shai Wosner returns for a third time to perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

The program is largely from the Classical era. Wosner will perform two piano concertos by Haydn – No. 4 in G Major and No. 11 in D major – and the orchestra will perform the Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major by Franz Schubert. In addition, a 1955 Prelude and Fugue by the accessible, 20th-century neo-Romantic composer Vittorio Giannini (below) will be performed.

Vittorio Giannini

Tickets are $15-$75. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

The critically acclaimed Wosner, an Israeli native who studied at the Juilliard School with Emanuel Ax and who is now based in New York City, has previously performed Classical-era concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven with the WCO.

Wosner recently agreed to a Q&A about this new program.

Shai Wosner color

The prize-winning American composer John Harbison has said that Haydn is the most underappreciated and most under-performed of the great composers. If you agree with that, why do you think that is and how do you feel about Haydn?

It is probably true. I can only guess what the reasons might be. Perhaps, over the centuries, his name has been eclipsed by that of Mozart (below), as the two are often lumped together in spite of the profound differences in their biographies and their music.

Where Mozart has irresistible melodies all over to disarm you at first hearing, with Haydn sometimes you have to get into the “groove” of the music first — perhaps a remnant from earlier music — and then once you do, you can find both great melodies as well as all kinds of twists and turns that can be just as gripping.

Mozart c 1780 detail of portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Humor, of course, is central to Haydn’s world and one can sometimes mistake that for lightheartedness. But the fact is that it is often just one layer of meaning and by all means not the only one.

If you open up to it, you quickly realize the depth and sincerity with which Haydn (below) speaks — just like spending time with a really great person who likes to tell jokes a lot, but whose immense life experience and understanding of the world soon comes through as well.

Haydn

What are your plans for performances and recordings? Do your plans include performing or recording more Haydn, maybe concertos, sonatas and chamber music works?

Yes, I hope to record concertos along with a few other pieces as well in the near future.

What would you like the public to know about the two piano concertos by Haydn — who always composed at the keyboard — that you will perform here and their individual character? How do they compare to each other?

The G Major concerto is somehow the more “earthy” one — perhaps it’s the association of the key itself, which tends to relate to all things “rustic.” (For example, Mozart’s peasants and servants tend to sing in G Major). It seems to have a rough edge to it, a certain naughtiness.

The popular D Major concerto, on the other hand, is more patrician — even with the Hungarian finale. It shimmers with golden light like the interior of some idyllic palazzo in midday. (In a YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the D Major concerto performed by famed pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, who was an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music in the 1960s, and conductor Frans Bruggen.)

Haydn_3

How does Schubert go with Haydn? On your program, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will also perform Schubert’s early Symphony No. 2 and you have recorded two CDs for the Onyx label that feature the music of Schubert. Clearly you feel a strong affinity with Schubert and have a point of view about him.

Schubert and Haydn are an interesting combination because early Schubert was very much influenced by Viennese Classicism, before Beethoven’s influence became much more dominant in his music.

At the same time, while Schubert (below) was using the same forms as Mozart and Haydn, they tend to come out very different under his hands, as if he couldn’t help it.

Most noticeable, I think, is the difference in energy.

In Haydn, to go back to the “groove,” there is a lot of raw rhythmic energy in fast movements and it helps to give shape to those movements as well.

In Schubert, on the other hand, even in fast movements, the overall shape tends to be much more contemplative, no matter quickly the notes go by.

Franz Schubert writing

This is your third appearance with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, with whom you have performed concerts by Mozart and Beethoven. What would you like to say about Madison audiences and the WCO?

I have been fortunate to meet very interesting people in Madison, and clearly the audiences are very dedicated and comprised of real music-lovers.

It is a wonderful thing that the city supports not only a symphony orchestra but also a chamber orchestra (below is a photo of the WCO) as well, which is, of course, a very different animal and unfortunately not a very common one any more.

WCO lobby

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I look forward to visiting Madison, of course!


Classical music: Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and composer Franz Liszt work well together. Both are haunting creators. Here is a chance to hear how as you read.

September 7, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

As longtime readers of this blog know, The Ear is a loyal fan of the Japanese writer and novelist Haruki Murakami (below).

haruki murakami

I have had a longstanding bet with friends that the prolific Murakami will win the Nobel Prize “this” year. But so far, a decade or more later, I am still waiting — as, I suspect, he is since he has won other major prizes.

So The Ear says: Let’s get on it, members of the Nobel Prize committee in Oslo. What are you waiting for?

Longtime fans also know that I am NOT a big fan of Franz Liszt (below). He wrote some great music that I like a lot. But he also wrote a lot of second-rate music that I don’t like a lot. What is good, I find, is very good; and the rest too often strikes me as melodramatic pieces full of self-exhibitionistic pyrotechnical keyboard tricks and gimmicks.

Liszt photo portrait by Pierre Petit 1870

But recently the contemporary Japanese novelist got me to appreciate one piece by the 19th-century Romantic Hungarian composer and piano virtuoso.

The work is called “Le mal du pays,” or, roughly translated, “Homesickness,” and comes from the first of three books, and the first year of three, of Liszt’s generally subdued “Years of Pilgrimage: Book I — Switzerland.”

Not surprisingly it is featured, referred to and analyzed repeatedly in Murakami’s new novel the “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (below, published by Knopf), in which the meanings of home and belonging are explored in many different ways. The piano music is a kind of thematic summary of the plot, the setting and the characters.

Murakami Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki book cover

The Liszt work, which runs about six or so minutes, is a curious piece, less showy than many and full of the kind of strangeness, disjointedness and mysteriousness that Murakami treasures and so effectively conveys in his writings.

The piano piece perfectly matches the novel, its plot and characters and tones, in the music’s eerie chromaticism, in its insistent repetition, in its austerity and lack of sensuality, even in its identification with what is empty or missing and its plain old weirdness.

The haunting music embodies the book and may have been inspired it in part. Not for nothing is Murakami known as The Japanese Kafka, and the Liszt music is worthy of that equivalency.

The two works of art deserve each other, as I am increasingly finding out, and work well together.

I am now about fourth-fifths of the way through the novel, which has been No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list for hardback fiction for several weeks. It certainly has me enchanted and under its spell.

Murakami often refers to Western culture, classical and pop, and especially to classical music and jazz. (He once ran a jazz bar in Tokyo.)

In other works such as “Kafka on the Shore,” Murakami even seems something of a connoisseur of Western classical music who has compared works and various recordings of them, by Franz Schubert, Johann Sebastian Bach and others. In fact, Murakami himself could be said to have spent his own years of pilgrimage journeying through Western culture as well as fiction writing.

This time Murakami, who has excellent taste and deep knowledge or familiarity, favors a performance by the late Russian pianist Lazar Berman (below).

File written by Adobe Photoshop? 4.0

Other fans of both Murakami and Liszt have set up a website where you can listen to a YouTube recording of Berman’s playing ‘Le mal du pays.” (You can also find quite a few other recordings of it, including one by Alfred Brendel (below), on YouTube, which is also featured in a secondary role in Murakami’s new novel.)

Brendel playing BIG

And I have also found a Hyperion recording by British pianist and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant-winner Stephen Hough that I like a lot:

Hough_Stephen_color16

Here is a link to the Lazar Berman version, a second one that was set up by a Murakami fan:

Have fun listening and happy reading.

And please let us know what you think of the Liszt piece, Murakami’s newest novel and your favorite Murakami novel.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Celebrate Father’s Day with stories about the fathers of famous composers and musicians.

June 17, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Father’s Day.

Successful composers and performers have been influenced by all kinds of fathers — and father figures.

Mozart’s father Leopold (below, in 1765) was exploitative, if well meaning and knowledgeable about music. He helped the young Wolfgang who nonetheless resisted later advice once he was a mature artist and man.

Then there is the Bach family where many fathers, including Johann Ambrosius Bach (below), the father of Johann Sebastian Bach, passed down the musical trade to their sons, just as Johann Sebastian passed the trade or art down to Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christoph.

Clara Wieck’s father Friedrich, couldn’t accept that his talented pianist daughter Clara would fall for a young critic and upstart composer named Robert Schumann (below with Clara).

And Richard Strauss’ composer and performer father Franz Joseph (below, son on the left and father on the right) also proved an influence on the late Romantic composer.

What better way, then, is there  for classical music fans to mark Father’s Day than to explore some of the ways that fathers have influenced the field throughout history.

And I have found no better way than a recent story that Miles Hoffman, a professional violist, told last week on NPR.

Even the childless “Papa” Haydn came in for some remarks as being the “father” of the string quartet, the piano trio and the symphony.

But Hoffman left out one famous, or infamous, case: Johann Beethoven (below), on the other hand, was a drunk who was abusive and who would wake the young Ludwig and make him practice in the middle of the night, hoping that his son would become a profitable prodigy like Mozart. It is amazing Ludwig turned out as creative and productive as he was.

Here is a link. Enjoy! And Happy Father’s Day.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/06/15/155027862/tracing-the-trail-of-musical-fathers

And there other famous father stories about classical music that classical fans should know about?


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