The Well-Tempered Ear

YOU MUST HEAR THIS: No piece captures the mixed emotions of Memorial Day better than Charles Ives’ “Decoration Day”

May 30, 2022
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day, 2022.

It is the annual holiday to remember those who died in military service to the country. (Below are flags placed each year at the tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.)

If you want to honor survivors and current service members, that would be Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

All weekend long the radio has been playing music and the television has been showing war movies.

A lot of the music is familiar and repeated every year: Sousa marches and Morton Gould suites, elegies by Gustav Mahler, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein; requiems by Mozart and Fauré; a hymn by John Williams and other movie scores. This year has also seen the playlist include rediscovered works of homage by African-American composers such as William Grant Still.

But only this year did The Ear finally hear — thanks to Wisconsin Public Radio — the one piece that, to his mind, best captures Memorial Day with its blending of consonance and dissonance, its mix of major and major keys, of familiar or “found” music and original music.

It is called, simply, “Decoration Day” and it was composed in 1912 — but not published until 1989 — by the 20th-century iconoclastic and early modernist American composer Charles Ives (below, 1874-1954). It ended up as part of a work the composer called “A Symphony: New England Hollidays.”

See if you agree with The Ear.

Listen to the 8-minute performance by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Listen to the deep anguish and and sense of loss conveyed in the opening, when a solemn remembrance procession goes to a cemetery to plant flags and lay flowers and wreaths to “decorate” the graves of the fallen.

Listen carefully and you will hear a faint version of “Taps” and ringing church bells in the atmospheric music.

Then as so often happens in reality, life suddenly intrudes in the form of a celebration by a loud marching brass band as it leaves the cemetery for the celebratory marches, picnics and fireworks.

But at the end, the darkness briefly returns. The sense of loss lingers long after the actual death and long after the holiday has been celebrated.

There is no closure.

Just resignation.

Just living with loss.

Here is the background from Wikipedia about how the holiday started as Decoration Day after the Civil War and when it evolved into Memorial Day in 1970: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_Day

And here is biographical background, with the actual sources and depictions of “Decoration Day”  — just go  down the page to compositions and click — about Charles Ives: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Ives

Did you know and like Charles Ives’ music?

Does “Decoration Day” impress or move you?

What music most embodies Memorial Day for you?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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WORT-FM 89.9 now has a Monday morning show of modern and contemporary classical music with Paul Baker

April 6, 2022
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By Jacob Stockinger

The listener-sponsored, community radio station WORT-FM 89.9 — long a home for classical music from all eras, from the earliest to the newest — has a new program to join its many others about music in all genres and all periods as well as news and commentary about public affairs.

It airs on Monday mornings from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. with Paul Baker (below, in his WORT studio). He is well-known radio host, music critic and amateur musician.

Baker recently shared with The Ear some insights into his new show “Listen Adventurously”:

Are you still doing your show for WSUM, the student-run FM radio station at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?

I hosted Only Strings on WSUM-FM 91.7 to focus on chamber music at a time when I was taking cello lessons. I wanted to absorb as much chamber music as possible, and preparing for, and hosting, a radio program was one good way to do that. I ended the show in 2019 when I reached the five-year mark.

How did the new WORT show come about?

I’ve been a WORT fan for more than 30 years. I know many of the program hosts and have been in touch with the music director, Sybil Augustine, for some time.

I had hosted a WORT Sunday early morning show briefly about 20 years ago. The Monday morning classical slot recently became available when Christopher Delamarter stepped down, so I raised my hand.

What can you tell us about the content of the show?

The show has been billed as 20th-century classical music. I am extending that to include pieces from the 2000s as well — things written as recently as last year. There is just so much good material. Younger composers and performers deserve to be heard. 

So the show will feature Bartok and Shostakovich and Samuel Barber, of course, but also Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt and Jennifer Higdon and Laura Schwendinger (below, who teaches at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and whose music is widely performed) and Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion Ensemble. In my opinion, there’s a lack of local availability to hear this music.

I enjoy sharing music with people. When I worked on campus, I programmed three shows for WSUM-FM. Now that I’m retired, I’m happy to have this opportunity on WORT. The only drawback is that I must get up at 4 a.m. for the 5 a.m. air time. But I’m a morning person, so it’s not that bad.

Editor’s note: If you want to see a sample playlist, as well as WORT’s daily show schedule, here a link to the one from this past Monday: https://www.wortfm.org/on-air-schedule/


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How will you celebrate World Piano Day today?

March 29, 2022
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today — Tuesday, March 29, 2022 — is World Piano Day.

(Below is a restored vintage concert grand piano at Farley’s House of Pianos used for recitals in the Salon Piano Series.)

How will you mark it? Celebrate it?

It’s a fine occasion to revisit your favorite pianist and favorite piano pieces.

Who is your favorite pianist, and what piano piece would you like to hear today?

If you yourself took piano lessons or continue to play, what piece would you play to mark the occasion? Fo the Ear, it will be either a mazurka by Chopin or a movement from either a French Suite or a Partita by Johann Sebastian Bach. Maybe both!

What piano piece do you wish you could play, but never were able to? For The Ear, it would be the Ballade No. 4 in F minor by Chopin.

One of the best ways to mark the day is to learn about a new younger pianist you might not have heard of.

For The Ear, one outstanding candidate would be the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson ( below), who has won critical acclaim and who records for Deutsche Grammophon (DG). 

Olafsson has a particular knack for innovative and creative programming, like his CD that alternates works by Claude Debussy and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

He also seems at home at in many different stylistic periods. His records every thing from Baroque masters, to Mozart and his contemporaries in the Classical period — including Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach — to Impressionists to the contemporary composer Philip Glass.

But The Ear especially loves his anthology of Bach pieces (below) that include original works and transcriptions, including some arranged by himself. His playing is always precise and convincing, and has the kind of cool water-clear sound that many will identify with Andras Schiff.

You can hear a sample of his beautiful playing for yourself in the YouTube video at the bottom. It is an live-performance encore from his inaugural appearance last August at The Proms in London, where he also played Mozart’s dramatically gorgeous Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor (also available on YouTube.)

Final word: You might find some terrific pianists and performances on the Internet. Record labels, performing venues and other organizations are marking the day with special FREE recitals that you can reach through Google and Instagram.

Happy playing!

Happy listening!

Please leave a comment and let The Ear and other readers know what you think of the piano — which seems to be falling out of favor these days — and which pianists and piano pieces you will identify this year with World Piano Day.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Live music continues its comeback from the pandemic. Today is Make Music Madison with free concerts citywide of many kinds of music. Here are guides with details

June 21, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

Live music continues to make its comeback from the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The past week saw live outdoor concerts by Con Vivo, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Today – Monday, June 21 –is Make Music Madison 2021.

It is part of an annual worldwide phenomenon that started in France in 1982. It has since spread globally and is now celebrated in more than 1,000 cities in 120 countries.

Yet in the U.S., Wisconsin is one of only five states that celebrate Make Music Day statewide. The other states are Connecticut, Hawaii, New Mexico and Vermont. In there U.S., more than 100 cities will take part in presenting free outdoor concerts. Globally, the audience will be in the millions.

The day is intended to be a way to celebrate the annual Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. Technically, the solstice occurred in Wisconsin last night, on Father’s Day, at 10:32 p.m. CDT.

But The Ear is a forgiving kind. This will be the first full day of summer, so the spirit of the celebration lives on despite the calendar.

You can see – the composer Igor Stravinsky advised listening with your eyes open – and hear 38 different kinds of music. The choices include blues, bluegrass, Celtic, roots music, gospel, rock, jazz, classical, folk, African music, Asian music, world music, children’s music (see the YouTube video at the bottom) and much more. It will be performed by students and teachers,  amateurs and professionals, individuals and groups.

Here is a link to a press release about the overall event: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/make-music-day-2021-announces-updated-schedule-of-events-301304107.html

And here is a link to the global home website — with more background information and a live-stream video of a gong tribute to the who died of COVID — about the festival: https://www.makemusicday.org

The local events will take place from 5 a.m. to midnight. All are open to the public without admission, and safety protocols will be observed.

Here is a guide to local events that allow you to search particulars of the celebration by area of the city, genre of music, performers, venues and times. If you are a classical fan, in The Ear’s experience you might want to pay special attention to Metcalfe’s market in the Hilldale mall.

Here is a link to the home webpage of Make Music Madison: https://www.makemusicmadison.org

Here is a link to the event calendar with maps and schedules as well as alternative plans in case of rain and various menus for searching: https://www.makemusicmadison.org/listings/

Happy listening!

In the Comment section, please leave your observations and suggestions or advice about the quality and success of the festival and the specific events you attended.

The Ear wants to hear.


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This Saturday night the Wisconsin Chamber Choir and Grammy winner Sarah Brailey perform a free live-streamed concert of music by women

May 13, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (WCC, below) with a special guest — Grammy Award-winning soprano and UW-Madison graduate Sarah Brailey – will perform this Saturday, May 15, at 7 p.m.

“Music She Wrote” is a celebration of music composed by a highly diverse group of women from many ages.

Choir members will sing from their individual cars using wireless microphones, listening to the sound of the whole choir via their car radios.

The audience is invited to listen in live on YouTube and to let us know they are interested by sending an RSVP to our Facebook event.

There is no charge to view the livestream, but donations will be welcome. 

Here are the links to hear the performance LIVE on YouTube or Facebook:

https://youtu.be/Iaz0wZhuG18 or: 

https://www.facebook.com/events/1561155960751974/

The WCC had scheduled a regular concert with an all-female cast of composers for May 2020, which fell victim to Covid-19. As it became obvious that the pandemic would last longer, the WCC started exploring new ways of making and disseminating music.

From September 2020, we resumed activity in the shape of the Parking Lot Choir, generating local media coverage from WKOW-TV and Madison Magazine, whose story was headlined “Forget tailgates, parking lots are for choir practice.”

The result of this first rehearsal run was the widely acclaimed “Car Carols” concert in December 2020, whose format is the model for “Music She Wrote.”

In addition to the Parking Lot Choir, three smaller groups from the WCC assembled at the Edgewood College Amphitheater on Saturday mornings to rehearse (below) in widely spaced formations, wearing specially designed singer masks.

Another such group, made up of our members from southeastern Wisconsin, met in Whitewater on Sunday afternoons. Recordings by those four small groups will be aired during the May 15 broadcast in addition to live singing by the Parking Lot choristers.

The program includes: the Garden Songs by Fanny Hensel, née Mendelssohn (Felix’s sister, below), which were intended for outdoor performance; and Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women, the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement in the English-speaking world.

In addition to works by African American composers Ysaÿe M. Barnwell (below top) and Rosephanye Powell and by Cuban composer Beatriz Corona (below second), the program includes samples from outside the Western tradition — Lamma Badaa Yatathannaa, sung in Arabic, by Shireen Abu-Shader (below third), who hails from Jordan but received her academic education in the U.S. and Canada; and two pieces by Japanese composer Makiko Kinoshita (below bottom).

Western early music is represented by Italian composers Raffaella Aleotti (below top) and Chiara Cozzolani (below bottom), who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Finally, there is singer-songwriter Judy Collins with her Song for Sarajevo, composed for the children of the war in Bosnia in 1994 and arranged by her longtime collaborator, Russell Walden. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more details, visit: https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org/music-she-wrote.

Sarah Brailey (below, in a photo by Miranda Loud), a native of Wisconsin, studied at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she has just completed her doctorate. A consummate musician and internationally acclaimed soloist, she recently won a Grammy Award in the Best Classical Vocal Solo Album category for her role as The Soul in the world premiere recording of Ethel Smyth’s The Prison. 

She is familiar to Madison audiences not only as a performer and co-founder of Just Bach but also as the co-host of WORT’s Musica Antiqua show on FM 89.9 and the director of Grace Presents. 

As a graduate student, she joined the WCC for two seasons from 2004 to 2006. We are thrilled to welcome her back! For more information on Sarah, see her website at https://sarahbrailey.com


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From Beethoven to today: The next five days at the UW-Madison are busy with FREE online concerts of new music, string music, brass music and more

April 8, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

From now through Monday, April 13, there are many FREE online concerts – virtual or pre-recorded – at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

The schedule includes three different concerts on Saturday, April 10, alone. (All times are central and many concerts will be available for longer than a day.)

The variety of music is terrific and features all kinds of instruments and genres of music.

Here is a link to all of them, which will appear on YouTube. If your click on “Show More,” you will see more information about the performers and the programs. You can also set a convenient Reminder Timer to help you remember to listen: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZZ2F66Bu2yAfccvsugEtsA

You can read all of them by yourself. But the Ear wants to single out several of special interest.

NEW MUSIC: TONIGHT

If you are a fan of new music, there are two concerts you should consider listenIing to.

TONIGHT, April 8, at 7:30 p.m. and then at 8:30 p.m. are two concerts of new music.

The first concert is by the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

Titled “Colors” (below is the poster) the concert features music by Debussy, Lang, San Martin, UW-Madison professor Laura Schwendinger and Edgard Varese.

The performance are by faculty performers violist Sally Chisholm, flutist Conor Nelson and pianist Christopher Taylor, as well as alumni and students Eric Tran, Eric Delgado, Heidi Keener, Ben Therrell and Ben Yats.

Here is a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5Gxe7yTWpI

Then at 8:30 p.m., a studio recital by composition students (below) at the UW-Madison will take place. No names of performers or pieces are listed. But here is the link that is given: https://youtu.be/WmTBoLD9IQc

BEETHOVEN QUARTET CYCLE 7: FRIDAY NIGHT

At 7:30 p.m. is the seventh installment of the cycle, which is part of the Pro Arte Quartet’s yearlong retrospective of Beethoven’s string quartets to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Members are David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violins; Sally Chisholm, viola; and Parry Karp, cello.

The program has two late quartets: the famous last one, Op. 135, in F major (1826) with the :”Muss es sein” (Must It Be?) motif, which can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom of the final movement played by the Cypress String Quartet;  and the famous “Grosse Fuge” quartet and ending in B-flat Major, Opp. 130 and 133 (1825-6).

The Ear — who particularly likes Beethoven’s return to clarity and classicism in his final quartet — has listened to all the installments and they have all been superb. There’s no reason to expect anything different with this installment.

UW professor of musicology Charles Dill will give short introductory talks before each quartet. You can find extended program notes about the quartet and the program here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-beethoven-string-quartet-cycle-program-7/

And here is the link to the live-streamed concert from the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the Hamel Music Center: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIW_5NVgGaA

UNIVERSITY OPERA SINGS SONGS OF RACIAL AND SOCIAL JUSTICE: SATURDAY AND SUNDAY

This spring, University Opera follows up its groundbreaking video production on the life and times of composer Marc Blitzstein with another video.

What’s Past is Prologue: The Unfinished American Conversation, a program of staged and filmed songs and song cycles with social and racial justice themes, will be released on the Mead Witter School of Music YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/7Up_OXD6K2U this Saturday, April 10, at 7:30 p.m., with an encore stream this Sunday, April 11, at 2 p.m. David Ronis, Director of University Opera, is the director, and Thomas Kasdorf is the musical director, who accompanies the singers on piano.

For more background, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-presents-whats-past-is-prologue-the-unfinished-american-conversation/

For the performance, go to: https://youtu.be/7Up_OXD6K2U


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Today – Monday, March 29 – is World Piano Day. Here are links to free online recitals. What does the piano mean to you? Did it play a role during the pandemic?

March 29, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – March 29, 2021 – is World Piano Day.

That is because today is the 88th day of 2021.

Gotta have some kind of code or symbolic meaning, after all.

In any case, there are virtual online celebrations all over the world. Here is a link to the official welcoming website that also lists Spotify and SoundCloud playlists from past years and dozens of worldwide events this year, running from March 25-30: https://www.pianoday.org

You can also find more on Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The piano means a lot to The Ear, who listens to it and plays it. He loves, loves, loves the piano.

What has the piano and piano music meant to you in your life?

What role did the piano play for you during the past pandemic year?

Have you listened to or discovered newer, younger talent?

Do you have favorite pianists, either historic or current? What do you like about them?

Or maybe you have favorite piano pieces?

Please tell us all about you and the piano in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

In the meantime you can listen to the World Piano Day “monster recital” by 17 pianists who record for Deutsche Grammophon. The “Yellow Label” – the first commercial record label — has signed a lot of great pianists in its time, and still does.

Here is a link to the YouTube DG recital, which lasts 2 hours and 50 minutes. If you go to the actual YouTube site, click on Show More to see the complete list of performers and pieces. Otherwise performers and programs are displayed on the screen:


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Did any composer ever capture the quiet, timeless and motionless cold of deep winter better than Debussy?

February 9, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

It was one of those deep subzero days of the polar vortex that we seem locked in now right now.

The Ear looked out a window.

It was a chilly scene of winter, as the American writer Ann Beattie once described it.

The Ear saw the snow piled up.

He listened to the windless quiet.

Time, like motion, seemed to stop– or at least slow down — in the severe cold.

He saw tracks in the snow.

He couldn’t say whether they came from a rabbit or a squirrel or some other critter.

But it brought to mind a piano prelude by Debussy (below) that contains a kind of frozen minimalism.

Life was once again imitating art, as Oscar Wilde once observed, remarking that “there was no fog in London until the Impressionists painted it.”

Has any piece ever captured the cold, the quiet, the feeling of time and motion slowing down or stopping as Debussy did in “Des pas dans la neige” (Tracks in the Snow)?

Especially as it was played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (below) who, like Sviatoslav Richter, wasn’t afraid to risk taking a slower-than-usual tempo if it right felt right and created the appropriate  atmosphere. (You can hear Michelangeli playing the Debussy prelude in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Do you agree about the Debussy piece?

About Michelangeli’s interpretation?

Do you know of another piece that captures the Arctic cold spell we are in?

Please leave a comment and a YouTube link, if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.

Stay safe and warm.

 


Which classical composer has helped you the most during the Covid-19 pandemic?

January 4, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

The holidays are over and as we close in on marking a year of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, The Ear has a question:

Which composer has helped you the most to weather the pandemic so far?

The Ear wishes he could say Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin or Brahms. And the truth is that they all played a role, some more than others.

But The Ear was surprised by the composer whose works he most listened to and liked — Antonio Vivaldi (below), the Red Priest of Venice who lived from 1678 to 1714 and taught at a Roman Catholic girls school.

Here is more about his biography, which points out that his work was neglected for two centuries and began being rediscovered only in the early 20th-century and still continues being rediscovered to the present day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Vivaldi

The Ear isn’t talking about popular The Four Seasons although that set of 12 solo violin concertos has its charms and originalities.

The Ear especially appreciated the lesser-known concertos for two violins and the cello concertos, although the concertos for bassoon, flute, recorder, oboe, lute, trumpet and mandolin also proved engaging, as did the concerto grosso.

It was the 20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky (below) – the modern pioneer of neo-Classicism — who complained that Vivaldi rewrote the same concerto 500 times. “Vivaldi,” Stravinsky once said, “is greatly overrated – a dull fellow who could compose the same form many times over.”

But then did anyone turn to Stravinsky – who, The Ear suspects, was secretly envious — when they needed music as medicine or therapy during the pandemic? 

Vivaldi was, in fact, a master. See and hear for yourself.  In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, RV 535,  performed by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

Why Vivaldi? You might ask.

Well, it’s nothing highbrow.

The best explanation is that Vivaldi’s music simply seems like caffeine for the ears and sunshine for the eyes. His music isn’t overly introspective or glum, and it isn’t too long or melodramatic.

The melodies and harmonies are always pleasing and energizing, and the tempi are just right, although bets are that the music is much harder to play than it sounds.

In short, Vivaldi’s extroverted music is infectious and appealing because it just keeps humming along — exactly as those of us in lockdown and isolation at home have had to do.

Happily, there are a lot of fine recordings of Vivaldi by period instrument groups from England, Italy and Germany and elsewhere that use historically informed performance practices. But some the most outstanding recordings are by modern instrument groups, which should not be overlooked.

With a few exceptions – notably Wisconsin Public Radio – you don’t get to hear much Vivaldi around here, especially in live performances, even from early music and Baroque ensembles. If you hear Vivaldi here, chances are it is The Four Seasons or the Gloria. Should there be more Vivaldi? Will we hear more Vivaldi when live concerts resume? That is a topic for another time.

In the meantime, The Ear wants to know:

Which composer did you most listen to or find most helpful throughout the pandemic?

Leave your choice in the comment section with, if possible, a YouTube link to a favorite work and an explanation about why you liked that composer and work.

The Ear wants to hear.

Thank you and Happy New Year!

 


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