The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” is an eloquent and timely testament to Black victims of racism. It deserves to be performed in Madison and elsewhere

July 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

A reader recently wrote in and suggested that fellow blog fans should listen to “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” by the Atlanta-based American composer Joel Thompson (below).

So The Ear did just that.

He was both impressed and moved by the prescient piece of choral and orchestral music. It proved both powerful and beautiful.

The title alludes to the Bible’s depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but also to the musical setting of it that was composed by Franz Joseph Hadyn in the 18th century. But it stands on its own as a much needed and very accomplished updating, especially with the “last word” or phrase “I can’t breathe.”

It is hard to believe the work was written five years ago, and not last week or last month. But it couldn’t be more relevant to today.

It shows how deeply artists have been engaging with the social and political issues of the day, particularly the role of personal and structural racism in national life, and the plight of young Black men and women who face discrimination, brutality and even death at the hands of the police and a bigoted public.

The work was premiered by the Men’s Glee Club at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2015. This performance comes from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The SSO and featured guest University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Men’s Glee Club, led by conductor Eugene Rogers  (below) – who directs choral music and teaches conducting at the UM — premiered a 2017 commissioned fully orchestrated version of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” You can hear it in the YouTube video below.

It is an eminently listenable and accessible, multi-movement work honoring the lives, deaths and personal experiences of seven Black men.

The seven last words used in the work’s text are: “Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66; “What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16; “Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23; “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18; “You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22; “It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22; “I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43.

The Ear thinks that once live concerts begin again after the coronavirus pandemic is contained, it should be programmed locally. It could and should be done by, among others, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choir; or the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choral Union; or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Festival Choir of Madison; or the Wisconsin Chamber Choir.

They have all posted messages about standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the protesters against racism. But will words lead to commitment and action?

It will be interesting to see who responds first. In addition to being timely, such a performance certainly seems like a good way to draw in young people and to attract Black listeners and other minorities to classical music.

Here is a link if you also want to check out the almost 200 very pertinent comments about the work, the performance, the performers and of course the social and political circumstances that gave rise to the work — and continue to do so with the local, regional, national and international mass protests and demonstrations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdNXoqNuLRQ&app=desktop

And here is the performance itself:

What do you think of the work?

How did you react to it?

Would you like to see and hear it performed live where you are?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Meet the “Stay at Home” Symphony Orchestra. How do they sound so close and tight? Plus, today is May Day. What music would you play to celebrate workers?

May 1, 2020
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ALERT: Today is May Day, a time to honor workers. What music would you play to celebrate and thank all the frontline workers — doctors, nurses, EMTs, police officers, firefighters, bus drivers, cleaners and janitors, grocery store workers, delivery people and others — who are now so indispensable?

By Jacob Stockinger

Many musicians — both singers and instrumentalists (below) — are self-isolating and doing their at-home best to keep those of us also sheltering in place entertained by performing virtual concerts.

It is something listeners can be grateful for. The players do an admirable and free public service during the COVID-19 crisis and coronavirus pandemic.

Of course, the virtual performances also have practical purposes.

The musicians keep their skills sharp during isolation.

And the virtual performances help to keep the names of individuals and groups, of composers and pieces, in the public’s mind at a time when live concerts have all been canceled or postponed.

There are many, many virtual concerts to choose from – made by local, regional, national and international musicians, some amateurs and some professional.

Many of them are solo performances given by an individual member of an orchestra, chamber music group or choral ensemble as well as big-name soloists such as pianist Emanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The individual ones are appreciated and impressive, even if some of the performances seem amateur-like in the sound or awkwardness.

What really impresses The Ear is when large groups, such as symphony orchestras and choirs, perform something with all the players at home and yet somehow the whole finished product sounds incredibly tight in and incredibly professional.

Last Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera even held a four-hour online gala with singers and instrumentalists from all over the world.

It makes The Ear wonder why they sound so good. How they do it, with all the complications and variables of timing and tempo, of rhythm, pitch and dynamics?

Is it the planning?

The processing and editing?

In any case, a very good example comes from the “Stay at Home” Symphony Orchestra playing Mozart’s Overture to the opera “The Marriage of Figaro.”

You can hear the YouTube video of the performance below.

Are there other such performances that you can point out to The Ear and you would like to see posted on this blog?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The gala opening this weekend of the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center is SOLD OUT. What do you think of the building, the music and the event? Plus, veteran music critic John W. Barker has died

October 25, 2019
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ALERT: Word arrived late last night that the respected longtime music critic John W. Barker, a retired UW-Madison professor of medieval history, died Thursday morning. He wrote locally for Isthmus, The Capital Times and this blog. Details will be shared when they are known. 

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, Oct. 25-27, marks the official gala opening of the new Hamel Music Center (below, in a photo by Bryce Richter for University Communications) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. It is located at 740 University Ave., next to the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art, which has a special exhibit relating to the new music center.

The impressive $58-million structure, which has taken many years to fund  (completely privately) and then to build, will celebrate its opening tonight, Saturday night (while the 14th annual Halloween FreakFest on State Street is happening) and Sunday afternoon.

The performers will include distinguished alumni, faculty members and students.

Here is a link to an overall schedule as published on the School of Music’s home website: https://www.music.wisc.edu/hamel-music-center-opening-schedule/

Thanks to an astute reader who found what The Ear couldn’t find, here is a complete schedule — long, varied and impressive — of works and performers: https://www.music.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/20191025-Hamel-Music-Center-Opening-Weekend.pdf

And here is a link to the official UW-Madison press release with more background and details about the building: https://news.wisc.edu/mead-witter-school-of-musics-hamel-music-center-opening-this-fall/

UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger (below) has been commissioned to write a Fanfare that will receive its world premiere tonight.

The opening promises to be a success, complete with receptions at the end of each performance.

In fact, the public has signed on enough that the FREE tickets to all events are SOLD OUT, according to the School of Music’s home website.

Taste is personal and varies, and The Ear has heard mixed reviews of the new building. (For the special occasion, you can hear “The Consecration of the House” Overture by Beethoven, performed by the La Scala opera house orchestra in Milan under Riccardo Muti, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Basically, people seem to agree that the acoustics are much improved over Mills Hall and Morphy Recital Hall in the old Humanities Building.

But public opinion seems more divided over other aspects, from the overall external architecture and interior design to the smaller size of the big hall, the seats and seating layout, and the restrooms.

So if you go – or have already gone – let the rest of us know what you think about those various aspects of the new building and about the various performers and programs.

As a warm-up preview, here are photos of the main halls or spaces, all taken by Bryce Richter for University Communications:

Here is the 660-seat Mead Witter Concert Hall:

Here is the 300-seat Collins Recital Hall:

And here is the Lee/Kaufman Rehearsal Hall:

But what do you say? You be the critic.

The Ear and others hope to see COMMENTS from listeners and especially performers. What is it like to perform there? Or to sit and listen?

What does the public think of the new building and concert halls? Are you satisfied? What do you like and what don’t you like?

Should some things have been done – or not done – in your opinion?

Does the building and do the concert halls live up to the expectations and hype?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival starts this Friday and marks 30 years with jazz plus music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Brahms, Ravel, Schoenberg and John Harbison

August 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this coming Friday, Aug. 16, and running through Sept. 1, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will mark its 30th anniversary with the theme of “Sanctuary.” (The festival takes place in a refurbished barn, below, at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.)


Add the festival directors: “The term ‘sanctuary’ attempts to capture in a single word something essential about what the festival has meant to players and listeners over all these years. From the start it aspired to offer something of retreat, an oasis, a place of refreshment and nourishment in art, both for musician participants who find a welcoming environment to “re-charge” their work, and for audience attendees who engage in and become a part of it.”

“In our small country barn,” writes prize-winning composer John Harbison (below top, in a photo by Tom Artin) who co-directs the festival with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison (below bottom, in a photo by Tom Artin), “we have always remained devoted to the scale and address of much chamber music, which speaks as often in a whisper as in a shout.

“Where larger musical institutions have been habitually frustrated by trying to live in the business model of growth, we have remained devoted to the intensity of the experience, which explains why the music never goes away, rather than to claims of numbers, which begs the music itself to change its very nature.

“Our conviction is that today’s composers, just like Schubert and Mozart, are still striving to embody daily experience, to connect to the natural world, and to ask philosophically and spiritually unanswerable questions, surrounded and interrupting silence, asking only for our most precious commodity — time. We continue to look for valuable ways to offer this transaction to our listeners, and are grateful for their interest over so many years.”

The first two concerts, at 5 p.m., on Friday and Saturday nights, feature the return of a jazz cabaret featuring standard works in the Great American Songbook. For more information about the program and performers, as well as tickets, go to: www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.

Tickets for the two jazz concerts are $40 for the balcony and $45 for cafe seating. Tickets for the other concerts are $32 with a limited number of student tickets available for $12.

HERE IS THE LINEUP FOR THE REST OF THE FESTIVAL

Program 2: Music of Brahms at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24, and Sunday, Aug. 25

Johannes Brahms is the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use.  This is due to his fastidious high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players. His music is universally admired for the astounding combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact.

The program includes the Regenlied (Rain Song), Op. 57 no. 3; Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 78; the Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38; and the Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60. (The “Rain Song” is used as the theme of the last movement of the violin sonata. You can hear it performed by violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang in the YouTube video at the bottom, which also features the score so that you can follow along.)

Performers are Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson (below top); violinist Rose Mary Harbison; violist Lila Brown (below second); cellist Rhonda Rider (below third, in a photo by Liz Linder); and pianist Janice Weber (below bottom).

Program 3: Then and Now, Words and Music – An 80th Birthday Tribute to John Harbison. Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 7:30 p.m.

Last February, when Madison launched a citywide celebration of co-artistic director John Harbison’s 80th birthday, bitter cold and deep snow made it impossible for the festival to open up The Barn and join in the festivities.

The Wednesday program – an intimate concert of words and music curated by the Harbisons — is the festival’s belated birthday tribute. Harbison will read from his new book about Johann Sebastian Bach, and Boston poet Lloyd Schwartz (below top) will offer a reading of his poems that are the basis of a song cycle to presented by baritone Simon Barrad (below bottom). The evening will include a discussion on setting text, “Poem to Song,” and the world premiere of new Harbison songs, still in progress, on poems of Gary Snyder.

The program includes: Selections from the Violin Sonata in B minor, with violinist Rose Mary Harbison, and “The Art of Fugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach; “Four Songs of Solitude” and “Nocturne” by John Harbison; the Violin Sonata in G Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the “Phantasy” for violin and piano by Arnold Schoenberg; the “SchwartzSongs” and “Four Poems for Robin” by John Harbison.

Program 4: The Piano , at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31, and Sunday, Sept. 1.

The closing program welcomes back husband-and-wife pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Chuang (below top) is acclaimed by critics in the U.S. and abroad for performances of stunning virtuosity, refinement and communicative power. Levin (below bottom, in a photo by Clive Barda), who teaches at Harvard University, is revered for his Mozart completions and classical period improvisations.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer — that is, composers who were also formidable pianists: Mozart, Ravel and Liszt.

Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of Harbison’s Piano Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, will be performed. Also on the program are Mozart’s Allegro in G Major, K. 357 (completion by Robert Levin); Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”; and Franz Liszt’s “Reminiscences of Don Juan.”

Other performers are: violinists Rose Mary Harbison and Laura Burns, of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Rhapsodie String Quartet; violists Jen Paulson and Kaleigh Acord; cellist Karl Lavine, who is principal cello of both the  Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra as well as the Chamber Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO); and double bassist Ross Gilliland.


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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: Longtime NPR host Robert Siegel brought his love of classical music to “All Things Considered.” Here are 10 interviews and some background to mark his recent retirement

January 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you are a fan of “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio – and The Ear certainly is – you probably already know not to listen for veteran host Robert Siegel (below) on this afternoon’s broadcast.

Or any other ATC broadcast in the future.

That is because last Friday afternoon Siegel had his last sign-off. He retired after spending 41 years with NPR – the first 10 as a reporter, including as a London correspondent, and the last 31 as a host of the prize-winning afternoon news and features magazine “All Things Considered,” which, by the way, was created by Jack Mitchell, who later came to teach Mass Communications at the UW-Madison.

There will be much to miss about Siegel. His qualities included a calming voice, a ready laugh, fairness and objectivity, a convivial studio presence and sharp but respectful interviewing skills.

One of the things that The Ear hopes will survive Siegel’s departure is the much-needed public attention he brought to classical music, which he loved and which the other media today so often ignore.

The mark his retirement, NPR classical music blogger Tom Huizenga compiled a list of 10 important interviews that Siegel conducted over the years. Then he put links to those interviews on an NPR blog.

Huizenga also got Siegel to open up about the formative influences that sparked his love for classical music. They included his young love for the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, by Ludwig van Beethoven — the so-called “Emperor” Concerto, which you can hear played by Alfred Brendel in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Siegel went on to cover big stars like superstar soprano Renee Fleming; medium stars like violinist Gil Shaham (below), who performs with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this month; and smaller and new stars like the iconoclast harpsichord virtuoso Mahan Esfahani.

He also covered a U.S. Army rifleman who performed a violin recital for Churchill and Truman, and the role that music by Beethoven played in Communist China.

And there are many, many more, for which classical music and we listeners owe a debt to Siegel.

Check it out and enjoy! Here is a link to that posting on the Deceptive Cadence blog:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/01/05/575906745/10-interviews-celebrating-robert-siegels-love-for-classical-music


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