The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear praises British pianist Imogen Cooper and suggests you get to know her playing and recordings, including a debut on Chandos Records with music by Brahms and Schumann. Plus, check in on Day 9 of WYSO’s tour to Argentina.

August 1, 2014

ALERT: The Youth Orchestra, under the baton of University of Wisconsin-Madison conductor James Smith (below) and belonging to the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), is into Day 9 of its 10-day tour to Argentina. Here is a link to the live real-time blog about the tour:

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

There are a lot of talented women pianists playing out there right now.

Names that get mentioned frequently are usually the younger ones, the sexier and more glamorous and, therefore, more salable ones.

The glamorous, gifted and Grammy-nominated Yuja Wang –- she of the micro-skirts and stiletto heels and fabulously fast fingers — is right at the top of the heap.

yuja wang dress times 3

But then there is Van Cliburn Competition laureate Joyce Yang (below), Khatia Buniatishvili and Lola Astanova, all of whom draw headlines and turn in memorable performances. And there are many others I am sure I am leaving out.

Joyce Yang

But today The Ear wants to sing the praises of a mature woman and a seasoned musician who deserves far more public attention than she gets.

Why? Because she is simply one of the best pianists around.

I am talking about the Englishwoman Imogen Cooper (below).

Imogen Cooper

Cooper, who turns 65 on August 28, has been on the concert scene a long time. I first got to know her through her superb 3-volume set of late Schubert (sonatas and impromptus) on the Avie label. I have also heard a live recital of Ludwig Van Beethoven (Sonata Op. 101),  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Sonata in A Minor) and Maurice Ravel (“Miroirs” or Mirrors) and she did on the Wigmore Hall Live series, and it is nothing short of miraculous.

I have not heard her critically acclaimed art song or lieder recitals with Wolfgang Holzmair or her recordings of Mozart piano concertos. But I hope to do so soon. And I would like to hear her in music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Franz Joseph Haydn and Frederic Chopin.

But recently she also made her debut on Chandos records with a solo recital I have listened to over and over again, always with great pleasure and, since I am an avid amateur pianist, great envy. The Ear would sure like to hear her perform live in Madison.

I would say that The New York Times critic senior Anthony Tommasini got right to the heart of Cooper’s magisterial playing when, in his review of a live performance, he emphasized “virtuosity without dazzle” and talked about how her sensitive performances of Franz Joseph Haydn, Robert SchumannFranz Schubert and Thomas Ades were more thoughtfully impressive than performances of more overtly flashy and superficially difficult works by, say, Franz Liszt.

Here is a link to Tommasini’s review:

The new CD, which has terrific sonic engineering, includes the seven “Fantasy Pieces” and the “Kreisleriana” of Robert Schumann as well as the too rarely heard piano version of the Theme and Variations from the String Sextet No. 1 by Johannes Brahms. (You can hear a mesmerizing live performance of the Brahms work at Hamline University in Minneapolis in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Imogen Cooper Chandos CD1 cover

Cooper studied at the Paris Conservatory and then with Alfred Brendel, with whom she partnered on a recording of Mozart dual concertos, and the depth of her preparation shows.

Cooper possesses beautiful tone, brilliant technique and a keen musical mind that creates beautifully songful phrases and, at the same time, makes penetrating sense of the music.

I have tried to find out what her next release will be –- and when it will appear –- but to no avail. (Below, in a photo by Jennifer Taylor of The New York Times, Cooper is seen playing her recital at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in New York City.)

imogen cooper at the piano zankel

Here is a link to her website:

It is a great website to visit.

It has a lot of video and audio samples of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Janacek and Chopin. It has a lot of photos, although curiously none at the piano. It has lots of interviews and reviews. It includes her favorite historic recordings by other pianists and musicians. It has a biography and a list of appearances.

Read it and you will be impressed.

How does a talent like Cooper’s fly under the radar and remain relatively unknown? That is one of the mysteries of marketing. But clearly youth sells in Youth Culture.

That said, you should listen to this debut album and follow her career.

Are there any other Imogen Cooper fans out there?

What recordings of hers do you prefer?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Here are this year’s inductees into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.

October 16, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Sorry, not this year, Yuja Wang or Lola Astanova.

The Ear knew about the well-publicized Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Baseball Hall of Fame and several others.

But I don’t think I ever knew about the American Classical Music Hall of Fame and Museum (a photo of its exterior is below) – or if I did, I had forgotten about it.

Maybe classical music isn’t as moribund or unpopular or outdated as we are being led to believe! 

Anyway, here is a link to a story about the American Classical Music Hall of Fame and Museum (a photo of its interior is below). It also features special and permanent exhibits, and is located in Cincinnati, Ohio. You can find an impressive list of the distinguished inductees going back to 1998 in the hall’s Wikipedia entry.

Sure sounds like I’ll have to add this institution as a MUST-SEE if I ever visit Cincinnati.

Some of the names of the eight new inductees should be quite familiar to you. Anyone care to guess at them?

How many have you heard live? Recorded?

How many have  you hear about and how many are unfamiliar to you?

What names would you nominate for induction next year?

Read the story – here’s a link to the museum’s website:

And here is a link to a story about this year’s gala induction ceremony, with too many photos of patrons and too few photos of the artists.

Then let us know what you think in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music news: It’s all about sex and stardom for pianists as Lang Lang gets roasted by the New York Times and Lola Astanova gets the seal of approval from famed Vladimir Horowitz pupil Byron Janis.

June 3, 2012
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Is it a mark of the times that the piano news this week seems more about sex and superstardom than about substance?

You may recall that last week on Tuesday, I posted an alert about the links at the New York City radio station WQXR so that readers could listen LIVE to the Carnegie Hall recital of Bach, Schubert and Chopin by the Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang (below, in photo from that recital by Ian Douglas for The New York Times).

Here is a link to that post, where you can still stream that concert and listen to it for yourself:

This time the reviewer who roasted the pianist was Vivien Schweitzer (below), though in the past I seem to recall that all of the Times’ critics have had their turn, and all pretty much agreed: Lang Lang has made some progress from being the flamboyant and flashy virtuoso to being a serious musician, but he still  has a long way to go.

Here is a link to that review that shows that Lang Lang’s tricks are getting a little stale, tiresome and dated for someone who is almost 30:

Speaking of making progress:

You may also recall several posts I had regarding the fashion plate and leggy pianist Lola Astanova (below top) and whether she would challenge the controversial but popular micro-skirted Yuja Wang (below bottom).

I also pointed out that a lot of the critics didn’t particularly like Astanova’s playing when she made her Carnegie Hall debut — in a program billed as a Tribute to Horowitz — at a benefit for the American Cancer Society.

But good luck recently smiled on Astanova.

No one less than the famed pianist Byron Janis (below), the virtuoso and former pupil of Vladimir Horowitz who had to curtail his career because of arthritis, recently picked Astanova as the only pianist to play at an event marking his receiving an lifetime achievement award from the Yahama Music and Wellness Institute at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center.

No word that I can find from critics yet about how well she played. But here is a story with the particulars:

Janis, by the way, has a new compilation (below) of his older and out-of-print Chopin recordings – shorter and less virtuosic or technically demanding works like mazurkas, waltzes and nocturnes – reissued by EMI, with a flashy red cover and sexy Jean Cocteau-like or Matisse-like swirling drawing , to celebrate the event. It is a fine compilation and one well worth having.

Classical music review: Blog reader Igor was also at Lola Astanova’s Carnegie hall recital and says the mainstream critics got it right when they panned it.

February 5, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

You may recall that a couple of week ago, I posted stories about the Carnegie Hall recital debut to benefit the American Cancer Society (with guest celebrities Donald Trump and Julie Andrew) by 28-year-old Uzbekistan-born pianist Lola Astanova (below), who likes to perform in the latest fashions and who is not shy about promoting herself and her good looks to further her concert career. (That is why she also invites comparison to pianist Yuja Wang.)

Here is a link to that first post:

Then a week later, I posted a number of reviews of that recital. Most of the critics said it was so-so, though a couple were more enthusiastic. Here is a link to that second post:

But subsequently I heard from two listeners who each attended the recital and were there on the spot.

Now, of course, we all know how unreliable eyewitnesses can be, thanks to the many death-penalty reversals secured around the U.S. by The Innocence Project. Eyewitness testimony, and “ear-witness” testimony too, has long known to be notoriously unreliable. So have critics’ assessments and reviews.

Add in the subjectivity of the arts and both the person making the art and the person consuming it, and the question of reliability is compounded.

In any case I want to offer two sides, one pro and one con, from two people who both attended the recital.

You can make up your own mind which one is right, or if the truth lies somewhere in between.

Yesterday, I featured Alexander Grey who wrote at length and thoughtfully to the blog, in two installments.

Here is a different and dissenting or disgreeing review, one that backs up the mainstream viewers, form the blog reader Igor:

Igor writes:

People at the concert were NOT experienced concert-goers – quite the opposite, which was very easy to determine: Most of them applauded at the end of each movement of Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata.

No, not from enthusiasm.

The audience simply was not informed that the end of a movement is not the end of the piece. Many of them attended a classical concert for the first time, all for different reasons – relation to the American Cancer Society, celebrity names involved, etc.

A lot of people left at the intermission – a fact that was mentioned by few reviewers and newspapers. The concert was listed as “sold out” at the day of performance – but large amount of tickets was just given out as an invitation, with purpose to fill out the hall.

There is an artificial and extremely aggressive attempt to impose this particular pianist as a “star” – even though she does not have any previous credits to put on her bio – no competitions, no significant public performances (the one with Gergiev (below) was a private initiative), no trace of any professional music management company interested or involved.

To give a credit to the girl, I must say that she definitely has personality and courage. Her behavior on stage (below) was, indeed, provocative – yet it had very little connection with what was played at the moment. But she does not SOUND like someone who is interested in music – bling seems to be much more important, and some piano skills just come to serve this goal.

Carnegie Hall can be rented for various purposes, especially for a benefit concert like that. Money can push media exposure. It can even hire a group of people writing good reviews – not in major newspapers like The New York Times, of course.

It takes Horowitz (below) to make a piano sound like Horowitz piano, you know.

Classical music review: Mainstream critics got it all wrong, says an eye-witness and ear-witness whose first-hand account of pianist Lola Astanova’s Carnegie Hall recital sees it quite differently.

February 4, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

You may recall that a couple of week ago, I posted stories about the Carnegie Hall recital debut to benefit the American Cancer Society by 28-year-old Uzbekistan-born pianist Lola Astanova (below), who likes to perform in the latest fashions and who is not shy about promoting herself and her good looks to further her concert career. (That is why she also invites comparison to pianist Yuja Wang.)

Here is a link to that first post:

Then a week later, I posted a number of reviews of that recital. Most of the critics said it was so-so, though a couple were more enthusiastic. Here is a link to that second post:

But subsequently I heard two listeners who each attended the recital and were there on the spot.

Now, of course, we all know how unreliable eyewitnesses can be thanks to the many death-penalty reversals secured around the U.S. by The Innocence Project. Eyewitness testimony has long known to be notoriously unreliable.

Add in the subjectivity of the arts and of both the person making the art and the person consuming it, and the question of reliability is compounded many times.

In any case today and tomorrow I want to offer two sides, one pro and one con, from two people who both attended the recital.

You can make up your own mind which one is right, or if the truth lies somewhere in between.

Today I feature Alexander Grey who wrote at length and thoughtfully to the blog, in two installments. He offered the following impressions and evaluation of the recital by Astanova:


First of all, I always enjoy reading your blog because you always try to be fair (even if you have a strong opinion), and always leave the decision up to your readers. I respect that.

So I have to say something about this Astanova concert, and all the negative reviews that you mentioned. I attended the concert, and here is what bothers me about these reviews:

First of all, nobody mentioned that Astanova received a standing ovation from nearly 3,000 people in attendance and was called back on stage (below) three times. A relevant piece of information when measuring how successful a concert went, wouldn’t you say? Especially in New York, where people are experienced (and even spoiled) concert-goers.

Secondly, nobody mentioned that among other famous names the concert was attended by Byron Janis (below), who stayed until the very end (I was sitting two rows behind him) and who was applauding standing up when Astanova finished. I think it is fair to assume that Mr. Janis knows about the piano and understands this music no less than your average critic, wouldn’t you agree? Unless one is willing to dismiss Mr. Janis’ opinion as dilettante.

Thirdly, while Astanova does seem to put a lot of thought into her outfits (she changed her dress for the second part), she did not wear anything even REMOTELY as revealing at that orange Yuja Wang number (below). Astanova wore two long gowns that showed very little skin. With that said, I think you’d have to agree that she could wear a long overcoat with neck-high boots, and people would still say that she was “pushing sex.” Let’s be honest, if she looked like a boy and weighted 200 lbs. nobody would say a word about her outfits even if she’d play in lace lingerie.

Finally, I understand that no two people are alike and opinions differ. No argument there. But I was at Carnegie Hall that night, and Astanova’s performance was very solid, and to dismiss it as “mediocre” makes me question the professionalism and objectivity of the reviewers who make such claim  particularly given their omission of the above mentioned information.

You know, promotion and marketing only go so far. Promotion can get people into a hall (maybe), but it can’t make them love a concert. And like it or not, but 3,000 people at Carnegie Hall loved her. And, frankly, the amount of heated discussions that Astanova generates only further confirms that she is anything, but mediocre.

I personally don’t like everything she does, but I think it’s great for classical music to finally produce a star that has mainstream appeal, and can get more people excited about classical repertoire. That is good for everyone.

Then came a follow-up when I asked Alexander about using his “Comment” as a post:

Hi Jake,

Thanks very much for your note.  You are certainly welcome to use my comments, though given the number of people who attended and obviously enjoyed the concert, I would not call them the “minority report.”

I am, of course, aware that Byron Janis was only “official” student of Vladimir Horowitz (below), and I thought the fact that he came to this concert, stayed until the end (despite appearing quite frail) and applauded on his feet when Astanova was done spoke volumes about her ability.  People like Mr. Janis almost never come out for anyone so I was plain amazed to see him and his reaction.

By the way, I’m pretty sure I also saw David Dubal (below, a professor of piano and performance at Juilliard and another authority on Horowitz) at the concert as well.  I don’t know if he wrote anything about it, but I’m 99% sure he was there.

In my view all these details are valuable, and one of the reasons some of the “official” reviews bothered me so much is because they ignored all of them and ended up suspiciously lop-sided. Having several reporter friends who occasionally share “dishes from their professional kitchens” I was not very surprised: $850,000 in jewels is simply too easy a target for an up-and-coming critic to pass.

By the way, here I have to applaud you again for pointing out that Mr. Zachary Woolfe (below) is actually not a New York Times critic – an important detail that, probably, escaped most people.

But much like you, I noted it as I was disappointed that New York Times did not assign the likes of senior critic Anthony Tommasini (below) to review this concert.  I wanted to read a seasoned and respected critic’s review, but we did not get it this time.  Alas.

I think I said in my original comment that Ms. Astanova may not necessarily be “my cup of tea,” but fair is fair.  She was poised, charismatic, gracious, and had a point of view. And I have to say I enjoyed it.  Time will tell, of course, but I think she is here to stay, and I believe it would be good for classical music.

Also, Ms. Astanova raised a sum in the six-figures for cancer research that night.  That’s very real money that goes to save lives.  How many classical musicians (or critics for that matter) can say the same?  Something to think about and acknowledge …

Classical music: Reviews of pianist Lola Astanova don’t sparkle as brightly as her Tiffany jewels. She played Vladimir Horowitz’s concert grand, but she is no Vladimir Horowitz.

January 28, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

You may recall that last weekend, I posted a preview and early review of the concert that the striking looking, 26-year-old, Uzbekistan-born pianist Lola Astanova (below) gave a week ago Thursday.

It was her Carnegie Hall debut, but took place within the unusual context of a gala fundraiser for the American Cancer Society that featured celebrities Donald Trump and Julie Andrews. (What do you think The Donald and The Julie said to The Lola?)

Well, you can look up some of Astanova’s recording on YouTUBE and decide about her playing for yourself.

But in the meantime, here is a sampling of various reviews of her concert that was reported on prominently because of her penchant for cutting-edge, skin-revealing, S&M-like fashion along with some $850,000 of jewelry by Tiffany. (Think she borrowed any of it from Callista Gingrich? Nah, it’s needed too much on the Florida campaign trail to attract the Republican base.)

An admirer of the great flamboyant virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz, for her “Tribute to Horowitz” Astanova also managed to perform her recital on Horowitz’ vintage and souped up Steinway concert grand that has toured the country several times for promotional purposes. (Many years ago, The Ear even got to play some Chopin, Scarlatti and Scriabin on it when it stopped in Madison.)

Her program was also classic Horowitz (below, in a portrait by Richard Avedon): One big work (Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 “Funeral March” – such an fitting choice for an uplifting cancer event, NOT); one medium piece; (Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor); and several smaller works, by Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin.

But the various reviewers seem to agree on this much: Lola Astanova is no Vladimir Horowitz, who also received his share of negative and disparaging reviews as well as raves. Still, bow ties do seem more tasteful, if less sensational, than leather or vinyl. And his paling was truly distinctive, and one of a kind.

Most of the major critics found her playing mediocre, or at least not especially outstanding – nothing faintly comparable to say the playing of that other fashion maven Yuja Wang or Valentina Lisitsa to Jonathan Biss or Jeremy Denk to pick four other very promising young piano talents.

True, some critics allowed more for the unusual nature and laudable goal of the event than others.

But nothing in any of the reviews sounds like a major label will soon sign Lola Astanova (below, after the recital). And I wouldn’t expect to see her soon of PBS’ “Great Performances” or “Live From Lincoln Center.”

But who can tell? The media can be funny about these things.

Anyway, you can read the reviews and decide for yourself.

Here is the review by freelancer Zachary Woolfe (below) for The New York Times:

Here is a more positive review:

Famed for his crankiness and chummyness with celebrities, Brit critic Norman Lebrecht (below) also weighed in. Be sure to read the comments from readers:

And here is a review that seems to focus on the whole happening as more of a charity event than a musical event:

So what is your verdict?

Do the reviews makes you sorry you weren’t in the audience to hear Lola Astanova?

Or just as happy that you missed it?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music news: Will Lola Astanova outstrip Yuja Wang as the sexiest pianist? Will Lola or Yuja become The Lady Gaga of Classical Music?

January 21, 2012

ALERT: This week’s “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature the Kat Trio (the violin, clarinet and piano trio,  below, is in residence this year at Wisconsin Public Radio) in larger works by Milhaud and Menotti as well as smaller works by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Ginastera and others. The concert is free from 12:30 to 2 p.m. and will be broadcast live over WPR. For more information, visit

By Jacob Stockinger

Is Lola Astanova about to upstage Yuja Wang as The Lady Gaga of Classical Music? (Both women say they admire Lady Gaga.)

Maybe you thought things has calmed down about Yuja Wang and her ruffling some concertgoer’s feathers with her red micro-skirts and her black, thigh-high slit black gown when she performs (below top, at Hollywood Bowl and below bottom, in a photo by Ruby Washington of The New York Times, at her Carnegie Hall debut this fall):

Well, think again.

Along comes the 26-year-old, Uzbekistan-born pianist Lola Astanova, clad in skimpy black and lots of skin, to up the ante on the sexy dress quotient in classical music.

She got quite the photo (below) and write-up preview in The New York Times this past Thursday, the morning before her concert. It all concerns her performing Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin (I don’t know the specific pieces, but she is billing it as an homage to her favorite pianist Vladimir Horowitz, so I expect it will be some of the same famous pieces by those composers that Horowitz often performed.)

You would also have to go pretty far and to extreme excess to top her own website for self-promotion. Here is a link, so you can check out the fashion shows she combines with concerts and her other promotional entries. Curiously, I still don’t see the repertoire listed.

Her performance served as her Carnegie Hall debut. But – here is the unusual part — it took place as part of a gala fundraiser the American Cancer Society featuring Donald Trump and Julie Andrews.

Here is a link to the preview story:

And here are links to an equally skimpy review:

And here is 2010 story with some great vintage quotes about her attitudes:

It is interesting to read about Astanova (below), who sees fashion as an expression and extension of her creativity and artistry, and to learn how her musical training went at Rice University with Jon Kimura Parker and others.

It will also be extremely interesting to see what kind of review she garners at other events — where she may not be wearing $850,000 in jewelry from Tiffany and Company or playing Horowitz’s own special Steinway.

But this much is certain: She sure knows how to attract the media and hype.

Will it help her career?

Maybe it already has – at least a bit. But she will have to sustain with substance, and not just flair. She will have to deliver the goods – and I mean the musical goods.

After all, I suspect that the brouhaha about Yuja Wang would not amount to much if she had failed to make a deep musical impression. But Yuja – who is younger and already records for a major label (Deutsche Grammophon) and has two Grammy nominations to her name — has the real stuff, the unquestionable musical talent to get away with a lot.

We have yet to see if it will be the same for Lola.

One way to judge may be from the plentiful videos she has on YouTUBE, where she seems to be following the path of Valentina Lisitsa (below) to alternative media fame with both mainstream repertoire and unusual pieces. (See just one example, a la Christopher O’Riley and his transcriptions of Radiohead songs, with more than one million hits, at the bottom).

So, who is the better pianist?

Yuja or Lola?

And who is the more striking fashion plate?

Yuja or Lola?

Who will be The Lady Gaga of Classical Music?

Yuja or Lola?

Is there a better way to attract young audiences or garner publicity?

The Ear wants to hear.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,264 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,384,572 hits
    October 2022
    M T W T F S S
%d bloggers like this: