The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross names his favorite performances, recordings and book of 2017

January 5, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Many musicologists, musicians and music fans consider Alex Ross (below), of The New Yorker magazine, to be the best music critic in the U.S.

Besides the major awards his two books – “The Rest Is Noise” and “Listen to This” — have won, Ross has a reputation for emphasizing the new, the unknown and the neglected, and for deeply perceptive judgments and original observations.

Now, a lot of other critics, from The New York Times, National Public Radio (NPR) and Gramophone magazine as well as the Grammy nominations have named their Best of 2017.

Here is a link to a posting that contains other links to those different lists:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/27/classical-music-here-are-some-recommendations-for-post-christmas-shopping/

Yet it seems particularly important and enlightening to consider what Alex Ross has selected for his recommendations for one book, 10 performances and 20 recordings.

Here is a link to Ross’ list, which has many links to samples and reviews:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/2017-in-review/notable-performances-and-recordings-of-2017

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Classical music: Which political campaigns have used classical music?

August 14, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

In the past, the music that political campaigns used was often jingles that reminded one of Madison Avenue advertising, even when they were composed by Broadway song master Irving Berlin.

These days, it seems to The Ear that most political campaigns use rock, pop or country music.

Sometimes folk music.

Never jazz.

And, one supposes, you will never hear the blues since that would be a pretty downbeat message for politicians.

But leave it to our friends at WQXR-FM, the famed classical music radio station in New York City, to offer some samples of political campaign music, including some that used classical music.

Ike campaign political campaigns and classical music

Donald Trump (below), the current Republican nominee for president, has tried to use the famous opera aria “Nessum dorma” (None Shall Sleep) from “Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini.

Donald Trump thumbs up

Fittingly, in the opera the moving and beautiful aria is sung by a prince to woo a Chinese tyrant or despot.

The Ear especially loved the way it was used so appropriately during the carpet bombing of Cambodia by the U.S. in the movie “The Killing Fields.”

Trump used one of the best versions available – sung by Luciano Pavarotti, one of which has 38 million hits and which you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom.

But the Pavarotti estate refused to grant him permission to use it and asked him to cease and desist. Good for them.

Now Trump uses something in the public domain: the Overture to the opera “The Thieving Magpie” by Giachino Rossini.

Anyway, here is a link to the story:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/6-us-political-campaigns-set-to-classical-music/


Classical music: At 75, does opera superstar Placido Domingo still have what it takes?

June 16, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

He is 75.

He was a superstar tenor for decades, often competing with the late Luciano Pavarotti for top honors in the opera world.

Then he became a conductor and now he sings as a baritone since his voice dropped with old age.

But does Spanish-born and Mexican-raised Placido Domingo (below) still have what it takes to be in the top ranks of the opera world?

FRENI

Famed critic Norman Lebrecht, who lives and works in the United Kingdom, recently heard Domingo sing in “Nabucco” by Giuseppe Verdi at Covent Garden in London.

Here is his review and first-hand account from his blog Slipped Disc:

http://slippedisc.com/2016/06/domingo-you-pitiful-old-man-a-shadow-of-what-you-were/

 


Classical music: Meet Mexican tenor Javier Camarena who got to perform an encore at The Met. Plus, today is your last chance to hear pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a program that gets raves from the critics

April 3, 2016
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ALERT 1: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, is your last chance to hear pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain in a program of the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Johannes Brahms; the tone poem “Don Juan” by Richard Strauss; and the Symphony No. 1 by Steven Stucky. Critics have loved the performances.

Here is a link to a review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/enterprise-and-mastery-madison-symphony-orchestra/

Here is a link to a review by Lindsay Christians for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/brahms-and-strauss-dabble-in-love-on-mso-s-april/article_eca654f4-f889-11e5-a327-af48290d204d.html

ALERT 2: UW-Madison clarinetist Wesley Warnhoff will perform a FREE recital, with renowned UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. They perform a sonata by Johannes Brahms and a rhapsody by Claude Debussy among others. Here is a link to more information and the compete program:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wesley-warnhoff-clarinet/

By Jacob Stockinger

At the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, not many singers get to stop the show — the big, complex and expensive show — and sing an encore aria.

In recent years, since 1942, there have been only three. There was Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Florez, who astonished the audience by repeating the nine high C’s in Gaetano Donizetti’s “La Fille du regiment” (The Daughter of the Regiment).

But just recently there was a third.

His name is Mexican tenor Javier Camarena (below in a photo by Marty Sohl for The Met). He was singing in Don Pasquale,” also by Donizetti, one of the masters of the show-offy and impressively embellished “bel canto” or “beautiful singing” style.

Tenor Javier Camarena CR Marty Sohl for The Met

Camarena wowed the crowd with a high D-flat, a half-step higher than the high C that his predecessors sang.

Here is a story, with an interview, on NPR or National Public Radio, that gets you excited about the man and the event just by reading about them:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/03/28/471842692/the-show-stopping-singing-of-javier-camarena

And here in a YouTube video is the aria he sang —  and then sang again:


Classical music: It’s Valentine’s Day 2016. What do you think is the most romantic piece of music ever written? Plus, this afternoon is the last performance of the Valentine program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra

February 14, 2016
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ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the Valentine’s Day program of works by Peter Tchaikovsky, Maurice Ravel and Ludwig van Beethoven performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Daniel Hegge and guest soloist violinist Alina Ibragimova. The opening night performance received fine reviews.

Here is a link to the review by Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/concert-review-madison-symphony-dedicates-valentine-s-weekend-to-love/article_21d106c8-1011-5f6c-9346-f17c3d07b2e3.html

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Valentine’s Day.

Cupid

That makes it a good occasion to talk about romantic music – not necessarily Romantic music (with a capital R) since there is plenty of Baroque, Classical era and modern music that fits the bill.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak, Giuseppe Verdi, Gustav Mahler, Gabriel Faure, Maurice Ravel, Peter Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev – all of them, and many other composers, wrote some deeply moving romantic music.

And it comes in so many different forms: symphonies and concerto; sonatas and suites; orchestral music; choral music and songs; solo works for piano; chamber music for strings, winds and brass.

The Ear loves listening to and also playing romantic music. He thinks probably the most consistently romantic composer was the German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856, below with his wife). So many of his greatest pieces — in so many different genres — were inspired by his steadfast and often thwarted, but finally victorious, love of his wife Clara Wieck Schumann.

An outstanding concert pianist, the much younger Clara outlived the mentally troubled Robert, and edited the publication of his works and popularized them through performing them.

Schumann_Robert_and_Wieck_Clara

But if you asked The Ear to pick the single most romantic piece of music he knows, it would have to be the opening arias from the opera “La Bohème” by Giacomo Puccini.

Every time he hears Rodolfo and Mimi sing to each other and fall in love at first sight, the little hairs on his neck stand up and often his eyes tear up.

You can hear that sung in the YouTube video at the bottom. It features the late superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti. He could not  read music, but he sure could sing. And his voice has a special quality that adds to the romance and poignancy.

What do you think is the most romantic piece of music? What romantic music would you play for someone special or have played for yourself on Valentine’s Day?

Leave your choice – preferably with some personal background or commentary or even a dedication to your Valentine plus, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance – in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Puccini’s gift for heart-touching melody allows both beginners and veterans to connect with his timeless operas in a way that has been largely lost in contemporary music, says John DeMain. He will conduct the Madison Opera’s production of La Bohème this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

November 12, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

On this Friday night, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 15, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center for the Arts, the Madison Opera will perform its production of Giacomo Puccini’s evergreen “La Bohème.”

The opera will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $18 to $129 and are available from the Overture Center Box Office (608) 258-4141 or from www.madisonopera.org. Student and group discounts are available.

Puccini’s classic opera tells of the lives, loves and losses of a group of young artists in a bohemian quarter of Paris.

La Bohème has been an audience favorite since its first performance on Feb. 1, 1896 ( below is the original poster from 1896 by Adolfo Hohenstein) at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, and is performed by opera companies around the world.

Its popularity over the past century is undiminished and its ravishing score has inspired generations of artists, including the composer Jonathan Larson, who used it as the basis for his award-winning 1996 musical “Rent,” and Baz Lurhmann, director of the 2001 movie “Moulin Rouge.” It also played a pivotal role in the movie “Moonstruck” with Cher and Nicholas Cage.

La Boheme 1896 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein

For more information about the Madison Opera’s production and cast, read the Q&A that The Ear did with Kathryn Smith, the general director of the Madison Opera. Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/classical-music-puccini-was-a-master-crafter-of-drama-says-kathryn-smith-the-madison-operas-stages-its-production-of-la-boheme-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon/

By The Ear’s reckoning, John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), has spent close to 50 years in opera. He is the artistic director of the Madison Opera and music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and will conduct the singers, orchestra and choruses for the two performances of “La Bohème.”

He graciously agreed to share his experience and knowledge in an email Q&A with The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

What about the story makes “La Bohème” such an enduring classic for both first-timers and veterans?

First of all, it’s a love story involving young adults trying to make it through their young years living from hand to mouth. They are college or post-college age, and are living life on the edge, enjoying great camaraderie, as college roommates enjoy to this day.

We have all lived through the tragedy of disease or plagues affecting various parts of the world in our own time. Mimi has tuberculosis, and we have seen how HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola have taken young lives in our own time, robbing people of the chance to live out their lives and loves. So, there is always some part of a story like this for people, both old and young, to connect with.

And what about the same aspect in the music?

Once we enter into the world of Italian “verismo,”or realism, we basically have music that is timeless. The music vividly underscores the action of the drama in great detail from moment to moment.

The interplay of the various leitmotifs manipulates our emotions, leading us to enjoy a good laugh at the interplay of the guys, or Musetta’s outrageous carrying on to make her “ex” jealous and win Marcello back. Then the music engages us in the great sadness of losing Mimi to her disease and robbing Rodolfo of his loved one ( in the final scene below from a production by the Houston Grand Opera, which John DeMain used to head before coming to Madison).

Our great film composers and composers of musical theater all learned from Puccini how to connect the emotions of the drama to the music and vice-versa.

HGO La Boheme

HGO La Boheme

Is Puccini’s reputation as a serious and innovative opera composer, not just a popular one, being reexamined and revised upward in recent years?

Puccini’s output as a composer was limited both in scope and in number. He focused primarily on opera and gave us 12 works in that form. To this day, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Tosca remain in the top echelon of opera’s most popular works.

Puccini (below) labored over each of his operas for long periods of time, rewriting to get these pieces as close as possible to perfection, creating librettos and music that soars emotionally, melodically and harmonically. His Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), Turandot and even parts of Butterfly are great examples of Italian Impressionism.

But while Bohème has a few touches of impressionistic harmony, most of the opera stays within a late Romantic harmonic vocabulary.

I think we appreciate more than ever Puccini’s capacity to write unforgettable melody that goes to the very core of our being. Indeed, we lament that most contemporary scores can’t achieve that, and therefore, they don’t have the same relationship with our audiences today. (You can hear that in the arias sung by Luciano Pavarotti and Fiamma Izzo in a YouTube video at the bottom. Listen for when the audience applauds Pavarotti singing a high C.)

puccini at piano

Are there special things you would like the public to know about this particular production? Do you have comments about the concept and cast, sets and costumes?

I would like to encourage people who have never been to an opera to come and see La Bohème. There are still people out there who don’t know that we have English titles over the stage that simultaneously translate the opera into English.

The acts are not long, the drama flows at almost the same rate of time as it would if it were just spoken without music. And the young stunning cast we have assembled will thrill young and old alike.

This, like Carmen or Madama Butterfly, is the perfect opera for a first-timer. For the rest of us, it is a chance to thrill once again to one of the most beautiful scores ever composed for the operatic stage.

 


Classical music: Music critic Alex Ross praises Tom Cruise’s use of Puccini’s opera “Turandot” in the new “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” movie.

August 15, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger.

Looks like it’s going to be a hot and humid weekend.

Just the kind of weather to go see a movie in an air-conditioned cinema.

If you are an opera fan, you might want to consider seeing Tom Cruise and the latest offering in the “Mission Impossible” franchise -– “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” (below) — which features a central opera scene (below).

Puccini opera and Mission Impossible

That is the opinion of the prize-winning music critic Alex Ross (below), who writes for The New Yorker magazine. And many consider Ross the best music critic in the U.S.

Alex Ross 2

In his essay or review in the Aug. 11 issue, Ross traces the use of opera in various movies — including in the romantic comedy “Moonstruck” and in the thrillers by Alfred Hitchcock. Ross argues that Tom Cruise really stands out in the way he does justice to Puccini’s “Turandot,” including the great and popular tenor aria “Nessun dorma.” (Heard at bottom in a YouTube video, with 33 million hits, as sung by Luciano Pavarotti, who made the aria his signature.)

Here is a link to the review by Alex Ross that is well worth reading:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/finally-a-non-embarrassing-classical-music-scene-in-a-blockbuster-movie

Enjoy!

And leave a comment telling The Ear if you agree with Alex Ross.


Classical music: Is American tenor Bryan Hymel the new King of the High C’s after the late Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the very active Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez?

March 1, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

For tenors, High C’s are the brass ring on the carousel of opera.

The late great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the very busy Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez both earned fame and fortune with their singing of the astonishing nine high C’s in Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera “La Fille du Regiment.”

In fact, Florez repeated the same nine high C’s as an encore and it brought down the house.

But it seems there may be another King of the High C’s in the making.

He is a native of New Orleans (isn’t that fitting?) and he is America tenor Bryan Hymel (below, in a photo by Dario Acosta for Warner Classics), who was recently featured on the terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence” for NPR (National Public Radio).

You will surely be hearing more about him. The 35-year-old Hymel has already made his debut at the famed Metropolitan Opera, where he has sung in “Les Troyens” by Hector Berlioz — a role he also sang at the Royal Opera House in London. And he will open the Met’s 2018 season in “Samson and Delilah” by Camille Saint-Saens.

Bryan Hymel CR Dario Acosta Warner Classics

Here is a link to that story by Tom Huizenga. It is complete with sound samples from Hymel’s debut album “Héroïque” — in particular the difficult aria “Asile héréditaire” from the opera “William Tell” by Giachino Rossini — and the CD features a total of 19 high C’s. That led Huizenga to proclaim: “This is why we listen to opera!”

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/02/25/388783314/bryan-hymels-hefty-high-cs

The Amazon.com reader reviews of the new all-French album (below, with an audiovisual clip of the behind-the-scenes recording process) not only praise Hymel for his high C’s – and C-sharps and even D’s — but single out the quality of his singing.

You can hear that strong, pitch-accurate and seemingly effortless quality in one of The Ear’s favorite tenor arias: “Nessun dorma” from “Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini, which Hymel signs with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom.


Classical music: Opera diva Deborah Voigt comes clean in her new memoir about her weight-loss surgery as well as her addictions to food, online dating and alcohol.

January 23, 2015
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Talk about living a life that sounds like an opera.

Take opera diva Deborah Voigt (below).

Deborah  Voigt

Voigt is supremely talented.

And now it turns out that the opera star is also supremely honest. And boy, does she have some great stories to tell — stories that don’t always reflect well on the opera world, let alone herself.

In her new memoir, “Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva,” the opera star talks about her childhood, her career, her gastric by-pass weight-loss surgery in 2004 and other problems including her abuse of alcohol, her dangerous relationships with men she met online and of course her relationships with food and music.

deborah voigt memoir book cover

Here is pre-surgery Fat Debbie:

Deborah Voigt fat in 2013

Here is post-surgery Thin Debbie, playing Brunnhilde in Richard Wagner‘s “Ring” cycle for the Metropolitan Opera:

Thin Deborah-Voigt as Brunnhilde

Voigt also comes off as a thoughtful woman who does not shun her own individual responsibility for her problems, but who sees them in a social and even sexist context, such as the double standard in opera for heavy men like the legendary and obese tenor Luciano Pavarotti (below) and heavy women like herself.

Luciano Pavarotti

The Ear offers you a roundup of reviews and interviews about the new book.

Here is an interview with Scott Simon on NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/2015/01/17/377503009/a-down-to-earth-diva-confronts-her-flaws-and-good-fortune

Here is a piece from The Wall Street Journal with a Q&A interview:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/opera-singer-deborah-voigt-an-anti-diva-bares-it-all-1421358335

Here is the take in the popular People magazine:

http://www.people.com/article/deborah-voigt-memoir-call-me-debbie-food-addiction

And here is a nitty-gritty account in The New York Post:

http://nypost.com/2015/01/11/too-fat-opera-singer-lost-the-weight-but-found-a-world-of-troubles/

But let’s not forget the talent and great voice that make all these other things noteworthy. So here is Deborah Voigt’s most popular video on YouTube:

 


Classical music: The opera world starts 2015 with a loss. Promising American tenor Carlo Scibelli is dead at 50.

January 14, 2015
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium (below) of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features sopranos Susan Day and Rebekah Demaree with clarinetist Corey Mackey and pianist Sharon Jensen in music by Barbara Harbach, Lori Laitmen, Libby Larsen, Gioachino Rossini and Franz Schubert.

FUS1jake

By Jacob Stockinger

The New Year is still young, but already the list of losses has begun.

Here is a link to the list of classical musicians, performers and composers, that we lost in 2014:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/01/11/classical-music-can-you-name-the-20-famous-classical-musicians-who-died-in-2014-npr-remembers-them-and-the-ear-celebrates-them-with-the-german-requiem-by-johannes-brahms/

The promising American tenor Carlo Scibello, who was born in California but lived in New York City, has died at the age of 50, a few days after his birthday. He died in New York City on Jan. 9 of complications from pancreatitis.

Carlo Scibelli

It is enough to make The Ear ask: Is there a curse on promising tenors, the most high-profile male singers?

Remember the “new Pavarotti” –- Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra (below)? He died in a motor scooter accident in Sicily in 2011.

licitra

Then the promising Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon – another candidate to be the “new Pavarotti” saw his meteoric career interrupted when he had surgery for throat problems, especially a congenital cyst on a vocal chord. He seems on the mend now, but it is hard on a career to lose momentum and then try to recapture it. The opera world is a very competitive one.

Rolando_Villazon

And now the tenor Carlo Scibelli is dead at the age of 50 – an age that is younger than it sounds given how long it takes for the human voice to mature and for a world-class operatic career to develop. He had a big voice, as you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Of course, some other tenors, including the promising Stephen Costello (below, in a photo by Dario Acosta) who has performed at the Madison Opera as well as the Metropolitan Opera, seems to be doing fine. He just keeps getting bigger and bigger gigs with more and more visibility and critical acclaim.

stephen costello CR dario acosta

Here is a link, with a good sound sample, to the news report about Carlo Scibelli by famed British critic Norman Lebrecht (below), who has the reputation of being cranky and sometimes mean but who is unquestionably well-connected, often gets major scoops and writes a well-known blog called “Slipped Disc”:

http://slippedisc.com/2015/01/tragic-death-of-international-tenor-aged-50/

norman_lebrecht


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