The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Rediscovering old piano technique is altering how the music of the classical Old Masters sounds and how easily it is played

August 26, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Sure, for a long time musicology has traced how musical styles, forms and instrumentation have changed.

But now some researchers are using computers to investigate – and revive – an older keyboard technique from the 19th century that differs dramatically from the more modern technique generally in use. (Below is a photo by Alexander Refsum Jensenius.)

old piano technique CR Alexander Refsum Jensenius

It turns out not to be as outdated or useless as many assume.

It changes not only how the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin sounds but also the ease with which the performer can play it.

Here is a story from The New York Times that the Ear had stashed from about a year ago.

But he thinks it still seems timely – and fascinating.

And he hopes you do too.

Here is a link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/science/playing-mozart-piano-pieces-as-mozart-did.html

See what you think and leave a comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music education: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra ends as it began — with an impressive display of young talent in both classic and contemporary music

August 23, 2016
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

On Friday evening, the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO, below in a photo by John W. Barker) gave, in the Atrium Auditorium at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, the concert that concluded its sixth season.

MAYCO Finale 2016 JWB

Founded in 2011, it has been a remarkable venture that has given student musicians of high-school level the chance to enjoy full-scale orchestral experience.

But the group’s founder and director, the versatile and multi-talented Madison native Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below), is apparently irreplaceable in this effort; and he has found that he must move on in his career. So, this latest and 10th concert was also the orchestra’s last.

Mikko Utevsky with baton

To mark the occasion, Utevsky, who just graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, is an enthusiastic champion of new music, and the orchestra commissioned a new composition, which then received its world premiere on Friday night.

The composer is the 25-year-old, Minneapolis-based avant-garde musician Ben Davis (below) who created a work with the not very helpful title of “is a is a is b is.” (I’m not making that up!) It is scored for a full ensemble of strings, winds and percussion plus an electronic screeching machine.

ben davis

It is, in truth, not a piece of music at all, but a 20-minute experiment in the kinds of unusual — and not particularly pleasant — sounds that a group of orchestral players can make with their instruments. There are passages of repeated unison notes (the same one over and over) at goodly volume. And the last three minutes or so is an unaccompanied solo for the screeching machine on a single, piercing tone.

Whether this made a worthy valedictory salute to MAYCO’s audience and supporters is, I suppose, a matter of taste.

Fortunately, this new work was cushioned on either side by much more familiar material.

Opening the program was the beloved Overture to the opera The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini. This was brought off with full-steam-ahead momentum by the players under Utevsky’s enthusiastic leadership.

And then, to conclude, came the same work that Utevsky included in the very first MAYCO program: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The players were clearly quite fired up at the chance to tackle this score and did themselves genuine credit. Utevsky provided fast and forceful leadership that stressed the dramatic power of this music—which was, in its day, as surprising and shocking as a lot of “new” music today, we must remember.

The audience shared with the performers a rousing experience.

Among his other functions, Utevsky also wrote admirably illuminating program notes for the Rossini and Beethoven works—contrasting with those contributed by Davis, which were as nose-thumbing as his composition.

It is sad to think that MAYCO is now a thing of the past. What a wonderful idea it has been, something that testifies to the remarkable quantity and quality of young musical talent here.

If his orchestra is now gone, we must certainly keep our eyes and ears open for what the gifted Utevsky moves on to next.


Classical music: On the eve of his performance at The Proms, meet Ivan Fischer – a modest maestro who gets great results from his orchestra

August 21, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

In less than a week from now, on this coming Friday night, Hungarian maestro Ivan Fischer (below) will make his debut at the famed British BBC Proms with the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

Ivan Fischer big headshot

In an age of jet-set, millionaire celebrity maestros, The Ear finds that the modest Fischer – a pianist by training who is also the music director of the Konzerthaus in Berlin, Germany — shows a refreshing lack of ego and ambition.

Fisher — who has also challenged the conservative right-wing government of Hungary –seems to have a healthy perspective on making music, which depends on taking the long view, with the acclaimed Budapest Festival Orchestra (below), which he founded and still leads.

Fischer is also extremely thoughtful and articulate in words as well as music, as you seen in his insightful remarks about the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Fischer is also well know for his recorded interpretations of Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Antonin Dvorak, Peter Tchaikovsky, Bela Bartok and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

In short, Ivan Fischer seems a model non-superstar musician.

Ivan Fischer with Budapest Festival Orchestra

The Ear hopes you agree.

Here is a terrific profile that appeared in The Guardian newspaper in the UK:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/aug/12/how-ivan-fischer-found-greatness-with-the-budapest-festival-orchestra


Classical music: The time and place have changed for Friday night’s concert by the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO)

August 18, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following note from Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below top), the founder and music director of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (below) bottom, which plays its last concert this Friday night.

Mikko Rankin Utevsky MAYCO 8-15

Hi Jake,

I have a major announcement to make to your readers:

The TIME and LOCATION for the final concert by MAYCO have been changed.

The concert is now in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, at 8 p.m. – NOT in Music Hall at 7:30 p.m., as previously announced.

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

For more details about the concert, visit the post that appeared here earlier this week. Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/classical-music-the-madison-area-youth-chamber-orchestra-mayco-closes-out-its-existence-this-friday-night/

And here are some brief remarks from Utevsky (below) about the concert’s program:

Mikko Utevsky with baton

“Our first concert five years ago ended with Beethoven’s monumental Fifth Symphony, and to bring things full circle with our tenth and final performance, I decided it was only right to program the piece once more.

“We’re opening with a light appetizer, Rossini’s effervescent overture to his opera “The Barber of Seville,” which calls to mind Bugs Bunny as easily as Madison Opera‘s vivacious staging two seasons ago.

“In between, we have a complex, experimental new work exploring the psychology of performance and the physical act of playing an instrument – by far the most adventurous work we’ve ever commissioned or premiered.

“I hope the public will join us for the performance, and a small reception afterward celebrating ten wonderful concerts.”

 


Classical music: Got questions? Got answers? Try using Quora – especially if you are a piano fan

August 17, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

A close friend recently recommended a chatroom called Quora, which has a regular website and also a mobile app, which The Ear downloaded from iTunes and uses every day.

Quora logo

You have to sign up for it, but membership is free. And I don’t recall seeing any ads.

Once you belong to Quora, you can check what topics interest you and then you get constant updates and entries. And you can choose from a lot of topics in all kinds of fields and disciplines from art and music to politics, economics and international relations.

One possible choice is, simply, Classical Music, and it is a good choice.

But The Ear has found the site a particularly good and helpful resource for questions about the piano.

piano keys

Here are some of the topics that have been featured recently:

Why do mathematicians appreciate Bach more than Beethoven?

What should I do if I need to perform with a bad quality piano? (Answered by some who LOVES bad pianos)

I am 14 years old. Can I start playing the piano or is it too late?

Can you provide any recommendations of electronic pianos?

yamaha digital piano

How does the new Kawai grand piano GL series compare to other inexpensive baby grands like Yahama G series or the Baldwin BP series?

What should I keep in mind while learning the piano?

What are the features of good piano texture?

Who are some good contemporary classical piano composers?

What are the pros and cons of an electric piano to a classical piano? (None other than the legendary virtuoso Martha Argerich practices on a digital piano.)

What are some study strategies to memorize big piano pieces?

What qualities make for good Chopin play?

What would be a good piano practice routine?

quora Q&A

Well, you get the idea.

The questions run the gamut as do the answers.

But The Ear has learned that just because a question sounds obvious and simple, even amateurish, doesn’t mean that the answers aren’t valuable and informative.

As an avid amateur pianist, The Ear has learned many things.

And he may soon even start answering some of the questions.

Here is a link:

https://www.quora.com

Try it and let The Ear know what you think.
Good reading!

Good writing!

Good playing the piano!

 


Classical music: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) closes out its existence this Friday night.

August 16, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear notes with sadness the passing of a fine and inspiring institution that has fostered music education.

It is the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (below), also known as MAYCO, and this Friday night it will give its 10th – and final – performance.

MAYCO Aug. 2014 1

The concert is this Friday night at 8 p.m. (NOT 7:30 p.m. as originally announced) in the Artrium auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison (NOT Music Hall). Admission is $10 for the public, with students getting in for a free-will donation.

Much about the final concert follows a familiar pattern.

For one, old classics will be mixed with new music.

In this case, the old classics are the Overture to the operas “The Barber of Seville” by Giachino Rossini and the famously forceful Fifth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven. (You can get a taste of both the symphony and MAYCO in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The new work is the world premiere of “is a is a is b is” by Ben Davis (below), a graduate of the UW-Madison.

ben davis

Also in keeping with MAYCO’S past, it will conducted by its founder and music director Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below), who founded it while he was still a student at East High School in Madison.

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

Since then Utevsky graduated this past May from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he majored in viola, conducting and singing, even appearing in baritone roles in several University Opera productions and giving a lieder recital.

All that plus he proved a talented reviewer and writer for this blog, especially when he chronicled tour of Vienna, Prague and Budapest by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) several years ago. You can read his writing by using the search engine in this blog. Just type in his name.

Why is MAYCO coming to an end?

Utevsky says simply and without bitterness that it is time for him to move on. He is taking off a year before pursuing graduate studies.

You can see what an achievement MAYCO provided – with lists of repertoire, composers and performers –by going to its home website:

http://www.mayco.org/#!concerts/cnnz


Classical music: Where did the Mostly Mozart Festival go on PBS?

August 15, 2016
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear keeps reading The New York Times and finding features about and laudatory reviews of the 50th Mostly Mozart Festival that is being held at Lincoln Center in New York City from July 22 through August 27.

Mostly Mozart Festival logo

But he doesn’t recall seeing or hearing anything on PBS, or public television – even in a delayed broadcast.

Time was, it seems, that the gala opening concert was broadcast during prime time on either “Live From Lincoln Center” or “Great Performances.”

But for several years now it seems that it is no longer broadcast.

And The Ear misses it. They were almost always good concerts with memorable music, memorable performers and memorable performances. (You can get an idea from the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And music director Louis Langree (below) has instituted some great innovations, including new music, more music by other composers, and smaller alternative venues and programs.

louis langree

This year’s offerings are no different. Check out the schedule at the festival’s website:

http://mostlymozart.org

Is it The Ear’s imagination that the Mostly Mozart Festival has disappeared from the airwaves?

Why?

To be more mainstream?

To make room for more British mysteries or other more popular shows?

That would be a shame for the alternative broadcast company.

Does anybody else feel the same way?

Has The Ear just missed the broadcasts?

Or have they really been suspended or ended?

If so, does the credit go to PBS? Or to Wisconsin Public Television?

The Ear sure would appreciate getting some answers.

And seeing and hearing more of Mostly Mozart.


Classical music: New York Times critic David Allen is a role model of how to prepare for listening to a new and unknown conductor

August 7, 2016
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Many people were taken off guard when in January the New York Philharmonic named Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden (below) as its new music director — the highest paid conductor in the U.S.

Jaap van Sweden CR Todd Heisler NYT

The Ear certainly was.

And so was the New York Times critic David Allen.

But rather than wait to go hear van Zweden live, Allen plunged into van Zweden’s discography. The many recordings gave him a very good idea of what the conductor’s strengths and weaknesses are.

It took Allen some 52 hours of listening to do his due diligence and get a comprehensive background and preparation.

But the conclusions he reaches about van Zweden (below, in a photo by Washington of The New York Times) in contemporary repertoire as well as in classic works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Peter Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky, Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner, among others, are illuminating.

You can hear Jaap van Sweden conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in what seems to The Ear an energetic and forceful interpretation of the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Jaap van Zweden CR Ruby Washington NYTImes

Here is a link. You can judge for yourself what the public can look forward to:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/24/arts/music/jaap-van-zweden-new-york-philharmonic-recordings-discography.html?_r=0

What do you think of Allen’s assessment?

Does it seem fair? Biased?

Does it make you look forward to hearing van Zweden?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Check out The Violin Channel. Read about the International Competition for violin and cello in Harbin, China plus news, videos, celebrity interviews and playing tips

July 31, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear loves the string family of the violin, viola, cello and double bass – as solo instruments, in duets with the piano, in piano trios, in string trios and string quartets, and of course in orchestras.

cello strings

The various string instruments can be so songful and sound so like a human voice – plus without the words!

There are so many things The Ear, as a string fan, just learned from The Violin Channel:

That Deutsche Grammophon has an office in China. Which should come as no surprise, really, since so much of the classical music world – especially in strings and piano – now seems increasingly located in China.

That prize winners in violin and cello were just announced at the International Competition in Harbin, China. (The city of Harbin is, by the way, the capital of Heilongjiang province, the sister state of Wisconsin in China.) Frenchman Christoph Croise, below, took the top prize for cello. 

Christoph Croise Cellist

That the website also has several blogs, including some that offer practical advice on playing, specifically about bow strokes for example.

That the website tells you about new recordings, including some news by Benjamin Beilman, who soloed impressively here with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in the Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Benjamin Beilman close up playing

And it keeps you up to date on new YouTube videos, including one by the late Henryk Szeryng playing the Violin Concerto by Robert Schumann.

henryk szeryng BW

The Ear especially likes the master classes and the 20-question interviews called Meet the Pros. (You can hear one with Sarah Chang in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link:

https://www.theviolinchannel.com

The Ear hopes you enjoy it enough to bookmark it or subscribe to it.

Let us all know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players excel again – this time in music by Franz Schubert, Arnold Schoenberg and UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger

July 19, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Willy Street Chamber Players (below) gave the second concert of their 2016 season on Friday night at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spright Street, on Madison’s near east side.

Willy Street Chamber Players group color

The program might have been called the “three Sch-es” in view of the alphabetical incipits of the three composers involved.

The first item was titled The Violinists in My Life, composed in 2011 by Laura Schwendinger (below), the American composer currently on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

The Belgian violin virtuoso and composer Eugène Ysaÿe set an example with his set of six Sonatas, Op. 27, for solo violin, each one a tribute to a great musician with whom he had worked. So Schwendinger composed five pieces for violin and piano, each one a kind of character piece about violinists with whom she has had fruitful contact.

Laura Schwendinger 2

The style can be sharp and abrupt, but there is a clear individuality to each piece, evoking the different personalities. The first of the five is dedicated to UW-Madison alumna Eleanor Bartsch (below), one of our Willys, and she played the whole set, deeply engaged in it, with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, also a graduate of the UW-Madison.

Eleanor Bartsch

Kasdorf (below) joined another of the group’s violinists, Paran Amirinazari, who also graduated from the UW-Madison, in a rarely heard late work by Franz Schubert, the Fantasie in C Major (D.934).(You can hear it played by violinist Benjamin Beilman, who has performed with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Schubert’s compositions for violin and piano are rarely heard in concerts these days, but this one has particular interest in that its latter portion is another of the composers set of variations on one of his own songs—in this case, the beautiful Sei mir gegrüsst. The total piece has a lot of lively passage work, which Amarinazari played with a mix of flair and affection.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

The crowning work was that extraordinary string sextet by Arnold Schoenberg (below), Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Composed in 1899 at the beginning of the composer’s career, it catches him still emerging from Late Romantic sensibilities, a good way before his radical move into the 12-tone idiom he created.

Arnold Schoenberg 1936

The score is just a trifle longish for the musical content, but its gorgeous chromatic richness is irresistible. It was inspired by a poem of Richard Dehmel, and both the original German text and an English translation were supplied to the audience, an interesting touch.

Above all, however, the performance was glowing, avoiding too much sentimental lushness, but conveying the emotionally charged writing with beautiful balance.

A clever touch, too, was the sitting pattern chosen, with the two violas facing the two violins and the two cellos in the rear—allowing the recurrent interaction between the first violin and first viola to emerge more clearly.

In sum, this was another wonderful session of first-class music-making by this remarkable assemblage of young talent.

NOTE: A program of music by Ludwig vanBeethoven, Philip Glass and Dmitri Shostakovich will be given next Friday at Immanuel Lutheran, but at NOON; and then that evening (at 8:30 p.m.) the group will participate in a special performance of George Crumb’s “Black Angels” — with an accompanying video — at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in the Overture Center.

The final Friday evening concert will be back at Immanuel Lutheran, at 6 p.m. on Friday, July 29, with music by Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli (Concerto Grosso), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Clarinet Quintet), and George Enescu (Octet).


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