By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Bach Musicians (below), which specializes in authentic period performances of early music, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” this coming Friday and Saturday nights, both at 7:30 p.m., in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.
On both nights at 6:45 p.m., MBM founder and music director Trevor Stephenson (below) will give a free pre-concert lecture on the “Structure and Performance History of the St. John Passion.” In his remarks, Stephenson said he will discuss the question of anti-Semitism in the famous work.
(NOTE: Stephenson and some of the players will also be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland TODAY at noon.)
At the end of Part I, the Rev. Michael Schuler of the Unitarian Society will give a talk focusing on “Theological Reflections on Bach and the St. John Passion.”
This is only the second time the work has been performed in historical style in the state of Wisconsin. For more information and explanation, see the story in the Wisconsin State Journal:
Tickets are $28-$33 and are available online, at Orange Tree Imports and at the door. Ticket information is at www.madisonbachmusicians.org
Trevor Stephenson writes the following about the work and the performance:
Bach was 38 years old when he composed the monumental St. John Passion during his initial year of employment in Leipzig, 1723-24. The work was first performed at the Nikolai Church during the Good Friday service on April 7, 1724.
As was the custom, no concerted music had been played in church during the previous six weeks of Lent, and the airing of the St. John Passion ― music of unprecedented complexity, lasting for over two hours — must have had an overwhelming effect on the fresh ears and devoted souls of the parishioners.
From its outset—with the whirling gear-like figures in the strings beneath the moiling of the oboes—the St. John Passion has an otherworldly aura of a story that has been foretold. Bach’s genius is in how he balances this inevitability with a sense of forward dramatic thrust: the passion story must happen, has already happened, but it also must be played out in real-time by living people, step by painful step. Time is at once both linear and circular. (Below is the manuscript for the “St. John Passion.”)
I believe that the objective of Bach (below) in setting the St. John Passion was to tell as vividly as possible the story of Jesus’ cruel earthly demise while at the same time tempering this vividness with frequent textual reminders, as well as an overarching tone, that convey the firm belief that Jesus’ Passion had not only been prophesied long before his birth but that Jesus’ suffering and death on earth was the only solution for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins.
The Evangelist John is our guide for the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. John sings his narration in the dry and angular recitative style, addressing the audience directly. He summarizes some scenes and introduces others, which are then played out in present-tense tableau format by various characters: Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Court officers, the angry mob.
Bach uses two techniques to pause and comment upon the narrative: first, with arias for solo voices and instrumental obbligato, that employ freely-composed poetry to reflect upon the story in a personal way — like the thoughts of someone observing the action; and second, by chorales which use tunes and texts that would have been familiar to Bach’s parishioners to elicit a broader communal response to the passion story. Many of the chorales are like a spiritual balm, providing moments of much needed rest throughout the work.
For the upcoming April 14 and 15 concerts of the St. John Passion ― on Good Friday and Holy Saturday ― the Madison Bach Musicians has endeavored as much as possible to recreate the early 18th-century sound world of that first Leipzig performance in 1724. MBM will use a 17-member baroque orchestra, conducted by UW-Madison bassoonist and performance-practice specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill).
The orchestra will play entirely on 18th-century style instruments:
These instruments will join with 10 outstanding vocalists—specialists in singing both solo and choral baroque repertoire.
Internationally recognized, and Grammy Award winning tenor, Dann Coakwell (below, in a photo by Mary Gordon) will sing the part of John the Evangelist.
The Passion will be sung in its original German; but an English translation of the text will be projected in supertitles scene-by-scene throughout the performance.
MBM is thrilled to be presenting this masterwork in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) at First Unitarian Society, a space beautifully suited to early music. The sightlines are superb, and the acoustics offer a great balance of clarity, crispness, and spaciousness.
Seating is limited, so advance ticket purchase is suggested.
By Jacob Stockinger
What makes for great Chopin playing?
It is an especially germane question since the critically acclaimed pianist Adam Neiman (below) will perform an all-Chopin recital this coming Sunday at 4 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.
Tickets are $45. For more information, go to:
Neiman –pronounced KNEE-man — has appeared here as a soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and recorded piano concertos by Mozart with the WCO. He is a critically acclaimed prize-winning pianist with a major concertizing and recording career. He also teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago and is a member of the Trio Solisti, a piano trio that has been hailed as the successor to the famous Beaux Arts Trio.
Here is a link to Neiman’s website with information about him and his recordings, including upcoming releases of Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninoff:
Adam Neiman also recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:
There are some exceptional players of Beethoven and other German composers who sound completely out of their element in Chopin. What qualities do you think make for great Chopin playing and what makes Chopin difficult to interpret?
Chopin’s music incorporates a narrative language and an emphasis on very “first person” points-of-view; in other words, it is highly personalized, expressing emotion from the perspective of the individual, including nationalistic sentiments. Often, Germanic music aims for “objective” viewpoints, with extremely stringent instructions by the composer.
For players who struggle with the open-ended idiomatic flavor in Chopin’s music, the lack of objective instruction by the composer can make it difficult for them to know what to do. (You can hear Adam Neiman discussing much more about Chopin’s personality and artistic achievement in the YouTube video at the bottom)
To play Chopin (below) at a very high level requires imagination and freedom, as well as a poetic and introspective musical tendency. The fluidity of rubato, the contrapuntal interaction between the hands and the frequent use of widely spread textures requires a nimble master of the instrument, one with the ability to emphasize the piano’s specific virtuosic abilities.
In addition, Chopin’s music is centered around a bel canto operatic style of melody, whereas Germanic melody tends to be more motivic in nature, and therefore developmental.
A composer like Beethoven will emphasize motivic metamorphosis as a means of augmenting a form to create large structures, whereas Chopin will glide from one melodic area to another, using harmonic exploration as the central means of formal expansion.
This compositional difference outlines different strengths in the pianists, as the skill set to play reams of melody lines in succession can often be very different from those skills required to highlight motivic development in a work.
Can you place the 24 Preludes that you will be playing within the context of Chopin’s entire body of works. What would you like the public to know about the preludes and how you see them individually and as a group?
The 24 Preludes were composed while Chopin was on holiday in Mallorca, Spain, which proved to be Chopin’s first palpable bout with tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed him. (Below is an 1849 photo of Chopin on his deathbed.)
Many of these works were written in a fever-state, in haste, and during a stressful time period in which Chopin was not only facing his own mortality, but also dealing with the myriad challenges of integrating with the children of his lover, the French writer Aurora Dudevant who is better known as George Sand.
These Preludes are like snapshots into the mind of the composer at a moment in time, often without regard for cohesion or development. They exist in a timeless place, where the music expresses the extremely personal sentiments roiling through Chopin’s consciousness.
In many ways, these works capture his spirit in the most distilled possible way, giving the player and listener an opportunity to view the mind and heart of Chopin without filter or refinement, hallmarks of his larger works.
Despite the widely varied emotional content of these Preludes, as a set they hold together as a marvelous and surprisingly cogent musical journey. They exemplify the 19th-century “Romantic” ideals of fantasy, freedom, individuality and raw emotion.
You will also perform all four Ballades. How they do they rank within Chopin’s output? What would you like listeners to know about each of the four ballades, about what they share in common and what distinguishes each one? Do you have favorites and why?
If the Preludes represent the pinnacle of Chopin’s ability to express poetic ideals within miniature forms, the Ballades represent the apex of his more grandiose musical philosophy.
The Ballade, as a form, emanates from epic poetry, often portraying a heroic protagonist overcoming seemingly inescapable challenges. Ballades can also be tied to nationalistic notions, and for Chopin, all four Ballades are truly Polish in their expression.
As Chopin’s native Poland was invaded and he was cut off permanently from re-entry, Chopin became an orphan of the world, whose adopted home of France revered and celebrated him without equal.
His musical mission — exemplified by the Ballades, Mazurkas and Polonaises in particular — was to heighten awareness of Poland’s cultural contributions to a European audience totally unaware of the goings-on in the east.
As a result of the immense conflicts suffered by Chopin’s homeland, and in keeping with the deep pride and identification Chopin felt as a Pole, these Ballades express the emotional rollercoaster of a lone Polish hero — perhaps Chopin himself, autobiographically — battling the world.
All four of these works make an enormous impression on the listener. From the despair and anger of the first Ballade, the bi-polar conflicts of the second (below is the opening of the second Ballade in Chopin’s manuscript), the pastoral hopefulness of the third, and the desolate introspection of the fourth, these Ballades speak to the soul and require the most intensely personal voice of the performer.
They require the possession of immense physical power and emotional maturity, which renders these works as being among Chopin’s most challenging.
I love all four of them equally. They are true masterworks of the highest order.
In there anything else you would like to say?
I am deeply honored and extremely delighted to return to Madison to perform this recital. I look forward to seeing many familiar faces, as well as new friends. Thank you!
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear is not alone in viewing the official opening of the new fall season as being the annual FREE Karp Family Labor Day concert, which takes place on the holiday Monday night before classes begin at the UW-Madison. (Below and from left, in the 2011 photo, are pianist and violinist son Christopher Karp; violist Katrin Talbot; the late pianist Howard Karp; cellist son Parry Karp (who is married to Katrin Talbot); and pianist wife Frances Karp.)
This year, that means the concert is on this coming Monday night, Sept. 5, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus.
In the decades-long history of the event, pieces never get repeated.
That may help to explain why this year’s program features the new and the neglected rather than the tried-and-true.
Here is how cellist and patriarch of the Karp family Parry Karp (below) explains it:
“The program includes a world premiere performance of a brand new piece for Cello and Piano by Joel Hoffman (below), to be performed by my brother Christopher Karp and myself. It is entitled “Riffs on a Great Life.”
“The great life he is writing about is our Dad’s, longtime UW-Madison pianist Howard Karp, who died two years ago at 84.
“Robert Kahn (below) was a wonderful composer of chamber music and lieder whom Johannes Brahms admired very much. They initially met in 1885 when Kahn was only 20 years old. Brahms was impressed both by his compositions and his piano playing. We are greatly enjoying learning his Piano Quartet No. 2, which will feature my mother Frances Karp.
Pro Arte Quartet second violinist Suzanne Beia and my wife, violist Katrin Talbot, will join in the performance.
“The “Rhapsody” by Rebecca Clarke (below) is an unjustly neglected masterpiece that unfortunately has never been published. Frances and I are playing it from a copy of the manuscript. It was commissioned by Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1923, and is a very romantic and expressive piece.
Also on the program is “Fratres” for cello and piano by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (below), who turns 82 on Sept. 11. According to one source, he has been the most performed living composer in the world for five consecutive years.
The dramatic and insistent piece was used as part of the soundtrack or film score for the movie “There Will Be Blood” with Daniel Day-Lewis. Here is a link to a performance with over one million hits on YouTube:
By Jacob Stockinger
The theme this year focuses on music in the work of William Shakespeare and the Age of Queen Elizabeth I.
You can check out all the details of the festival at: http://www.madisonearlymusic.org
The co-directors of the festival – the wife-and-husband team of singers Cheryl Bensman Rowe and Paul Rowe (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot and signaled in the answers by the initials CBR and PR) took time out from the hectic preparations to answer an email Q&A with The Ear:
How successful is this year’s 17th annual weeklong festival (July 9-16) compared to others in terms of enrollment, budgets, performers, etc.? How well established is MEMF now nationally or even internationally?
CBR: Enrollment is up this year, with over 100 people enrolled in the workshop. Shakespeare (below) and the Elizabethan era is a great draw.
Other exciting news it that MEMF is one of five organizations that was chosen to be part of the “Shakespeare in Wisconsin” celebration, which includes the touring copy of the first Folio of Shakespeare’s plays from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. It is The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare, and it will be at the Chazen Museum of Art this fall. https://shakespeare.library.wisc.edu/
MEMF is definitely on the map in the early music world due to our great faculty and our concert series that features musicians from all over the country, Canada and Europe.
We are also excited to be a part of the Arts Institute on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The institute is bringing us into the modern world of Facebook, e-letters, Twitter and so much more. We also have a new program director, Sarah Marty, who is full of fresh ideas and has many new contacts in the UW and the Madison community.
What is new and what is the same in terms of format, students, faculty members and performers?
CBR: Our format has stayed the same because, after 17 seasons, it seems to be working. We are excited about everything that will be happening during the week. https://artsinstitute.wisc.edu/memf/concerts.htm
New to MEMF this year is the ensemble New York Polyphony (below). They will be performing their program “Tudor City,” featuring the music of the Church, including the sacred music of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, Christopher Tye and Walter Lambe. Their recording of this program, Tudor City, spent three weeks in the Top 10 of the Billboard classical album chart. You can read more about them on their website: http://www.newyorkpolyphony.com/
To get a preview of what you will hear please visit: http://www.newyorkpolyphony.com/media2/
MEMF goes to the Movies! The Newberry Violin Band (below top) will be performing as a live accompaniment to the silent film, Elizabeth I, made in 1912. Sarah Bernhardt is the star, even though she was 68 years old when the movie was made. The music is a great sampler of many of the most famous Elizabethan composers. Ellen Hargis (below bottom) will also be singing some classic John Dowland songs. An early movie with early music! http://newberryconsort.org/watch-listen-2/
Also, we have several unique programs that have been created just for this 400th “deathaversary” year.
The Baltimore Consort (below) is returning to MEMF with a program created especially for this anniversary year, The Food of Love: Songs, Dances and Fancies for Shakespeare, which has musical selections chosen from the hundreds of references to music in the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare had directions in his plays for incidental music used for dancing, interludes and ceremony.
Specific songs are included in the text of the plays, and these texts were set to the popular songs of the day. Very few of these were published, but there are some early survivors which were published and from manuscripts.
On Friday night we have a very unique program, Sonnets 400, a program that actor Peter Hamilton Dyer, from the Globe Theatre, conceived to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The program is a pairing of Shakespeare’s words with Anthony Holborne’s music. Holborne was one of the most respected lutenists of his and Shakespeare’s time. Madison actor Michael Herold (below) will be reciting the narrative arc of the selected sonnets, and the music of Holborne will be played as interludes, or softly under the narration.
Recorder player and MEMF favorite, Priscilla Herreid, brought this program to our attention. Several years ago she performed with Peter in the Broadway production of “Twelfth Night,” and he told her about this pairing of music and sonnets from the Elizabethan era. Lutenists Grant Herreid and Charles Weaver will be joining Priscilla on Friday, July 15, at 7:30 p.m. The pre-concert lecture –“Repackaging Shakespeare’s Sonnets” — will be given by UW-Madison Professor of English Joshua Calhoun.
Tomorrow: Part 2 of 2 — What makes Elizabethan English music special and what will the All-Festival wrap-up concert include?
By Jacob Stockinger
Tickets to the opera, based on Louisa May Alcott’s famous 19th-century American novel of the same name, run $21-$101. You can call the Overture Center box office at 608 258-4141.
The production features guest conductor Kyle Knox (below), a busy and experienced musician who is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. His dramatic story was featured on this blog yesterday:
Candace Evans (below) returns as the stage director:
Heather Johnson (below) returns to sing the lead role of Jo March:
“Little Women” will be sung in English with projected surtitles.
The running time is 2-1/2 hours with one intermission.
Also, Mark Adamo is doing the pre-show talk on Friday night in tandem with the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith. Says Smith: “That means I’m going to ask him questions, so he can talk about his opera instead of me doing so as usual. That is at 7 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center, and is free to ticket holders.”
For more information about the opera, tickets, the cast and the production as well as the pre-performance lecture and post-performance Q&A, visit:
Here is a link to Mark Adamo’s informative website, where you can also see what other music Adamo, who teaches composition at New York University, composes:
And here is link to his entry on Wikipedia:
Adamo – who will attend the Friday night performance — generously agreed to a recent email interview with The Ear:
Is there anything beyond what is on your website that you think readers should know about you, your background and your career, including your latest and upcoming projects?
The website has only a little detail about “Becoming Santa Claus,” which is my fourth opera and which was given a lovely premiere (below) in Dallas in December. I’m editing the soundtrack for an upcoming DVD of the piece even as we speak.
What attracted you to “Little Women” as a subject for an opera?
I actually resisted it up front. I thought it was charming, but too antique and undramatic even to speak, let alone sing.
I was drawn to it only when I realized the show was neither “Three Weddings and a Funeral” (that is, not a story of all the March girls, save Beth, growing up to marry) nor a story of a girl struggling to be an artist (her whole family supports her) but a startling, and startlingly proto-modern, story of a girl/woman who learns too late that the destinies of even those she loves are out of her control.
Once it occurred to me that it was the story of everyone who’s ever heard, or uttered, the words, “I love you, but I have to leave” — and didn’t know why it had to be so — I knew the piece could sing.
How difficult a challenge is it for you to do both the score and the libretto? Do you prefer doing one to the other or find one easier?
For me, it’s natural. I was trained not only as a musician but as a playwright and lyricist (and, less comprehensively, as an actor and director) and, temperamentally, I’m the sort of artist who likes to take the most various, and longest possible, view of the project first before I start it.
An opera is a structure of words and music designed to be acted So the more questions I ask myself up front, the clearer both the script and the score can become even before they’re created, because the piece has been conceived in toto first and then the words and music designed to express it.
So I ask myself: What is the story? How can the journey of this character tell it? What is the sound of this story as verbal diction? Vocal contour? Harmonic mass? Melodic line? (Below are the handwritten manuscript and published score to a work by Mark Adamo.)
How would you describe the style of your music to the general public?
It always starts from the singing line. But I let the emotion of the character and the flow of the story determine everything else.
If the character feels like she’s making beautiful discoveries as she falls in love, the harmonies open up, moving from key to key before it settles when she does. If the conversation is turbulent, unsettled, inconclusive, the music is similarly fugitive.
Technically, that means the music is tonal, except when it’s chromatic; harmonic, unless just a sound or an orchestral color can carry the meaning; rhythmically steady, unless rhythms careen every which way to follow the turns of argument. In sum, it is eclectic — but not arbitrarily so. (NOTE: In a YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear an example in Beth’s aria from the production of “Little Women” by the Fayetteville Opera.)
“Little Women” has been performed in more than 65 international productions. What do you think has made it so popular? What is the usual public reaction to the work?
It’s actually over 100 at this point. Obviously, the path of the opera begins with the novel, one of the most beloved in English since its publication. Obviously, you try, as an artist, to make a piece as true and clear and deep as you can. But you can’t control whether artists subsequently believe in that piece (or not), or whether audiences embrace it (or not.)
Eighteen years after its premiere, my only possible response is gratitude that this opera is still speaking so often and to so many.
ALERT: This Sunday night at 8 p.m in Mills Hall, a FREE concert by the local percussion group Clocks in Motion will give the world premieres of two new works by composers Ben Davis and Anthony Donotrio.
By Jacob Stockinger
This Sunday night, Nov. 22, at 7 p.m. the public will have the chance to explore musically and visually the modern Saint John’s Bible, a large mutli-volume work. which is beautifully illuminated with original contemporary art that is reminiscent of Medieval illuminated manuscripts.
No tickets are required and the event is FREE. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m.
This musical and visual collaboration explores the themes of creation, incarnation and transformation. Inspired by illuminations from the Saint John’s Bible Heritage edition, choral selections will be accompanied by projected animations of the chosen illuminated images. It was on display this past year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s Chazen Museum of Art.
Edgewood College officials say that this concert is an invitation to the community to tap into the deep spirituality of the music and the illuminations in the presence of the Gospels and the Acts volume of the Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition.
Here is a link to the official website for the Bible, which was commissioned and cost $145,000 in 1998 and was finished in 2011:
And here is a link to an online exhibition of the Bible at The Library of Congress, so you can explore it more before or after the concert:
The event will feature the Campus-Community Choir, the Chamber Singers, the Women’s Choir (below) and the Guitar Ensemble. Sorry, no word about the specific pieces or composers that will be sung and played.
Here is a link to a brief audiovisual sample of the Edgewood presentation:
In the YouTube video below, art director Donald Jackson talks about creating the new Bible:
By Jacob Stockinger
This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) and pianist Bryan Wallick, who won the Vladimir Horowitz Prize and is returning to Madison, will perform under longtime WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell an all-Beethoven concert to end the WCO’s indoors Masterworks season.
Tickets are $15-$62.
For more information, visit: http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks-v
The Ear asked Bryan Wallick to explain why all-Beethoven concerts work so well and why Beethoven remains so popular with the general public. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra will also close its season with Beethoven, specifically the Symphony No. 9 (“Choral” or “Ode to Joy”) on May 8, 9 and 10.)
Wallick (below) kindly responded to an email Q&A:
Beethoven, along with a handful of other composers, including Mozart and Tchaikovsky, is one of the few composers who can make up a single-composer concert that also attracts the public. What accounts for that?
Beethoven had the luxury of living a longer life than many of the famous composers, so his compositional output is larger than that of many other composers.
His compositional style also changed dramatically over the course of his life, and there aren’t too many composers whose music is so categorically defined as early, middle and late works.
At the Juilliard School, the famous Beethoven class taught by the late Jacob Lateiner (below) described five different categories of musical progression in Beethoven’s career. This diversity gives many different variations and possibilities of programmatic combinations that are stimulating and exciting.
However most all-Beethoven programs often program works from his middle or late period, and the music is just that good that we are happy to only hear Beethoven. He was perhaps the greatest genius to ever put his pen to music, in a different capacity than Mozart.
What role has Beethoven played in your career? Are there works in particular that you were drawn to as a student or a performing professional?
Beethoven has been a huge influence in my career, and probably most any pianist’s career as he wrote so much music for the piano. His 32 sonatas are one of the greatest musical achievements ever produced, so there is always an unending supply of great piano music that most pianists never even get to in their careers unless they become Beethoven specialists.
As a student, I remember a general rule that I was given that I should always be learning some Beethoven sonata while learning everything else that I was working on. As a child, I often listened to Beethoven sonatas before I went to bed, and this music was very motivational in driving me to develop my technique to the level where I could perform these pieces.
Beethoven (below) consistently ranks as the general public’s favorite classical composer. Why is that, do you think?
As I said earlier, the diversity of works is enormous, but I think the general public isn’t that aware of the huge diversity of works. Those are mostly precious gems for musicians to savor, but the tonal language is very acceptable to a wide audience. Plus, the stories of his fiery temper and his deafness add a certain mystery to his genius that can interest a wide audience.
In the work which I will play, the “Emperor” Piano Concerto, it is harmonically very simple, he often just moves between a I chord and a V chord, but how he does it is so interesting and the emotional depths which he contemplates with these very simple chords is astounding. How he is able to encapsulate his struggles and personal hardship in his music is perhaps the reason why his genius could exceed that of Mozart.
Is there an aspect of Beethoven that you think the public needs to pay more attention to and that you intend to emphasize in your interpretations?
I wish the public had the time and opportunity to become more familiar with a broader range of Beethoven’s music. They often get to hear the famous works, but when one understands and sees the connections between the famous pieces and the ones written in between, the appreciation for what he does in the famous works only becomes greater.
One can always strive to hear more things in the music, and the great experience of performing these works is that even though we’ve played this music many, many times, we as musicians still keep finding new things in this music, and the experience always keeps growing and changing.
Is there anything you would like to say or add?
I love this concerto for many reasons, but one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is how simple it is, and I believe it is a struggle for many pianists to leave this piece alone and not to do too much with it. (Below is the notebook manuscript of the opening of the “Emperor” Concerto from measure 3 until the second theme enters.)
The phrasing is very logical, well written, and if a pianist tries to do too much with it, somehow the music doesn’t work. For example, I feel there is a lot of room for a pianist to manipulate and turn phrases 1,000 different ways in the fourth piano concerto.
But this piece has a structure, logic and direction that I feel a pianist must just accept, appreciate, respect; and they must find a simple way to bring this to an audience. (You can hear the acclaimed Beethoven interpreter and pianist Rudolf Serkin and conductor Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra perform the “Emperor” Concerto in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
I’ve heard many performances of this piece where pianists try to over-interpret things, so my goal is to just let this great music speak on its own with just little “comments” here and there from myself.
By Jacob Stockinger
In 1842, five years before his death at 38, the early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn (below, in an etching from the Hulton Archive/Getty Images), who lived from 1809 to 1847 and is known for his charming and accessible works, wrote a short song of just 29 measures for a friend in Berlin.
Twice the unpublished song manuscript changed hands, being auctioned off in 1862 and 1872.
And then it went missing for a long time.
Until it mysteriously resurfaced in the U.S. this year.
The title is suggestive and intriguing. The song is called “The Heart is Like a Mine” and takes it text from a poem by Friedrich Rückert (below, 1788-1866), a master of 30 languages whose own prolific poetry was used by other major composers including Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Bela Bartok, Paul Hindemith, Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler.
Sounds as if the song could be pretty bleak and dire, if you are thinking coal mine.
Or bright and hopeful, if you are thinking about a diamond or gold mine.
You can decide for yourself.
After the manuscript of the song resurfaced, the BBC had it recorded by a singer and a pianist, who do a fine job with it.
You can use the link below to the feature on NPR and its outstanding classical music blog — “Deceptive Cadence” — to listen to the song, plus get the background about its history and its upcoming auction at Christie’s. And you can find the recording of the lovely 1-1/2 minute song at the bottom in YouTube video.)
The Ear hopes the autographed manuscript ends up in a public museum and not again in a private collection, which is how it went missing for so long. But we will soon see.
NOTE: Today’s in the 450th birthday of playwright William Shakespeare — a fitting date for the blog post below to appear. Do you have a favorite work or composer who stands up to comparison with Shakespeare or whose music or opera best incorporates work by The Bard? Leave a COMMENT.
By Jacob Stockinger
At 8 p.m. on this Saturday night, April 26, pianist Ryan McCullough (below top) will play the last three Beethoven piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, on the new Salon Series of concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos (below bottom is Farley’s Steinway‘s 1877 Centennial Concert Grand), located 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side, not far from West Towne.
McCullough has appeared with orchestras including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he performed to acclaim at the Token Creek Festival in Madison in 2010. For more information, visit his website www.rmmpiano.com.
For this concert he will play Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 30 in E major, No. 31 in A-flat major and No. 32 in C minor. You can call (608) 271-2626 to reserve your tickets. Tickets are $30 in advance; $35 at the door. A free reception follows the performance and is included.
McCullough graciously answered an email Q&A for The Ear.
Can you briefly introduce yourself and your major accomplishments, and talk about your background including when you started piano lessons and what was your Aha! Moment when you knew you wanted to become a concert pianist?
By my nature, it is hard for me to claim any major “accomplishments” since I attribute any such thing to luck and circumstance (provided I’ve done the work!). But I will say I am very happy and feel very lucky that I’m a concert pianist, and especially that I’m satisfied with the breadth and variety of musical projects I get to work on. I can’t really even take sole credit for that, though, since I’ve had a lot of support from family and teachers all along the way.
My mom started me on piano when I was 5, but at the time I wasn’t really into it–I wanted to be a pilot. Something happened when I was 11, however, and suddenly music became an insatiable fascination for me.
I began composing, I began playing the clarinet, which gives me a lot of respect for the musicians on the “other side of the podium.” I started going to little competitions and I just knew that this was what I was going to do. I never decided, I just found myself.
There is a lot of cultural baggage that comes with Beethoven’s music, and this is of course nothing new. Composers, performers and music-lovers have racked their brains over his music and especially his late music for close to 200 years, and so I often wonder if it is really possible to unpack what is really Beethoven from what is just the Beethoven mythology.
But trying to think as objectively as possible about these works, I have been thinking recently about how much I love the pacing of his music. It’s very dramatic, in the thespian sense of the word, and revelations and changes to the motion of the music seem to happen at exactly the right moment. It is well-known that Beethoven (below top) loved Shakespeare, and the connections between dramatic rhetoric and music were very deep in the 18th-century, so I imagine this was a very serious consideration for him.
One of the challenges of playing Beethoven’s late works is grappling with profundity. Ask anyone who knows a little about Beethoven’s music to describe his late music and you’ll get responses like spiritual, profound, transcendental, mystical, otherworldly, and so on. This is just a part of our cultural understanding of Beethoven, which is of course backed up by Beethoven’s own words, such as the indication atop the third movement of op. 109, “mit innigster Empfindung,” or “with deepest feeling.”
Of course, while I do believe Beethoven was a very spiritual man with a deep interest in the philosophical and cultural trends of his time, 200 years of critical hyperbole since his death have made it such that playing this music feels to us as if his notes contain the secrets of the universe, and so as a performer it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to be profound through these works when just letting them be what they are is already profound enough.
Why do you think that the last three sonatas, and the late sonatas in general, have replaced the more “heroic” middle period sonatas like the “Tempest,” the “Appassionata” and the “Waldstein” that used to figure so prominently in piano recitals?
There is probably no accounting for why certain pieces begin to feature more regularly in concerts, especially in the piano circuit, which is so heavily influenced by (or contrary to) competitions. I also think it depends where you’re looking. I have heard many performances of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata recently, especially at top-tier competitions where it seems to be the “no s/he didn’t!” piece of choice these days.
I heard the last three sonatas played by my teacher, John Perry, back in 2004, before I began studying with him, and got it stuck in my head at that point that I would do that one day as well, so I think that’s at least one reason how certain repertoire disseminates.
That being said, I also heard a performance of the complete 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day by one person, and that is not something I would ever want to do.
Do you see any kind of connection or relationship among the last three sonatas? What would you like to point out to readers about each sonata, and about your performance in Madison?
This ties into the notion of profundity I mentioned a moment ago, whether it’s latent in the work or imposed by the observer (which of course includes the performer). Obviously Beethoven made the decision to put them in that particular order (Opp. 109, 110, 111), and opus order is something we know he was conscious of, especially with his late string quartets.
Whether that actually means anything specifically is anyone’s guess, and probably has as much to do with the composer’s business relationships with his publishers as it does with the actual music.
For the purposes of performance as a set, I do perceive a progression through the three.
Op. 109 (a manuscript page is below) feels very domestic, grounded in the realities of everyday living. Emotions ebb and flow, from comfortable simplicity to passionate arguments, but the piece never really wanders very far from home and there’s a certain quiet satisfaction that overrides the whole work, even in its most ecstatic moments.
Op. 110 (a manuscript page is below) is a much more complicated piece, and for me is the hardest of the three. It seems to begin somewhat where Op. 109 leaves off — comfortable, satisfied, glittering, but there is a certain disquietude in the first movement, evidenced by the fact that Beethoven keeps leaning towards the dark key of F minor but manages just to avoid it or only touches on it briefly. The second movement is a wild romp in, not surprisingly, F minor, so whatever it was Beethoven was trying to avoid in the first movement seems to eventuate in full.
The third movement, which emerges out of the second, is one of the most depressing, emotionally draining pieces of music Beethoven ever penned, so whatever happened in the second movement was evidently quite a test. After a couple of attempts to pull the music out of this stupor, the piece ends up in a wildly ecstatic version of where the sonata began, but with the same harmonic hints at disquietude as the first movement, suggesting a kind of cyclical story-telling that Beethoven was very interested in at that time. It’s this combination of tightly-woven composition and boundless, fantasia-like wandering that makes the piece hard to pull off. The pacing, as I mentioned before, is very important.
Op. 111 (below is the title page form the first edition) is undoubtedly my favorite, certainly conceptually. Its two movements could not be more different from each other. The first movement is very much the stormy Beethoven we all read about, unkempt, his chamber pot full, frantically and obsessively scribbling the same short musical gestures over and over until he’s found just the right version (which was usually the first version, 20 versions ago), the deaf man beating out this wild music at the piano while listening through his earhorn.
The second movement, then, is as if you woke up from that bad dream and found yourself watching some sort of eternal celestial ritual that had no beginning, no terminus, and only seemed to exist for as long as you were there watching it. The way the movement is constructed reminds me somewhat of the great old science film “Powers of 10” (http://vimeo.com/6150677) where the universe is shown proportionally in both its infinite vastness and smallness—the falling motive Beethoven starts with is continually divided in half, somewhat like a single bacteria, and becomes such a cloud of activity that it seems to engulf us until inadvertently we find ourselves back where we started. (You can hear the second movement played in a live performance by the great Rudolf Serkin in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
Many see Beethoven’s sense of musical abstraction as a precursor to 20th-century modernity; but the 18th-century was a pretty crazy time conceptually, and artists and philosophers were already considering ideas that modernists in the 20th-century would claim as their own invention. Beethoven just happened to be a very effective bullhorn for these ideas. (Below is a manuscript page of Op. 111.)
Is there something else you would like to add or say?
I am dedicating this performance and another that I am giving at Cornell University to a great friend and music-lover Leon Berliner (below), who owned a Classical music recording shop in my hometown of Eureka, California.
Leon was born into a Jewish family in Belgium, and Beethoven was one of the first sounds he heard after the liberation of his country from the Nazis. He held an annual Beethoven’s birthday party at his store on December 16, and he died this last year from lung cancer on December 15. That’s as amazing a coincidence as you’re ever likely to get, and I very much hope he’s enjoying his “eternal celestial ritual.”