The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear sees blackmail, censorship, self-censorship and moral weakness –- NOT “compromise” – in the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to cancel the “Live in HD” broadcast of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” next fall.

June 24, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

It sure doesn’t seem like the Metropolitan Opera (below) could or should be the hero in this opera. More like it plays the role of the bad guy, the villain.

Met from stage over pit

Or is it really more of a soap opera?

In case you haven’t been following the news, the general director of the Metropolitan Opera Peter Gelb has caved in to pressure from Israeli lobbies and agreed to cancel the scheduled “Live in HD” broadcast of the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” by the acclaimed contemporary American composer John Adams (below and at bottom in a YouTube video with the stage director of the Met’s production.)

John Adams

 The Ear finds that action thoroughly reprehensible.

It seems the pro-Israeli lobby thinks the opera is anti-Semitic and too kind in the way it treats the four Palestinian terrorists — from the Palestine Liberation Organizations — who in 1985 took over the luxury cruise ship the Achille Lauro and killed the disabled Jewish passenger Leon Klingerhoffer in his wheelchair and then threw him overboard.

Well, I want to tell the head honchos at the famed Met: Don’t do my thinking about terrorism and Mideast peace for me. Just give me the facts and let me make up my own mind.

I want to see art, not propaganda, which is apparently what some pro-Israeli activists think would be good for the rest of us. I think I can see tragedy where there is tragedy, whether it is Jewish or Arab tragedy, Israeli or Palestinian tragedy. Just listen to the “Night Chorus” (below) and watch the videos that go with it:

This whole affair sound more than a little to my mind like a protester who would censor William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” or Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” in the name of a higher morality.

I say: Let us see the opera –- it is one of next season’s “Live in HD” satellite broadcasts that I would like most to attend -– and then decide for ourselves.

Stop condescending to us, stop underestimating us.

Now, one suspects that the poor finances of the Met would help to explain a lot of the shameful action. And Gelb admits that donors didn’t pressure him but that groups connected to donors did.

So here is the compromise: There will be no protesting at the actual opera production in New York City –- where tickets can run hundreds of dollars and seating is limited and most of the world cannot and will not see it — and no boycotting or withdrawing of financial support if the Met doesn’t broadcast it worldwide to a much larger audience.

I think I smell blackmail.

What do you smell?

I know I smell censorship on the part of the protesters and self-censorship of the part of the famed opera company’s administrators who caved in to their demands.

“The Death of Klinghoffer” would seem to build on the other news-based or reality-based operas of John Adams that the Met has staged and then broadcast so successfully by the Met: “Nixon in China” (below) about President Richard Nixon meeting Chairman Mao; and “Doctor Atomic,” about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the building of the first atomic bomb.

DeMainNixon Orth2

Here is a line to the story in The New York Times about the original decision:

And here is a link to reaction from the composer John Adams, who counters objections and make convincing points:

Here is a link to a fine critique from the longtime senior music critic for The New York Times Anthony Tommasini:

Here a link to a fine editorial that appeared in The Boston Globe:

And here is another great editorial, this one from The New York Times, which is located in a city known for its large Jewish population and, one presumes, its large body of Jewish subscribers:





Classical music: Music critics of The New York Times name their favorite recordings — historical and current — of Richard Wagner to celebrate this year’s bicentennial of the famous opera composer’s birth. What are your favorite Wagner works and recordings?

August 27, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

This year is the bicentennial of the birth of composer Richard Wagner.

Just about everything about Richard Wagner (below) is epic and titanic, dramatic and revolutionary.

Little wonder, then, that he is known especially for “The Ring of the Nibelung,” that 16–hour, four-opera mythological cycle that challenges the most resourceful singers, actors, stage directors, orchestras, conductors and opera companies. It took many complications and until the 1960s for conductor Sir Georg Solti to make the first complete recording of “The Ring” for Decca — and it still holds up to the best complete recordings since then.

Richard Wagner

Stop and think and consider this: In the time it usually takes to hear “The Ring” you could listen to all the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven, or all his string quartets and most of his piano trios.

True, some of Wagner’s vocal music is quite stirring and enthralling.

But only some of it — at least to my ears.

I share some of the sentiments of his detractors, who included some pretty good artists and discriminating musicians.

Take the composer Gioachino Rossini, who quipped “Wagner’s music has great moments but dull quarter hours.”

The American writer and humorist Mark Twain observed that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

The comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen remarked: “Every time I listen Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland.”

If you like those, here is a link to some more quips about Wagner, including some by French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire and French composer Claude Debussy:

I am probably a dissenter, but I think Wagner generally wrote better for instruments than he did for the voice. At least I generally find his orchestral music tighter and more enjoyable to listen to.

Indeed, I would like to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra do one of the various versions of “The Ring Without Words,” perhaps the orchestral anthology of highlights from “The Ring” and other operas that famed conductor George Szell (below) arranged and conducted with the Cleveland Orchestra (in a YouTube video at the bottom).

George Szell wide BW

I love the overtures and preludes, and I don’t think they get programmed often enough these days. Same for the charming “Siegfried Idyll.”

I remember an old vinyl LP recording with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. How I loved, and found endlessly thrilling the Overture to “Tannhauser,” the “Prelude and Liebestod” to “Tristan und Isolde,” the Overture to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” preludes from “Lohengrin,” and the magically static and haunting Prelude to “Parsifal.” They are terrific curtain-raisers.

So I was happy to see orchestral recordings by Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer included on the list in The New York Times.

I also love “best moment” anthologies so it is also good to see choices like the new recording by the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann – a great choice since Kaufmann (below) seems a perfect Wagner singer who has a huge but subtle voice, stamina and the handsome good looks for the parts.

Kaufmann Wagner CD

Anyway, here is a link to the Wagner discography in The New York Times:

What is your favorite Wagner recording? What piece and what performer?

And do you favor his vocal or instrumental music?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Does The Great American Symphony” exist – or even its equivalent in a different form or genre? American conductor JoAnn Falletta takes up the challenging question on NPR with “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel. Also, the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival opens tonight with a concert by Piffaro and a lecture on “The Germanies of 1616.”

July 6, 2013

A REMINDER: The 14th Madison Early Music Festival, with the theme “Renaissance Germany,”  opens tonight with a performance by the Renaissance band Piffaro (below) at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. It will be preceded at 6:30 p.m. by a FREE lecture by frequent guest blog contributor John W. Barker on “The Germanies of 1616 and How They Got to Be That Way” in Room L-160 of the Elvehjem Building of the nearby Chazen Museum of Art. For more information, visit:


By Jacob Stockinger

Back when The Ear was an undergraduate, he had a philosophy professor who claimed in an aesthetics course that no one in the class that was full of ambitious artists and especially would-be writers should worry about writing The Great American Novel.

It had already been written.

The Great American Novel, he said, was “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (below):

f. scott fitzgerald writing

It’s a great choice, though others might disagree and name Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” or Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

Still, overall, I think the decades have proven him right – which is why Gatsby has been made into several movie versions, including an older one with the actor Robert Redford and a recent one by director Baz Luhrman, and John Harbison’s full-length opera (below, with Dawn Upshaw as Daisy and Jerry Hadley as Jay Gatsby). And maybe a TV drama based on the novel is yet to come.

John Harbison Great Gatsby

But even though that quite of question somehow seems impertinent or irrelevant, it can lead to some memorable discussions and exposure to new music.

So last week, when everyone was looking up American music to play on Independence Day or the fourth of July, the question of The Great American Symphony arose.

And it was discussed on NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog by Tom Huizenga and also on “All Things Considered” by veteran host, the cultured, cultivated and witty Robert Siegel (below top) and American conductor JoAnn Falletta (below bottom), in a photo by Cheryl Gorski), who now leads three different orchestras as music director. (The three are the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland.) Falletta comes up with some interesting choices of American composers and works — some you have heard of and some you haven’t. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the beautiful slow movement from Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, which I had never heard either live or in a recorded performance.)

robert siegel in npr studio


It would be interesting to hear what some other American-born and American-trained maestros and champions of old and new American music – from Leonard Bernstein and Alan Gilbert of the New York Philharmonic to Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas (below) of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra said or have to say when they took on the same question.


Anyway, here are links to the NPR discussions. I recommend listening to the program and not just reading the transcript.

What do you think?

Do you have an orchestral work to nominate as The Great American Symphony or its equivalent?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music Q&A: Handel’s keyboard music is rich, underperformed and underappreciated, says harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson, who performs an all-Handel solo recital this Sunday.

January 19, 2012

ALERT: The Ear has received the following message to pass on from cellist Andrea Kleesattel of Classical Revolution Madison. “Hello everyone! We are changing the time of our first Classical Revolution event of 2012 on this Sunday to 11:30-1 p.m.  at the Fair Trade Coffee House (below), 418 State St.  (We’ll play music by Vivaldi, Brahms, Debussy, Prokofiev and Piazzolla.) Originally we had planned on 11-12:30 p.m., but this semester we’re going to be starting a little later (because it’s Sunday morning).  Also, we are no longer playing at the Brink on February 21st. Be sure to check out our website for the latest on dates, times and locations.  Also, we are currently planning repertoire for our shows this semester. Let us know if there is a piece you’d like to play or hear — otherwise you will be left to our artistic discretion. That’s all for now.  As always be in touch if you’d like to play something — we love your involvement! Here is a link:

By Jacob Stockinger

Early music keyboardist Trevor Stephenson is devoting his next intimate house music concert (below), this Sunday afternoon at 3, to solo keyboard works of George Friderich Handel.

The concert is at the home of Trevor and Rose Stephenson at 5729 Forsythia Place, on Madison’s west side, off Old Middleton Road.

Tickets are $35 and light refreshments are served. Reservations are required, and the seating capacity is 40. Last I heard, only a few seats remained. For information about seating availability, contact or call (608) 238-6092.

Stephenson (below) – who is a virtuoso explainer as well as an accomplished performer – agreed to an email interview with The Ear about Handel:

What pieces by Handel will you play?

I’ll play the Passacaglia from the Suite No. 7 in G minor; the Suite in D minor; the Gavotte in G major; the Sonatina in B-flat major; a collection of small works called “Impertinence”; and the Suite in E major, which ends with the “Harmonious Blacksmith” Variations.”

How does the keyboard music by Handel (below) compare in quality and variety to his more famous works — the concerti grossi and chamber music, the operas and oratorios?

I think most people would agree that Handel’s home turf is the opera and oratorio genres. His music has an innately public sensibility and he is so comfortable addressing a large audience. In every note of his music he tells us, convincingly, that we are all in this together. I always think of him as something of music’s version of FDR.

This orator’s voice is present in the solo keyboard music as well, though Handel often tempers this with explorations of the keyboard’s penchant to soliloquize. Handel (below) was a great keyboard player and improviser—particularly on the organ, which of course is a grander and more public medium than the harpsichord. The keyboard suites provide us with a window onto how he might have sounded as a soloist.

How does Handel’s solo keyboard works compare to those of his contemporaries such as the suites and partitas, preludes and fugues, of J.S. Bach and the sonatas of Scarlatti?

Like Bach—and unlike Scarlatti—Handel’s music is a fusion of three main styles: Italian, for melodic richness and invention; German, for contrapuntal and harmonic structure; and French, for taste, ease, and grace.

Handel’s use of the three styles is of course different from Bach’s, but in short, Handel’s trademark is what can be called “jeweled melodies” (coming largely from the Italians)–-tunes that are so perfectly constructed and catchy that they can bounce around in your head for weeks on end.

Handel’s Suites, like Bach’s, often start with a Prelude, followed by an Allemande, a Courante, a Sarabande; while Bach is pretty consistent in writing Gigues for concluding movements, Handel will sometimes forego the gigue and end with a surprise, like the set of variations (known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” below) at the end of the E major suite.

How does Handel’s keyboard music differ is style, substance and technical difficulty from, say, Bach and Scarlatti? And why do you think haven’t they been performed as often?

Handel’s keyboard music doesn’t have as much technical audacity and display as Scarlatti’s, and not as much contrapuntal density as Bach’s, but it requires a unique set of skills. As a player, you need to have your Handel Hands ready.

Handel has a wonderful sense of chord spacing that feeds the dramatic progression of the piece—he knows when to be thick and when to be thin.

But I think beyond this he also requires of the player that they be very versed in how to play stylistically at the harpsichord: how to listen for the particular sonority of the instrument, how to roll chords (even when not indicated) either slowly or quickly, up or down, and how to lift and place the agogic accents so that the line and meter get their full expression.

Do you think Handel’s keyboard music deserves a rediscovery? What drew you to Handel and why did you choose to program an all-Handel solo keyboard program?

Handel is a wise and wonderful composer, and his genuine theatricality provides the listener with catharsis. Perhaps better than anybody else, he can “take the roof off.”

When Handel returned in mid-life to his boyhood home in Halle, Germany  — a kind of celebrity visit (a la Mark Twain goes back to Hannibal, Missouri) — J. S. Bach dropped everything and took a long carriage ride to Halle, only to find that Handel had just left. I think Bach wanted to meet a man who could write like that.

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