The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: It’s Mother’s Day 2018. The Ear remembers his mom with a Rachmaninoff prelude

May 13, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Mother’s Day 2018.

To celebrate The Ear’s late mom, here is a piece of music with a story to tell with it.

The Ear remembers it well.

He was 13, maybe 14, and living on Long Island, New York.

It was in the afternoon, after school.

His mom was talking to a stranger long-distance on the phone. The conversation, something about preparing wild rice, was with a person in Minnesota.

The Ear was at the piano practicing and playing the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor by the young Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) – the “Bells of Moscow” – which you can hear Evgeny Kissin play in the YouTube video at the bottom.

It was music that The Ear first heard live when a babysitter played it for him. And he immediately fell in love with it.

It was hard to play, a Romantic piece with big loud chords (below is part of the score) and fast passage work. Perfect for a teenager.

Rachmaninoff's Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapi...

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapitulation of the theme, in four staves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was The Ear’s first big piece, the right vehicle for an ambitious young piano student who was anxious to use the piano to make an impression.

Anyway, the person on the other end of the phone heard the piano playing and asked if they could listen a while longer.

Mom said, Sure!

Then she placed the phone near the piano — and beamed with pride at me while gesturing for me to continue playing.

Mom didn’t know a lot of classical music. But she knew her son loved it and she did everything she could to encourage that love.

She also liked this particular Rachmaninoff prelude because it was accessible and dramatic, easy to understand and to appreciate, and most of all because her son liked it and played it.

That’s how moms are.

The other person on the line listened until the end of the prelude, then offered praise and thanks, said good-bye, and hung up.

Mom told that story over many years and always with great pride.

For a long time after, it seemed that particular prelude fell out of fashion – probably because it was too popular and too melodramatic. Even Rachmaninoff grew to despise it and referred to the work disdainfully as “It,” which he often had to play as an encore.

But lately, as often happens to overexposed pieces that fall into neglect, it finally seems to be making something of a comeback.

Several years ago, Garrick Ohlsson played it as an encore after a concerto he performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. These days, The Ear has heard the young up-and-coming, prize-winning young Georgian-British pianist Luka Okros play it on YouTube and Instagram.

Anyway, here it is, offered with fond memories of a proud mom.

Is there a piece of classical music you identify with your mom? Maybe Antonin Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which you can hear on Wisconsin Public Radio‘s “Sunday Brunch” program at about 12:30p.m. today?

Maybe an opera aria or song?

Leave a comment, with a link to a YouTube performance if possible, and let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

Happy Mother’s Day, all!

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Classical music: Madison Opera’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” excelled in singing, orchestral playing, drama and other aspects that redeemed a largely unmemorable work. Plus, what is good music for Veterans Day?

November 11, 2016
Leave a Comment

ALERT: Today is Veterans Day. What piece of classical music should be played to mark the event? The Ear suggests the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Leave your choice in the COMMENT section.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post features a guest review of Madison Opera’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Larry Wells. Wells has been enjoying opera since he was a youngster. He subscribed to the San Francisco Opera for nearly 20 years, where he last saw “Romeo and Juliet,” sung by Alfredo Kraus and Ruth Ann Swenson

More recently he lived in Tokyo and attended many memorable performances there over nearly 20 years. These included Richard Strauss rarities such as “Die Ägyptische Helena” and “Die Liebe der Danae” as well as the world’s strangest Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner and a space-age production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” featuring Alessandra Marc singing “In questa reggia” while encased in an inverted cone.

By Larry Wells

Last Sunday’s matinee performance of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Madison Opera at the Overture Center was a feast for the eyes. The costumes, sets, lighting and staging were consistently arresting. (Performance photos are by James Gill.)

But we go to the opera for music and drama.

The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is well known. Gounod’s opera substitutes the tragedy with melodrama, and therein lies one of the work’s flaws. Despite sword fights, posturings and threats as well as one of opera’s lengthiest death scenes, one leaves the theater thinking that a vast amount of theatrical resources have been squandered on something insubstantial.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sword-fight

However, despite its dramatic flaws, the opera’s music has somehow endured. And Sunday’s performance milked the most out of the music that could have been expected.

The star of the show was the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the expert direction of Maestro John DeMain (below). He knows how to pace a performance, how to build an exciting climax and how to highlight a solo instrument.

He is an incredibly intelligent conductor, and we are fortunate to have him in Madison. I want to make special mention of the beautiful harp playing, which, according to the program, was accomplished by Jenny DeRoche.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The second star on the stage was the Madison Opera Chorus (below). The chorus plays a significant part in many of the opera’s scenes, and the singing was stirring when it needed to be and tender when it was called for.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-chrous-and-set

As for the soloists, highest praise must go to UW-Madison alumna soprano Emily Birsan (below right) for her portrayal of Juliet. Her solo arias, particularly her big number in the first act as well as her subsequent lament, were stunning.

Her Romeo, tenor John Irvin (below left), sounded a little forced during his forte moments, but he sang magnificently in his quiet farewell to Juliet after their balcony scene. (You can hear the famous balcony scene, sung by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-john-irvin-and-emily-birsan

Their voices blended beautifully in the opera’s multiple duets. And the wedding quartet, where they were joined by Allisanne Apple’s nurse (below, rear right) and Liam Moran’s Friar Lawrence (below, middle center), was a highlight of the performance.

madison-opera-romoeo-and-juliet-friar-and-nurse

The opera abounds with minor characters, all of which were ably portrayed. Special mention should be made of Stephanie Lauricella (below, far right) for her fantastic moments as Romeo’s page; Madison’s Allisanne Apple for her amusing portrayal of Juliet’s nurse Gertrude; Sidney Outlaw (below, second from left) as a robust Mercutio; and Philip Skinner as a powerful Lord Capulet.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sidnay-outlaw-left-and-page-right

I have wondered why this opera is still performed. Its music is lovely but unmemorable, and its dramatic impact is tenuous.

I left the performance thinking that it had been a good afternoon at the theater – certainly more interesting than the Packers’ game – but wishing that one of a couple dozen more meaty operas had been performed in its place.

Since we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, how much more interesting would have been Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”? 


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