The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This Saturday and Sunday, the Token Creek Festival explores how an unrequited love for Clara Schumann helped make Brahms and his music autumnal

August 22, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johannes Brahms (below) remains the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use. This is due to his fastidiously high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players.

His music is universally admired for its combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact, ranging from the most muted private conversation to the most passionate and revealing passages he ever composed.

But putting aside his own personal temperament as well as his melancholy melodies, his bittersweet harmonies, and his masterful use of strings and woodwinds, what gives Brahms’ music that quality of sadness that so many listeners and critics describe as “autumnal”?

No discussion of Brahms can take place without engaging with the most important person in his life — Clara Schumann (below, in a  Getty photo), who was born Clara Wieck and became a virtuoso pianist and a composer whose 200th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year.

Brahms was deeply in love with Clara. But unfortunately she was married to Robert Schumann (below right with Clara), one of Brahms’ closest friends and most loyal promoters. Even after a mentally ill Robert Schumann died of suicide at 46, Clara remained loyal to his memory. For the rest of her long life, she performed, edited and promoted his music and rejected Brahms as a lover or second husband.

Almost overnight, Clara’s rejection seemed to cause Brahms to turn from a handsome young man (below top) to the more familiar figure of an overweight, cigar-smoking, bearded and prematurely old curmudgeon (below bottom).

Clara Schumann’s hidden presence is involved with all of the pieces on the Token Creek Festival program, which will be performed at 4 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 24 and 25, in the festival’s refurbished barn (below) at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.

The program includes the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, illustrated with a performance of Brahms’ “Regenlied” (the “Rain Song” that precedes it and introduces the theme of the sonata); the Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano in E minor; and the Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor, a piece that retains its distinctive charge of unresolvable emotion. (You can hear that unresolved emotion in the beautiful slow movement of the Piano Quartet No. 3 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performers are violinist Rose Mary Harbison, co-artistic director of the Token Creek Festival; violist Lila Brown; cellist Rhonda Rider; pianist Janice Weber; and Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson.

THE REST OF THE FEST

Upcoming programs include “Words & Music,” a belated 80th birthday tribute to artistic co-director John Harbison, on Wednesday night, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The intimate program will include readings by poet Lloyd Schwartz, the premiere of new Harbison songs, plus works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Arnold Schoenberg.

The festival closes with “The Piano” program on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, both at 4 p.m. The festival welcomes back pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer, here composers who were also formidable pianists:  Mozart, Maurice Ravel and Franz Liszt. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of John Harbison’s Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, complete the program.

For tickets ($32) and more information, go to www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra takes The Ear over the rainbow and turns in an impressive season-closing concert that leaves him looking forward to the next season

May 3, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

To The Ear, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) just keeps getting better and better, each concert building on the last one.

Take the final concert of this season last Friday night in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

It proved typical WCO fare in the quality of the soloists and orchestra players and in the variety of the program.

WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) continues to mold his group into the tightest of ensembles. You know you are hearing precision when the rests and silences become as important to the music as the sound. And when you are listening, you feel how relaxing it is to rule out worrying about raggedness.

Here’s a rundown:

The concert opened with a tried-and-true masterpiece, the “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by Maurice Ravel (below). Each of the five dance movements pays homage to a friend of Ravel who fell in World War I, the centennial of which, the gracious Sewell explained, is being marked this year. The Ear likes such tie-ins. (The Ear also loves the original piano version, which has a sixth movement, a fabulous toccata conclusion.)

The Symphony No. 2 in C Major by Romantic master Robert Schumann is not The Ear’s favorite Schumann symphony – that would be No. 4 – and The Ear thinks that Schumann’s orchestral writing is generally not up to his piano writing, his chamber music or his songs.

Indeed, long-form music was not Schumann’s strength, as his many miniature movements in his longer suites and his fragmentary esthetic attest. Perhaps it had to do with his mental illness; perhaps it was just his preference and temperament, much as was the case with his contemporary Chopin, who also preferred the miniature to the epic.

Still, the work proved enjoyable and moving, especially in the vivacious and energetic Scherzo that was executed so precisely and then in the poignant slow movement, which was beautifully shaped with the romantic yearning that Schumann (seen below, with his wife Clara Wieck Schumann) was peerless at expressing. (You can hear the third movement, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And once again, the smaller size of the chamber orchestra — versus a full symphony orchestra — created transparency. Listeners got to hear inner voices and the interplay of parts in all sections of the orchestra that they might otherwise miss.

But the piece that everyone came to hear was the finale: The world premiere of a Two-Piano Concerto by American composer Thomas Cabaniss (below top). The WCO commissioned the piece with help from two local patrons (Jun and Sandy Lee) and the soloists, Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn (below bottom), who have ties to Madison.

The work and its three movements – “Surfaces,” “Disturbances” and “Revelation” — did not disappoint and received a rapturous reception from the large audience, which demanded and received a piano-four hands encore.

The concerto struck The Ear as perfectly fitting its title, “Double Rainbow.” You heard elements of Maurice Ravel and John Adams. But you did NOT hear the typical standout solo playing of, say, a piano concerto by Beethoven or Brahms, Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev.

This was a much more atmospheric ensemble work that shimmered and glittered, much like a rainbow. It almost seemed in many places similar to a Baroque concerto grosso, with the piano incorporated into the orchestral texture rather than standing out against it.

That is not to say the concerto, more mood than melody, wasn’t impressive. The score seemed very difficult, even virtuosic, and it certainly had moments that allowed the two soloists to show off their first-rate, Juilliard-trained chops.

Will this new concerto join other two-piano staples, such as the famous two-piano concertos by Poulenc and Mozart? It would take more hearings to be sure, but The Ear suspects not. It will surely get repeated hearings, especially from the Shinns, without becoming a go-to default piece in the two-piano repertoire. But he could well be wrong.

In any case, one would be hard put to find a better summary of the WCO approach to music-making than this outstanding concert that combined the old and the new, that mixed works from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and performed them with technical precision and moving interpretation.

Bravos to all.

And all the more reason to look forward, after the WCO’s six summer outdoor Concerts on the Square from June 28 to Aug. 2, to the next indoors Masterworks season, both of which you can find here:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra receives a national grant for its HeartStrings outreach program of music therapy for the special-needs community. Plus, you can hear the MSO’s Rhapsodie Quartet perform music by Schubert and Dvorak on Monday, May 23

May 15, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following note, which he finds worth sharing because of the local distinction and because it confirms that the importance of hearing music goes far beyond the concert hall and recording studio.

The notice outlines an example of musical outreach that is both empathetic and compassionate, traits that mean the entire public should know about and support the MSO’s outreach programs: 

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chairman Jane Chu announced on May 10 that the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has been awarded an NEA Art Works grant of $20,000 to support HeartStringsSM, an internationally recognized, music therapy-informed community engagement program for individuals with special needs.

The NEA has approved more than $82 million total to fund local arts projects and partnerships in this second major funding announcement for fiscal year 2016.

HeartStringsSM  uses live music to address the physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals with disabilities, long-term illnesses, dementia and assisted-living needs.

Participants receive the HeartStringsSM program free-of-charge, and the MSO’s Rhapsodie Quartet (below), a professional string quartet comprised of principal MSO musicians, performs the music live at various sites.

NOTE: You can hear the Rhapsodie Quartet plus UW-Madson and Pro Arte Quartet cellist Parry Karp perform on Monday, May, 23, at 7 p.m. in the Promenade Hall of the Overture Center. The program features the “AmericanString Quartet by Antonin Dvorak and the late and sublime String Quintet in C Major, D. 956, by Franz Schubert. The suggested donation is $5 at the door.

MSO HeartStrings outreach with Rhapsodie Quartet playing

The Quartet will facilitate a series of nine group music therapy-informed sessions at 10 retirement communities, healthcare facilities, and state institutions across Dane County, reaching nearly 3,200 individuals –many of whom would not otherwise have access to the restorative effects of live music.

“The arts are all around us, enhancing our lives in ways both subtle and obvious, expected and unexpected,” said Chu. “Supporting projects like the one from the Madison Symphony Orchestra offers more opportunities to engage in the arts every day.”

MSO Director of Education and Community Engagement Kathryn Schwarzmann said:

“HeartStrings is a signature program of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which brings meaningful musical experiences directly into the lives of individuals with special needs throughout Dane County, Wisconsin. This nationally recognized community engagement program combines the beneficial effects of live music with participatory, music therapy-informed activities designed to promote the well-being of traditionally underserved populations.

The NEA’s Art Works grants support the creation of work, and presentation of both new and existing work, lifelong learning in the arts, and public engagement with the arts through 13 arts disciplines or fields.

To join the Twitter conversation about this announcement, please use #NEASpring16.

For more information on projects included in the NEA grant announcement, go to arts.gov

Here is a video of a television interview that features Kathryn Schwarzmann, who explains more about the background of the HeartStrings program and about how it works:


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