The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Gift guide or gift or both? Critics for The New York Times name their top classical recordings of 2018, and so does National Public Radio (NPR)

December 22, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is “Panic Saturday” — another, newer theme day on the commerce-driven Holiday Consumer Calendar that goes along with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber-Monday and Giving Tuesday. 

In past years, by this time many media outlets would publish the list of the top classical recordings of the past year. And The Ear has offered them as holiday shopping guides with links to the lists.

They seem to be running late this year, probably too late for many shoppers.

But recently the team of critics for The New York Times named their Top 25 classical recordings of 2018 that run from the 15th century to today (sample album covers are below).

This time, the website didn’t just reproduce something that first appeared in the printed edition. And something more than small snippets or excerpts are offered.

This time, the newspaper took full advantage of the electronic possibility of the web and used streaming to add hours of sound samples — some as long as 40 minutes – so you can see what you think of the recordings before you buy them. (Be sure to look at reader reactions and comments.)

It is a new and innovative way to do a Top 25 list – very appealing or entertaining as well as informative. Even if you don’t use it to buy anything for others or yourself, it can provide many minutes of listening pleasure. You can think of it as a gift guide or a gift or both.

Of course, there are also the usual short and very readable, to-the-point narratives or explanations about why the recording stands out and what makes it great music, a great performance or a great interpretation.

So there is a lot to listen to and help you make up your mind. The Ear has enjoyed it and found it helpful, and hopes you do too, whether you agree or disagree with the choice:

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/arts/music/best-classical-music-tracks-2018.html

Since this is the last weekend for holiday shopping before Christmas, here is the previous list – notice the duplications in the two lists — posted here, which was of the nominations for the upcoming 2019 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/classical-music-here-are-the-just-announced-grammy-nominations-for-2019-they-can-serve-as-a-great-holiday-gift-guide/

And here is the Top 10 list, which was chosen by the always discerning Tom Huizenga (below) — who explains the reasons for his choices — and which also offers generous sound samples, from National Public Radio (NPR) and its Deceptive Cadence blog. Also look for duplications:

https://www.npr.org/2018/12/18/677776208/npr-musics-best-classical-albums-of-2018

What recordings would you suggest? 

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The legendary St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig will perform Reformation music at Luther Memorial Church this Sunday night

November 14, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Luther Memorial Church will host the historic and legendary St. Thomas Boys Choir (Thomanerchor) of Leipzig, Germany.

The famed boychoir will perform this coming Sunday night at 7 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave.

The program will present music of Johann Sebastian Bach (the motets “Fürchte dich nicht,” “Komm, Jesu, komm” and “Der Geist hilft”) and unspecified choral music of Heinrich Schütz, Johann Schein and Felix Mendelssohn.

Tickets are available at www.luthermem.org/st-thomas at $20, $30 and $50. Student rush tickets will be available day of concert.

The St. Thomas Boys Choir (Thomanerchor) of Leipzig, Germany, was founded in 1212. Johann Sebastian Bach (below) served as Thomaskantor, director of the choir, from 1723 to 1750. (For more background about the group, its pedigree and the music of Bach, see the YouTube video at the bottom.)


Classical music: French composer Maurice Durufle’s quietly glorious but rarely performed Requiem will be sung for FREE twice this Sunday, March 29, at the First Unitarian Society of Madison. Plus, the UW Hunt Quartet performs a FREE concert of Mozart, Janacek and Mendelssohn on Thursday night at 6:30 in Morphy Hall.

March 25, 2015
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ALERT: This Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the Hunt Quartet will perform three great string quartets: the String Quartet No. 23 in F Major, K. 590, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata” by Leos Janacek; and the String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13, by Felix Mendelssohn.

The quartet is made up of four graduate students (below) at the UW-Madison School of Music. Here is a link to the event with impressive biographies and other information:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/hunt-quartet-recital/

Hunt Quartet 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Our friend Dan Broner, the music director of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, has sent the following note to The Ear: 

On Sunday, March 29, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. the Society Choir of the First Unitarian Society of Madison will be joined by guest singers and instrumentalists in two performances of a masterpiece by French composer Maurice Durufle (below): his Requiem, Op. 9

Maurice Durufle full frontal BW

Both performances will take place in the modern Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams).

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

Maurice Durufle (1902-1986) was a celebrated French organist and composer. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire with the two most important French organist-composers of the day, Charles Tournemire and Louis Vierne, and he surpassed them both.

Durufle (below) won every major prize – in organ, harmony, accompaniment, counterpoint and fugue, and composition. In 1939 he gave the world premiere of Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and in the 1940s he was named Professor of Harmony of the Conservatoire. It was his exceptional penchant for self-criticism, however, that led to Durufle publishing only 13 works: six organ pieces, two works for orchestra, a chamber piece, and four choral compositions.

He kept re-writing and revising his compositions for years after they were completed. As a result Durufle is a relatively unknown composer to the general public, but is admired by composers and singers for the impeccable craftsmanship and sublime beauty of his work.

Durufle at organ

The Requiem for choir, soloists, orchestra and organ was completed in 1947 and is based on Gregorian chants from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. Stylistically it is influenced by the 20th-century organ music of Tournemire and Vierne, the Impressionist school of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, the elegant Romanticism of Gabriel Faure, Renaissance polyphony and above all Gregorian chant. These elements form a tapestry held together by Durufle’s command of harmony and structure.

Durufle wrote three different accompaniments for the work: the original for large orchestra, a version for organ accompaniment, and one for organ and chamber orchestra.  It is this last version that we will be using for our performances. (Below is a photo of Dan Broner conducting the choir. At bottom, you can hear the fourth movement, the Sanctus, as performed by Robert Shaw and the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Sorry, but I don’t know why there is no video to accompany the audio.)

fus choirs

The concert will also introduce the new Allen digital organ gifted by William Wartmann (below) in memory and honor of his late wife, Joyce Wartmann, and her lifelong friendship with retired FUS Assistant Music Director and Organist, Eva Wright.

SONY DSC

Joining the Society Choir will be guest singers from the Meeting House Chorus and community; baritone Paul Rowe (below top) and soprano Heather Thorpe (below bottom), who directs the FUS Children’s Choir.

Schubertiade 2014 Paul Rowe baritone BIG

Heather Thorpe

Retired UW-Madison professor and Concertmaster of the Madison Symphony, Tyrone Greive (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), will lead the string section, which will be joined by three trumpeters, timpani and harp, all conducted by FUS music director Dan Broner.  Linda Warren (below bottom) will be the harpist and the guest organist will be Sheri Masiakowski, a doctoral student of UW organist, John Chappell Stowe.

Tyrone Greive Talbot

linda warren

I hope you will be able to join us on March 29 to experience some of the most beautiful music ever penned for choir and orchestra.

 

 

 

 

 


Classical music: The Ear likes very old Christmas music more than newer music. What do you prefer?

December 22, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Each year in the Madison area there are so many wonderful concerts with holiday themes performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Choral Project, the Madison Bach Musicians, Edgewood College and by many, many others  that you just can’t get to all of them.

And it doesn’t help if you have a winter cold or aren’t feeling well, as happened this year to The Ear.

But I did get to two memorable performances.

The first was the terrific annual Choral Prism holiday concert (below) put on at Luther Memorial Church by various choirs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. They performed under several conductors, including Beverly Taylor, Bruce Gladstone, Anna Volodarskaya and Sara Guttenberg.

UW Prism 2014 singers 1

UW Prism 2014 crowd

The second was the satisfying “Welcome Yule” concert at Grace Episcopal Church by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir under conductor Robert Gehrenbeck, who also teaches at the UW-Whitewater.

WCC Welcome Yule 2014

Both events were excellent, and drew full and enthusiastic houses.

A lot of beautiful music in a wide variety of styles was offered by each of the two groups. That included homages to the St. Paul, Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus (below), who died at 64 this past year and who had close ties to Madison’s vocal groups that commissioned and performed his music. And because programs strive for ethnic diversity today, spirituals and jazz arrangements were also included. (I often cringe when I see something has been “arranged.”)

stephen paulus

But when all was said and done, the “winners” so to speak –- for The Ear at least -– were the old ones. I mean the very old ones, generally those works dating from the Medieval period and Renaissance period over the Classical, Romantic, Modern and Contemporary eras with the Baroque falling somewhere in between.

Why did I like the old music so much?

One reason was the performances. The straight-ahead singing, mostly a cappella or unaccompanied but sometimes with a bit of percussive drum or lyrical harp added, was much more convincing than when I saw modern largely white singers stiffly swaying and awkwardly stomping their feet and clapping the hands to get into the swing of things and show some unconvincing imitation of gospel singing.

But I started thinking.

Maybe it goes back to the Bible and that old verse about “The Word made Flesh.”

That seems a much more successful formula for effective Christmas music than the modern approach, which I am starting to think of as “The Flesh made Word.”

That means that what gets to me is the very simplicity, the strength of the rhythms and melodies as well as the simpler harmonies and compositional techniques.

Simpler is simply better. No better proof was offered that a souped-up jazz arrangement of “Silent Night.” That venerable and quietly emotional carol cannot be improved upon by complicating it. Keep it simple. That seems to be the way to go. Another case of inferior “arranging,” I am afraid.

I think of the old Medieval hymns about a mother simply rocking her baby Jesus to sleep as she sings to him. Can there be anything more touching or poignant, more to the point or direct, especially at a historical period when there was no nighttime lighting and so many babies died.

More than nostalgia, such music offers the art of reducing things to the essential. And the essential, as the old composers seemed to know, is often the path to the universal.

Of course, the plain song or chant-like harmonies also add to the appeal.

But it still goes back to simplicity of the act and the simplicity of the metaphor.

That is why the great 20th-century modern English composer Benjamin Britten (below) used so many older carols in his “Ceremony of Carols” to such great effect.

Benjamin Britten

That is also why 100 times out of 100 I will prefer the simple 16th-century German tune “Lo how a Rose Ere Blooming” (at bottom in a YouTube video) over, say, the long and tedious “Magnificat” No. 20 with its overworked harmonies and complexities for chorus and organ by another 20th-century English composer Herbert Howells (below).

herbert howells autograph

What do you make of the old music versus new music debate when it comes to holiday music?

Do you agree or disagree with The Ear?

And what is your favorite local holiday concert  to recommend for next year?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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