The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Beethoven Year in Madison will include complete cycles of string quartets and piano trios as well as many other early, middle and late pieces. Here is a partial preview

September 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, 2020 is a Beethoven Year. It will mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. (He lived from mid-December of 1770 to March 26, 1827.  Dec. 17 is sometimes given as his birthday but it is really the date of his baptism. No one knows for sure the actual date of his birth.)

Beethoven, who this year overtook Mozart as the most popular composer in a British radio poll, clearly speaks to people — as you can see at the bottom in the YouTube video of a flash mob performance of the “Ode to Joy.” It has had more than 16 million views.

Locally, not all Beethoven events have been announced yet. But some that promise to be memorable are already taking shape. Many programs include early, middle and late works. And you can be sure that, although nothing formal has been announced yet, there will be special programs on Wisconsin Public Television and especially Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here is a partial round-up:

The UW’s famed Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), for example, will perform a FREE and complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in six concerts. It will start later this fall.

This is not the first time that the Pro Arte has done a Beethoven cycle. But it is especially fitting since that is the same Beethoven cycle that the Pro Arte was performing in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater in May of 1940 when World War II broke out and the quartet was stranded on tour in the U.S. after its homeland of Belgium was invaded and occupied by the Nazis.

That is when the ensemble was invited to become musical artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and accepted – thereby establishing the first such association in the world that became a model for many other string quartets.

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society with the San Francisco Trio (below) plans on performing a cycle of piano trios next summer. No specific dates or programs have been announced yet.

The 20th anniversary of the Ancora String Quartet (below, in a photo by Barry Lewis) will coincide with the Beethoven Year. That is when the Ancorans will complete the cycle of 16 string quartets that they have been gradually programming over the years. Three quartets remain to be performed: Op. 59, No. 2 “Rasumovsky”, Op. 130 and Op. 131.

Adds violist Marika Fischer Hoyt: “We’ll perform Op. 130 in February (with the original final movement, NOT the “Grosse Fuge”), and we plan to do the remaining two quartets in the summer and fall of 2020.”

Here are some other Beethoven dates to keep in mind:

On Nov. 2 in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and as part of the WUT’s centennial celebration of its Concert Series, pianist Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), who since 1974 has played many solo recitals, chamber music recitals and piano concertos in Madison, will play Beethoven’s first three solo piano sonatas, Op. 2.

On Dec. 6 at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Piano Trio will perform the famous “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97. Also on the program are works by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann.

On Feb. 1, UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, who has performed all 32 piano sonatas in Madison, will continue his cycle of Beethoven symphonies as transcribed for solo piano by Franz Liszt. He will perform Symphony No. 1 and the famed Symphony No. 9, the ground-breaking “Choral” Symphony with its “Ode to Joy.” No chorus will be involved, but there will be four solo singers. Taylor said he will then complete the cycle with Symphony No. 2 at some future time.

The Mosaic Chamber Players (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) will perform two all-Beethoven programs: on Feb. 21, a FREE program offers two sonatas for violin and piano (Op. 12, No. 3 and Op. 30, No. 2, and one sonata for cello and piano (Op. 5, No. 1); on June 13, a ticketed program features three piano trios (Op. 1, No. 1; Op. 70, No. 2; and Op. 121a “Kakadu” Variations).

On May 8, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom, in a photo by Alex Cruz), will perform the popular Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” – a pioneering piece of program music — to commemorate the Beethoven Year.

There is one very conspicuous absence.

You will notice that there is nothing by Beethoven programmed for the new season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers).

But The Ear hears rumors that music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is planning something special for the following season that might involve both symphonies and concertos, both original Beethoven works and perhaps “reimagined” ones.

(For example, pianist Jonathan Biss, who has just completed recording the piano sonata cycle and who performed with the MSO several years ago, has commissioned and will premiere five piano concertos related to or inspired by Beethoven’s five piano concertos.) Sorry, but as of now only rumors and not details are available for the MSO. Stay tuned!

The Ear would like to hear complete cycles of the violin sonatas and cello sonatas performed, and a couple of the piano concertos as well as the early symphonies and the famed Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy” finale. He fondly remembers when DeMain and the MSO performed Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9 on the same program. Talk about bookending a career!

What Beethoven would you like to hear live?

What are your most favorite or least favorite Beethoven works?

Do you know of other Beethoven programs during the Beethoven Year? If so, please leave word in the Comment section.

And, of course, there is the inevitable question: Can you have too much Beethoven?


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Classical music: The UW-Madison School of Music seeks volunteers to help “tune” two new concert halls all-day this Thursday and Friday in the soon-to-open Hamel Music Center

September 17, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a chance for music lovers to combine civic duty with private pleasure.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music is looking for volunteers of any kind to help “tune” the two new concert halls in the soon-to-open Hamel Music Center (below), located at 740 University Avenue next to the Chazen Museum of Art’s newer wing. The official opening celebrations for the $56-million building are Oct. 25-27.

“Tuning” the hall is the term that acousticians apply to the process of adjusting the hall to how it will sound when audiences are in attendance. Halls sound very different from when they are empty to when they are occupied.

The School of Music team is looking for volunteers to help tune the larger concert hall on Thursday, Sept. 19, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and the smaller recital hall on Friday, Sept. 20, from 9:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.

Volunteers can be from the university of from the general public. Two halls are involved: the larger Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, which can seat up to 662; and the smaller Collins Recital Hall (below, in an architect’s rendering), which can seat up to 299.

Volunteers can study, work quietly on computers, check out the new facility, use the time as quiet time or sample for free some of the UW’s performers. Individuals and groups will be performing during the adjustments being made by the sound engineers.

Visitors will be asked to remain silently in their seats while the “commissioning” for a particular setting is in process. Breaks are scheduled for people to come and go. Start and stop times are approximate.

The musicians and kinds of music include: a symphony orchestra; a choir; brass, wind, percussion and string ensembles, including a string quartet; solo piano; and jazz.

Volunteers can attend as many sessions as they want, but they are asked to arrive 15 minutes prior to the scheduled time they wish to attend and sign up for.

For more information, including schedules and details about the kind of music to be performed and how to behave, here is a link to a story and schedules: https://www.music.wisc.edu/tuning/

If you go, use this blog’s Comment section to let The Ear know what the experience was like – even though he may also see you there.


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Classical music: The Well-Tempered Ear turns 10 today. Changes are probably in store. What do you like and dislike? What changes would you like to see or not to see?

August 20, 2019
50 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – August 20, 2019 – The Well-Tempered Ear turns 10 years old.

To keep it interesting, entertaining, relevant and useful, but also to offer an easier workload for something that is a hobby, some changes are probably in store and maybe even needed.

For example, the “You Must Hear This” postings that offer pieces of classical music or stories about national and international issues often generate more traffic than local events.

And even with 2.1 million hits, subscriptions seem to have plateaued.

Perhaps all that is because, even with the explosion in classical music over the past decade, many individuals and groups now have their own websites and email newsletters.

But The Ear wants to know what you think.

What would make you and others read the blog more and pass it along?

What do you like or dislike?

Should it even continue?

What changes, if any, would you like to see – or not to see?

Whatever you decide and share, thank you for 10 years of loyal reading, positive reactions and many, many comments.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
7 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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Classical music: Do you know the influence of classical music in the “Star Wars” movies?

December 18, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This past weekend, the seventh and latest episode of the “Star Wars” movie franchise premiered and beat expectations.

Last The Ear heard, at the box office “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (below) grossed more than $220 million in the U.S. and more than $230 million internationally. That would make it the second most profitable movie opening ever.

So chances are good that many readers of this blog saw it.

But did they hear the influence to classical music in this and other “Star Wars” films?

If not, here is a link to a 2015 story, posted by radio station WQXR-FM in New York City, in which the film score composer John Williams (below) explains the connections he used.

Here are two hints: Tchaikovsky and Chopin.

Hope you enjoy it:

http://www.wqxr.org/story/throwback-thursday-classical-music-influences-inside-john-williams-star-wars-score/

Of course, “Star Wars” is hardly alone.

The Ear thinks of the Piano Concerto No. 21 by Mozart in the film “Elvira Madigan.”

He also liked the way the used the Symphony No. 7 by Beethoven in “The King’s Speech.”

Do you have other favorite uses of classical music in films?

Use the COMMENT section to let us know the film, the piece and the composer with a link to a YouTube sample if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.


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