The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is classical music in America dead or dying? Or is it alive and thriving? The debate rages on. Hear both sides in these essays and videos.

March 8, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

For a couple of months now, a discussion or even a debate has been quietly but vociferously  raging, with lots of adamant back-and-forth, in the blogosphere.

The subject is the state of health –- of lack of health –-of classical music in America. It is a timely and endless topic of debate given the financial difficulties of many symphony orchestras (below, members of the beleaguered Minnesota Orchestra) and opera companies, of record companies, and even of piano sellers.

general_orchestra_helgeson

You can search or Google other sources.

Here is the essay, written from the perspective of a pessimist, that first appeared on Slate.com and seemed to kick off the controversy:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/01/classical_music_sales_decline_is_classical_on_death_s_door.html

And for optimists, here are some responses –- from such usually reputable sources as The New Yorker and The Washington Post — and rejoinders that take issue with the initial premise:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2014/01/stop-trying-to-kill-classical-music.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/style/wp/2014/01/30/classical-music-dead-or-alive/

http://www.pressherald.com/life/audience/Classical_Beat__Rumors_of_classical_music_s_death_greatly_exaggerated_.html

And at the bottom are two YouTube videos that take up the question. Be sure to check out viewer comments.

What points — either experiential or theoretical — would you make in defense of one side or the other?

Please leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section.

Have you read other essays supporting either side?

You could also leave some links in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: The Minnesota Orchestra will play again – at last — because the long lockout is over. Is this good news in general for classical music? New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini sees optimism amid crises as a lesson of the past year.

January 17, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

By now you have probably heard the good news:

The lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra (below, playing with its Grammy-nominated conductor Osmo Vanska who has resigned) is over. It was ended by an agreement, long sought after and long disputed, between the musicians and the administration.

Minnesota Orchestra with Osmo Vanska

Here are several stories about the ending of the unfortunate situation that even led the superb  and acclaimed conductor Osmo Vanska to resign. (You can hear Osmo Vanska’s farewell speech in a YouTube video at the bottom,  in which he plays with the musicians an performs the “Valse Triste” or Sad Waltz of his fellow Finn Jean Sibelius as a final encore. The sadness of him, the musicians, the audience and the music is palpable.)

The first is a fine summary story from NPR’s outstanding blog “Deceptive Cadence”:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/01/15/262717374/strike-up-the-band-minnesota-orchestra-lockout-ends

And here is a reaction story from NPR about what’s next that “All Things Considered“:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/01/15/262788971/the-minnesota-orchestras-labor-dispute-is-over-whats-next

Here is a story from The New York Times about the same situation followed by another summary:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/15/us/minnesota-orchestra-contract-ends-long-lockout.html?_r=0

http://www.redwoodtimes.com/nationandworldnews/ci_24917631/how-minnesota-became-scene-classical-music-showdown

Of course, the Minnesota Orchestra is just one of several American orchestras that faced serious financial crises. You may recall that last year saw problems for other orchestras, and the New York City Opera (below, with its final production, the world premiere of “Anna Nicole”) even went bankrupt.

anna nicole opera

Yet one longtime and perceptive observer of the classical scene – New York Times senior critic Anthony Tommasini – see good news amid the rules and dire predictions.

Here is a column he wrote recently about “The Lessons of 2013” for classical music. In his column he doesn’t downplay the many difficulties, which mostly concern finances and smaller, aging audiences. But he does suggest that if you take a longer view, the future of classical music doesn’t look quite so bleak or dismal.

Read it and see what you think and whether you agree. Then tell The Ear by sending in your remarks in the COMMENT section of this blog:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/09/arts/music/lessons-in-a-year-of-crises.html?_r=0

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Classical music: It was the best of years and the worst of years. Here is NPR’s year-end national wrap-up of the state of classical music in 2013.

January 4, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

As I said in yesterday’s post, even though we are now into 2014 there is some unfinished business to wrap up for 2013 for reasons that I also explained yesterday. Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/01/03/classical-music-here-are-the-top-six-essays-on-and-writings-about-classical-music-with-runners-up-from-2013-as-chosen-by-famed-radio-station-wqxr-fm-of-new-york-city/

Most media outlets, from old-fashioned newspapers to high-tech blogs, tend to take a year-end look back at the high points and low points of classical music as well as other forms of art and culture. But they tend to favor local performances and trends – even the venerable and first-class New York Times, the national newspaper that sets the media’s agenda, nonetheless generally focuses on The Big Apple as the center of the cultural universe.

So imagine my delight when I found a really good wrap-up of national trends, and even international events, on NPR’s great classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence.” It even opens up your eyes to what The Industry considers to be classical music by revealing the “classical” music that made it onto the Billboard charts of best-sellers.

The post was compiled and documented on by the blog’s director, Tom Huizenga, (below top) with, I suspect, help from the always informed and creative Anastasia Tsioulcas (below bottom).

huizenga_tom_2011

anastasia tsioulcas

What is especially praiseworthy is that it is comprehensive with much food for thought; it also seems to The Ear to be fair and balanced, neither boosterish nor alarmist; and it includes a lot of photos and a lot of links to develop any particular story that grabs you even further.

So here it is — from the mixed state of symphony orchestras (the locked out Minnesota Orchestra, which lost its conductor Osmo Vanska to labor strife, is below top) to the demise of the New York City Opera with the world premiere of the new opera “Anna Nicole” (below bottom) to the issue of bullying LGBT teenagers to various anniversaries of works and composers including the centennials of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and of the birth of Benjamin Britten.

minn-musicians

Anna Nicole opera  StephanienBerger

It should easily provide you with some fine reading on what promises to be a bitterly cold and mean January weekend and work week.

Enjoy. And now it is onward to the high notes and low points of 2014!

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/12/31/258649125/high-notes-and-clams-the-best-and-worst-of-classical-2013


Classical music: More bad news. The Minnesota Orchestra cancels its fall season and two Carnegie Hall concerts over labor strife that causes its acclaimed Finnish conductor Osmo Vanska to resign.

October 6, 2013
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been a week of really bad news for classical music.

Yesterday I posted a blog about the closing of the New York City Opera – the “People’s Opera” — after 70 years because of a failed attempt to raise the millions of dollars money that it needed to continue.

Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/10/05/classical-music-the-final-curtain-falls-tonight-on-the-peoples-opera-the-city-opera-of-new-york-while-across-town-the-metropolitan-opera-launches-the-new-season-of-the-glo/

But last week also brought word that the long ongoing labor strife and lock-out at the Minnesota Orchestra (below are the musicians protesting), based in Minneapolis, has not been resolved. To the contrary, the administration and the players still remain so far apart that the fall season has now been canceled.

minn-musicians

Moreover, the acclaimed Finnish conductor Osma Vanska (below)  who led the Minnesota Orchestra has quit.

Vanska brought much critical praise to the orchestra with their recordings of a Beethoven symphony and concerto cycle as well as a Grammy-nominated recording (at bottom in a YouTube video) of Sibelius symphonies (all on BIS records). But he has kept his promise of resigning if the two Carnegie Hall concerts by the orchestra were canceled.

Canceled they were, and resign he did – with a dignified and diplomatic message, as follows:

1 October 2013

Press statement from Osmo Vänskä

Today I have given notice of my resignation as Music Director and Conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra Association, effective 1 October 2013.

It is a very sad day for me. Over ten years ago I was honoured to be invited to take up this position. I moved from Finland to the Twin Cities. At that time I made clear my belief that the Minnesota Orchestra could become one of the very greatest international ensembles. During the intervening years I have had the privilege of seeing that belief vindicated through the skill, hard work and commitment of this wonderful group of players and with the valued support of the Board of Directors, management and administration team, volunteers, as well as our exceptional community.

I send my deepest thanks to everyone involved for what we have achieved together and I wish the Minnesota Orchestra all the very best for its future.

Osmo Vänskä

Osmo Vanska BIG

And here are links to stories about the Carnegie Hall cancellations and the fallout with Vanska, who conducted two concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra musicians – plus pianist Emanuel Ax (below)  in piano concertos by Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for the first concert — in an unofficial capacity at a concert hall on the University of Minnesota campus:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/02/arts/music/vanska-quits-minnesota-orchestra.html

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/05/departing-director-conducts-locked-out-minnesota-orchestra/

Emanuel Ax Philharmonia

What is one to do?

Here is the press release from The Minnesota Orchestra:

http://www.minnesotaorchestra.org/about/press-room/615-concerts-cancelled-through-nov-25

Well, we in Madison can be very happy that we don’t seem to have similar problems with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra – at least not right now.

But maybe some fundamental structural reforms need to be made. Maybe the ways of doing business and administering art need to be changed.

Perhaps one way out of the awful dilemmas is to make the musicians a more integral part of the administration, similar to the way that principal oboist James Roe (below, in a photo by Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times) was made the president and CEO of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in June.

James Roe, principal oboist, became president and CEO of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra cr Fred R. Conrad, NYTIMES

Here is a story from The New York Times reporter and critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim about doing just that, which seems like a smart move to The Ear:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/arts/music/orchestras-hire-performers-as-executives-to-head-off-strife.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0


Classical music: The Ear falls in love with the clarinet as, once again, Madison’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society surprises fans and inspires audiences to standing ovations with great music, great performers and great fun. Don’t miss the rest of the BDDS season.

June 17, 2013
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Every summer it happens.

Just when I think I can’t be pleasantly surprised anymore, the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society once again manages to surprise me – and with the greatest of pleasure.

This summer’s series — three weekends of six programs in June — opened with two programs this past weekend. And this time, the BDDS made me fall in love with the clarinet.

Now, I have always liked the clarinet. But after hearing clarinetist Burt Hara in his first BDDS appearances, I am absolutely in love with the instrument.

Burt Hara

Hara performed beautifully in Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio, but the pieces that really enraptured me were Brahms’ sublimely beautiful and intimate Clarinet Quintet (below) and Olivier Messiaen’s dramatic “Quartet for the End of Time,” which to me is more remarkable for the playing than for the music. (Retired Wisconsin Public Radio host and now narrator Linda Clauder expressively read poems by Shelley, Yeats and other works chosen by pianist Sykes in between movements.)

BDDS 2-13 Brahms Clarinet Quintet

In all cases, Hara showed a complete mastery. (See and listen to his YouTube video at the bottom.) He is the model of a quiet virtuoso who avoids flash. He blends rather than stands out. He can play softly, almost inaudibly, without losing the incredible richness and depth of tone. His pitch is wonderful, and his ability in the Messiaen quartet (below) to hold a tone from almost silence to a very loud sound with gradual but absolute steadiness was nothing short of miraculous.

BDDS 2013 2 Messiaen

Not for nothing has Hara been the principal clarinetist of the Minnesota Orchestra for 25 years, although due to that orchestra’s unfortunate lockout and labor strife, he has apparently decided to take a position as assistant principal clarinet with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its white-hot young, superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

Wherever Hara makes his home, I hope he returns to Madison in future summers to perform some of the great clarinet repertoire – Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Brahms’ two clarinet sonatas, Debussy’s Rhapsody and Poulenc’s sonata among others.

But Hara is not alone in attracting my attention and admiration.

Also impressive in the first two concerts was guest violist Yura Lee (below), whose lyricism and expressive face matched her impeccable intonation and tone.

Yura Lee 2

Among the more regular BDDS members were co-founders and co-directors pianist Jeffrey Sykes and flutist Stephanie Jutt (below top) as well as Anthony Ross (below top), principal cellist with the Minnesota Orchestra, and violinist Carmit Zori (below bottom), from the Brooklyn Chamber Music Festival.

bddsjuttandsykesjpg

Anthony Ross cello

Carmit Zori

I don’t think a wrong note, an off-rhythm or a false interpretative move happened among all of them. In short, chamber music and ensemble playing just don’t get any better.

Then there is the repertoire.

I may be never again hear such rarely performed works as Felix Mendelssohn’s early Sonata for Viola or Maurice Emmanuel’s Trio Sonata from 1907, but I am very happy I got to hear them once and I doubt I will ever hear them performed better.

Then there was the American contemporary composer Kenji Bunch (below) and his “New Moon and Morning” (2008) for flute and string quartet. It was a lovely and accessible work that goes down easily. It struck me as very post-Ravel, a sort of meticulously Minimalist French-like work that was terrifically evocative and convincingly atmospheric. As far as I know it is a Madison or even a Midwest premiere, and the work’s colorful transparency worked perfectly as a counterpart complement to Mozart’s trio.

kenji bunch composing

As always there are the creative and very ingenious sets, this year designed by artists Brenda Baker and Burt Ross. This summer’s theme is “Deuces Are Wild” to mark BDDS’ 22nd season, so art of thre “set” uses playing cards around the stage and projected onto the backdrop (below top and bottom) as well as a card trick by a local magician.

BDDS 2013 playing cards on stage

BDDS 2013 playing cards screen 2

The Ear was told that ticket sales are ahead of last summer, and that even subscription tickets are moving faster. That pleases me since I named the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society as Musicians of the Year for 2012.

But there are still seats to be filled at the Overture Center’s Playhouse, the Stoughton Opera House and the Hillside Theater at Taliesin in Spring Green.

Over the next two weekends, the performers include Madison  Symphony Orchestra conductor John DeMain as pianist and MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz as well as the always reliable singers of University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate soprano Emily Birsan and bass-baritone Timothy Jones plus Pro Arte Quartet violinist Suzanne Beia and cellist Parry Karp and the always reliable violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau of the San Francisco Trio.

The repertoire includes major instrumental works and songs by Brahms, Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Mozart and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

BDDS deuces are wild logo

But curiously, despite the group’s name, there was and is NO Bach.

Maybe pianist Jeffrey Sykes, a masterful chameleon of a pianist who can blend into any period or style and who played solo Haydn last summer, could open each concert with a brief overture of sorts — some solo Bach, perhaps a short Prelude and Fugue from “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” or a Two-Part or Three-Part Invention, or a movement from a suite or partita. Or maybe a guest violinist or cellist could play a movement from a Bach s0lo suite or, with Sykes, a movement from a Bach sonata. It would set the tone, so to speak, and become a unifying motif.

BDDS Jeffrey Sykes Haydn sonata

Anyway, if you love music and are not attending the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, you are cheating yourself out of a wondrous experience.

For a complete listing of dates, place, times, tickets, performers and pieces, go to:

http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org


Classical music: Some big American symphony orchestras are in deep financial trouble, while others are not. What makes the difference? asks a story on NPR. And what solutions or reforms do you suggest?

January 5, 2013
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

2012 was generally not a good year for symphony orchestras in the US. It featured lockouts and bankruptcies in some surprising places like the Twin Cities, Detroit, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Philadelphia.

On all sorts of year-end short lists, the financial woes and labor disputes of symphony orchestras ranked among the top stories.

And on New Year’s Day, NPR featured an insightful report on the overall state of the American symphony orchestra. It included some orchestras that are doing badly and others that are doing well. (Below are some locked out players from the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis.)

Here is a link to the NPR stories. Be sure to read and respond to the reader comments, either here in COMMENTS or on the NPR site:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/01/01/168369013/was-2012-the-year-that-american-orchestras-hit-the-wall

minn-musicians

It is enough to make one grateful to be living in a relatively prosperous and insulated place like Madison where the part-time Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top) and the part-time Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below bottom) seem relatively secure — as do so many other thriving local classical music organizations — if not totally immune, from the really troubling trends that their sister organizations face in other cities.

MSO-HALL

WCO lobby

Will the problems be solved? The Ear wonders and suspects yes.

After all, it wasn’t too long ago that chamber music seemed to be in crisis. But now it is thriving. And that is a good thing too – especially in times of economic strife. Chamber music, which Madison has in abundance, is certainly cheaper to support than a symphony. (The UW Pro Arte String Quartet, in a photo y Rick Langer, is below.)

PAQ-8BIT03

And even while big budget symphonies are having trouble, a lot of even bigger budget opera companies are thriving, in part because they appeal to the “screen” generation” that grew up on TV and likes to have pictures, characters and dramatic or romantic stories along with its music. (Below is a photo by James Gill of the Madison Opera‘s production of Verdi’s “La Traviata.)

Traviata bed Madison Opera James Gill

Add in other outreach and educational efforts, including free pre-concert lectures and concerts for children and young people. Then add in the efforts of groups like Chamber Music Revolution and New MUSE (New Music Everywhere) to reach non-traditional audiences (read young people) in traditional venues (below, the Brink Lounge). Some new music might help, but so might some old reliable classics and some one-composer concerts or concerts with a theme. And then one can hope finally that an economic upswing will put orchestras will soon be on the rebound and more solid footing.

brink lounge

Of course, The Ear has a few others suggestions. They include performing programs that are shorter (about 90 minutes) with no intermission and providing some kind of short post-concert reception with snacks where audience members can mix with the performers and other audience members.

In short, reinvent the whole format to make a symphony concert more fun to attend, more like a community event that is fun to participate actively, not just passively, in. I think that the Middleton Community Orchestra concerts (below) provides some hints of what could work. Maybe it wouldn’t work, but it might be worth a try.

Middleton Community Orchestra reception

But you are the audience members. Why don’t you tell The Ear — and the managers of symphony orchestras — what you would like to see done to make symphony orchestras concert more popular and fun.


Classical music: The Ear gives a hearty “shout out” to the politically progressive musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra who publicly support marriage equality and oppose a proposed state constitutional ban against same-sex marriage.

August 6, 2012
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here’s a well-deserved shout out!

The Minnesota Orchestra has done some remarkable work and made noteworthy and prize-winning recordings in recent years under the direction of Finnish conductor Osmo Vanska (below). They  include acclaimed cycles of Beethoven, Jean Sibelius and Anton Bruckner symphonies and concertos.

But to The Ear, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra (below) were especially brave when, as a group that depends on public sponsorship and public patronage, they publicly went on record as supporting marriage equality and opposing a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage in the state of MInnesota.

Here is a link to the story:

http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2012/07/27/mn-orchestra-publicly-opposes-marriage-amendment/

That is the enlightened and compassionate stand to take, and I say congratulations to them for taking a progressive stand in a progressive state that has lately earned a reputation as a conservative Republican state because of Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann and possible Mitt Romney vice-presidential choice, Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Minnesota Progressives, including Hubert Humphrey, would be proud!

And so is The Ear.


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