ALERT: The Ear attended an outstanding choral concert Friday night. It was put on by the Madison Choral Project with singers (below) plus UW-Madison trumpeter John Aley (far right), cellist Eric Miller and UW-Madison pianist Martha Fischer, all under the direction of the legendary conductor Dale Warland. The concert “Music of Our Time” will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. on this Sunday at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave. You can park in the lot two blocks away at the UW Foundation. If you love choral music, don’t miss it.
By Jacob Stockinger
The economic and cultural thaw is gathering momentum. And just as happened with the Soviet Union, cultural exchanges are going to play a major role.
The Minnesota Orchestra made history with its recent visit to Cuba, where it gave two concerts, played a side-by-side concert with a youth orchestra, played in a cafe informally with Cuban musicians and tutored music students.
And here is The New York Times account of a more informal café get-together:
Finally, here is an account from the orchestra’s hometown Minneapolis Star-Tribune:
By Jacob Stockinger
But now something welcome and promising, in addition to the resurgence of the Grammy-winning Minnesota Orchestra under Finnish-born conductor Osmo Vanska, has emerged: A new state-of-the-art and unusual hall (below) as the musical home in Ordway Center for the acclaimed St. Paul Chamber Orchestra -– where the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director and the Madison Opera’s Artistic Director John DeMain once served as an associate conductor.
And, of course, a lot of Madison-area residents travel to the Twin Cities to see the sights and maybe hear the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. (In a YouTube video at the bottom, the orchestra performs Johann Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D, with former music director Pinchas Zukerman conducting.)
So important is the new hall as an event that The New York Times sent out a critic to file a review. Here it is:
By Jacob Stockinger
The suggestions were made by conductor Baldur Bronniman (below).
I added two suggestions of my own: Make concerts shorter and make tickets cheaper.
The post drew a lot of strong responses, mostly con but some pro, from readers. You should check them out.
Here is a link:
Now I see that, with the help of a grant, the Minnesota Orchestra will try putting on some shorter and more informal concerts. The orchestra recently returned from the brink of bankruptcy and disaster under Finnish Grammy-winning music director Osmo Vanska, who took the same percentage pay cut at his players. (He is below and at bottom in a YouTube video conducting symphonies by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius),
While The Ear proposed 90-minute concerts without intermission, it seems the Minnesota Orchestra will try out the 60-minute formula in three concerts between this coming January and June. The programs look pretty good.
(Thanks for directing me to the story goes to Steve Kurr, below, the Middleton High School music teacher and conductor of the Middleton Community Orchestra, which generally follows a short and more informal programs for its concerts.)
I will be anxious to see the results. So will a lot of other orchestra maestros and administrators, I suspect.
Just maybe we are beginning to see the start of a trend in bringing concert hall practices up to – or down to? — the standards of a high-tech and very busy society that is both timed-deprived and driven by a shorter attention span.
Here is a link to the story:
What do you think of the ideas in general and the experiments in Minnesota?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
This summer, The Ear has yet to see a missed opportunity or hear a false note from the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which seems headed for a perfect season.
I find that each of the two weekend programs that the BDDS offers in three venues for three weekends each summer usually rewards me with a generous share of pleasure plus important lessons and pleasant surprises. Little wonder, then, that the BDDS has had its best second weekend ever last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, according to BDDS executive director Samantha Crownover.
Last weekend certainly did offer much pleasure, plus many lessons and surprises, with the “Take a Hike” and “Hasta la Vista, Baby” programs. And there is no reason to think that this coming weekend’s two programs — “Cut and Run” and “Hightail It” — won’t do the same.
So here are some quick looks backward that are likely to serve as good looks forward.
Here is a link for more information about performers, date and times, programs and tickets:
An avid amateur pianist myself, I get to hear terrific pianists whom I can emulate and who inspire me to practice and play better.
Almost every concert features BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Jeffrey Sykes, who teaches at University of California-Berkeley and California State University-East Bay. Sykes never disappoints. He is a master of different styles, color and dynamics — in short, an ideal collaborator.
And last weekend, this Pianist for All Seasons demonstrated yet another skill with his improvised embellishments and ornamentation on themes and passage work in a well-known Mozart piano concerto (Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488).
This weekend Sykes will play by himself in piano trios by Dmitri Shostakovich and Antonin Dvorak with the San Francisco Piano Trio of which he is a member. He will also perform duets and trios with his BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director flutist Stephanie Jutt. Particularly noteworthy is that this weekend, Sykes will again be joined by fellow pianist Randall Hodgkinson (below) in works for one piano, four hands, one by Darius Milhaud with a Charlie Chaplin movie to accompany it. Hodgkinson teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music and Wellesley College, and he is really good.
Still, the real piano treat last weekend was tango pianist – and also music arranger -– Pablo Zinger (below), a native Uruguayan who now lives in New York City. Zinger once arranged music for and performed the works of Argentinean tango master Astor Piazzolla. And it was in two evenings of Piazzolla’s tangos that Zinger displayed his amazing skills.
I watched how carefully he pedaled, never overdoing it. I listened to how well he balanced volume with other instruments. I heard his unfailing ability to execute complex rhythms and to quickly but naturally change tempi. I listened to what seemed an undeniably classical keyboard technique that allowed him to play multiple voices independently, as in a Bach fugue. Articulate and laconic, Pablo Zinger (below top, he is talking; below bottom, he is playing) proved nothing short of a master instrumentalist, not just some generic dance-band pianist. I don’t think I will ever forget his rendition with BDDS of Astor Piazzolla’s heartbreakingly beautiful “Oblivion,” which you can hear in a comparable chamber music arrangement in a YouTube video at the bottom.
I get to hear first-rate, terrific artists from out-of town.
Some of the performers who were familiar from past BDDS seasons included husband-and-wife cellists Anthony Ross and Beth Rapier, who both play with the Minnesota Orchestra. They are terrific separately and together, as when they played the only Concerto for Two Cellos composed by Antonio Vivaldi (below) whose appealing works we hear played live too infrequently.
Violinist Carmit Zori, who is the founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn (NY) Chamber Music Society, never fails to impress me with her sound and her expressiveness. This was especially true is the Romance, Op. 23, for Violin and Piano by Amy Beach, which I had never heard before. (You can hear it below in a YouTube video of Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who also discusses the American violinist Maud Powell to whom the Romance was dedicated and who gave the world premiere of the work. Barton Pine will perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra next season.)
The Beach Romance also reminded me of what a great strategy it is to open a concert with a slow piece to help get the audience into The Zone. In a way, it seems like back to the future, back to Baroque-era sonatas that went Slow-Fast-Slow-Fast rather than the Classical-era style of Fast-Slow-Fast in their sequence of movements. More concert programs should do the same.
Clarinetist Alan Kay, who performs in New York City and who teaches at both the Mannes School of Music and the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, proved simply sublime in the great “autumnal” Clarinet Trio by Johannes Brahms as well as other pieces. What tone, color and control the man has. He made klezmer-like passages both howl with laughter and lament with moans.
I get to hear unknown or neglected repertoire, both old and new.
Last weekend, as I said earlier, one gem was the Romance for Violin and Piano by Amy Beach; another was the chamber music arrangement by Johann Nepomuk Hummel of a Mozart piano concerto. I also liked a pampas- or gaucho-inspired work by Alberto Ginastera for cello and piano. Contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov’s string quartet and clarinet called “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” (1994) was breathtaking.
This weekend I will get to hear music by composers I have never even heard of: Philippe Gaubert (below top), who, I suspect, sounds a bit like Gabriel Faure, and will feature virtuoso flutist Stephanie Jutt, BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director ; plus another Argentinean composer Angel Lasala (below bottom) and William Hirtz (below bottom right with pianist Jon-Kimura Parker on the left), who are also complete unknowns to me. That adds excitement.
I learned that the importance of dance forms in music survives.
In Baroque suites like the French and English Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Concerti Grossi of George Frideric Handel and of various Italian composers, you find the allemande, gigue, minuet and sarabande among other dance forms.
In the Romantic era, it was the waltz, the polonaise, the mazurka, the polka and the Slavonic Dances of Antonin Dvorak and Hungarian Dances of Brahms.
Right into that tradition fits the Tango or, more precisely, the “new tango” or “nuevo tango.”
I could go on, but, you get the idea.
I find the Bach Dancing and Dynamite programs extremely well planned and then extremely well executed. And I am not alone, as repeated standing ovations demonstrate (below left at the Stoughton Opera House, below right at The Playhouse in the Overture Center).
To miss music and performances as fine as these is to cheat yourself.
And that just doesn’t make sense, does it?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.)
And here is a reaction story from NPR about what’s next that “All Things Considered“:
Here is a story from The New York Times about the same situation followed by another summary:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
What is one to do?
Here is the press release from The Minnesota Orchestra:
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.
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:
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.