The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: As we say goodbye to summer, YOU MUST HEAR THIS: Irish composer Joan Trimble’s “Pastorale” homage to the summery French composer Francis Poulenc

August 26, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

One week from today is Labor Day.

So it is time to start saying goodbye to summer and hello to fall — even though the autumnal equinox won’t arrive until Monday, Sept. 23, at 2:50 a.m. CDT.

The Ear’s favorite summertime composer is the French master Francis Poulenc (below), whose accessible and tuneful music possesses in abundance that Gallic sense of lightness and lyricism, of wit and charm, of modern Mozartean classicism and clarity — complete with trills and ornaments — that seems so appropriate to the summer season.

But then recently on Wisconsin Public Radio, The Ear heard for the first time something inspired by Poulenc that he thinks many of you will appreciate, especially during the transition between the seasons.

It is, appropriately, a 2-1/2 minute “Pastorale” for two  pianos – a form Poulenc himself used in his most famous piano concerto — by the underplayed and little known Irish 20th-century composer and pianist Joan Trimble (below). And it has many of the same qualities that distinguish Poulenc.

Here is a link to a Wikipedia entry with more about Trimble: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Trimble

You can hear her homage to Poulenc in the YouTube video, from a Marco Polo CD distributed by Naxos Records, that is below.

Here’s hoping you enjoy it.

If you have a reaction, positive or negative, please share it.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Meet UW-Madison bassoonist Marc Vallon who performs with the Willy Street Chamber Players on Friday night

July 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Who is Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill)?

This week, he is the bassoonist who will perform Franz Danzi’s Quartet for Bassoon and Strings in D minor, Op. 40, No. 2 (ca. 1820), this coming Friday night, July 19, with the acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players (below), who will also be joined by pianist Jason Kutz and violist Sharon Tenhundfeld..

(The concert is at 6 p.m. in Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street. The program includes: the Allegretto for Piano Trio by Ludwig van Beethoven (1812); “Dark Wood” by American composer Jennifer Higdon (2001); and the rarely heard String Quartet No. 1  (1948) by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera. Admission is $15.)

A native of France, Vallon is one of the busiest musicians in Madison. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where he also performs individually, with faculty and student colleagues, and as a member of the Wingra Wind Quintet. He also frequently performs and conducts Baroque music with the Madison Bach Musicians.

Vallon attended the Paris Conservatory, where he won first prizes in bassoon and chamber music, and also earned a philosopher degree at the Sorbonne or University of Paris.

A versatile musician, Vallon played with famed avant-garde French composer Pierre Boulez and for more than 20 years was the principal bassoon of the well-known Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. He has also performed with major modern orchestras and conductors as well as with many period-instrument groups.

He gives master classes worldwide and also composes.

For a more extended and detailed biography, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/marc-vallon/

Vallon recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:

What drew you to the bassoon (below) over, say, the piano or singing, over strings, brass or other woodwinds?

I played the piano as young kid but was not very interested in the mechanics of it, even if I had a strong passion for music. It was the day that my piano teacher brought to my lesson a friend of his to do a bassoon demo that I found the right medium for my passion.

I started practicing like a maniac and knew by the age of 14 that I was going to be a professional bassoonist.

What would you like the public to know about the bassoon, perhaps about the challenges of playing it and about the repertoire for it?

The bassoon does not offer more challenges than other wind instruments, but it is safe to say that an absolute perfectionist person should probably not play it.

It is an instrument capable of true beauties, yet it has its own character. You don’t conquer it, you work with it like you would work with a wonderful but temperamental colleague.

Bassoonists sometimes complain that our solo repertoire is not as rich in masterpieces as the clarinet’s or the flute’s. True, but in its 350 years of existence, the bassoon has amassed enough wonderful music to keep us busy for several lifetimes.

What would you like to tell the public about the specific Bassoon Quartet by Franz Danzi that you will perform, and about Danzi and his music in general?

The bassoon and strings quartet became popular in the last decades of the 18th century, a trend that lasted well into the Romantic era.

Sadly, many of these quartets are basically show-off pieces for the bassoonist while the strings players have to suffer through some often very dull accompaniment parts.

I like this one by Danzi (below) because it features the strings on the same musical level as the bassoon, creating an enjoyable musical conversation rather than a cocky bassoon monologue. (You can hear that musical conversation in the opening movement of the Bassoon Quartet by Danzi in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

As a performer and conductor, you are well–known for championing baroque music as well as modern and contemporary music. Do you have a preference? Do they feed each other in your experience?

What I always have enjoyed about playing contemporary music is the possibility to work with living composers because I often realized how flexible they are with their own music and how much they like the performer’s input. They’re often ready to compromise and veer away from the strict notation.

The approach when playing composers from the past is actually very similar in the sense that we have to remember how approximate music notation is. Baroque composers are not here anymore obviously, but the 17th and 18th centuries sources tell us clearly how much flexibility we, modern performers, have in our approach to their music.

When it comes to music pre-1800, we basically have a sketch on our music stands. I always want to remember this. (Below is a manuscript page of a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Do you have big projects coming up next season?

Always! I am putting together a contemporary program on March 27 in our new concert hall on campus. It is called ”Opening Statements” and will feature early works from major 20th-century composers.

On period instruments, I have Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” and more Bach on my calendar.

Is there something else you would like to say?

A big Thank You to you, Jake, for being such a relentless and informed advocate of the Madison musical scene!


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Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/


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Classical music: Accusations of sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse expand to classical music, and former Metropolitan Opera maestro James Levine has been suspended. On Tuesday night, a percussion concert spotlights UW composer Laura Schwendinger

December 4, 2017
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ALERT: At 7:30 p.m. this Tuesday night in Mills Hall, the UW Western  Percussion Ensemble, under director Anthony Di Sanza, will perform a FREE concert. It will focus on a new work by the award-winning UW composer Laura Schwendinger along with other modern classics and new works. For more information about the group and the program, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/western-percussion-ensemble-4/ 

By Jacob Stockinger

It started in Hollywood, quickly spread to politics and Washington, D.C., as well as to journalism and to radio and television.

Now accusations of sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual discrimination are focusing on classical music.

Perhaps the most visible case so far is one that focuses on James Levine (below), the former longtime artistic director and conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, who just this past weekend conducted a live broadcast performance of the Requiem by Verdi, which was dedicated to the recently deceased Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

Levine is accused of abusing an underage teenager while he was at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, and the Met says it will investigate that allegation.

Through Google, you can find many reports about the situation.

Here is a link to a comprehensive story in The Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/metropolitan-opera-to-investigate-james-levine-over-sexual-abuse-allegations/2017/12/03/e8820982-d842-11e7-a841-2066faf731ef_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-more-top-stories_met-misconduct-805am%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.3abb56afabc3

UPDATE: Amid more allegations of sexual abuse, James Levine, 74, has been suspended by the Metropolitan Opera. Here’s a link to a detailed story in The New York Times:

But Levine is not likely to be alone.

According to a new study in the United Kingdom, it now looks that many more individuals and groups will be involved since sexual harassment and sexual discrimination were found to be “rampant.”

Here is a link to the story in The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/sexual-harassment-classic-music-incorporate-society-of-musicians-west-end-bbc-radio-3-a8088591.html

What do you think about the many current scandals and wave of allegations as they pertain to classical music or to your own experience in the field of music, either performance or education?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This will be a busy week at the UW-Madison for students and faculty members who will give FREE recitals. But what will they play?

April 11, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

This will be a very busy week for student and faculty recitals at the UW-Madison.

The good news? All concerts will be FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

The bad news? Sorry, but in most cases The Ear has not received word about the program with specific composers and specific works.

That’s an annoyance that could cut into attendance, an issue that The Ear dealt with in another recent post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/03/10/classical-music-should-performers-and-presenters-list-individual-pieces-as-well-as-composers/

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, the UW-Madison Guitar Ensemble, under its director Javier Calderon, will perform. No word on the program.

Undergraduates Erik Anderson, left, and Anthony Caulkins perform a duet during a UW Guitar Ensemble music concert in Mills Hall at the Mosse Humanities Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during spring on April 17, 2013. The photograph was created for #UWRightNow, a 24-hour multimedia and social-network project. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

(Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

At 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall, the brass ensemble Twisted Metal (below), under its director hornist Daniel Grabois – who is also a member of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet – will perform its annual concert of music inspired by rock music. Once again, no word on specific songs or composers.

THURSDAY

The UW-Madison Percussion Ensemble (below) will perform solo and chamber works under its director Anthony Di Sanza. No word on specific composers or works.

Western Percussion Ensemble

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Women’s and University Chorus will perform a FREE concert under conductors Sara Guttenberg and Mark Lehnowsky. Sorry, no program specifics.

At 8 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, bassoonist Marc Vallon (below) will perform a faculty recital using several bassoons.

The Ear has received no word on specific program. But in a Facebook posting, the congenial and charming, very talented and witty French native – who just won raves for his conducting of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” for the Madison Bach Musicians this past weekend — displays a great sense of humor. He says the concert will feature: “Some Baroque music, some pretty pieces and a couple of annoying modern ones.”

That’s brave talk from a musician who worked with the late Pierre Boulez.

Let’s hear it for Annoying Modern Music!

Marc Vallon 2011 James Gill (baroque & modern)[2]

SATURDAY

At 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, flutist Ivana Urgcic will give a recital for her Doctor of Musical Arts degree. No program is listed.

At 6:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. Soprano Yanzelalee Rivera will give a recital. There are no specific works, but at least she lists composers: “In this recital, Ms. Rivera will be presenting works by Robert Schumann, Joseph Marx and Claude Debussy with the collaboration of ChanMi Jean, first year doctoral student of Prof. Martha Fischer.”

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (below) will perform under its director, composition professor Laura Schwendinger. No program information has been given.

Contemporary Chamber Ensemble

SUNDAY

From 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, there is a free recital by young student in the Community Music Lessons program. No program is listed, but a reception follows the performance.

For information about the program that serves “learners of all ages,” visit:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/cml/

Piano Pioneers program coordinator and instructor Paola Savvidou (left) works with student Jacob Horton (right) during a piano lesson inside the Mosse Humanities Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Jan. 26, 2009. Piano Pioneers is a UW-Madison School of Music community outreach program that offers scholarship lessons to children and adults in the Madison community who would like to study the piano but can't afford the full cost of lessons. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Bryce Richter Date: 01/09 File#: NIKON D3 digital frame


Photo by: Bryce Richter

At 1:30 p.m. in Morphy Rectial Hall, trombone graduate student Matthew Bragstad will “collaborate with pianist Jason Kutz to provide an eclectic showcase of both standard and new repertoire for the trombone. The program will include works by composers Pryor, Scelsi, Jesse (a world premiere), L. Mozart and Castérède.”

Hmmm. How many of you recognize those non-Mozart names?

At 2 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Concert Choir, under UW-Madison Choral Director Beverly Taylor will perform a program of new music that was originally scheduled for Saturday, April 16. The Ear will post more about this concert later this week.

UW Choral singers

At 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, the winning pianists in the annual Beethoven Sonata Competition will perform. The names of the winners and the selection of the sonatas to be performed have not been announced yet.

But The Ear has attended many of the winners’ recitals and has rarely been disappointed.


Classical music: It’s Valentine’s Day 2016. What do you think is the most romantic piece of music ever written? Plus, this afternoon is the last performance of the Valentine program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra

February 14, 2016
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ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the Valentine’s Day program of works by Peter Tchaikovsky, Maurice Ravel and Ludwig van Beethoven performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Daniel Hegge and guest soloist violinist Alina Ibragimova. The opening night performance received fine reviews.

Here is a link to the review by Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/concert-review-madison-symphony-dedicates-valentine-s-weekend-to-love/article_21d106c8-1011-5f6c-9346-f17c3d07b2e3.html

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Valentine’s Day.

Cupid

That makes it a good occasion to talk about romantic music – not necessarily Romantic music (with a capital R) since there is plenty of Baroque, Classical era and modern music that fits the bill.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak, Giuseppe Verdi, Gustav Mahler, Gabriel Faure, Maurice Ravel, Peter Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev – all of them, and many other composers, wrote some deeply moving romantic music.

And it comes in so many different forms: symphonies and concerto; sonatas and suites; orchestral music; choral music and songs; solo works for piano; chamber music for strings, winds and brass.

The Ear loves listening to and also playing romantic music. He thinks probably the most consistently romantic composer was the German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856, below with his wife). So many of his greatest pieces — in so many different genres — were inspired by his steadfast and often thwarted, but finally victorious, love of his wife Clara Wieck Schumann.

An outstanding concert pianist, the much younger Clara outlived the mentally troubled Robert, and edited the publication of his works and popularized them through performing them.

Schumann_Robert_and_Wieck_Clara

But if you asked The Ear to pick the single most romantic piece of music he knows, it would have to be the opening arias from the opera “La Bohème” by Giacomo Puccini.

Every time he hears Rodolfo and Mimi sing to each other and fall in love at first sight, the little hairs on his neck stand up and often his eyes tear up.

You can hear that sung in the YouTube video at the bottom. It features the late superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti. He could not  read music, but he sure could sing. And his voice has a special quality that adds to the romance and poignancy.

What do you think is the most romantic piece of music? What romantic music would you play for someone special or have played for yourself on Valentine’s Day?

Leave your choice – preferably with some personal background or commentary or even a dedication to your Valentine plus, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance – in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all-20th century program of works by Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky and Poulenc this coming Saturday night. Plus, conductor Beverly Taylor talks about how severe budget cuts are hurting the choral program at the UW-Madison.

December 8, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Choral Union, a campus and community chorus, and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all 20th-century program. (Both are below.)

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Featured are the “Symphony of Psalms” by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; the “Gloria” by French composer Francis Poulenc; and the Overture to “The Wasps” by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Tickets are $15, $8 for seniors and students.

Here is a link to more information, including how to buy tickets:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union1/

Beverly Taylor, who heads up the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who is assistant music director at the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct.

Taylor agreed to a recent email interview with The Ear:

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

This year, you are giving only one performance, both now and in the spring for “The Creation” by Franz Joseph Haydn. For many years, you have generally given two performances. Why the change? Is it an experiment or trial, or is it permanent?

Three things combined:  Really, the main reason was that the hall and players were only available one night.  As more groups emerge and the hall is booked, and string players may be playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra or several new chamber groups, it’s hard to get everyone together on the same night.

Also, we thought we’d pack them in for one night, although with all that goes on in town, we may leave some people out.

Third, because we did not have a full chamber ensemble yet available at the time we planned “The Creation,” and knowing I’d have to hire some additional players, we planned on one night for budget reasons.

Next year?  Who knows?  Check back in February …

UW Choral singers

It is a great program of very different 20th-century works. What was your idea or reason for linking them by putting them on the same program?

Great question, and yes I’ve given it a fair amount of thought.

Before I answer that, I should say that I’ve added a bonus piece to the program in the form of the orchestra-only Overture to “The Wasps” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Because the program is a bit on the short side, I had an overture in mind, but hadn’t confirmed it till I saw how quickly the orchestra took on the challenges of the Poulenc and Stravinsky.

One of the great things about programming 20th century music — and I expect will be the same as we add more 21st century music — is the astounding variety of styles available to us. And many of the 20th-century composers lived long enough to provide differing styles within their own work.

UW Symphony violins 2015

UW Symphony Strings cellos

What can you tell us about the work by Stravinsky (below)?

Stravinsky’s earliest works were late Romantic, then, with pulsing rhythms, sometimes called primitive; later there was neo-Classicism, and 12-tone, etc.  If forced to choose a title, I would call “Symphony of Psalms” a mixture of the primitive and the Romantic.

What makes it Romantic is the writing for the choir, which entails long lines, some stunning dynamic changes from loud to soft, and a pure, almost disembodied gentle melody at the end.

What makes it Primitive is the pulsing rhythms in the orchestra in movement III and the unexpected chord interpolations in the first.

What makes it clever intellectually is the difficult, jagged but fascinating double fugue in the second movement; and what makes it a wonderful sonic treat is the elimination of Violin I, II and Viola in favor of FIVE flutes, FIVE oboes, FOUR bassoons, FOUR horns, FIVE trumpets, THREE trombones TWO pianos, ONE harp and ONE tuba, some cellos, double basses and a partridge in a pear tree.

When you get four flutes and a piccolo, playing sometimes a half-step apart, you set up weird shimmering overtones.  It’s fascinating to hear, although I may be deaf after the concert from being so close to them.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

What about the work by Poulenc (below top)?

I wanted to contrast the modern instrumentation of the pulsing rhythms of Stravinsky with an equally interesting 20th-century work with a different flavor.

What makes Poulenc’s “Gloria” (heard in a YouTube video at the bottom) hard to sing is what we hear all the time in popular music — the major seventh chord — think C, E, G and B natural.  For performers, singing C’s against B’s can be hard to tune, but the chords are closely allied with jazz and the piano bar!  And the piano was Poulenc’s composing instrument.

With long lines in the strings, we are treated to the lushest of lines in the third, fifth and sixth movements. The first movement is regally strong; the second and fourth are playful.

Our wonderful soprano soloist, Tyana O’Connor, sings gorgeously in three of the movements, both powerfully direct, and then in soft floating sounds.

Francis Poulenc

And the work by Vaughan Williams?

I chose the Vaughan Williams for its length, its instrumentation (lots for the upper strings, which weren’t playing in the Stravinsky, and nice parts for the harps that we have already playing in the Poulenc and Stravinsky) and its buoyant, positive nature as an opening to our concert.

Vaughan Williams (below) wrote it while he was fairly young, as occasional music to a production of Aristophanes’ play “The Wasps.” He makes a nod to “The Wasps” in the form of a string buzz in the opening and toward the end. But for the most part the overture is formed of two tunes — a perky, angular march and a warm, lush tune aligned with English folksong.  These tunes are presented separately and then combined.

By choosing three different flavors of 20th-century music, I hope to present a balanced evening with appeal to everyone.

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

Have steep budget cuts to the UW-Madison hurt the Choral Union? Do such cuts affect your ability to hire guest soloists? Do they account for the reduction in performances? Do they alter the repertoire that you can do?

Yes, they have hurt the Choral Union in certain ways, although I don’t think our excellence will be any the less.

Without the availability of some discretionary concert funds, we have had to increase some fees for members, and we have had to postpone some special works that might include high rentals of materials or special instruments or another venue to perform in.

We sometimes program using the great soloists available to us from our faculty and graduate students, and save funds for when we need to hire a professional voice that we don’t have. With more money we might do that more often, but we are lucky to have gifted people within our reach.

Good classical music has costs that the public often doesn’t know about — high costs for copyrighted parts and scores (below) for recent works, and specialty instruments such as viols or oboes d’amore and portative organs for early music.

Beethoven Symphony 5 score

What else would you like to say?

I’m so glad you asked me to write.  Although this concert by the Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra is a ticketed event, the great majority of our concerts are FREE.

We encourage listeners of all types and generations to TRY to listen to something new and LIVE, and perhaps in a different genre than they’ve ever tried before.

 


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

December 22, 2014
8 Comments

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.

 


Classical music: The Ear gets to hear a masterpiece in the making -– Pierre Jalbert’s “Howl” Clarinet Quintet. It sure sounds like it will become a staple of new music. Plus, the FREE Noon Musicales at the First Unitarian Society of Madison resume this Friday.

October 2, 2014
2 Comments

ALERT: The FREE Friday Noon Musicales (below) in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, resume again this Friday, Oct. 3, at 12:15 to 1 p.m. This week’s featured group is the Arbor Ensemble  with flutist Berlinda Lopez, violinist Marie Pauls and pianist Stacy Fehr-Regehr in the music of Jacques Ibert, Cesar Cui, Bohuslav Martinu, Astor Piazzolla and Josef Suk.

FUS1jake

By Jacob Stockinger

Imagine my unexpected joy at hearing the new Clarinet Quintet by American composer Pierre Jalbert (below), who was inspired by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s famous “Howl,” last Friday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Pierre Jalbert

The reason for my happiness is because I heard music that was so compelling and so moving that it made me want to listen to it again and again.

I know, I know.

A lot of proponents of new music say you have to listen to any new and unheard piece several times before you can pass judgment.

I don’t buy it.

True, as loyal readers know, I am generally not a fan of new music. I find too much of it unenjoyable and forgettable. It just doesn’t speak to me, for whatever reason. I like tunes and melody and harmonic mood as well as rhythmic pulse. New music too often seems detached from the emotional life of the listeners– or at least this listener.

I prefer music that speaks so deeply and movingly to me on the first hearing that I welcome any chance to hear it more often as another chance to experience beauty — not to fulfill some intellectual obligation or duty to the composer or the art form.

When I first heard Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, for example, I knew within one minute that I just had to hear it again and would hear it again many times. It never fails to disappoint. And so it is with any masterwork, from early music, through Baroque and Romantic music, to modern and contemporary music.

Anyway, the “Howl” Clarinet Quintet by Pierre Jalbert was performed last Friday night by the Pro Arte Quartet (below top, in a photo by Rick Langer), artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. The guest clarinetist was Charles Niedich (below bottom) from New York City, who has a major international reputation from working with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and other well-known ensembles.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

Charles Neidich CD Sallie Erichson

The performance came at the newly remodeled Wisconsin Union Theater, which the old Pro Arte Quartet helped to inaugurate when the theater opened 75 years ago in 1939. The theater was not sold-out Friday night, but there was a good and enthusiastic audience that rewarded the Jalbert with a prolonged standing ovation (below). So I know that I was not alone in my positive and approving reaction.

PAQ Jalbert audience ovation

Here is a link with more background:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/09/23/classical-music-the-free-world-premiere-by-the-pro-arte-quartet-of-american-composer-pierre-jalberts-clarinet-quintet-based-on-beat-poet-allen-ginsbergs-howl/

The program started off with the rarely heard and pretty tame String Quartet No. 2 by Juan Crisostomo Arriaga, a Spanish composer known as “the Spanish Mozart” who died at 20. The program’s fitting finale was the sublime Clarinet Quintet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In between the Arriaga and the Mozart came the Jalbert Clarinet Quintet, which was the final of six commissions done to mark the Pro Arte’s centennial. (The Pro Arte Quartet, originally from Belgium,  is now the oldest continuously performing string quartet in the world.)

Other elements added to the effectiveness. For one, the Pro Arte Quartet was in top form. Each voice was distinct and yet the overall blend was smooth, resonant and perfect in pitch. And their playing was enhanced by the terrific acoustics of the remodeled Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater and the new on-stage shell (below, in the background).

PAQ and Charles Neidich in Pierre Jalbert Howl

But it was really the music itself that swept The Ear away.

It started right away, with the pulsing and almost hypnotic rhythms of the opening measures.

The two outer fast movements proved infectious and involving. But I particularly loved the way the middle movement developed.

I heard various audience members talk about how the work reminded them of Samuel Barber, of Philip Glass, of John Adams, of Steve Reich. And yet it didn’t seem to imitate any of them. It possessed a pure, strong voice of its own that used the idea of “Howl” without becoming a didactic piece of program music.

It isn’t often you get to hear a new work that holds the promise of becoming a staple in the repertoire. But that is exactly how it felt as I listened to the Jalbert quintet. Others I spoke to agreed.

PAQ and Charles Neidich standing

Of the six centennial commissions that the Pro Arte has premiered over the past three years, this one seems the best one to end on because it seems the most likely one to succeed in coming years.

Sure, we may hear repeat performances of the String Quartets by John Harbison, Walter Mays and Benoît Mernier; of the Piano Quintets by William Bolcom and Paul Schoenfield. They are all recognized composers of quality.

But my money is on the work by Pierre Jalbert, which was by turns pensive and joyous, outraged and lamenting, much like the original poem “Howl.” The tone of both matched, and the clarinet, with its klezmer-like qualities, proved the perfect narrative voice imparted by Beat writer Allen Ginsberg (below).

Allen Ginsberg 1

It is a memorable night when you get to hear a masterwork in the making. All that work of chamber music needs now is history and many more repeat performances. I expect it will get those.

And to top it off, Pierre Jalbert (below right) -– who hails from Vermont and teaches at Rice University in Houston, Texas — was a very nice artist who was extremely amiable at the pre-concert dinner at the Chazen Museum of Art as well as insightfully candid during the pre-concert Q&A (below) that was so expertly hosted by Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (center) and also included clarinetist Charles Neidich.

Jalbert Q&A

Anyway, the “Howl” Clarinet Quintet by Pierre Jalbert will be recorded by the same players for Albany Records, under the supervision of the Grammy Award-winning producer Judith Sherman, and then released with the String Quartet No. 3 by Belgian composer Benoît Mernier.

I will be first in line to get it and set my CD player on repeat.

Can’t wait.

If you heard it, what do you think of the Clarinet Quintet by Pierre Jalbert, who offers his thoughts about composing in a YouTube video at the bottom?

Do you think it will become a staple of the repertoire?

The Ear wants to hear.

 

 


Classical music: Superstar fashionista pianist Yuja Wang is in the news again with her new recording of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev concertos. In an interview she talks about everything including her piano playing, her small hands and her controversial concert clothes.

December 28, 2013
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

There are a lot of talented young pianists on the scene today including Daniil Trifonov, Lang Lang, Jan LisieckiKirill Gerstein, Yundi Lee, Benjamin Grosvenor, Jonathan Biss, Igor Levit and Inon Barnaton, to name just a few.

But few make the waves that 26-year-old pianist Yuja Wang (below) always does. She is nothing short of electrifying to see and hear, according to the reviews I have read – even the reviews that don’t especially like her interpretations. (The Ear would like to hear Wang perform some serious Classical and Baroque works, not just later Romantic or modern music.)

YujaWang casual photo

Yang’s latest venture is an exciting recording for Deutsche Grammophon (below) of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s gargantuan Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor and Sergei Prokofiev’s fiendishly difficult Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor.

Yang – featured on the cover in almost a parody of the Madame Butterfly look with fake eyelashes — performs them live with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela under its superstar alumnus Gustavo Dudamel, who is now the music director and conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. (You can hear Dudamel’s take on Wang in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Yuja Wang Rach 3 CD coverGD

I have listened to the recording, and these are high-octane performances that remind one, for better and worse, of Vladimir Horowitz and Martha Argerich — not bad artists to be compared to. 

But Yuja Wang has added to their appeal with an interview she recently did with the Los Angles Times on the occasion of four performances in LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall that was designed by Frank Gehry. It even builds on the one she did with NPR in which she compared Rachmaninoff to jazz great Art Tatum in this mastery of improvisation:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/12/02/243942819/yuja-wang-rooted-in-diligence-inspired-by-improvisation

In a surprisingly candid and matter-of-fact manner, she covered a lot of topics.

They included he background, her training, her taste in non-classical music, her piano playing and acclaimed technique, even her controversial concert attire such as the scarlet micro-skirt (below top) she wore at the Hollywood Bowl and the thigh-high slit black gown and stiletto heels she wore for her Carnegie Hall debut (below bottom).

yuja wang dress times 3

Yuja Wang at Carnegie Ruby Washington NYTimes

Here is a link to the interview, which I hope you enjoy as much as The Ear did:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-conversation-yuja-wang,0,3852129.story#axzz2oDubILHw


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