The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: During the COVID-19 pandemic, hosts at Wisconsin Public Radio suggest music that expresses gratitude and hope

May 13, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The various hosts of Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) — an indispensable companion during self-isolation at home — listen to a lot of music and think a lot about it, especially about its meaning and appeal to the public.

So it comes as no surprise that they have once again suggested music to listen to during the coronavirus pandemic and the mounting toll of COVID-19.

Almost two months ago, the same radio hosts suggested music that they find calming and inspiring. They did so on the WPR home page in an ongoing blog where they also included YouTube audiovisual performances.

Here is a link to that earlier posting, which is well worth reading and following:

This time, the various hosts – mostly of classical shows but also of folk music and world music – suggest music that inspires or expresses hope and gratitude. (Below is Ruthanne Bessman, the host of “Classics by Request,” which airs at 10 a.m. on Saturdays.)

Here is the genesis of the list and public service project:

“At a recent WPR music staff meeting, we talked about the many ways music can unite us and about how music can express the gratitude we feel for people and things that are important to us, often much better than words.

“That discussion led to this collection of music, which we wanted to share with you. It’s eclectic and interesting, just like our music staff.”

The composers cited include some familiar names such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Benjamin Britten and John Williams.

But some new music, based on historical events and written by contemporary or modern composers, is also named. It includes works by the American composer Daniel Gawthrop (b. 1949, below top) and the Israeli composer David Zehavi (1910-1977, below bottom). Here are links to their biographies.

Sound-wise, it is quite an eclectic list that runs from solo harpsichord music to orchestral and choral music as well as chamber music.

Many of the performers have played in Madison at the Overture Center, with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at the UW-Madison and on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos.

They include: the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; cellist Amit Peled and pianist Eli Kalman, who received his doctorate from the UW-Madison and now teaches at the UW-Oshkosh; conductor-composer John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers;  and superstars violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma along with Venezuelan pianist-improviser Gabriela Montero  in a quartet that played at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Here is a link to the new WPR suggestions:

Happy listening!

If you read the blog or listen to the music, let us know what you think in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel counters pianist Gabriele Montero and defends for art’s sake his remaining distant and quiet about the political and social protests in Venezuela.

March 22, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Perhaps you have been seeing the many news reports about the major student-led political and social protests going on in Venezuela. They concern corruption, poverty, food shortages and the general ineptitude of Nicolas Maduro, the narrowly elected leader who followed the populist and leftist strong man Hugo Chavez after he died a year ago.

Venezuela protest 2014

venezuela mass protests

Then the protests spilled over into the artistic world.

Take the Venezuela-born pianist Gabriele Montero (below). You may recall that not long ago she played the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15, by Ludwig van Beethoven with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain. She is also known for her improvisations, once of which she performed as an encore in Madison.

Montero has voiced a strong protest over the deadly upheaval in her native land.

Gabriela Montero

She also called on her colleague, superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel (below), who now leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as the student Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuela, to speak up about what was happening in his homeland. When he didn’t, she took him to task and protested his silence or his tacit endorsement of the failing government.

DudamelChris Christodoulou

Montero compared Dudamel handling of Venezuela to the election endorsements that two well-known Russian musicians with international reputations — conductor Valery Gergiev (below top on the right with Vladimir Putin) and opera diva Anna Netrebko (below bottom on the right with Putin) — gave to Russian President and former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. (Hmm–The Ear wonders how Gergiev and Netrebko stand on Ukraine and the Anschluss or illegal annexation of Crimea.) But that is another issue for another time and another post.

vladimir putin decorates valery gergiev

Anna Netrebko and Vladimir Putin

Here is an open letter that Montero wrote to Dudamel, as it was reprinted in British critic Norman Lebrecht’s blog “Slipped Disc”:

Dudamel has been silent or timid at best, and many have said it is because Hugo Chavez (below top, on the left with Gustavo Dudamel) and his successor Nicolas Maduro (below bottom) have both been generous to “el sistema,” the national music education program out of which Dudamel emerged. Many observers speculated that Dudamel was watching out for the interest of his young followers and successors.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (L) spe

Nicolas Maduro

Here is his letter response to Montero, also as it appear on Lebrecht’s blog:

But now Dudamel has spoken out forcefully and more at length, defending himself and saying that he intends to keep politics and arts separate.

Except that his removing himself from the controversy is itself political enough, and getting more so. The Ear recalls the saying of the 19-century Romantic French novelist Stendhal that speaking of politics in things of the imagination (like art) is like firing a gun in the middle of a concert.

Anyway, The Ear recently stumbled across a story by The Boston Globe that provided a very good wrap-up of Dudamel’s current position and also included an excellent chronology and summary of the background including Montero’s point of view and accusations.

Here is a link:

What do you think?

Should Gustavo Dudamel speak up about the protests and government killings in Venezuela?

Or should art and politics be kept separate?

Does this controversy change what you think of either pianist Gabriele Montero or conductor Gustavo Dudamel?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Pianist Gabriela Montero and the Madison Symphony Orchestra show that a gift for improvisation also serves the printed score of old masterpieces well.

January 22, 2013

A REQUEST: Apparently the Overture Center and the Madison Symphony Orchestra don’t recognize that we are currently in the middle of a serious flu epidemic as measured by cases, hospitalizations and deaths. At the concert I attended Sunday afternoon, there were NO dispensers of hand sanitizers, not even in the restroom, and an usher I asked didn’t recall seeing any all weekend long. I seem to recall that the Madison Opera used them. And it makes good sense when you are sitting so close and shaking hands, touching handrails, seat armrests etc. I hope that the situation can be remedied soon. Hand sanitizer is a good, well proven public health measure.

hand sanitizer stand

By Jacob Stockinger

Venezuelan-born pianist Gabriela Montero has a very special talent, even a extraordinary gift: She can improvise in a structured, classical manner and in a variety of styles. And she does so without appearing nervous or unsure of herself, so complete is her relaxation and command of herself on-stage. She simply does not stumble.

Montero (below) demonstrated her gift in abundance during her three performances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra last weekend.

Gabriela Montero

On Friday night, she improvised on the tune “On Wisconsin” and then played a free association that someone described as a Scriabin-like nocturne.

On Sunday afternoon I heard her improvise to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” (“I never heard that one before,” she quipped, after someone in the audience shouted it out and before she sounded it out and then improvised) . She also played a kind of lyrical meditation that she said was inspired by the pleasures of her stay in Madison. To my ears, it possessed a Faure-like.

Some of her improvisations – many of which you can find on best-selling recordings (below) — I really like. Some others sound to me like just a cut or two above cocktail lounge or piano-bar fare. But improvising remains a skill that too many classical musicians lack today, one that used to be a prerequisite for classical musicians and composers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Montero CD

Ironically, however, I found that Montero’s gift for improvisation served her best not in the impressive solo improvisations that she played as popular encores -– they drew standing ovations and cheers from the sizable audiences – but rather in the way she took small but exciting liberties with the printed score to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which dates back to 1798.

Montero brought the kind of zesty and improvisational life to the piano part that one imagines the young and rebellious Beethoven himself brought to his own impressive appearances in the usually staid city of Haydn and Mozart.

Her first movement was all high-energy. It emphasized counterpoint, dialogue with the orchestra and glittering and dramatic passage work, but also featured big contrasts and a particular attention to  soft-and-loud. The most glaring weakness to me was her own cadenza, which may have been intended to sound Beethoven-like but which can’t compare to the third and longest cadenza that Beethoven, himself a keyboard virtuoso, wrote for his concerto.

In Montero’s hands, the slow movement provided a beautiful foretaste of dreamy and lyrical Romanticism in its extreme slowness – almost a stasis that barely seemed to move or advance, said one keen and correct observer.

And the third and final movement, by contrast, turned into exactly the kind of fast and free-wheeling rondo that a young virtuoso like the young Beethoven (below) –- who was often known for his fast metronome markings as well as his ability to improvise –- would have appreciated. It was the fastest I ever heard that movement played, but it worked. And The Improviser also played right to the end along with the orchestra, even though the printed score calls for the orchestra to finish alone.

young beethoven etching in 1804

The concerto was bookended by two solid performances of contemporary and classical works.

The first was the opening 13-minute tone poem “blue cathedral” by Jennifer Higdon (below), an American composer who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award. She is accessible and popular, but also serious. This piece from 2000 — composed to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and to memorialize the composer’s brother, who died of cancer – has already been played by over 400 orchestras. Not many new pieces or contemporary classical composers can make that claim.

Higdon-and-Beau-Candace DiCarlo

That is impressive for so-called new music. And the brother-clarinet, sister-flute dialogue in the piece was performed superbly by the MSO. The whole work has a kind of Copland-like harmonic spaciousness or mood to it, a Gothic-like grandeur of innerness that reminded me of Monet’s Impressionist paintings of the “blue cathedral” at Rouen (below):

monet rouen cathedral in blue

The concerto finished with perfect winter fare: the Symphony No. 6 in D Major by Antonin Dvorak (below. Music by Dvorak is invariably tuneful, melodic and toe-tapping. Conductor John DeMain proved especially adept at bringing out lines and at whipping the orchestra up to a controlled frenzy in the folk dance Scherzo-Furiant (at bottom) and the brassy finale.

The MSO should play, and we should hear, more Dvorak. After all, this was the MSO’ premiere performance of a work composed back in 1880.


Of course, The Ear wasn’t alone in making sense of this infectious and ear-grabbing concert, which I found to be one of the best and most memorable of the season.

Here are links to other reviews and of course you have every right to your own your judgment or critique, which you can leave in the COMMENT section:

Here is a link to John W. Barker’s review in Isthmus:

Here is a link to Lindsay Christians review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

Here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for the “Classically Speaking” blog he wrotes for Madison Magazine:

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