The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra excels in deeply satisfying performances of works by Copland and Dvorak. On Sunday, you can hear FREE band and choral music at the UW

October 14, 2017
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ALERT: On tomorrow, Sunday, Oct. 15, there is FREE band music and choral music at the UW-Madison. The University Bands perform at 1 p.m. and the Choral Collage performs at 7:30 p.m., both in Mills Hall. Sorry, but The Ear has received no word on programs — no composers, no pieces, no conductors, no performers — and you won’t find that information even on the School of Music’s website. 

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The opening concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by William Ballhorn) on Wednesday night was a deeply satisfying one.

The opener was Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, based on his incidental music for a 1939 play. The piece is less a work of music than of atmosphere, and deeply related to Copland’s own experiences growing up in New York City. To convey contrasting outlooks, Copland features a trumpet and an English horn as solo instruments.

These parts were played with confidence and feeling by MCO players Jessica Jensen and Valree Casey (below top and bottom, respectively, in photo by Brian Ruppert). The reduced string orchestra provided a smooth carpeting.

The main work was the Symphony No. 6 in D Major by Antonin Dvorak (below). Cruelly overshadowed in podium and audience tastes, this score has been badly neglected, but justly belongs with the composer’s last three symphonies as a worthy peer. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra did perform it a few seasons back.)

As I listened to the work, I recalled the comment that the early Dvorak supporter, Johannes Brahms, commented to colleagues as he got to know the Czech composer’s music, to the effect that “This kid has more ideas than all the rest of us put together.”

Dvorak’s outpouring of ideas, and his capacity for putting them to good use, is simply astounding. I particularly marveled at such qualities as I listened to the slow movement (which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom), with its beautiful manipulation of the simplest of basic material. I emerged from the performance feeling joy at being a member of the same species as the creator of this wonderful work.

One could certainly overlook some moments of rough ensemble here and there. Clearly, the players had come to love this music and give it their all. Indeed, the distinguished conductor Edo de Waart, who just retired as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to become the music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) joined the orchestra in one rehearsal (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), leaving the players not only delighted with him but that much more enchanted by the music.

The large audience caught the orchestra’s commitment and responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

One thought did occur to me. The acoustics of Middleton’s Performing Arts Center (below) have usually seemed to me quite admirable. This time, however, they struck me as rather dry, without some resonance and reverberation that would have added greater warmth of tone to the playing.

No matter, though. This was a performance I will long remember; and I have the greatest admiration for maestro Steve Kurr (below), both for his courage in taking on this challenging and under-appreciated masterpiece and for his clearly profound understanding of it.

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Classical music: Amy Beach turns 150. Read about the woman and her music

September 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Amy Beach (1867-1944, below) was a pioneering American composer who fought against sexism in her lifetime and who benefitted greatly from the rediscovery of women artists during the feminist revival of the 1970s and 1980s.

But here is a link to the most comprehensive story The Ear has yet read about Beach and her music, which is still neglected and not getting the attention it deserves, especially the larger and more ambitious works. (You can find many on YouTube and other streaming services.)

The story marked the 150th anniversary of her birth and appeared last Sunday in The New York Times.

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/01/arts/music/amy-beach-women-american-composer.html

And here, introduced and played by Rachel Barton Pine in a YouTube video, is one of her last and more minor works: a lovely Romance for violin and piano. It remains one of The Ear’s favorites.


Classical music: Your warhorses are my masterpieces — and I want to hear them

June 3, 2017
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ALERT: This Sunday afternoon from 12:30 to 2 p.m., “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature Madison keyboard artist Trevor Stephenson performing on a restored 1855 Boesendorfer grand piano. The program includes music by Chopin, Granados, Brahms, Wagner, Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg and Satie.

You can attend it live for FREE in Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the UW-Madison’s art museum. But you can also stream it live using the link on this web page:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-6-4-17/

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the year again when music groups announce their new seasons.

And it seems to The Ear that the word “warhorse” is again being tossed around a lot, especially by experienced listeners who use the term pejoratively or disapprovingly, in a snobby or condescending way, to describe great music that is performed frequently.

But more than a little irony or inaccuracy is involved.

For example, a some people have referred to the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms – scheduled next season by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — as a warhorse.

Yet The Ear has heard that symphony performed live only once – perhaps because programmers wanted to avoid the warhorse label.

The same goes for the iconic Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, which will be performed next year by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below). It was a revolutionary work that changed the course of music history, and it is a great piece of engaging music. (You can hear the opening movement, with an arresting graphic representation, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here’s the irony: I have heard the Piano Quintet by Brahms, the Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert and the String Octet by Felix Mendelssohn – all great masterpieces — far more often than I have heard those “warhorse” symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. Can it be that connoisseurs usually seem more reluctant to describe chamber music masterpieces as warhorses? (Below in the Pro Arte Quartet in a photo by Rick Langer.)

The Ear is reminded of a comment made by the great Russian-American musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky (below): “Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is not great because it is popular; it is popular because it is great.”

So yes, I don’t care what more sophisticated or experienced listeners say. I still find the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Peter Tchaikovsky to be a beautiful and thrilling work that rewards me each time I hear it. It never fails.

Add to the list the popular symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, several piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Jupiter” Symphony and Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And one could go on and on.

They are all great masterpieces more than they are warhorses.

Plus, just because a piece of music is new or neglected doesn’t mean that it is good or that it merits a performance.

Otherwise, you could easily spend the rest of a life listening to second-rate and third-rate works out of curiosity and never feel the powerful emotional connection and deep intellectual insight that you get with a genuine masterpiece that rewards repeated hearings.

Of course, some warhorses do leave The Ear less than enthusiastic The “1812 Overture” comes immediately to mind. Boy, do the crowds like that potboiler — on the Fourth of July, of course, when it has a traditional place.

But often enough your warhorse is my masterpiece, and I want to hear it without being thought of as a philistine.

It might even be that playing more warhorses — not fewer — will attract some new audience members at a time when music groups face challenges in attendance and finances?

It may not be cool to say that, but it might be true, even allowing room for new and neglected works that deserve to be programmed for their merit — not their newness or their neglect.

So-called “warhorses” have usually survived a long time and received many performances because they are great music by great composers that speak meaningfully to a lot of listeners. They deserve praise, not insults or denigration, as well as a secure and unapologetic place in balanced programming.

Of course, it is a matter of personal taste.

So …

What do you think?

Are there favorite warhorses you like?

Are there warhorses you detest?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music poll: Who is your favorite neglected composer? And what is your favorite work by that composer?

February 4, 2017
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s the weekend — a good time for another reader poll.

Last weekend, The Ear heard the Violin Sonata No. 1 by the French composer Gabriel Faure (below), in a wonderful performance by UW-Madison faculty members violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino and pianist Christopher Taylor, who make an outstanding partnership that The Ear hopes to heard more often.

faure

The Ear has long thought that Faure, who was the teacher of Ravel, has been neglected. His work, especially his solo piano pieces and chamber music, is subtle and appealing but unjustly overshadowed by the Germanic school.

Yet Faure seems to be getting more performances, although still not as many as he deserves.

So maybe The Ear will switch to say that the 20th-century English composer Gerald Finzi (below) is now his favorite neglected composer.

You can hear Finzi’s haunting and exquisite “Eclogue” for piano and strings, which was originally the slow movement for a piano concerto, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But The Ear also likes Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto and his Five Bagatelles — especially the “Romance” movement — for Clarinet and Piano.

Gerald Finzi 1

There are so many composers who deserve a wider hearing — including big mainstream composers like the prolific master  Franz Joseph Haydn whose name is better known than most of his works.

Recently, on Wisconsin Public Radio, The Ear heard rarely performed solo piano works by the Czech Josef Suk (below top) and really liked them. Same goes for some solo piano works and violin works by Clara Schumann (below bottom).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Clara Schumann Getty Images

There are so many other composers, including ones from Scandinavia, Asia and the United States, who fly under the radar but deserve better recognition and more performances.

So here is what The Ear wants to know:

Who is your favorite neglected composer?

And what is your favorite piece by that composer and why?

Please tell the rest of us, with a link to a YouTube performance, if possible, and help us expand our horizons.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Is it piano neglect? The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music should take better care of the piano used for student concerts. Plus, Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro John DeMain gets raves for conducting an opera in Washington, D.C.

February 21, 2016
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ALERT: Did you wonder what Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro John DeMain was up to since the MSO concerts last weekend used a guest conductor?

Well, the hometown maestro was guest conducting a week-long production of Kurt Weill‘s opera “Lost in the Stars” for the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

A number of  critics didn’t particularly like the opera itself, which is based on the famous anti-apartheid novel “Cry, the Beloved County” by Alan Paton, and some criticized the theatrical aspects of the production.

But music director and conductor DeMain received praise for his part.

Here are links to various reviews:

http://dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2016/02/15/review-lost-in-the-stars-at-wno-2/

http://dctheatrescene.com/2016/02/15/lost-in-the-stars-from-washington-national-opera-review/

There is more praise in a mention on Page 2:

http://www.broadwayworld.com/bwwopera/article/BWW-Review-Washington-National-Opera-Takes-On-A-Bit-of-Broadway-With-LOST-IN-THE-STARS-20160215

https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/lost-stars-on-stage-for-washington-national-opera/2016/02/13/308dea84-d219-11e5-88cd-753e80cd29ad_story.html?tid=a_inl

By Jacob Stockinger

Calling it piano abuse it would be a stretch. That sounds too accusatory and too sensational.

But calling it piano neglect certainly seems justified and fair.

When The Ear attended some recent student recitals, he noticed the unfortunate treatment of a concert grand piano in Morphy Recital Hall, on which many students perform their degree recitals.

From a distance, and under the glare of stage lighting, the piano (below) seemed more or less OK.

Morphy piano 1

But when he went up close, The Ear saw just how chewed up the wood was in so many places.

Morphy piano 4

Now some wear-and-tear seems normal, especially for a piano that gets so much use for solo recitals and chamber music. And truth be told, it probably plays pretty well and is maintained in good shape internally.

But the outer condition of this piano nonetheless seemed as if it had indeed been neglected over the years — though maybe there are other reasons.

There were eye-catching scrapes and gouges that just look junky.

Now The Ear knows that the talented piano technician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music is very busy. After all, there are a lot of pianos to tune and regulate.

And The Ear also knows that budget cuts are presenting challenges to the School of Music and its staff.

But that seems all the more reason to take care of the pianos the school has. The likelihood of replacing it with a new one seems little to none.

After all, these days a Steinway concert grand Model D sells for pretty close to $125,000.

If you had a car worth that much, you would surely not neglect its maintenance and upkeep. So why would you do it to a piano, especially one that gets so much use and is in the public eye so frequently?

So on the eve of more student degree recitals, which will only increase as the end of the spring semester draws closer, here is The Ear’s plea:

Please use the padded covering that can protect the piano when it gets moved, and try to be careful about bumping or scraping into things that can cause permanent damage.

Also, if there are times that the piano’s finish gets marred, please use that specially made piano dye to restore the ebony finish and please repair any chipped keys, which are plastic not ivory, by the way.

The Ear doubts other instruments — strings, brass, woodwinds — would be allowed by their owners to fall into such a state.

If you doubt all this or think it is overstating the case, here are some close-up photos that The Ear took.

It hurts The Ear to see such a fine instrument neglected and deteriorate. He assumes that the students who use it feel the same way – and he hopes the public does too. Owning such a fine musical instrument imposes a certain responsibility on the owner, and it should be repaired.

Morphy Piano 2

Morphy piano 3

Morphy piano 5

Morphy piano 6

Morphy piano 7

Is The Ear being too hard or fussy?

He would like to know what students who play the piano and what other audience members think.

Use the COMMENT section to let him know.

The Ear wants to hear.


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