The Well-Tempered Ear

TODAY — Sunday, Jan. 24, at noon — a video concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players will kick off the Wisconsin Union Theater’s new concert series “Wisconsin Sound”

January 24, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Union Theater is excited to pilot “Wisconsin Sound,” a new video concert series featuring musicians from our very own state. 

The series, which includes the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet, will have five concerts, once a month between January and May and begins with celebrated, locally grown Willy Street Chamber Players (WSCP, below in a photo by Lloyd Schultz) on TODAY — Sunday, Jan. 24 — at noon CDT.

You can see the full lineup with dates and purchase single tickets for the performance or discounted subscription for all Wisconsin Sound events here.  Single tickets are $15 and subscription tickets to all five concerts are $50.

The Willy Street Chamber Players began just six years ago but has already made its mark on the Madison community, garnering accolades for its fun approach to music, accessibility and dedication to community partnerships.

The group will perform Fantasiestucke (Fantasy Pieces) for Cello and Piano, Op. 73, by Robert Schumann; Fantasy No. 2 for Violin and Piano by Florence Price (below top); Kiép Nào Có Yeu Nhau (Vietnamese Love Song) for Violin and Piano by Rachel Eubanks (below bottom); and Adagio and Allegro for Cello and Piano, Op. 70, by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the Fantasy by Florence Price in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

You may have heard these dynamic performers during our Summer Serenades at Memorial Union Terrace and other Wisconsin festivals.

The pandemic has not stopped this group from bringing beautiful music to the community; it has continued to perform virtually as well as give in-person “Micro-concerts” for one to two people and safety in mind. 

“We are honored they agreed to be the first artist in this pilot series. We share in Willy Street Chamber Players’ goal of creating community through music and thought they’d be a great group to kick off the new series for that very reason,” says Wisconsin Union Theater director Elizabeth Snodgrass. 

“Everyone in the arts is trying so hard to stay connected and the group’s music and positivity invite that connection,” Snodgrass adds. “I hope this will reach Wisconsin patrons as well as new listeners who may not have had the chance to hear Willy Street Chamber Players or who have not been to the Wisconsin Union Theater before.”

This blog named the Willys “Musicians of the Year” for 2016. The players were called “a fantastic breath of fresh air who invest their performances of even well-known works, such as the glorious Octet by Mendelssohn, with energy and drive, zest and good humor.” You can read that story here.

Click here for more information about Wisconsin Sound, including other upcoming performances.

 


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Which classical composer has helped you the most during the Covid-19 pandemic?

January 4, 2021
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PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

The holidays are over and as we close in on marking a year of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, The Ear has a question:

Which composer has helped you the most to weather the pandemic so far?

The Ear wishes he could say Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin or Brahms. And the truth is that they all played a role, some more than others.

But The Ear was surprised by the composer whose works he most listened to and liked — Antonio Vivaldi (below), the Red Priest of Venice who lived from 1678 to 1714 and taught at a Roman Catholic girls school.

Here is more about his biography, which points out that his work was neglected for two centuries and began being rediscovered only in the early 20th-century and still continues being rediscovered to the present day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Vivaldi

The Ear isn’t talking about popular The Four Seasons although that set of 12 solo violin concertos has its charms and originalities.

The Ear especially appreciated the lesser-known concertos for two violins and the cello concertos, although the concertos for bassoon, flute, recorder, oboe, lute, trumpet and mandolin also proved engaging, as did the concerto grosso.

It was the 20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky (below) – the modern pioneer of neo-Classicism — who complained that Vivaldi rewrote the same concerto 500 times. “Vivaldi,” Stravinsky once said, “is greatly overrated – a dull fellow who could compose the same form many times over.”

But then did anyone turn to Stravinsky – who, The Ear suspects, was secretly envious — when they needed music as medicine or therapy during the pandemic? 

Vivaldi was, in fact, a master. See and hear for yourself.  In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, RV 535,  performed by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

Why Vivaldi? You might ask.

Well, it’s nothing highbrow.

The best explanation is that Vivaldi’s music simply seems like caffeine for the ears and sunshine for the eyes. His music isn’t overly introspective or glum, and it isn’t too long or melodramatic.

The melodies and harmonies are always pleasing and energizing, and the tempi are just right, although bets are that the music is much harder to play than it sounds.

In short, Vivaldi’s extroverted music is infectious and appealing because it just keeps humming along — exactly as those of us in lockdown and isolation at home have had to do.

Happily, there are a lot of fine recordings of Vivaldi by period instrument groups from England, Italy and Germany and elsewhere that use historically informed performance practices. But some the most outstanding recordings are by modern instrument groups, which should not be overlooked.

With a few exceptions – notably Wisconsin Public Radio – you don’t get to hear much Vivaldi around here, especially in live performances, even from early music and Baroque ensembles. If you hear Vivaldi here, chances are it is The Four Seasons or the Gloria. Should there be more Vivaldi? Will we hear more Vivaldi when live concerts resume? That is a topic for another time.

In the meantime, The Ear wants to know:

Which composer did you most listen to or find most helpful throughout the pandemic?

Leave your choice in the comment section with, if possible, a YouTube link to a favorite work and an explanation about why you liked that composer and work.

The Ear wants to hear.

Thank you and Happy New Year!

 


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The New York Times music critics suggest 10 must-hear online classical concerts during December

November 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tomorrow is Dec. 1, 2020.

Lately, at the end of every month the music critics for The New York Times publish a list of 10 virtual and online classical concerts for the following month that they think deserve special attention.

Often – but not always — their choices feature the unusual: new music and world premieres; neglected repertoire; and lesser-known performers that most of us are not likely to hear locally.

The December choices, for example, include an oratorio “Perle Noire” (Black Pearl), by composer Tyshawn Sorey, about the famous African-American, Paris-based expat dancer Josephine Baker – she of the banana skirt (below). But she was more than just  a risqué dancer and entertainer. She fought in the French Resistance movement against the Nazis and was a civil rights champion.

But this list also includes seasonal fare such the holiday tradition by which the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performs in one night all six Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach (you can hear an excerpt in the YouTube video at the bottom); and other holiday celebrations such as a concert by the early music vocal group Tenet (below, in a photo by Nan Melville.)

But those suggestions do not take away from more local efforts and performances. 

The Ear is certain that those same critics would approve of supporting local musicians and music groups during the coronavirus pandemic. 

And there are many local offerings. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, the Madison Bach Musicians and Just Bach all have virtual online concerts scheduled for December.

You can check out their offerings at their websites and here on this blog as the month unfolds.

But if the Times’ choices interest you – and they should — here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/25/arts/music/classical-music-stream-december.html

Note that the blurbs show Eastern Time but also include how long the performances are posted for and links to the organizations presenting the concerts. 

Happy listening!

And Happy Holidays!

Do you have other online performances – local, regional, national or international — to suggest?

Please leave the necessary information in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Famed radio station WQXR names the best 100 recordings of 2019. Listen to samples of them here

December 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Did you get a gift card for the holidays?

Are you looking how to spend it by either purchasing CDs or subscribing to a streaming service?

Help and guidance are available.

Few names in the airing of classical music carry more prestige than the famed radio station WQXR in New York City.

To check out the radio station’s choice of the best recordings of 2019 is also to see where the worlds of recording and concertizing are heading.

Such trends include rediscovering neglected composers and championing new music as well as women composers, such as Clara Schumann, and composers of color, such as the American composer Florence Price (below), who has often been featured on Wisconsin Public Radio this past year.

But you will also find noteworthy recordings of such classics as Johann Sebastian Bach – and two of his rarely heard cousins instead of his sons – and well as outstanding recordings of symphonies and piano sonatas (below, the set by Igor Levit) for the upcoming Beethoven Year to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer.

And you will also find names of outstanding performers you may not have heard of — such as the exceptional Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang (below), a Van Cliburn Competition gold medalist whom The Ear would like to see perform here.

Here is a link to 25 picks with commentaries– plus another 75 titles and samples, without commentary, to round out a Top 100.

Happy listening!

https://www.wqxr.org/story/best-classical-recordings-2019/


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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.


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