The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Did she know or didn’t she? Here is the factual background about a flawed diva if you go to see the movies “Florence Foster Jenkins” or “Marguerite”

August 19, 2016
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This week, The Ear saw the movie “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a story about the amateur singer Florence Foster Jenkins (below, in the 1920s in a photo from Getty Images), who was famous in the early- to mid-20th-century for singing terribly, painfully and laughably off-key but who nonetheless pursued performing in public and sold a lot of records.

Florence Foster Jenkins in the 1920s GETTY IMAGES

During the Wisconsin Film Festival, The Ear also saw a French movie, “Marguerite,” with a similar story line and main character.

Of the two, he much preferred “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Meryl Streep (below) plays the flawed diva with total commitment. The Ear suspects it will garner Streep, who did her own bad singing to perfection, her 20th Academy Award nomination, even if she doesn’t win a fourth Oscar.

British actor Hugh Grant might also be nominated for his supporting role as the British out-of-work actor who becomes her protector, promoter and caring love partner St. Clair Bayfield.

In additon, her piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon, played by Simon Helberg, who could also receive an Oscar nomination, develops into a memorable secondary character.

The English script — directed by the talented Stephen Frears –seemed more tightly written with better characters and dialogue than the French one, which dragged on too long and seemed forced in its ending, although both movies share similarities in their endings.

But to be honest, with both of the films The Ear had a major problem with suspending disbelief.

He just can’t believe that Jenkins didn’t know how badly she sang.

You can hear her butcher the famous and difficult “Queen of the Night” aria from “The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Anyway, the Deceptive Cadence blog for NPR, or National Public Radio, has provided an excellent background piece, a very factual biography of Jenkins, that also asks famous singers whether it is possible for Jenkins not to have known how flawed her singing was.

All The Ear knows is that if he played the piano that badly, he sure wouldn’t go perform a recital in Carnegie Hall.

Here is a link to the blog piece by Tom Huizenga:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/08/10/488724807/killing-me-sharply-with-her-song-the-improbable-story-of-florence-foster-jenkins

Now if you go to either or both movies, here is what The Ear wants to know:

Which film about Florence Foster Jenkins did you prefer, and why?

And do you think it is possible to sing as badly as Jenkins did without knowing it?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Where did the Mostly Mozart Festival go on PBS?

August 15, 2016
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear keeps reading The New York Times and finding features about and laudatory reviews of the 50th Mostly Mozart Festival that is being held at Lincoln Center in New York City from July 22 through August 27.

Mostly Mozart Festival logo

But he doesn’t recall seeing or hearing anything on PBS, or public television – even in a delayed broadcast.

Time was, it seems, that the gala opening concert was broadcast during prime time on either “Live From Lincoln Center” or “Great Performances.”

But for several years now it seems that it is no longer broadcast.

And The Ear misses it. They were almost always good concerts with memorable music, memorable performers and memorable performances. (You can get an idea from the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And music director Louis Langree (below) has instituted some great innovations, including new music, more music by other composers, and smaller alternative venues and programs.

louis langree

This year’s offerings are no different. Check out the schedule at the festival’s website:

http://mostlymozart.org

Is it The Ear’s imagination that the Mostly Mozart Festival has disappeared from the airwaves?

Why?

To be more mainstream?

To make room for more British mysteries or other more popular shows?

That would be a shame for the alternative broadcast company.

Does anybody else feel the same way?

Has The Ear just missed the broadcasts?

Or have they really been suspended or ended?

If so, does the credit go to PBS? Or to Wisconsin Public Television?

The Ear sure would appreciate getting some answers.

And seeing and hearing more of Mostly Mozart.


Classical music: Which political campaigns have used classical music?

August 14, 2016
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

In the past, the music that political campaigns used was often jingles that reminded one of Madison Avenue advertising, even when they were composed by Broadway song master Irving Berlin.

These days, it seems to The Ear that most political campaigns use rock, pop or country music.

Sometimes folk music.

Never jazz.

And, one supposes, you will never hear the blues since that would be a pretty downbeat message for politicians.

But leave it to our friends at WQXR-FM, the famed classical music radio station in New York City, to offer some samples of political campaign music, including some that used classical music.

Ike campaign political campaigns and classical music

Donald Trump (below), the current Republican nominee for president, has tried to use the famous opera aria “Nessum dorma” (None Shall Sleep) from “Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini.

Donald Trump thumbs up

Fittingly, in the opera the moving and beautiful aria is sung by a prince to woo a Chinese tyrant or despot.

The Ear especially loved the way it was used so appropriately during the carpet bombing of Cambodia by the U.S. in the movie “The Killing Fields.”

Trump used one of the best versions available – sung by Luciano Pavarotti, one of which has 38 million hits and which you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom.

But the Pavarotti estate refused to grant him permission to use it and asked him to cease and desist. Good for them.

Now Trump uses something in the public domain: the Overture to the opera “The Thieving Magpie” by Giachino Rossini.

Anyway, here is a link to the story:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/6-us-political-campaigns-set-to-classical-music/


Classical music: Do we need smaller concert halls?

August 13, 2016
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently, senior New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote a column in which he praised the intensity and intimacy that listeners feel in a smaller concert hall.

His remarks come in the context of the $500-million remodeling of David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center and the opening of the Mostly Mozart Festival.

And he offers the suggestions as a solution not only for solo recitals and chamber music performances but also for symphony orchestras and operas.

The Ear compares, say, the intensity of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (below top), with the audience at the edge of the stage) in the Playhouse at the Overture Center to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in the Capitol Theater to the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below bottom) and Madison Opera in Overture Hall.

BDDS 2014 Playhouse standing ovation

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

You can indeed hear intense performances in all three venues. But overall The Ear has to agree that being closer to the musicians also brings you closer to the music.

Here is a link to Tommasini’s column:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/04/arts/music/review-mostly-mozart-big-music-doesnt-need-huge-halls.html?_r=0

What does your own experience tell you?

What is your favorite concert hall or venue?

Let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: New York Times critic David Allen is a role model of how to prepare for listening to a new and unknown conductor

August 7, 2016
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Many people were taken off guard when in January the New York Philharmonic named Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden (below) as its new music director — the highest paid conductor in the U.S.

Jaap van Sweden CR Todd Heisler NYT

The Ear certainly was.

And so was the New York Times critic David Allen.

But rather than wait to go hear van Zweden live, Allen plunged into van Zweden’s discography. The many recordings gave him a very good idea of what the conductor’s strengths and weaknesses are.

It took Allen some 52 hours of listening to do his due diligence and get a comprehensive background and preparation.

But the conclusions he reaches about van Zweden (below, in a photo by Washington of The New York Times) in contemporary repertoire as well as in classic works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Peter Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky, Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner, among others, are illuminating.

You can hear Jaap van Sweden conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in what seems to The Ear an energetic and forceful interpretation of the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Jaap van Zweden CR Ruby Washington NYTImes

Here is a link. You can judge for yourself what the public can look forward to:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/24/arts/music/jaap-van-zweden-new-york-philharmonic-recordings-discography.html?_r=0

What do you think of Allen’s assessment?

Does it seem fair? Biased?

Does it make you look forward to hearing van Zweden?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Classical musicians take up the cause of Black Lives Matter

July 13, 2016
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Classical music can easily appear isolated from current events and social issues these days, more of a shelter or sanctuary or retreat than an engagement.

Pop, rock, country and rap music often seem much more timely and symptomatic or even concerned and supportive.

But classical music has often shown a social conscience.

One thinks of the composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein and his support of those protesting the Vietnam War and of black power advocates – efforts that often drew criticism and sarcasm from those who disagreed.

Something similar seems to be happening today with the Black Lives Matter movement and classical musicians in the wake of the Minnesota, Louisiana and Dallas, Texas shootings, death and murders.

Black Lives Matter Dallas

Here is a story from The New York Times that explores the connections:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/arts/music/for-black-lives-matter-classical-music-steps-in.html?_r=0


Classical music: New York Polyphony opens the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival with a perfectly rendered composite portrait of Elizabethan sacred music. Plus, the winners of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition are announced

July 11, 2016
2 Comments

ALERT: In case you haven’t yet heard, the winners (below) of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition, held on Friday night in Mills Hall and accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians, have been announced.

Eric Jurenas (center), countertenor, won First Prize; Christina Kay (right), soprano, won Second Prize; and Nola Richardson (left), soprano, won Third Prize and Audience Favorite.

Handel Aria winners 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear left the concert hall thinking: Well, this will be an easy review to write.

Just give it an A-plus.

An easy A-plus.

On Saturday night, the acclaimed a cappella quartet New York Polyphony (below) opened the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) with a flawless performance.

new york polyphony

This year, the MEMF is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of poet and playwright William Shakespeare (below top) and the 45-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I (below bottom), who oversaw the English Renaissance.

shakespeare BW

Queen Elizabeth I

And the program – performed before a large house of perhaps 450 or 500 enthusiastic listeners — was perfectly in keeping with the festival’s theme. It used sacred music rather than stage music or secular music, which will be featured later in this week of concerts, workshops and pre-concert lectures.

In fact, the program of New York Polyphony was based on two of the group’s best-selling CDs for BIS Records and AVIE Records: “Tudor City” and “Times Goes by Turns.” It was roughly divided into two masses, one on each half. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Adding to the variety was that each Anglican or Roman Catholic-based mass was a composite, with various sections made up like movements written by different composers. Thrown in for good measure were two separate short pieces, the “Ave Maria Mater Dei” by William Cornysh and the “Ave verum corpus” of William Byrd.

The Mass on the first half featured music by Byrd, John Dunstable, Walter Lambe and Thomas Tallis. The second half featured works music by Tallis, John Pyamour, John Plummer and excerpts from the Worcester Fragments. The section were typical: the Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

There was nothing fancy about this concert, which marked the Wisconsin debut of New York Polyphony and which spotlighted superbly quiet virtuosity. The four dark-suited men, who occasionally split up, just stood on stage and opened their mouths and sang flawlessly with unerring pitch and superb diction.

New York Polyphony MEMF 2016

A cappella or unaccompanied singing is hard work, but the four men made it seem easy. The countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass each showed confidence and talent plus the ability to project clarity while not overshadowing each other. This was first-class singing.

The beautiful polyphony of the lines was wondrous to behold even, if like The Ear, sacred music from this era – with its chant-like rather than melodic qualities – is not your favorite fare.

New York Polyphony provided a good harbinger of the treats that will come this week at the MEMF from groups like the Newberry Consort of Chicago with soprano Ellen Hargis (below top) and the Baltimore Consort (below bottom) as well as from the faculty and workshop participants. On Friday night is an appealing program that focuses on Shakespeare’s sonnets and music.

MEMF newberry consort

Baltimore Consort

And on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., with a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m., will be the All-Festival concert. That is always a must-hear great sampler of what you perhaps couldn’t get to earlier in the week. This year, it will feature the music as used in a typical Elizabethan day.

Here is a link to the MEMF website:

https://artsinstitute.wisc.edu/memf/

And here is a link the website of New York Polyphony if you want to hear more:

http://www.newyorkpolyphony.com


Classical music: A new opera takes listeners back to The Bad Old Days of anti-gay America – and reminds us of the bigotry today that camouflages itself as religious freedom

July 2, 2016
1 Comment

CORRECTION: Yesterday’s post about the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition had a mistake about when it will be held. The correct time is next FRIDAY, July 8, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. The Ear regrets the error. General admission is $10. Here is a link with more information:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/07/01/classical-music-handel-aria-competition-announces-2016-finalists-to-sing-next-thursday-night/

By Jacob Stockinger

Issues pertaining to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are much in the news these days.

Of course there were the shootings and mass murder at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando, Florida.

And there were the so-called “bathroom laws” enacted against transgender people and designed to protect “normal” people who ere never really threatened.

In contrast, the military announced that transgender people could serve under the usual conditions and regulations.

Then President Obama declared the Stonewall Inn (below) in Greenwich Village in New York City, a national historical landmark. In 1969 a police raid against the gay bar led to riots that, in turn, sparked the gay liberation movement to secure human rights and civil rights for homosexuals.

stonewall inn

This week saw a U.S. District Judge in Mississippi ruling against so-called “religious freedom” laws that many states have enacted in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage a year ago.

Such laws were ruled to discriminate against LGBT people and to unconstitutionally favor certain religions or forms of religion.

A lot of the proponents of such laws seem to have a false nostalgia for the good old days.

Well, maybe they were good for some people. But they were terrible times for many others, including LGBTQ people.

Gregory Spears’ new opera, called “Fellow Travelers” (below is a crucial scene in a photo by Philip Goushong for the Cincinnati Opera) has an interesting take on that historical era with its “Lavender Scare” that parallels the Red Scare of McCathyism.

Fellow Travelers and Lavender Scare CR Philip Groshong for the Cincinnati Opera

Here is a story that aired on NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/06/18/482307467/a-new-opera-illuminates-the-lavender-scare-a-little-explored-era-in-queer-histor


Classical music: Fourth annual Handel Aria Competition announces the 2016 finalists who will sing for prizes next FRIDAY (NOT Thursday) night

July 1, 2016
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement:

The Handel Aria Competition is pleased to announce the finalists for this year’s fourth annual event.

The final round of the region, national and international competition is presented as a public concert in conjunction with the Madison Early Music Festival in Madison, Wisconsin.

Handel etching

It will take place on next FRIDAY night July 8, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall at the UW-Madison School of Music, 455 North Park Street. (An earlier version mistakenly said Thursday night. The correct date is FRIDAY night, July 8. The Ear apologizes for the error.)

Tickets are $10, general admission, and are available in advance, through Orange Tree Imports, in person at 1721 Monroe St., Madison, WI, and by phone: (608) 255-8211; or at the door They are now available online through UW Arts on Campus (use the link below) and at the Memorial Union Box Office.

https://itkt.choicecrm.net/templates/UWIM/index.php?&event_ids=3974

Seven finalists and two alternates were chosen from a field of almost 100 singers from around the world.

The finalists are:

Each singer will present two arias from an opera or cantata by George Frideric Handel, accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians (below, at the 2015 competition) under the direction of Trevor Stephenson.

Handel Aria 2015 Madison Bach Musicians

Three professional judges will select a first, second and third prize winner, and all those in attendance will be invited to vote for the recipient of the “audience favorite” prize.

For more information about the competition, visit:

https://handelariacompetition.com

Below are the 2016 Handel Aria Competition Finalists – from upper left, clockwise: Fiona Gillespie Jackson; Christina Kay; Nola Richardson; Elena Snow; Pascale Brigitte Boilard; Adele Grabowski; and Eric Jurenas.

Processed with MOLDIV


Classical music: Don’t miss tango weekend at the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society

June 15, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

If there was ever a genre of music created specifically for the talented, eclectic and fun-loving musicians of the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, it is surely the tango.

It is hard to imagine a more perfect kind of music because it seems so suited to the temperament of the BDDS and its participants. The tango and BDDS simply seem made for each other.

BDDS 25th poster

The sexy and sensual tango has become both a popular and populist form of South American dance music. It started in brothels and then went mainstream. Then it crossed over into the classical repertoire, thanks to composers Astor Piazzolla, Carlos Guastavino and others.

If you have heard the BDDS perform tangos before, you know how captivating the performances are.

This weekend, the BDDS Silver Jubilee season will feature two programs with tangos, arranged by Pablo Zinger (below), a Uruguayan native who now calls New York City home.

Pablo Zinger at piano

Last time they performed, Zinger and his BDDS colleagues were absolutely terrific. The Ear will never forget the BDDS version of Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” a fantastic, soulful and heart-breaking piece of music. (You can hear another version of “Oblivion” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here are links to the program with tango this weekend to be performed at the Playhouse in the Overture Center and in the Hillside Theatre (below) at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green:

http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org/schedule.php

taliesin_hillside2

Besides tangos, there will also be music by Maurice Ravel (Piano Trio); Arnold Schoenberg (Chamber Symphony); Franz Schubert (Piano Trio No. 1); Joseph Haydn (Piano Trio No. 25, “Gypsy Rondo”); and movie music by Nino Rota, Henry Mancini and Luis Bacalov.

But featured prominently are tangos by Uruguayan composer Miguel del Aguila (below top) and by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla (below bottom), who turned to the tango of his native land at the advice of Nadia Boulanger, the famous French teacher of Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and others.

Miguel del Aguila

astor piazzolla

If you are looking for a preview sample, you can of course go on YouTube. But you could also listen to the new CD of South American tangos by BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who is also principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Not long ago, Jutt (below) spent a sabbatical year in Argentina, if The Ear recalls correctly. She clearly fell in love with tango music and is anxious to share her enthusiasm with others. That enthusiasm and her flair for the dance form show in the terrific performances on the CD.

Stephanie Jutt with flute

The new CD (below), on the Albany label, features pianists Elena Abend and the versatile arranger-pianist Pablo Zinger, whom you can hear live this weekend. It features 20 modern Latin American and Spanish works by Piazzolla and Guastavino as well as by Angel Lasada, the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos and the Basque composer Jesus Guridi. (It is on sale at BDDS concerts for $15.)

Stephanie Jutt tango CD

Dance has always inspired classical music. Historically, the tango seems a natural modern progression from the Baroque minuets and allemandes of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Classical landler of Haydn, the Romantic waltzes of Franz Schubert and Frederic Chopin, the Hungarian Dances of Johannes Brahms and the Slavonic Dances of Antonin Dvorak.

But don’t take The Ear’s word for it.

Go listen for yourself. And be captivated, be transported. You won’t be disappointed.


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