The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Meet composer Julia Wolfe, who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music for her oratorio about Coal Country.

April 24, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

On Monday, the winners of the 2015 Pulitzer Prizes were announced.

You will hear a lot about the journalism recipients.

You will hear much, much less about the arts recipients.

So meet American composer Julia Wolfe (below).

Julia Wolfe full face

Wolfe, who is associated with the group Bang on a Can!, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music for “Anthracite Fields,” her oratorio for chorus and sextet about families living in coal mining country.

Coal Miners

Wolfe (below, at the piano in her home in a photo by Richard Perry of The New York Times) did a fine interview with the outstanding Deceptive Cadence blog for NPR or National Public Radio.

julia Wolfe with piano CR Richard Perry NYT

Here is a link to that interview:

And here is a link to her own website:

Finally, here is a haunting documentary video with excerpts from “Anthracite Fields” in a YouTube video. A recording of the complete work is scheduled to be released in September.

Classical music: What qualities are needed to be a world-class conductor? New York Times critics weigh in. What do you think?

April 11, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

You may recall that Alan Gilbert (below), the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, surprised the music world when he recently announced he would step down at the end of the 2017 season after only eight seasons on the job.

New York Philharmonic

Speculation about a successor — with Marin Alsop (below top) of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Finnish native Esa-Pekka Salonen (below bottom)  former director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, topping the lists — began immediately.

Right now, The Ear leans toward Marin Alsop. It would be great to see a woman in such a high-profile post. It would also be fitting for a protege of Leonard Bernstein to ascend to the podium where American-born and American-trained conductors first made their name. Buy American!

Marin Alsop big


The sensational Venezuelan-born and Venezuelan-trained superstar Gustavo Dudamel (below) seems to have taken himself out of the competition by agreeing to stay longer in LA. But every performer has his or her price, so his story may not yet be over in terms of going to New York.


But Gilbert’s move also raises the issue: What qualities should one look for in a world-class music director and conductor?

These days, it involves a whole lot more than holding the baton and leading the players.

Anyway recently music critics for The New York Times weighed in with their preferences and points of view.

Here is a link to the story:

Read and see what you agree and disagree with.

And also let us know who you think would be a good choice to be the next music director and conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Famed music critic Andrew Porter has died at 86.

April 10, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Music critic Andrew Porter, best known in this country for his 20-year tenure at The New Yorker magazine, died in London this week at the age of 86. (Below, he is seen working on “The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in a Toronto production in 2005.)

andrew porter magic flute toronto 2005

In his music reviews for The New Yorker magazine, critic Andrew Porter always seemed a cut above most journalistic critics.

His reviews had enough depth and substance beyond the occasion of the specific performance he was reviewing that they were collected and published in several books — unfortunately many are now out of print — that still provide terrific research possibilities and vindicate his earlier judgments.

Here is a link to a page at that lists his essays and libretto translation:

Andrew Porter book

So many of us learned to appreciate classical music in more knowledgeable and sophisticated ways, thanks to Andrew Porter and his wealth of detailed knowledge as well as his superior writing style. (Below, you can see Andrew Porter in the 1970s.)

andrew porter 1970s

But I had no idea of his really erudite sides — including his command of several languages and his extensive involvement in the actual performances of music, especially translating opera librettos — until I read his obituaries.

Here is a sampling of the memorial essays about a critic who will go down as one of the greatest critics ever.

Here is a story from the terrific Deceptive Cadence blog of NPR )National Public Radio:

Here is a story from The New York Times:

And here is a story, with great background and details, from The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom where Porter — seen below in 1992 in a photo by Jane Bown — lived in London since retiring from the New Yorker:

Andrew Porter in 1992.


Classical music: Go inside the Money Opera at the Met with the Pulitzer Prize-winning financial reporter James B. Stewart.

March 30, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

It is no secret that the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City has been having major financial and labor problems during the tenure of its General Director Peter Gelb (below).

Peter Gelb 2.jpg

But it is hard to find a better researched or more detailed account of what is going on than the account that was written by the journalist James B. Stewart and appeared in the March 23 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

A graduate of the Harvard University Law School, Stewart (below), you may recall, is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and currently a columnist for the New York Times. He has also written best-selling books. Such qualifications give him added credibility when reporting on the fiscal state of the arts.

James B. Stewart

Plus, Stewart got access to documents and records as well as to members of the board of directors. His account is filled with specific details about costs and fundraising that are convincing.

The discrepancy, for example, between what the Met said was the official cost of its recent and controversial “Ring” cycle (below) by Robert Lepage of Cirque du Soleil and what others say it cost is both astonishing and appalling.

Lepage Ring set

In an interview with Jim Zirin, Peter Gelb defends himself and his tenure in a YouTube video at the bottom.

To The Ear, the larger question is whether some of the same criticisms apply to other large performing arts groups, opera companies and symphony orchestras in other cities.

But that is another story for another day.

Here is a link to the story about the Met by James B. Stewart:


Classical music: Should superstar tenor Placido Domingo retire?

March 28, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Should Spanish superstar tenor Placido Domingo (below) – who has aged into a baritone as well as a conductor and the artistic director of an opera company – retire?


That is the touchy question that was taken up last week by The New York Times senior music critic Anthony Tommasini in his opening night review of Domingo’s performance in the role of the King of Spain Don Carlo (below, in a photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times) in the opera by Giuseppe VerdiErnani,” which was based on the play “Hernani” by French writer Victor Hugo.

Placido Domingo in Ernani at the Met 2015 Sara Krulwich NYT

The production of “Ernani” is taking place at the Metropolitan Opera – hardly a strange stage to the veteran Domingo, who is now 74. James Levine led the orchestra. And Tommasini offered quite specific criticisms to back up his opinion about Domingo. 

Here is a link to the review:

Read it and weigh in with your own opinion about whether it is time for the great Placido Domingo to retire.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: UW festival will honor American composer George Crumb at 85. It runs from this Friday through Monday and features master classes as well as the acclaimed violinist Miranda Cuckson and the new music groups Nunc and Due East.

March 19, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

The acclaimed prize-winning composer Laura Schwendinger, who teaches composition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, has sent the following announcement to The Ear:

Pulitzer Prize-winner George Crumb (below, b. 1929) is one of America’s foremost composers and one of the most influential and innovative composers of the latter half of the 20th Century.

George Crumb

UW-Madison composer and professor Laura Schwendinger, who is the Artistic Director of the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, designed the 2015 CRUMB FESTIVAL – to take place from this Friday, March 20, through Monday, March 23, at the UW-Madison School of Music — to celebrate his 85th birthday.

“We wish to celebrate this unique and singular voice,” says Schwendinger. She describes Crumb’s influence in this way: “He is one of the most important, and influential composers of our time. He simply makes us listen to sound in a new way, and there are very few composers who can do that.”

The Festival will feature four concerts and nine works by Crumb.

Here is a schedule of events by each day.


On Friday, March 20, at 8 p.m. in Music Hall, “Lakeshore Rush,” which features three all-star UW alumni, will be performing Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale).


On Saturday, March 21, at 7:30 p.m. and also in the Music Hall, the UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (below top) will be presenting a concert featuring the Pro Arte String Quartet’s Parry Karp (below bottom) in Crumb’s Solo Cello Sonata and saxophonist Steve Carmichaelin’s Quest.

UW graduate student, conductor Kyle Knox will be conducting University of Southern California professor Donald Crockett’s “Whistling in the Dark” and Les Thimmig will be leading his saxophone quartet in a work by University of California-Davis professor Laurie San Martin, in her Miniatures for Saxophone quartet; a work by University of California-Berkeley Music Department Chair Cindy Cox will round out the program.

Schwendinger adds “none of these works could have been composed without Crumb’s influence, yet are distinctive examples of their composers’ individual styles.”

Contemporary Chamber Ensemble

Parry Karp


On Sunday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, Nunc (below top, Latin for “now”), a New York-based music ensemble will perform, headed by the star violinist Miranda Cuckson (below middle), called “superb,” “deeply satisfying,” and “prodigiously talented” by the New York Times.

The program includes Eleven Echoes of Autumn, and the Four Nocturnes for violin and piano as well as works by Augusta Read-Thomas, Sebastian Currier, and Laura Schwendinger’s The Violinists in My Life, a work for which the third movement is dedicated to Cuckson. Schwendinger (below bottom) adds that “this work of hers, is much influenced by the drama of the Crumb’s Solo Cello Sonata.”


Miranda Cuckson



Finally, on Monday, March 23, at 8 p.m. in Morphy Hall, Due East (below), the flute and percussion duo of Erin Lesser and Greg Byer, lauded as “superb” (New York Times) and “brilliant” (New York Concert Review), will be joined by NYC-based harpist, Jacqui Kerrod, vocalist Amanda deBoer and bassist Mark Buchner, will be performing George Crumb’s colorful and enticing Madrigals (1-4) in a stunning multi-media presentation, which presents a “triptych video montage” that becomes a “magical and powerful environment,” along with works written for them by the Chicago Composers Consortium and also inspired by the works of Crumb.

The consortium has been a staple of Chicago’s New Music scene for 25 years now and has counted as part of its membership some of Chicago’s best-known composers.

due east

In addition to the four concert offerings, Miranda Cuckson, Blair McMillen, Erin Lesser and Greg Beyer will all be offering master classes, and Nunc will be reading works by student composers as part of a composer workshop.

Schwendinger says “the festival is a fantastic opportunity for the next generation of composers to be exposed to Crumb and learn from the performers who play his music.”

Susan C. Cook (below), music historian and director of the UW-Madison School of Music, is currently teaching a course focusing on George Crumb.  An expert in contemporary and American music of all kinds, Cook singles out Crumb as central to her own desire to study modern music.

“As an undergraduate at Beloit College, I first heard Crumb’s ‘Ancient Voices of Children,’ then less than a decade old, in a music theory course,” Cook says. “It simply grabbed hold of me, and I knew I wanted to understand how it came to be and share it with others.”

Susan C. Cook UW SOM BW CR Michael Forster Rothbart

All events are open to the public.

Nunc and Due East are ticketed events. Visit the Events Calendar at for more information.

Here are some online resources, including YouTube videos:

Crumb Quest:

Crumb: Vox Balanae

Crumb: Eleven Echoes of Autumn

Links to other works on the concerts:

Donald Crockett Whistling in the Dark

“Violinists in My Life” with violinist Eleanor Bartsch and pianist Thomas Kasdorf performing with the UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble in Mills Hall in 2014

Sebastian Currier, Verge:

Featured performers in other works:

Due East

Miranda Cuckson


Classical music: Are big changes ahead for British classical music? Conductor Simon Rattle heads back from Berlin to England to lead the London Symphony Orchestra.

March 7, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The big non-local news item this week was the announcement that the famed conductor Simon Rattle (below) will leave the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic and return to his native England to lead the London Symphony Orchestra starting in 2017.

On weekdays, The Ear generally puts the priority on local events – with previews taking precedence over reviews.

So the weekend provides a chance to catch up.

Simon Rattle close up

The 60-year-old Rattle, whose international career started in Birmingham, England, seems a musician for all seasons. He is known for championing contemporary composers. (You can listen to Simon Rattle talking about his new appointment at the bottom in a new YouTube video.)

But his prolific and eclectic discography also includes CD and DVD recordings of the great standards, the symphonies and concertos and other works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak, Gustav Mahler, Jean Sibelius, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten and John Adams among many others.

And by all accounts, he is a generous mentor and masterful teacher — even though I have never heard anyone name Simon Rattle as their favorite conductor. Among his students are Andrew Sewell (below), the longtime music director and conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. The Ear thinks it would be interesting to know what Sewell has to say about Rattle.

Andrew Sewell BW

Here then, are some links to various aspects of the Simon Rattle story. Read one or a few or all of them. There is a lot to think and speculate about – a new concert hall, more contemporary programming and a higher status or respect for the London Symphony Orchestra are chief among them — as we wait and see what develops:

From the BBC news magazine:

From the website of the famed Gramophone magazine:

berlin philharmonic rattle

From The Guardian newspaper:

From The New York Times, with an analysis:

Here is an opinion piece from The Guardian about how the move could be good for the British music scene:

And could Rattle’s move spark a rejuvenation of British classical music? That is the question in this post:

Simon Rattle conducting

And finally, despite all the hoopla and cheerleading, a note of skepticism has been sounded by The Arts Desk with some specific criticisms:



Classical music: The famed Takacs Quartet performs a MUST-HEAR concert of chamber music by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert this Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

February 24, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, the famed and long-lived Takács Quartet performs a MUST-HEAR concert of music by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert.

Members of the Takács Quartet (below) are Edward Dusinberre, violin; Károly Schrantz, violin; Geraldine Walther, viola; András Fejér, cello.

Takacs Quartet BIG and Square

The program includes the Quartettsatz (Quartet Movement) in C Minor, D. 703, by Franz Schubert (1797-1828); the String Quartet No. 50 in B-flat Major, Op. 64, No. 3 by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809); and the “Razumovsky” String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1 — from his middle period — by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) with its well-known “Russian Theme.” (You can hear the Russian Theme in a performance by the now disbanded Tokyo String Quartet in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tickets are: General Public: $45, 25; Wisconsin Union Members and Non UW-Madison Students: $40; UW-Madison Faculty and Staff: $42; UW-Madison Student (with ID): $10. Prices do not include fees. See more at:

The Takacs Quartet seems to The Ear a perfect choice for the annual Fan Taylor Memorial Concert — an event designed to honor the first and longtime director of the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Shannon Hall UW-Madison

For more about Fan Taylor (below), whose name is also used for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s endowment fund, or to donate to it, visit these links:

Fan Taylor

Here is some publicity material from the Wisconsin Union Theater:

Widely heralded as modern masters of classical music, the Takacs Quartet has delighted audiences in Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, bringing a vivid intensity to the works that built their genre. Known for their “supreme artistry manifest at every level,” (The Guardian) they are the only string quartet ever to be inducted into Gramophone’s Hall of Fame.

Such an honor is hardly unfamiliar to the group, however, having also taken home Disc of the Year and Chamber Award from BBC, as well as a Grammy for their Beethoven collection.

This talented quartet (below, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times) continues to amaze while pushing the boundaries of chamber music.

Takacs Quartet playing Hiroyuki Ito NYT

Please note that there is a WIAA Individual Wrestling Tournament this evening, so allow enough time to find parking.

Because of a conflict at the UW-Madison School of Music, a master class will be held on this FRIDAY from 5 to 7 p.m. in Room 1341 Humanitites Building — NOT as previously stated on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. See more at:

Here is a link to the Wisconsin Union Theater, which also features audiovisual clips and reviews:

For the quartet’s website, go to:

Classical music: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor Marin Alsop lends her late parents’ valuable violin and cello as living memorials to them and as a way to help musicians in her orchestra.

February 21, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Perhaps you have read about the rapidly escalating cost of great musical instruments.

That puts a lot of younger or less well-known, cash-strapped players in a difficult spot.

For quite a while, banks and other financial institutions as well as museums and historical institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution have been putting the investment-quality instruments on loan to younger players whose playing deserves the instrument.

But individuals can do so too.

Take the case of the pioneering conductor Marin Alsop (below), a protégée of Leonard Bernstein who now heads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo State Symphony in Brazil, and who is being mentioned as a prominent candidate to follow Alan Gilbert when he steps downs from the podium of the New York Philharmonic in 2017.

Marin Alsop

When both her parents, who were distinguished professional musicians, died last year, they left behind valuable string instruments — a violin and a cello.


Cello and bow

Alsop didn’t want to sell the instruments.

But she also didn’t want them to lie unused and defeat their original purpose.

So Alsop (below, in a photo by Gabriella Dumczek of The New York Times) decided to turn the violin and cello into living memorials by placing them on loan with players in her Baltimore orchestra -– a move that has benefitted everyone and the instruments as well.

Here is a story from The New York Times:

It gives you ideas about what might be done on the local level, where some very fine instruments – including pianos — could benefit some very young but very fine local players who otherwise couldn’t afford to have them.

Marin Alsop  2015 CR Gabriella Demczuk NYT

Classical music: Pianist Aldo Ciccolini, who popularized the music of Erik Satie, is dead at 89.

February 7, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Did I come to know the pianist Aldo Ciccolini through the music of Erik Satie?

Or did I come to know the music of Erik Satie through the playing of pianist Aldo Ciccolini (below in his later years)?

Aldo Ciccolini old

It says something to me – something very Sixties and very dear – that the two were, and remain, inextricable for me. (Once discovered, the more soulful music of Erik Satie (below) even found its way into popular culture and rock music through groups like ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears.”)

And the public’s taste for Satie continues. Satie, as played by Pascal Roge, was recently featured on the soundtrack to the documentary film “Man on Wire,” about Philippe Petit and his historic tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in New York City.)

Erik Satie

And maybe it was that way for you too.

Last Saturday night, Aldo Ciccolini, a prize-winning concert pianist, a prolific recording artist and a renowned teacher whose students included Jacques-Yves Thibaudet, died in his sleep at the age of 89.

There is not much for The Ear to say except that Ciccolini did for me what the greatest artists do: Use beauty to hijack me from the ordinary world and elevate me in an unforgettable way.

I am pretty sure that I and many others did not know the beautiful, graceful and contemplative “Trois Gymnopedies” until the young and handsome Ciccolini’s perfectly paced recordings of those pieces, and of Satie’s complete works, received worldwide circulation and acclaim.

Perhaps the same goes for the music of Camille Saint-Saens, another of Ciccolini’s specialties.

aldo ciccolini young

Ciccolini was Italian, but he had an uncanny flair for French music, which remains under-appreciated even today — including the music of Francois Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Gabriel Faure — even if the works of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy have fared much better.

I think Ciccolini understood that special French hybrid of clarity and mystery, of rationality and passion, of Descartes and Baudelaire. (You can hear Ciccolini’s incomparable playing of Satie in a popular YouTube video at the bottom which has a lot of reader comments.)

Anyway, here are three obituaries with lots of great background information.

From NPR (National Public Radio):

From The New York Times:

From the BBC:



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