The Well-Tempered Ear

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

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:

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

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:

Classical music: Yannick Nézet-Séguin answers his critics who question why the wait and what is his vision

June 11, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

One week ago, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (below) was named the new music director of the Metropolitan Opera.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin close up

He will start full-time in 2020.

Here is a link to the post with the announcement in Opera News:

But some critics were quick to question the choice and to wonder why he is waiting so long to officially start his new post. (He will also remain as head of the Philadelphia Orchestra until 2026.)

Chief among them were two critics for The New York Times: Zachary Woolfe and Anthony Tommasini.

Here are posts with their opinion pieces, first the one by Woolfe and then the one by Tommasini:

But the young conductor (below in a photo by Getty Images) proved he can ably respond, which he did in an interview with the Deceptive Cadence blog by NPR or National Public Radio.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin CR Getty Images

Here he is, answering his critics and explaining the time lag as well has his plans and his vision of the future at the Met:

The Ear finds him convincing and thinks he wins when it comes to arguing with his critics.

What do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: The Metropolitan Opera names Yannick Nézet-Séguin as its next music director to succeed James Levine.

June 3, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s official.

The relatively young, 41-year-old Montreal native and French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin (below) has been named by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City to be its next music director.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin close up

The appointment comes just weeks after the retirement of the legendary James Levine, who served for 40 years.

Nézet-Séguin is currently the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he will remain until 2026. He officially starts his new post at The Met in the 2020-21 season and will serve as interim music director until then.

Here is the story from Opera News:

And here is a long piece about the conductor that appeared in the New York Times. The Ear linked to it in a previous post:


Classical music: Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer. So here are guides to this summer’s local, national and even international festivals of classical music

May 29, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Get out your datebooks.

Madison now has great classical music year-round, including in the summer, which long ago ceased being an artistic desert.


This summer’s offerings include:

The 25th anniversary season, filled with new music but also tried-and-true treasured masterpieces, of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society that runs June 10-26:

The 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival, which runs from July 10-16 and will focus on William Shakespeare in honor of the 400th anniversary of his death:

The annual Madison Savoyards’ production of Gilbert & Sullivan will stage “The Gondoliers” for six performances July 29-Aug. 7:

The second season of the Willy Street Chamber Players (below):

Willy Street Chamber Players 2016 outdoors

The 27th annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, which runs Aug. 27-Sept 4 and this year features music celebrating water and the natural world. Programs include music by Johann Sebastian Bach,  English Renaissance music of John Dowland, William Byrd and Henry Purcell and a Wisconsin premiere by composer and co-director John Harbison plus Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin” and his equally famous masterpiece, the “Trout” Piano Quintet:

Plus there are a lot of smaller groups including the Madison Summer Choir and the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble, both of which have received critical acclaim. And there is the Green Lake Festival. Some I might also include the six Concerts on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, which this year features a hefty dose of classical fare.


But if you don’t stay around town and hit the road instead, there is a lot that might interest you in the way of summer music festivals around the country. There are festivals of chamber music, orchestral music and opera.

And The Ear has always wanted to attend the Bard Music Festival (below), which emphasizes the cultural context of the music, and the Mostly Mozart Festival. One of these years! (You can hear from co-artistic director and Bard College president Leon Botstein how the unique Bard Music Festival is run in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Bard Music Festival Frank Gehry Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts hall

Here is a roundup by The New York Times, which put all kinds of genres together. Just scroll down until you hit the Classical Festivals section that was compiled and annotated by the Times’ trustworthy critic Vivien Schweitzer:

Here is a fairly comprehensive national guide from Wikipedia:

Here is a guide from two years ago, done by NPR or National Public Radio, that includes the Madison Early Music Festival and divides up the selection by regions of the country:

And for good measure, for those taking international vacations here is a guide to international music festivals:

Happy hunting and choosing. Then happy and safe traveling. And finally Happy Listening.

The Ear hopes you have a classic “classical” summer.

Classical music: Should Yannick Nézet-Séguin be the Metropolitan Opera’s next music director? Here are the pros and cons

May 22, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, the legendary James Levine just retired as the music director of the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

So now the question becomes: Who should succeed Levine?

Several names stand out.

But the smartest money seems to be on the relatively young conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin (below). The French-Canadian and openly gay conductor now leads the Philadelphia Orchestra and is closely attached to the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Netherlands.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin close up

A comprehensive profile of the charismatic and energetic conductor – who is known for his unique, subtle and powerful interpretations – with the pros and cons of an appointment to The Met was recently written by New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin in aciton

Woolfe raves about his conducting but then goes on to raise several important points about the difference between being a conductor and a music director. (You can hear a lot of recorded performances of his conducting on YouTube. At bottom is the beginning of an insightful two-part interview with Nézet-Séguin.)

The Ear found the criticism relevant, if a little lopsided, and was impressed overall with the story.

So read it for yourself and decide:

Then leave word in the COMMENTS section and let The Ear and his readers know whether you think Nézet-Séguin should be the next music director of The Met?

Or would you suggest another name?

Classical music: How can the Metropolitan Opera — and others arts groups — increase attendance? New York Times critics offer suggestions.

May 7, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s no secret that a lot of classical music organizations in the U.S. are looking for new ways to attract bigger audiences and especially younger audiences.

Even some of the world’s most prestigious organizations are feeling the pain and sensing the scare.

Take the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City.

Met from stage over pit

Apparently, attendance at the world-famous opera company is dangerously low, putting the Met in financial and, eventually perhaps, artistic trouble.

So this past week, several of the music critics for The New York Times offered their suggestions about how to improve attendance at the Met. The suggestions include cheaper tickets, different repertoire and special events.

The story has relevance to the Madison scene, especially as many arts groups face similar challenges even at they are announcing their new seasons and seeking new subscribers.

It is also relevant to Madison both because of what yet remains to be done but also because of some of the things—like Sunday afternoon performances – that are already being done.

The Ear found it a good read, loaded with food for thought. (Below is an illustration by Peter and Maria Hoey). He hopes you agree. Here it a link:

Metropolitan Opera attendance drawing Peter and Maria Hoey

The Ear also thinks for some groups that shorter concerts, more informal concerts and lower prices would be helpful.

Do you have ideas you care to share?

Just put them in the COMMENTS section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Read about American composer Steven Stucky, who recently died. The Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform his Symphony No. 1 this weekend.

April 1, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

A musician in the Madison Symphony Orchestra, whom The Ear holds in very high regard, says that the four-section, continuous movement Symphony No. 1 by contemporary American composer Steven Stuckey (below) is “beautiful.”

This is a discerning man and musician, and The Ear – who has never heard works by Stucky — trusts his judgment.

Steve Stucky

Even so, the work will be The Big Unknown on the MSO program this weekend. It also features pianist Garrick Ohlsson in the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Johannes Brahms and the tone poem “Don Juan” by Richard Strauss. Both works are major standards of the Romantic and Late Romantic repertoire.

Here is a link with more information about the performances, which will be held tonight, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

John DeMain, the longtime music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, recently told The Ear about how he had wanted to program a work by a living composer. After all, DeMain has championed other new music, including the world premiere of John Adams’ famous opera “Nixon in China.”

But a very aggressive form of brain cancer took away that chance when Stucky, who composed chamber music and choral music as well as symphonic music, taught at Cornell University and the Juilliard School, died just two months ago at 66.

Steven Stucky

So The Ear thought that it might be good to have more background about Stucky.

Here is Stucky himself talking about his 2012 Symphony that will be performed by the MSO and its emotional journey. It includes a performance by superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which commissioned the work:

Here is a terrific background piece on Stucky that appeared on the Deceptive Cadence blog hosted by NPR or National Public Radio:

And here is a lengthy and detailed obituary about Stucky that appeared in The New York Times. It also includes excerpts of reviews of his works and gives readers a context by which to judge Stucky’s achievement.

The Ear is looking forward to hearing the work. (Another sample, in a YouTube video at the bottom, is his 2011 work “Silent Spring,” composed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book about DDT and pollution in the environment and nature.

He is also looking forward to hearing from others about the work.

So if you go to the MSO concert and hear Steven Stucky’s Symphony No. 1, why not leave your opinion or assessment in the COMMENTS section?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: What is your favorite piece of music to greet Spring with? Plus, British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has died at 81

March 20, 2016

SURVEY: This is the first day of Spring. The vernal equinox  just arrived here in Madison, Wisconsin and the Midwest about a half-hour ago, on Saturday, March 19, at 11:30 p.m. CDT.

What is your favorite piece of music to greet the season with? Antonio Vivaldi‘s “Four Seasons”? Robert Schumann‘s Symphony No. 1 “Spring”? A miniature piano piece by Felix Mendelssohn or Edvard Grieg? A song by Franz Schubert? Leave word in the COMMENT section, with a link to a YouTube performance if that is possible.

Here is a link to a similar post from 2011:

The Ear especially loves the “Spring” Sonata for Violin and Piano by Ludwig van Beethoven. Here is a link to a YouTube video with the first movement played by pianist Arthur Rubinstein and violinist Henryk Szeryng.

By Jacob Stockinger

He was a contrarian who was widely accepted and valued.

He was an iconoclast who achieved the height of respectability when Queen Elizabeth II of England named him to an honorary knighthood.

And he was an eclectic composer, whose style could be charmingly simple, melodic and tonal, or knottily atonal, difficult and complex.

The British composer and conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (pronounced Davis, below) died this past week at his island home off the coast of Scotland. He was 81 and had been ill with leukemia. (You can hear his “An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise” in a YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Peter Maxwell Davies full face

The year is early yet, but it has not been a kind one to classical music. We have already lost the avant-garde French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, the German-Austrian conductor and early music pioneer Nikolaus Harnoncourt and now Davies.

Here are obituaries about Sir Peter Maxwell Davies with video and audio clips:

From BBC:

From the Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio):

Peter Maxwell Davies at rehearsal

From the New York Times:

Peter Maxwell Davies up close

From The Guardian:

Peter Maxwell Davies mid-rage

And from

Classical music: This is your brain on music! New scientific research shows that the human brain evolved special channels for hearing music. Read all about it!

February 13, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

What is your brain like on music? (The illustration below is by Marcos Chin.)

music and brain CR Marcos Chin

One of the most fascinating stories The Ear has ever read about music and science came last Tuesday in this week’s Science Times section of The New York Times.

The “Music Channel” story was reported by the acclaimed science writer  and journalist Natalie Angier (below), who won a Pulitzer Prize and has been nominated for a National Book Award She also included a sidebar story about her own experience undergoing the kind of MRI scan that helped researchers.

natalie angier

The upshot is this: No matter what kind of music you like – classical, jazz, folk, country, rock, pop – the human brain has developed special neural pathways to perceive the music.

In short, the human brain seems to have its own music room.

The story says this may help to explain why music seems a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon and why the first music instruments, such as the vulture bone flute found in Germany (below, in a photo by Jensen of the University of Tubingen) date back 42,000 years — some 24,000 years before the first cave painting appear in Lascaux, France.

Vulture bone flute CR Jensen:University of Tubingen

Plus, the story points out that the scientists and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) do not get the same result with non-musical noises. The special nerve pathways or circuits seem to have evolved specifically to receive musical information.

There is a lot more fascinating information in the story.

For The Ear, the bottom line is that we are closer to knowing why music has such deep appeal in so many different ways. And the researchers say that this study is just the beginning. (You can hear more about the effects of music on the human brain and body in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear looks forward to seeing more research about why music is special to the human brain: Is it the structure of music? The logic and intellectual content? Primarily the melody or harmony or rhythm? The emotional content?

Here is a link to the must-read story:

And here is the sidebar story, “Lending Her Ears to MIT Experiment,” about Natalie Angier’s own experience with the MIT research study about music and the human brain. It explains the research methods in details from a subjective point of view:

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