The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This 90-year-old Belgian classical pianist learned how to play slow movements by Mozart and Beethoven by hearing Ray Charles – and shows why The Ear likes the arts reporting on PBS and NPR

January 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, I posted a disconcerting story from the Columbia Journalism Review about how most mainstream newspapers and traditional media are cutting way back on art coverage.

After all, runs the conventional wisdom, how can the arts compete with sports, politics and crime for attracting readers?

Here is a link to that post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/14/classical-music-newspapers-and-media-continue-to-cutback-on-arts-writers-and-arts-critics-what-is-the-effect-on-the-arts/

Well, that kind of mistaken thinking is one reason why The Ear likes to watch PBS and national Public Radio or NPR. Especially on the PBS NewsHour, you find terrific stories about and interviews with major figures in the fine arts and the performing arts.

PBS treats the arts as vital and essential, not ornamental or secondary.

A wonderful example happened this week on the segment called “Brief But Spectacular” in which people offer their thoughts about their own lives and careers.

In this case, it was Jean Stark — a 90-year-old Belgian-born woman who was an accomplished concertizing classical pianist. She performed in Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in New York City, and in halls around the world, and who talks about her life and career for PBS.

jean-stark

In the four-minute interview, she laments how classical music isn’t promoted these days and emphasizes how wonderful it was to be alive during the golden years of classical music with such great figures as composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev.

But, she confesses, for all her accomplishments she was unsatisfied with how she played slow movements of sonatas by Classical-era masters Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

stark1-320x196

Until she came to the U.S. and went with a friend to a concert by Ray Charles.

Charles, she says, taught how to play slowly.

The Ear only wishes she had been more specific about the lessons she learned. Was it phrasing? Tempo? Accents? “Rubato,” or flexible timing?

It is a great, heart-warming story and typical of the kind of human interest arts coverage that you generally do not find on other television news channels, whether traditional networks like CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX or cable TV channels such as CNN and MSNBC.

So The Ear offers it as both an enjoyable and informative arts story, and as an endorsement of the PBS NewsHour and especially reporter Jeffrey Brown, who does such a terrific job of reporting on the arts.

Here is the segment, which you can find on YouTube, along with other recordings by Stark:

An after-thought: To the best of his knowledge, The Ear thinks that the music you hear her playing is the “Aeolian Harp” Etude in A-Flat Major, Op. 25, No. 1, by Frederic Chopin and part of the suite “Pour le piano” (For the Piano) by Claude Debussy.

What do you think of arts coverage on the mainstream media and on PBS?

What do you think Jean Stark learned from Ray Charles?

If you saw this story, how did it affect you?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Meet J’Nai Bridges who went from the dream of playing professional basketball to the reality of singing professional opera

January 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Baseball season is done.

Football season is almost over.

Basketball season is here.

So it seems an appropriate time for The Ear to share a great story about sports and classical music that he recently saw on the PBS NewsHour.

It is also a good story about good luck to run today, on Friday the 13th, a date that is traditionally synonymous with bad luck.

The story concerns J’Nai Bridges (below) who started out wanting to be a professional basketball player.

jnai-bridges

That dream fell apart dramatically and suddenly — though she doesn’t reveal if it was an injury or some other cause.

But then good luck unexpectedly stepped in.

During her senior year in high school, she signed up for choir as an elective and her teacher immediately recognized her gift.

She started late, but she had the right attitude to stay open to new discoveries and new possibilities.

Turns out she possesses a world-class mezzo-soprano voice. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Bridges singing an aria from “Carmen” by Georges Bizet .)

And now she has gone on to a career in opera and is a rising star singing major roles in major opera houses around the world.

The Ear thinks that Bridges’ words reflect wisdom that others should share in.

For one, her moving story also highlights the importance of a liberal arts education, where you can try out many different subjects you have no idea about and see what you like and how you do. That gives students a chance to explore their untapped interests and potential.

It also runs contrary to some of the current politicians who want to reform secondary and higher education into a kind of trade school or vocational training ground for work and careers.

It also is a fine summary of the role that music plays both for the performer and for the audience.

Here is a link to the moving and informative story:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/sports-gave-way-singing-rising-star/


Classical music: Madison’s maestro John DeMain and others preview and review the world premiere by the Santa Fe Opera’s production of Jennifer Higdon’s opera “Cold Mountain.”

August 10, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

First it was a best-selling and prize-winning novel.

Then it became a popular Oscar-winning Hollywood movie.

Now it is an opera that received its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera this past week and is proving so popular with audiences that an extra performance has been added and regional premieres are already booked around the country. (The Minnesota Opera will give the Midwest premiere.)

It is “Cold Mountain,” a Civil War story about a Confederate soldier’s return home that is loosely based on Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.”

cold mountain cast and set

Here is a review, posted on Facebook, by our own John DeMain, the music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera, who attended the world premiere performance. DeMain came to Madison, by the way, from his post as director of the Houston Grand Opera, where he gave the world premiere of John Adams’ “Nixon in China.” So he is a fan of new operas.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) writes:

“How wonderful “Cold Mountain” was last night at its world premiere in Santa Fe. Jennifer Higdon is simply a wonderful composer and her piece with Gene Scheer‘s compelling libretto, soared to great heights. Great directing from Leonard Foglia, with a brilliant design concept, and a great cast. Emily Fons was magnificent as Ruby. Fabulous orchestral writing, beautiful choral work, and compelling duets and ensembles. A very sad, grim piece given a dynamic treatment by all involved.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Such discerning enthusiasm makes you wonder if DeMain and the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith might not be looking to bring “Cold Mountain” to Madison in a couple of seasons. (The male lead Nathan Gunn has already sung in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater and  with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, by the way.) One can hope! (Below are the leads mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as Ada and baritone Nathan Gunn as Inman in a photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.)

Cold Mountain Nathan Gunn as Inman and Isabel Leonard as Ada CR Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

You can hear the creators of the opera discuss it in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Here are some other sources for previews and reviews:

Here is a story from NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/08/05/429370329/cold-mountain-takes-civil-war-odyssey-to-the-opera-stage

cold mountain by ken howard

The PBS NewsHour aired a lengthy feature by Jeffrey Brown that includes lots of video and interviews with the cast; with Charles Frazier (below right), who wrote the best-selling novel; and with Jennifer Higdon (below left), the composer of the opera who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/civil-war-tragedy-cold-mountain-inspires-opera/

Jennifer Higdon and Charles Frazier

And here is a short news story and a longer, more negative or critical review from Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times:

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/16/santa-fe-opera-adds-performance-of-cold-mountain/?_r=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/07/arts/music/review-cold-mountain-at-santa-fe-opera-recounts-a-separated-lovers-arduous-journey-only-one-half-makes-the-journey.html


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