The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A FREE recital by the Del Sol string quartet on Monday night honors pioneering composer Ben Johnston

May 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has been asked to post the following announcement:

The San Francisco-based ensemble the Del Sol Quartet will give a FREE public recital on Monday night, May 21, in Madison in honor of pioneer composer, teacher and mentor Ben Johnston (below).

For more information about the composer, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Johnston_(composer)

The recital is on the occasion of Johnston’s upcoming induction into the American Academy of Arts and Lettershttps://artsandletters.org/pressrelease/2018-newly-elected-members/

This FREE performance will be held in the new Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, on Monday night at 7 p.m.

The program will feature Johnston’s two most popular string quartets: the Fourth Quartet (based on the beloved theme “Amazing Grace”); and the Tenth Quartet (also based on a popular folk melody). In addition there will be works by some of Johnston’s contemporaries. (You can hear the Fourth Quartet of Ben Johnston in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Johnston, 92, has made his home in the Madison area for the past 11 years, where he continues to advance the field of microtonal music composition and performance, most notably initiated in the U.S. by music legend Harry Partch, with whom Johnston studied for several years. Partch’s seminal work, “Genesis of Music,” was first published in Madison by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1949.

Winner of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, Johnston spent most of his career at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He had a significant role in some of the Contemporary Arts Festivals, which were annual events in the 1960s. His service, as composition teacher and mentor there, led to an honorary doctorate from that institution. He is also the author of “Maximum Clarity,” published by the University of Illinois Press.

Hailed by New York Times critic Mark Swed as “probably [America‘s] most subversive composer …able to make both radical thinking and avant-garde techniques sound invariably gracious,”Johnston’s diligent dedication recently resulted in the release of the third CD by the Milwaukee-based Kepler Quartet https://www.keplerquartet.com/ on the New World Music label https://www.newworldmusic.com/

The three CD series encompasses all of Johnston’s string quartets and took 14 years of painstaking collaboration to bring to fruition, receiving high acclaim internationally. Johnston has been well-known in experimental music circles since his second quartet came out on Nonesuch Records in 1969.

Hailed by Gramophone as “masters of all musical things they survey” and two-time winner of the top Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, the Del Sol String Quartet shares living music with an ever-growing community of adventurous listeners.

Del Sol (below) was founded in 1992 at Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada and is recognized as a “vigorous champion of living composers,” focusing on music that reflects the cultural diversity of the community, advocating works by both world-renowned and emerging composers, and collaborating across disciplines. Del Sol has commissioned and premiered over 100 works by a diverse range of composers.

The Quartet has performed on prominent concert series nationwide, including the Kennedy Center, Library of Congress, National Gallery of Art, Symphony Space, Cabrillo Festival, Other Minds Festival, and Santa Fe Opera.

The quartet conducts an active educational program in the San Francisco Bay Area, in addition to regular residencies at universities and music schools across the country.”

For more information, go to: http://delsolquartet.com/


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Classical music: Which contemporary composer is Bach and which one is Handel? And is it peace or a truce? Philip Glass and Steve Reich appear together at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Which one do you prefer?

September 20, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The New York Times referred to them as Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Frideric Handel getting back together as contemporaries.

The Ear likes that comparison, although the older Baroque composers will doubtlessly remain a lot more influential than either of the newer contemporary ones.

The two “new guys” are the celebrated living American composers Steve Reich (below top) and Philip Glass (below bottom), both of them now 77 years old and considered pioneers of New Music and Minimalism.

Steve Reich

Philip Glass

The have apparently been estranged for quite a few years. But then they appeared last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to help mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of Nonesuch Records, a pioneering label that has been home to both of them. (Below is a photo of Philip Glass, left) and Steve Reich, by Betana Sikoria for The New York Times.)

Phlip Glass and Steve Reich CR Betana Sikoria NYT

By all accounts it was a momentous event, with sold-out houses, that stirred audiences to loud cheers when they played, including Steve Reich’s “Four Organs,” which is featured at the bottom in a YouTube video of the original 1970 recording that also featured Philip Glass. (Below, the two are performing the same work in a photo at BAM by Chad Batka for The New York Times.)

Steve Reich (left) and Philip Glass at BAM 2014 CR Chad Batka for NYT

Here is a story from the Deceptive Cadence blog by National Public Radio (NPR):

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/09/10/347392860/philip-glass-and-steve-reich-at-bam-together-again-yet-still-apart

And here are two stories — one is a preview for background and the other is a review — that compared their friendship to a piece of music by Reich -– from The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/arts/music/philip-glass-and-steve-reich-reunite-at-bam.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/15/arts/music/after-decades-steve-reich-and-philip-glass-reunite-at-bam.html

The Ear tends to like the music of Philip Glass more than Steve Reich, but not always.

Still, there is no getting round the influence of both men.

Which composer do you generally prefer and why?

And what is your favorite piece by each?

The Ear wants to hear.

 

 

 


Classical music: The well-named Nonesuch Records turns 50 –– and keeps being a pioneer in music from budget baroque, electronic music and contemporary classical music to folk, ragtime, rock and world music.

September 14, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

If you judge solely by the size of an operating budget and the number of albums released in a year, Nonesuch Records surely does not rank among the industry titans like Deutsche Grammophon, Decca or Sony Classical.

But what the label does, it does exceptionally well.

Of late, I am especially taken with Nonesuch because they feature two of my favorite pianists -– Richard Goode and Jeremy Denk (below) –- and of one my all-time favorite singers, soprano Dawn Upshaw, as well as the great Kronos Quartet.

Jeremy Denk, 2013 MacArthur Fellow

Here is a link to the label’s website with forthcoming releases and a list of recording artists:

http://www.nonesuch.com

In addition, I find the sonic engineering Nonesuch provides is also top-notch. Much as I loved the old Emerson Quartet, when it moved from DG to Sony, it received inferior sonic engineering that favored an echoing or overly resonant ambient sound. Myself, I prefer a clean and close-up microphone that lets my own living room provide the performance space acoustics.

Anyway, I was listening to National Public Radio Wednesday afternoon last week and heard this terrifically informative report on the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch, which is based in New York City and the anniversary of which is being celebrated with special concerts and special releases.

The story particularly emphasized the foresight of the label’s longtime top boss Robert Hurwitz (below, on the left next to Kronos violist Hank Dett and producer Judith Sherman, who also recorded the world premiere commission of the Pro Arte Quartet centennial at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.)

Using his own taste and instinct, Hurwitz anticipated the best-selling popularity of electronic music, Cuban music, ragtime music and many other genres. (Below in an interview he did at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that can be found on YouTube.) One person, it seems, can make a huge difference.

211033-D162

I do wish Hurwitz had offered a fuller explanation of why the wonderful and cheap budget recordings of Baroque music and early music that Nonesuch issued in the 1960s and 1970s -– the ones with the great art on the covers and the ones that hooked so many of us on relatively littkle-known works as well as masterpieces –- have not been remastered and reissued on CD.

Old Nonesuch cover

But in any case, the NPR story provided a fascinating look at how a record company continued to expand and branch out – not by following listeners’ tastes and desires, but by ANTICIPATING them. It is kind of like what happened with Sony and the success of the Walkman.

Some things you just cannot judge by polls and surveys, no matter what the branding and PR experts say. They take personal vision and leadership and risk-taking. That is what the Nonesuch way.

Anyway, here is the link to the NPR story. I hope you find it compelling as The Ear did.

http://www.npr.org/2014/09/10/347155810/nonesuch-at-50-a-record-label-without-borders

 

 


Classical music: Bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile plays J.S. Bach – and earns raves.

October 27, 2013
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The brilliantly eclectic mandolin player Chris Thile (below, in a photo by Branley Gutierrez) ) is hot these days.

I recently heard Thile – who has been a member of the bluegrass bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers — live on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and also saw that Wisconsin Public Radio was offering his new recording as a gift during its recently completed — and successfully completed — fall pledge drive.

Chris Thile CR Branley Gutierrez

Thile’s new album for Nonesuch Records features his playing of solo violin sonatas and partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Thile says he was inspired directly by the recording that Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux did of the solo violin sonatas and partitas decades ago for Philips. It is performance that The Ear, along with so many other critics, put right on the top of the list.

Arthur Grumiaux

But Thile also says he was heavily influenced by Canadian pianist and legend Glenn Gould – well, which Bach player wasn’t, one way or the other? Thile especially names Gould’s second version of the famous “Goldberg” Variations as a milestone in his life and career.

Glenn Gould old

To be fair, I still prefer the original violin version to the mandolin version.

But I have to admit that Thile’s playing and interpretations of Bach’s difficult music are miracles unto themselves. And unusual transcriptions are perfectly in keeping with the aesthetic and practice of Baroque era composers as well as Romantics like Franz Liszt and Ferrucio Busoni. Just listen to the YouTube video at the bottom of Chris Thile playing Bach’s complete Sonata No. 1 in G minor on the mandolin.

Here is a wonderful comprehensive and personal profile and background story to Chris Thile’s concert in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, written by Steve Smith, that appeared in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/22/arts/music/chris-thile-will-play-sonatas-and-partitas-at-zankel-hall.html?_r=0

Here is an illuminating link to a conversation that Thile had on NPR with host Rachel Martin:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/08/14/210524386/chris-thile-looks-back-to-bach

And here is a link to the New York Times’ review of that concert (below, in a photo by Tina Fineberg) by critic Vivien Schweitzer:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/24/arts/music/chris-thile-on-mandolin-at-zankel-hall.html

Chris Thile at Zankel Hall CR Tina Fineberg for NYT

What do you think of Chris Thile and his mandolin Bach?

Do you have a favorite solo violin partita or sonata by J.S. Bach?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Pianist Jeremy Denk is named a MacArthur “genius.” Here is a sampler of his immense talent as displayed in concerts at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at NPR, in his blog “Think Denk” and on his latest Nonesuch recordings of Bach, Beethoven and Ligeti.

September 28, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, classical pianist Jeremy Denk (below) received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” this week. The stipend is $625,000 to be paid over five years and to be used for whatever the recipient wants, no string attached.

Here is a link to the MacArthur Foundation announcement (curiously, yet another year has gone by without any recipients from the UW-Madison):

http://www.macfound.org

Jeremy Denk 1

Several observations and interpretations come to mind.

One is that Jeremy Denk, a trained chemist as well as pianist, has already performed in Madison – TWICE – at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Both programs were mammoth undertakings. I met and worked with Denk both times, especially the first, and he is a remarkably deserving artist who is honest, droll, articulate and original. I also very much like his philosophy that radical music should stay sounding radical, no matter how many years later.

The first recital featured J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations on the first half with Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 1 on the second half. Whew!

While here for that concert, Denk, a master blogger as you can find in “Think Denk,” he gave a public master class for young pianists (below), a fascinating talk on pedaling in Chopin at the UW School of Music, and a panel on blogging. As you can tell, Denk is a terrifically gifted musician with many different achievements to his credit.

Jeremy Denk teaching 1

Then last season, Denk appeared again in recital, in Mills Hall, to a regrettably small audience, and he played Franz  Liszt and Bela Bartok, followed by J.S. Bach and Beethoven. It was nothing short of phenomenal and utterly convincing.

Both concerts were outstanding events.

And both events point to the wisdom of the Wisconsin Union Theater in finding and booking up-and-coming talent.

Not that Jeremy Denk is young.

At 43, Denk is a seasoned concert veteran and he has taken the time to make the music he plays his own. He is not fresh out of some competition win at 23 or 24, and still stretching to find his maturity and a personal point of view. He is writing a book for Alfred A. Knopf based, to be published this year, based on some articles (on making his first recording and on being a piano student under various teachers) that he wrote for The New Yorker magazine and on his blog “Think Denk.”

Denk is also a devout Francophile who loves Proust and Balzac as well as great food and drink. The Ear thinks that helps to explain the sheer beauty and sensuality as well as logic of his playing.

Jeremy Denk street 1 

If you have any qualms about the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series this year –which features violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below top) with the UW Symphony Orchestra under UW alumnus conductor Kenneth Woods on Saturday, Nov. 2, the Miro String Quartet (below middle, in a photo by Jim Leisy) on Friday, Feb. 21; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal tuba player Gene Pokorny with the UW Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, March 8; and pianist Inon Barnatan (below bottom) on Friday, April 18. The MacArthur’s high-profile recognition of Jeremy Denk is a good reminder to trust the WUD series, however unexpected its choices may seem.

Here is a link to the Wisconsin Union Theater series:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/season2013-14.html

Rachel Barton Pine

Miro Quartet Jim Leisy

Inon Barnatan

Here is a link to Jeremy Denk’s blog:

http://jeremydenk.net/blog/

And here are links to NPR, where Denk was an artist-in-residence  for a week and where you can hear both interviews and excerpts from his first Nonesuch recording of etudes by Gyorgy Ligeti and Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111; and excerpts from his CD and DVD of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (the famous opening Aria is at the bottom in a YouTube video) that will be released this coming week. (He also recorded a fabulous album of Turn-of-the-20th-Century French violin sonatas with Joshua Bell for Sony Classical.)

http://www.npr.org/event/music/155236091/in-practice-jeremy-denk

jeremy denk ligeti-beethoven CD

http://www.npr.org/2013/09/21/224429650/first-listen-jeremy-denk-j-s-bach-goldberg-variations

jeremy denk bach golbergs cd

Personally, The Ear hopes Jeremy Denk records a lot more repertoire, and soon, especially now that he is a house artist of the prestigious Nonesuch Records label, which gives the notoriously difficult-to-record piano  outstanding sonic engineering. Several requests come to mind: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, for which he is well-known; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, which he is touring with right now; the six Piano Pieces, Op. 118, by Johannes Brahms; some shorter J.S. Bach preludes and fugues as well as various suites; some sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti; and some works by Frederic Chopin, preferably the thorny and often underplayed mazurkas and the ballades that are so rich for fresh interpretation.

Did you hear Jeremy Denk perform in Madison?

Have you listened to his recordings?

What do you think of Denk’s playing and writings?

The Ear wants to hear.


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