The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why are most artist bios and program notes such snoozers?

September 26, 2015

ALERT: Trevor Stephenson, the founder and artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, writes:

Dear Friends: The Madison Bach Musicians begins its 12th season next weekend on Saturday night (8 p.m. at Immanuel Lutheran Church on the near east side) and Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m., at Holy Wisdom Monastery on the far west side on County M) with a marvelous program of four Baroque concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, Heinrich Biber, Leonardo Leo and Antonio Vivaldi! Soloists will be MBM concertmaster violinist Kangwon Kim, and guest artist Steuart Pincombe baroque cellist. I’ll give pre-concert lectures at both events (at 7:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., respectively).

I’ll be discussing these upcoming concerts on two radio programs here in the next couple of days. This Sunday morning, Sept. 27, from 10:30 to 11 a.m. on WORT FM radio (89.9), I’ll be Alan Muirhead’s guest on the Musica Antiqua program. On Wednesday, Sept. 30, Kangwon Kim, Steuart Pincombe and I will all be Norman Gilliland’s guests on the Midday program noon-12:30 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio (88.7 FM). I hope you can tune in. Tickets are available online at (, at our ticket outlets, and at the door. I look forward to seeing you at the concerts!!

By Jacob Stockinger

The new concert season is here.

That means many of us will spend too many minutes reading second-rate program notes and inferior artist biographies as we wait for a concert to take place — even though I think many local groups and local program note writers do quite well.

But why do so many of those predictable and formulaic artist bios seem such surefire ways to bore an audience or put it to sleep? (Below is a photo from istock.)

sleeping audience istock

That is the question raised by reporter and critic Anastasia Tsioulcas (below) for the Deceptive Cadence blog on National Public Radio or NPR.

anastasia tsioulcas

It’s a good piece and raises a lot of questions as well as provides some suggestions. It has been long overdue.

Here is a link:

Leave your own reactions, criticism and suggestions about program notes and artist bios in the COMMENTS area.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Meet Marin Alsop, the pioneering American maestra who will conduct the closing concert of the BBC British Proms concerts this Saturday night.

September 11, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you listen regularly to NPR, or National Public Radio, you will often hear stories featuring the American conductor Marin Alsop (below) and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra she leads on Saturday mornings. That is when Scott Simon interviews her about her latest projects for Weekend Edition.

Marin Alsop big

And you may know Alsop’s name as a student and protégée of the legendary Leonard Bernstein and as the music director and conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil.

Marin Alsop marching

You might also know that Alsop thinks classical music has become elitist and so she works hard for educational programs and community outreach.

But you may not know that in 2013 Alsop was the first woman chosen to conduct the mammoth closing night of the popular Proms concerts (below) in London’s Royal Albert Hall for the BBC in England. (You can hear the rousing and popular speech she gave then in a YouTube video at the bottom. And be sure to read some of the sexist and homophobic reader comments.)

BBC Proms

This Saturday night she returns to the United Kingdom to conduct the closing concert of this summer’s Proms, which will have a huge audience of over 40 million listeners worldwide via TV, radio and the Internet.

Here is a link to the portal for listening to the concert:

Thanks to a story and a Q&A interview in The Economist, here is a chance to meet Marin Alsop and learn more about this impressive musician:



Classical music: Here is an entertaining story about the American GI rifleman who fiddled for Josef Stalin, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill at Potsdam.

September 6, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Nothing big today.

Or important.

Just a good old entertaining story about Stuart Canin (below), the American GI rifleman who suddenly got called on to play his violin for Josef Stalin, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill (below bottom) at the Potsdam conference right after the Allies’ defeat of Hitler‘s Nazi Germany during World War II.

stuart canin violin

More proof that you just never know when playing an instrument — or singing, for that matter — will come in handy.

Potsdam L to R British Prime Minister Winston Churchill President Harry S. Truman and Soviet leader Josef Stalin

This is the story as it was reported on NPR or National Public Radio:


Classical music: You can hear Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on 5,000 kazoos at this year’s Burning Man Festival.

August 31, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Talk about counter-cultural!

This year’s famed Burning Man festival started yesterday and runs through Sept. 7.

The unusual event, held in the north Nevada desert, features many noteworthy things including nudity, drugs and lot of talk about peace and love — kind of like an updated Woodstock festival but on a much grander and more ambitious scale. (See the YouTube video at the bottom.)

One remarkable thing is the sheer size of the event (below, in an aerial photo by Kenny Reff), a temporary city estimated to be more than 60,000 strong this year:

Burning Man aerial CR Kenny Reff

Another is the impressive and dramatic sculpture that is set aflame (below is last year’s) at the festival’s end:

Burning Man 2014

But there is also classical music included at the iconic pop event.

In fact this year, the “Ode to Joy,” from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, will be played 5,000 kazoos.

In addition, there will be strings (below top in a photo by Jaki Levy) and a certain conductor named Dr. FireTuba (below bottom in a photo of Eric Yttri by Jaki Levy) as part of the 63-piece pickup symphony orchestra that also includes winds such as flute and clarinets. The group will perform music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and Edvard Grieg and other composers on the playlist.

Burning Man music cellist 2014 Jaki Levy

Burning Man Dr FireTuba (Erio Ittry) CR Jaki Levy

Here is an illuminating and entertaining story about classical music at Burning Man that was reported in NPR or National Public Radio:


Classical music: Meet Dame Ethel Smyth –- a Victorian feminist and forceful composer as well as an advocate of women’s rights and same-sex relations.

August 12, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

You probably don’t know the name Ethel Smyth (pronounced smaith, below).

The Ear certainly didn’t.

ethel smyth

But then he came across this fascinating account of her life and work.

Smythe was friends with Peter Tchaikovsky and Johannes Brahms.

An early feminist leader for same-sex equality, she fell in love with the much younger writer Virginia Woolf.

And her muscular music and politically charged operas reminded people of Richard Wagner.

Now she has been resurrected thanks to Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College who also directs the American Symphony Orchestra and the Bard Music Festival. He staged her 1904 opera “The Wreckers.” (At bottom, you can hear a YouTube performance of the Overture to “The Wreckers.”)

Leon Botstein conducting USE

Tom Huizenga, of the outstanding Deceptive Cadence blog, wrote this profile and appreciation for NPR, or National Public radio:

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:

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:

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:

Classical music: Another Stradivarius violin is rescued – and teaches us a valuable lesson about loss and perspective.

August 9, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Stradivarius violins may be rare, but they have sure come in for their share of adventure in the past year and a half.

First, there was the theft of the “Lipinski” violin owned and played by Frank Almond, the Paganini Competition-winning concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

That story made national headlines.

Now comes word of a second Strad (below) that has been rescued 35 years after it was stolen.

Ames Totenberg Stradivarius

This violin belonged to Roman Totenberg. He was the concertizing violinist and violin teacher at Boston University who was the father of the well-known and prize-winning legal affairs reporter for NPR, or National Public Radio, Nina Totenberg (below center with her two sisters). She is probably best known for her stories on the U.S. Supreme Court. When her father died in 2012 at 101, she also did a memorable obituary.

(At the bottom in a YouTube video, you can hear Roman Totenberg playing the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of his 90th birthday.)

Stradivarius Totenberg sisters

Roman Totenberg bought the so-called Ames Stradivarius for $15,000 in 1943. It is now said to be worth tens of millions of dollars after restoration. But his daughters promise it will be sold to a great violinist who will play it and perform with it as their father did — and not go into some museum or investment collection.

The story was all over the media -– maybe because it was good news amid so much bad news, a happy ending amid so many unhappy endings.

And what do you say when Nina Totenberg explains that her heart-broken father, who suspected who the thief was, moved on after the theft and bought another violin – a Guarneri del Jesu -– because he had personally suffered much bigger losses such as the deaths of his family in Nazi death camps during World War II.

That is perspective at a time when we sorely need perspective, especially about the worth of material objects versus humanist values.

Here is a story from NPR in which Nina Totenberg takes part and in which you can hear excerpts of her father playing a violin and piano sonata by Johannes Brahms and solo violin music by Johann Sebastian Bach:

And here is the big story it got in the New York Times:

Classical music: Who has stage fright and why? And how can you overcome stage fright?

August 5, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s surpising how many acclaimed professional performers -– like dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, pop singers Adele and Carly Simon, actors Laurence Olivier and Daniel Day-Lewis, and pianists Charles Rosen, Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz  and Emanuel Ax — have suffered from the same ailment that afflicts countless students and amateurs, including The Ear.

We are talking about stage fright, which ranges from mild to debilitating in its severity. (Below is an illustration by Nishant Choksi.) It can literally rob people of careers in the performing arts.

Stage fright Cr Nishant Choksi

Periodically, stories about stage fright and how to deal with it or perhaps even lessen it come to the public’s attention. (See the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The latest is a book by gifted amateur pianist Sara Solovitch (below top, in a photo by Christine Z. Mason). Her book, “Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright” (below bottom) has just been published by Bloomsbury.

Playing Scared is journalist Sara Solovitch's first book. Her work has appeared in Politico, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Wired. She lives in Santa Cruz, Calif

Playing Scared is journalist Sara Solovitch’s first book. Her work has appeared in Politico, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Wired.¬†She lives in Santa Cruz, Calif

Sara Solovich Playing Scared cover

And here is Sara Solovitch playing a work by Claude Debussy:

Several essays and interviews give a terrific overview of the book and its contents.

Probably the best is in the Aug. 3 issue of The New Yorker in a review by critic Joan Acocella. Here is a link:

Also, two stories on NPR or National Public Radio offer an engaging take on the book and the subject of stage fright:

Do you suffer from stage fright?

How do you deal with it?

The Ear wants to hear.



Classical music: The critics are unanimous — iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and others streaming services do a grave injustice to classical music. CDs and vinyl are far better.

July 31, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

The critics’ judgments are in and they seem unanimous: iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and other similar streaming services do a grave injustice to classical music. In the end, CDs and vinyl LPs are far better than streaming for a quality listening experience.

itunes logo complete

spotify logo


pandora logo

The difficulties apparently have to do with engineering and the limits of technology, specifically of the digital compression of sound.

Here are three good and convincing critiques to read:

From The Atlantic magazine:

From the acclaimed prize-winning music critic Alex Ross (below) of The New Yorker magazine:

Alex Ross 2

Here is an analysis from the prolific and always interesting reporter Anastasia Tsioulcas (below), who writes for National Public Radio (NPR) and its outstanding classical music blog Deceptive Cadence. She tackles other streaming services including Pandora and Spotify. She focuses on the organization and the difficulty of finding the music you want to listen to:

anastasia tsioulcas

Classical music: Amateurs who dream of playing with a professional orchestra should listen to this story.

July 19, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Violinist Tanesha Mitchell (below in a photograph by Richard Anderson) isn’t alone.

Academy Week  tanesha mitchell CR Richard Anderson

Like her, there are many string and brass players, wind players and percussionists, who have studied music and have become pretty accomplished amateurs.

And many of them, The Ear, suspects, dream of playing even just one concert with a professional orchestra.

Enter the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (below top) and its famed music director and conductor Marin Alsop (below bottom).

Baltimore Symphony November 20, 2008

Baltimore Symphony November 20, 2008

Marin Alsop big

Talk about community outreach!

Each year, the BSO holds an amateur week – it is called Academy Week — in which 80 talented amateurs get to play with and under the tutelage of professionals in the symphony orchestra and its conductor. Participants get seven rehearsals and a full concert as well as private lessons.

The Ear wonders how much it costs and how they choose participants.

You can hear more about it in a YouTube video from 2011 at the bottom.

It seems kind of like Interlochen summer music camp, but for adults instead of teens.

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

For those amateurs with dreams of professional music-making glory – for even just a week – it is a must-hear story.

And it makes you wonder if it could help the future of classical music if more symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras – including the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra – adopted something similar.

What do you think?

The Ear wants to hear

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