The Well-Tempered Ear

Check out the 2022 classical music Grammys for trends and suggested listening

April 9, 2022
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By Jacob Stockinger

No doubt you have already heard about the 64th annual Grammy Awards, which were awarded last Sunday night.

But chances are you haven’t heard much about the classical music Grammys.

That’s just not where the money and publicity are for major record companies and for the music industry in general, compared to other, much more profitable genres such as hip-hop, rock and pop.

But the classical Grammy nominations and winners can be a good source about what composers, performers and music you might want to check out via streaming or by buying a CD.

You can also get a good idea of trends in classical music.

Contemporary or new music is big again this year, dominating the old standard classics.

Just like local, regional, national and international performers, both individuals and groups, the Grammys show an emphasis on female composers and performers, and a similar emphasis on rediscovering composers and performers of color from both the past and the present.

You might also notice that the New Orleans-born, Juilliard-trained jazz pianist and singer Jon Batiste (below) — who plays on CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and directs the house band Stay Human and who seems a one-man Mardi Gras — was nominated for a record 11 Grammys and won five in other categories, seems to be the new Wynton Marsalis. Like Marsalis, with whom Batiste worked, Batiste seems perfectly at home in classical music as well as jazz, soul, blues and pop. And his original classical work Movement 11 was nominated for a Grammy this year.

Social activism, in short, has finally brought diversity and inclusion into the Grammys in a way that seems permanent.

Below are the nominations and winners of the 2022 classical music Grammys. Winners are boldfaced. I have also offered a few examples of those musicians who have performed in Madison and for what venue, although there are many more connections than indicated.

If you want to see the nominations and winners in other categories, here is a link:

https://www.npr.org/2022/04/03/1090342877/2022-grammys-full-list-winners-nominees

75. Best Engineered Album, Classical

  • Archetypes — Jonathan Lackey, Bill Maylone and Dan Nichols, engineers; Bill Maylone, mastering engineer (Sérgio Assad, Clarice Assad and Third Coast Percussion)
  • Beethoven: Cello Sonatas – Hope Amid Tears — Richard King, engineer (Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax) 
  • Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 — Mark Donahue, engineer; Mark Donahue, mastering engineer (Manfred Honeck, Mendelssohn Choir Of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
  • Chanticleer Sings Christmas — Leslie Ann Jones, engineer (Chanticleer)
  • Mahler: Symphony No. 8, ‘Symphony Of A Thousand’ — Alexander Lipay and Dmitriy Lipay, engineers; Alexander Lipay and Dmitriy Lipay, mastering engineers (Gustavo Dudamel, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, Luke McEndarfer, Robert Istad, Grant Gershon, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Los Angeles Master Chorale, National Children’s Chorus, Pacific Chorale and Los Angeles Philharmonic)

76. Producer Of The Year, Classical

  • Blanton Alspaugh 
  • Steven Epstein 
  • David Frost 
  • Elaine Martone 
  • Judith Sherman (below, who also recorded the UW-Madison Pro Arte Quartet’s centennial commissions)

CLASSICAL

77. Best Orchestral Performance

  • “Adams: My Father Knew Charles Ives; Harmonielehre” — Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor (Nashville Symphony Orchestra)
  • “Beethoven: Symphony No. 9” — Manfred Honeck, conductor (Mendelssohn Choir Of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
  • “Muhly: Throughline” — Nico Muhly, conductor (San Francisco Symphony)
  • “Florence Price: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3″ — Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Philadelphia Orchestra (below)
  • “Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra; Scriabin: The Poem Of Ecstasy” — Thomas Dausgaard, conductor (Seattle Symphony Orchestra)

78. Best Opera Recording

  • “Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle” — Susanna Mälkki, conductor; Mika Kares and Szilvia Vörös; Robert Suff, producer (Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra)
  • “Glass: Akhnaten” — Karen Kamensek, conductor; J’Nai Bridges, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Zachary James and Dísella Lárusdóttir; David Frost, producer (The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; The Metropolitan Opera Chorus) 
  • “Janáček: Cunning Little Vixen” — Simon Rattle, conductor; Sophia Burgos, Lucy Crowe, Gerald Finley, Peter Hoare, Anna Lapkovskaja, Paulina Malefane, Jan Martinik & Hanno Müller-Brachmann; Andrew Cornall, producer (London Symphony Orchestra; London Symphony Chorus and LSO Discovery Voices)  
  • “Little: Soldier Songs” — Corrado Rovaris, conductor; Johnathan McCullough; James Darrah and John Toia, producers (The Opera Philadelphia Orchestra) 
  • “Poulenc: Dialogues Des Carmélites” — Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Karen Cargill, Isabel Leonard, Karita Mattila, Erin Morley and Adrianne Pieczonka; David Frost, producer (The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; The Metropolitan Opera Chorus) 

79. Best Choral Performance

  • “It’s A Long Way” — Matthew Guard, conductor (Jonas Budris, Carrie Cheron, Fiona Gillespie, Nathan Hodgson, Helen Karloski, Enrico Lagasca, Megan Roth, Alissa Ruth Suver and Dana Whiteside; Skylark Vocal Ensemble) 
  • “Mahler: Symphony No. 8, ‘Symphony Of A Thousand'” — Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Grant Gershon, Robert Istad, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz and Luke McEndarfer, chorus masters (Leah Crocetto, Mihoko Fujimura, Ryan McKinny, Erin Morley, Tamara Mumford, Simon O’Neill, Morris Robinson and Tamara Wilson; Los Angeles Philharmonic; Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Los Angeles Master Chorale, National Children’s Chorus and Pacific Chorale)
  • “Rising w/The Crossing” — Donald Nally, conductor (International Contemporary Ensemble and Quicksilver; The Crossing)  
  • “Schnittke: Choir Concerto; Three Sacred Hymns; Pärt: Seven Magnificat-Antiphons” — Kaspars Putniņš, conductor; Heli Jürgenson, chorus master (Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir)  
  • “Sheehan: Liturgy Of Saint John Chrysostom” — Benedict Sheehan, conductor (Michael Hawes, Timothy Parsons and Jason Thoms; The Saint Tikhon Choir)
  • “The Singing Guitar” — Craig Hella Johnson, conductor (Estelí Gomez; Austin Guitar Quartet, Douglas Harvey, Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and Texas Guitar Quartet; Conspirare)

80. Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance

  • “Adams, John Luther: Lines Made By Walking” — JACK Quartet
  • “Akiho: Seven Pillars” — Sandbox Percussion 
  • “Archetypes” —Sérgio Assad, Clarice Assad and Third Coast Percussion 
  • “Beethoven: Cello Sonatas – Hope Amid Tears” — Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax (who have frequently performed individually and together at the Wisconsin Union Theater)
  • “Bruits” — Imani Winds
  •  

81. Best Classical Instrumental Solo

  • “Alone Together” — Jennifer Koh (below, who has performed with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra)
  • “An American Mosaic” — Simone Dinnerstein
  • “Bach: Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas” — Augustin Hadelich (a favorite of the Madison Symphony Orchestra)
  • “Beethoven and Brahms: Violin Concertos” — Gil Shaham; Eric Jacobsen, conductor (The Knights)
  • “Mak Bach” — Mak Grgić
  • “Of Power” — Curtis Stewart 

82. Best Classical Solo Vocal Album

  • Confessions — Laura Strickling; Joy Schreier, pianist
  • Dreams Of A New Day – Songs By Black Composers — Will Liverman (who has sung with the Madison Opera); Paul Sánchez, pianist (below at in the YouTube video at the bottom)
  • Mythologies — Sangeeta Kaur and Hila Plitmann (Virginie D’Avezac De Castera, Lili Haydn, Wouter Kellerman, Nadeem Majdalany, Eru Matsumoto and Emilio D. Miler)
  • Schubert: Winterreise — Joyce DiDonato; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, pianist
  • Unexpected Shadows — Jamie Barton; Jake Heggie, pianist (Matt Haimovitz) 

83. Best Classical Compendium

  • American Originals – A New World, A New Canon — AGAVE and Reginald L. Mobley; Geoffrey Silver, producer
  • Berg: Violin Concerto; Seven Early Songs and Three Pieces For Orchestra — Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Jack Vad, producer
  • Cerrone: The Arching Path — Timo Andres and Ian Rosenbaum; Mike Tierney, producer
  • Plays — Chick Corea; Chick Corea and Birnie Kirsh, producers
  • Women Warriors – The Voices Of Change — Amy Andersson, conductor; Amy Andersson, Mark Mattson and Lolita Ritmanis, producers  (below)

84. Best Contemporary Classical Composition

  • “Akiho: Seven Pillars” — Andy Akiho, composer (Sandbox Percussion)
  • “Andriessen: The Only One” — Louis Andriessen, composer (Esa-Pekka Salonen, Nora Fischer and Los Angeles Philharmonic)
  • “Assad, Clarice and Sérgio, Connors, Dillon, Martin & Skidmore: Archetypes” — Clarice Assad, Sérgio Assad, Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore, composers (Sérgio Assad, Clarice Assad and Third Coast Percussion)
  • “Batiste: Movement 11′” — Jon Batiste, composer (Jon Batiste)
  • “Shaw: Narrow Sea” — Caroline Shaw, composer (Dawn Upshaw, Gilbert Kalish and Sō Percussion) 
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The New York Times names the top 25 classical recordings of 2020 and includes sample tracks

December 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

What did the holidays bring you?

Did Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa bring you a gift card?

A subscription to a streaming service?

Maybe some cash?

Or maybe you just want to hear some new music or new musicians or new interpretations of old classics?

Every year, the music critics of The New York Times list their top 25 recordings of the past year. Plus at the end of the story, the newspaper offers a sample track from each recording to give you even more guidance.

This year is no exception (below).

In fact, the listing might be even more welcome this year, given the  coronavirus pandemic with the lack of live concerts and the isolation and self-quarantine that have ensued.

The Ear hasn’t heard all of the picks or even the majority of them. But the ones he has heard are indeed outstanding. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a sample of the outstanding Rameau-Debussy recital by the acclaimed Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafssen, who scored major successes with recent albums of Philip Glass and Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/17/arts/music/best-classical-music.html

Of course not all critics agree.

The Ear has already listed the nominations for the Grammy Awards (a link is below), and more critics’ picks will be featured in coming days.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/11/28/for-holiday-shopping-and-gift-giving-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-63rd-grammy-awards-in-2021/

You should also notice that a recording of Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison” — featuring soprano Sarah Brailey (below), a graduate student at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and a co-founder of Just Bach — is on the Times’ list as well as on the list of Grammy nominations.

What new recordings – or even old recordings — would you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Should you keep practicing at 90? Ask famed cellist Pablo Casals

October 11, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Do you ever get old enough and accomplished enough to stop practicing?

Just ask the legendary Catalan cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals (below).

That’s the same Pablo Casals (1876-1973) who spent his entire life learning and performing, as you can read in his Wikipedia biography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Casals.

That’s also the same pioneering Pablo Casals who also first discovered, recorded and popularized the solo cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach, which you can sample in the YouTube video at the bottom. It was recorded in 1954 when Casals was 77.

What do you think about his remark?

Do you agree with Casals?

Would you still practice at 90?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: As superstar Itzhak Perlman turns 75, a critic assesses his virtues and shortcomings in playing both the violin and his audiences

September 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Monday, Aug. 31, superstar violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman (below, in a photo by Yael Malka of The New York Times) turned 75.

To celebrate, Sony Classical released a boxed set of 18 CDs (below) with many performances by Perlman – solo, chamber music and concertos – recorded over many years.

On the occasion of Perlman’s birthday, critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim of The New York Times wrote a retrospective review of Perlman’s long career. (You can hear his most popular performance ever — with more than 6 million hits — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear finds the opinion piece both brave and truthful, pointing out Perlman’s mastery of the Romantic repertory but also criticizing his stodgy treatment of Vivaldi and other Baroque music that has benefitted from the period-instrument movement and historically informed performance practices

Yet the essay, which also touches on ups and down of Perlman’s career, always remains respectful and appreciative even when discussing Perlman’s shortcomings.

Offering many historical details and photos as well as sample videos, the critical assessment of Perlman seems perfectly timed.

The Ear hopes you enjoy it as much as he did. Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/arts/music/itzhak-perlman-violin.html

If you have heard Itzhak Perlman either on recordings or live – at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the old Civic Center or Overture Hall — let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: What composer or piece of music would you like to hear once the coronavirus is contained and concert halls open again?

August 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The news can be confusing and even contradictory about some specifics, but the general direction of reports and statistics about the coronavirus pandemic and deaths from COVID-19 is clear.

It is going to be a long haul until we safely get to go hear live music in large crowds again, just as The Ear talked about earlier this week. (Below is a photo of conductor John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Overture Hall.)

Here is a link to that post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/08/11/classical-music-its-clear-to-the-ear-it-will-be-at-least-another-full-year-before-music-lovers-in-the-u-s-can-safely-attend-live-concerts-what-do-you-think/

When performers finally get to play, and the concert halls finally get to open, and audiences finally get to listen in person, here is what The Ear wants to know:

What composer would you like hear?

Maybe Beethoven (below) because so much of the Beethoven Year – marking the composer’s 250th birthday this coming December – has been canceled or postponed?

Maybe Johann Sebastian Bach (below) because he just seems so basic, varied and universal?

And what specific piece of music would you like to hear?

Perhaps Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” with its “Ode to Joy”? Or maybe the “Eroica” Symphony? Or one of the string quartets?

Perhaps the “St. Mathew Passion” or the Mass in B Minor? Maybe one or more of the cantatas?

Should the music pay homage to the suffering, loss and death – perhaps with Mozart’s “Requiem”? Or Brahms’ “A German Requiem”? Or Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony?

Or should the music be upbeat and joyous, like Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture” (below in the YouTube video)? Or some glittering and whirling waltzes by the Strauss family?

Is there an opera that seems especially relevant?

Would you prefer instrumental, choral or vocal music?

And what period, era or style would you prefer?

It will be great to be reacquainted with old and familiar friends. But it would also seem an ideal time to commission and perform new music.

Leave your suggestions in the Comment section with, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance to help us decide.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The Met just canceled its entire fall opera season. Can local groups be far behind?

June 3, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The question has weighed on The Ear ever since local groups started announcing their new concert seasons.

Will audiences – especially older and more vulnerable ones — be ready to risk venturing into crowds of 500, 1,000 or 2,000 people without an effective treatment or vaccine for global pandemic of the coronavirus (below) and the growing number of deaths from COVID-19?

Now such suspicions have been supported or even confirmed by news that the world-famous Metropolitan Opera (below), at Lincoln Center in New York City, has just canceled all of its live fall productions.

It cited concerns about the safety of both the public and the performers. And its reasoning makes sense — even though it is estimated that the Met will lose up to $100 million. It is hard or impossible in concert halls and on stages (below is a photo of the Met’s stage) to use masks and maintain social distancing.

All in all, it sounds all too familiar, similar to the reasons given for cancellations this past winter and spring, and even this summer.

Here’s a link about the Met cancellation, with lots of details and quotes, in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/arts/music/metropolitan-opera-cancels-season-virus.html

Locally, it seemed like the show might go on when many groups – despite the public health crisis growing worse — went ahead and started announcing their fall seasons or even an event this summer, as in the case of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square, which were postponed by a month.

After all, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Madison Bach Musicians have all announced new seasons — as did the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear about the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s new “Ode to Joy” season in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The UW-Madison – the biggest presenter of live concerts in the Madison area with some 300 events a year – has wisely not yet announced its concert season, let alone how it will hold lessons and classes.

The Ear suspects that more cancellations are in the making, especially when it comes to mass gatherings such as concerts, movies, plays and sports events.

Indeed, it seems like many of the groups even took possible cancellations into consideration when it came to planning programs; cutting back on expenses and staffing; and using local or regional guest artists, who might be less expensive and less difficult to cancel, rather than long-distance imported ones.

Even if a vaccine is perfected by Jan. 1, it will take a while to produce enough of it, then to administer it and then to have it take effect.

But perhaps those suspicions and speculations are overly cautious or too pessimistic.

What do you think will happen to the fall concert season?

Will going online and streaming new or past concerts once again be a substitution?

Has the pandemic changed your own habits — perhaps waiting to purchase single tickets rather than renew a season subscription? Or your plans for the fall season, perhaps even the entire season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: On this Memorial Day, The Ear honors not only soldiers but also civilians, COVID-19 victims and all those responders and workers who serve the public

May 25, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day 2020.

It is of course a largely military holiday. Most of the planned public events will be to honor those who died in service to their country. That usually means fallen soldiers and deceased veterans.

It also means that military cemeteries – like Arlington National Cemetery, below — will be decorated with American flags.

But The Ear doesn’t think we should forget that there are many ways to serve your country and protect the public, many kinds war and self-sacrifice.

Let’s not forget civilians, especially since worldwide more than twice the numbers of civilians died in World War II than did members of the armed forces. Lives are taken as well as given.

A larger definition of “national service” also seems especially timely since this weekend the U.S. is likely to surpass 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic. They include many first responders and frontline workers (below) as well as grocery store workers and delivery drivers. Even “small” occupations have big heroes. There is no reason not to be more inclusive.

There are traditional kinds of music to honor the dead. They include requiems and elegies, military marches and funeral marches. And in the comment section you should feel free to suggest whatever music you think would be appropriate.

But The Ear found a piece he thinks is both unusual and ideal.

It is called “Old and Lost Rivers” by the contemporary American composer Tobias Picker (below). It is a beautiful, moving and contemplative piece, based on an actual place in Texas, that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But you should know this about the work’s title.

With rivers, “lost” doesn’t mean forgotten or misplaced.

One dictionary defines it as “a surface stream that flows into an underground passageway” – and eventually often becomes part of a larger body of water such as a lake or the ocean.

It can also mean rivers that appear during heavy rain and then disappear when they evaporate during a drought.

Somehow, those images serve as fitting metaphors for our losses and that music seems a very appropriate way to honor those who sacrifice themselves and disappear in service to others.

The Ear hopes you agree.


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Classical music: Here is the music that Wisconsin Public Radio hosts find calming and inspiring during the pandemic. What music would you list?

April 27, 2020
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the major sources of music during the COVID-19 public health crisis and the coronavirus pandemic is Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Ear finds WPR a reliable source of beauty and companionship during this difficult time of self-isolation and self-quarantining required by the state’s stay-at-home and self-distancing orders.

Each host plans and broadcasts hours of classical music each day. So they hear a lot of classical music.

They also contribute to a blog that offers insights to: new and old recordings; background information about the composers, music and performers; and personal observations about classical music.

Recently, the radio hosts – including Stephanie Elkins (below), Norman Gilliland, Lori Skelton, Ruthanne Bessman, Anders Yocom (at bottom, in a  photo by James Gill) and Peter Bryant — listed the music that they find particularly calming and inspiring during a difficult and anxiety-ridden time.

The names of composers include Bach, Scarlatti, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Ysaye, Vaughan-Williams and film score master John Williams.

The list includes audio-visual performances of the pieces.

Take a look and listen.

Then tell us what you think of the various suggestions and which ones you prefer?

Also leave the composers, pieces and performers that you would add to such a list, with a YouTube link if possible.

Here is a link:

https://www.wpr.org/wpr-music-hosts-share-music-calms-and-inspires


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Classical music: What music is helping you get through the Coronavirus by staying home? Help create a Pandemic Playlist

March 25, 2020
10 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

Starting today, Wisconsin joins other states and countries in proclaiming a stay-at-home emergency condition to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

That means non-essential businesses and schools are closed; restaurants can only deliver food and do pick-up; and residents must stay at home except for essential services and travel such as buying food, seeing a doctor and getting medicine.

For a couple of weeks, many of us have already been spending almost all our time hunkering down at home.

And the Internet and other mass media are full of helpful hints about how to handle the loneliness, fear and anxiety that can come with self-isolation and self-quarantining.

For many, music proves a reliable coping strategy.

Since there are no live concerts to preview or review, now seems like a good time for The Ear to ask readers: What music helps you deal with the isolation of staying at home?

Is listening to music a part of your daily schedule, structure or routine?

Maybe you are using the time to discover new music or neglected composers, works and performers.

Maybe you are using the time to revisit old favorites by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Maybe you prefer darker and deeper, more introverted works such as symphonies by Mahler, Bruckner and Shostakovich?

Maybe you prefer the stories and drama of operas by Verdi and Puccini, oratorios by Handel and songs by Schubert?

Maybe, like The Ear, you find the music of Baroque Italian composers, such as the violin concertos by Vivaldi and Corelli, to be a great, upbeat way to start the day with energy and a good mood.

One more modern but neo-classical work that The Ear likes to turn to — a work that is rarely heard or performed live – is the beautiful “Eclogue” for piano and strings by the 20th-century British composer Gerald Finzi (below).

Finzi wrote it as a slow movement to a piano concerto, but then never finished the concerto. The “Eclogue” — a short pastoral poem — was never performed in his lifetime. So it continues to stand alone.

But like so much English pastoral music, the poignant Eclogue feels like sonic balm, some restorative comfort that can transport you to a calmer and quieter place, put you in a mood that you find soothing rather than agitated.

Hear it for yourself and decide by listening to it in the YouTube video at the bottom, then let The Ear know what you think.

Perhaps you have many other pieces to suggest for the same purpose.

But the series of reader suggestions is meant to be ongoing.

The idea is to build a collective “Pandemic Playlist.”

So right now and for this time, please post just ONE suggestion – with a YouTube link, if possible — in the Comment section with perhaps what you like about it and why it works for you during this time of physical, psychological and emotional distress from COVID-19.

What do you think of the idea of creating a Pandemic Playlist?

The Ear hopes that you like his choice, and that he and other readers like yours.

Be well and stay well.

Let’s get through this together.

 


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Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
5 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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