The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The future of Western classical music is in Asia – specifically China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Why is that?

May 25, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not just about Lang Lang.

The signs are everywhere.

They were present at a recent piano recital by elementary school, middle school and high school students that The Ear attended.

You see it at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and at top music schools, including the Curtis Institute of Music, across the U.S. and Western Europe. And you see it in youth groups such as the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (below).

Western classical music recording labels, such as Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classical, are looking to develop new markets and so are signing more Asian musicians, such as the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Shanghai String Quartet, and releasing more Asian performances. (Below is the Taiwanese-Australian, prize-winning violinist Ray Chen, who is also a master at using social media to build his meteoric career.)

All these items point to the same conclusion: The future of Western classical music looks more and more likely to be found in Asian culture and in Asia  – specifically in China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. (Next season, prize-winning South Korean pianist Joyce Yang (below) returns to Madison, where she first gave a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, to solo with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Consider some of the following:

There are, The Ear read somewhere, now more piano students in China than in all of Europe, North America and South America combined. And he is reading about more and more concert tours of China and other Asian countries by Western performers — even while in the U.S. the number of pianos in homes are on the decline.

Increasingly the winners of major international competitions — such as the Chopin competition, the Van Cliburn competition, the Tchaikovsky competition, the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium competition and the Leeds competition – come from Asia or are Asian. (Below, in a photo by Simon Fowler, is American pianist George Li, who immigrated from China as a child and attended Harvard and the New England Conservatory before winning a silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition. His concert career is now blossoming fast.)

In recent years, China has been building a lot of first-rate concert halls, opera houses and music schools. And the famed Juilliard School in New York City will open its second campus this fall in Tianjin, near Beijing.

China has certainly come a long way from the days of the Cultural Revolution when people could be imprisoned for listening to Beethoven, who is now a cultural icon in China — as you can hear at the bottom in the YouTube video of Li Jing Zhan conducting the orchestra at the Chinese National Opera in Beethoven’s No. 7. (Below is the striking new National Center for the Performing Arts in China.)

https://www.interlude.hk/front/culture-construction-chinas-new-concert-halls/

Nineteen of the 24 final competitors, ages 13-17, in the second Van Cliburn Junior Competition – which starts in Dallas, Texas, on May 31 and ends on June 8 – are Asian, Asian-American and Asian-Canadian, all with astonishingly impressive credentials and experience. It will be streamed live and free. Take a look and listen:

https://www.cliburn.org/2019-cliburn-junior-competitors/

Why this Asian shift is happening remains somewhat of a mystery to The Ear, although he had been thinking about for a long time.

Then he came across a op-ed column confirming the prevalence of Asian classical musicians. It was written by the American concert pianist and teacher Inna Faliks (below), who teaches at UCLA and who wrote convincingly about her recent concert experiences in China in The Washington Post.

Read it and see what you think, and tell us whether you agree:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-future-of-classical-music-is-chinese/2019/03/22/2649e9dc-4cb5-11e9-93d0-64dbcf38ba41_story.html?utm_term=.7f149e0f8eb9

Why are Asians so interested in Western classical music and music education? And why do they respect it or even revere it so much?

Does it have to do with the “tiger mom” phenomenon of strong parental pressure to succeed and achieve?

Is it largely a function of population?

Is it because of the collective teamwork required to make a lot of chamber music and orchestral music, or with the intense and instructive teacher-student relationship?

Is it because the cultural depth and seriousness in Western music education – ing contrast to the increasingly pop culture of the West – that prepares students well for the training and intellectual discipline required in other educational fields and careers, including the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?

Is Asia simply fascinated by Western culture the same way that Western culture was fascinated by the exotic Asian cultures – especially in China and Japan — during the 19th century and earlier? Or is the West increasingly ignoring its own culture. (The Ear can’t recall any classical musicians performing at President Donald Trump’s White House. Can you?)

How do you see the situation and react to it? And what do you think about the causes and effects?

Please leave your reactions and thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.


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Classical music: Saturday at noon, Bizet’s “Carmen” airs in cinemas during “Live from The Met in HD” and on Wisconsin Public Radio. Saturday night, the Pro Arte Quartet performs a FREE concert of Haydn, Schumann and Shostakovich

February 1, 2019
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ALERT: This Saturday night, Feb. 2, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet performs a FREE concert. The program offers the String Quartet in D Major, Op. 50, No. 6, “The Frog” by Franz Joseph Haydn; the String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major by Dmitri Shostakovich; and the String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3, by Robert Schumann. For more about the unusual history of the critically acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-2/

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, Feb. 2, the seventh production of this season’s “Metropolitan Opera Live in HD” series is Georges Bizet’s lusty, sultry  and violent “Carmen,” one of the most popular operas ever composed.

Its successful world premiere was in Paris in 1875, which Bizet did not live to see. But Bizet’s masterpiece of the gypsy seductress who lives by her own rules has had an impact far beyond the opera house.

The opera’s beautiful melodies are as irresistible as the title character herself, a force of nature who has become a defining female cultural figure. (You can hear one of Carmen’s signature arias– “Love Is a Wild Bird” — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Carmen” was a scandal at its premiere but soon after became a triumphal success and has remained one of the most frequently staged operas in the world.

French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine reprises her acclaimed portrayal of opera’s ultimate temptress, a triumph in her 2017 debut performances.

Opposite her is the impassioned tenor Roberto Alagna (below right, in a photo by Karen Almond for The Met) as her lover, Don José.

French native Louis Langrée (below, in a photo by Jennifer Taylor), who heads the Mostly Mozart Festival and is the artistic director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, will conduct Sir Richard Eyre’s production, a Met favorite since its 2009 premiere.

The hi-definition broadcast of the live performance from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City starts at 11:55 a.m. and runs until 3:45 p.m. with two intermissions. (It will also air at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

There will be encore HD showings next Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. (“Carmen” is so popular that some cities will also host a second encore showing on Saturday, Feb. 9.)

The opera will be sung in French with supertitles in English, German, Spanish and Italian.

Tickets for Saturday broadcasts are $24 for adults, and $22 for seniors and children under 13. For encore showings, all tickets are $18.

The cinemas where the opera can be seen are two Marcus Cinemas: the Point Cinema on the west side of Madison (608 833-3980) and the Palace Cinema (608 242-2100) in Sun Prairie.

Here is a link to the Marcus Theaters website for addresses and more information. You can also use them to purchase tickets:

https://www.movietickets.com/movies

Here is a link to the Metropolitan Opera’s website where you can find the titles, dates, casts, production information and video clips of all Met productions this season:

https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/

Here is a link to a synopsis and cast list:

https://www.metopera.org/globalassets/season/in-cinemas/hd-cast-sheets/carmen_global.pdf?performanceNumber=15202

Here is a link to other information about the production of “Carmen,” including photos and audiovisual clips:

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/carmen/

And here is a Wikipedia history of the broadcast series that gives you more information about how many cinemas it uses, the enormous size of the worldwide audience – now including Russia, China and Israel — and how much money it makes for The Met.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Opera_Live_in_HD


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Classical music: How will Brexit affect classical music in Great Britain? Many musicians and audiences are preparing for the worst

August 16, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

London has long been a international hub of culture, with a special reputation as the  home base of many of the great musicians who perform regularly on the Continent.

But how will “Brexit” affect the future of classical music and classical musicians in Great Britain?

Some pretty prominent, active and knowledgeable musicians, including the pianist-conductors Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim, think it will be for the worst.

One sign is that the European Youth Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Adamik, and in the YouTube video at the bottom), which receives a subsidy from the European Union, is moving from London to the city of Ferrara in Italy before Great Britain exits from the European Union.

A particular cause of concern is what kind of confused logistics will happen if visas are required for British groups to tour and perform on the Continent, something that apparently has opera houses especially worried.

A recent story goes into more detail, including charges from Brexit defenders that musicians and representatives of the culture industries in general are being alarmist.

Here is the story, published by The Independent in the United Kingdom and then reproduced in the United States in The New York Times: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/brexit-classical-music-musicians-europe-vladimir-ashkenazy-daniel-barenboim-eu-a8483271.html

What do you think?

Leave your opinion in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This weekend kicks off the 27th annual summer season of Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society concerts with the theme of musical works as toys to be “played” with for serious fun

June 7, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Four performances on this coming Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon and Sunday night will open the 27th annual summer concert series of the critically acclaimed but always informal and light-hearted Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (below and in the YouTube video at the bottom).

There will be six programs in 12 concerts performed in three venues over the next three weekends.

The venues are: The Playhouse in the Overture Center (below top) at 7:30 p.m.; the Stoughton Opera House (below middle) at 7:30 p.m.; and the Hillside Theater (below bottom) at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green, at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Ticket prices are $43, or $48 if you want a prime seat at the Overture Center. For more information, go to: http://bachdancing.org/tickets/season-tickets/

This opening weekend features a lot of flute music and a lot of string music plus some unusual arrangements or transcription and music by unknown women composers.

As usual, BDDS has lined up a series of impressive local talent as well as favorite guest performers, including the critically acclaimed soprano Emily Birsan (below top) and bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below bottom).

Also on the schedule is a Madison-based hip-hop dancer and choreographer, Blake Washington (below), for two pieces during the second weekend: Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” and Francis Poulenc’s “The Masked Ball.” In addition, four players from the BDDS Dynamite Factory – the apprentice school of BDDS for emerging performers – will take part.

Again, as always, there is a unifying theme to the season. This year it is “Toy Stories,” playing off the idea of “playing” pieces of chamber music.

Here is a background and overview story that appeared this week in The Wisconsin State Journal: http://host.madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/bach-dancing-and-dynamite-gets-playful-with-toy-stories/article_918d38c4-1eba-5196-822e-2b2616eddb75.html

Here is an explanation from UW-Madison graduate and San Francisco-based teacher and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below left), who co-founded, co-directs and performs in the series with retired UW-Madison and Madison Symphony Orchestra principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below right):

“When we were kids, we would ride our hobby horses around the back yard pretending to be knights on a quest. We’d race our Slinkies down the stairs, cheering their contorted yet gymnastic moves. We made crazy cyborgs with our Mr. and Mrs. Potato Heads. The cyborgs would fight for world domination, and then they’d sit down to tea with our dolls. We cuddled our stuffed animals as we prepared for bed, confessing our deepest dreams and aspirations to them. How easily those toys sparked our imaginations and transported us to fantastic realms!

“I’m a grownup now, sort of, and while I might get a short-lived bang out of newfangled tech toys, I’ve mostly left behind the dolls, bears and rubber ducks (below) of my childhood. The “toys” that really light my fire are incredible pieces of chamber music that have their own personalities; that delight me, surprise me, cry with me, and laugh with me.

CHAMBER

“Performing chamber music is called “playing” for a good reason. Ask any artist who joins BDDS for our festival: chamber music is a magical way to recapture the spirit of imaginative play that came to us so easily as kids.

“We cherish favorite old toys — the great chamber works of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, for example. Yet we can also delight in the new toys that come our way — the music of Gabriela Lena Frank (below top), Paul Wiancko (below middle) and Kevin Puts (below bottom).

“Whether these new playthings become favorite old friends, who’s to say? One thing’s for sure, we’ll never know unless we play with them.

“BDDS’s 27th season theme is TOY STORIES, and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt and I have organized each of our programs around a quirky take on iconic toys.

“To celebrate the festival’s age, we’ve also scattered various “27s” across our programs. In the spirit of imaginative play, rather than spell ing everything out, here are some clues to what you’ll hear this June.

TEDDY TALKS. Just change the motto “ideas worth spreading” to “music worth hearing” and you have our modus operandi. In this case, we have all sorts of Teddies talking to us through their music: I wonder what they’ll say.

AMERICAN GIRLS. Proud and multi-ethnic, they have been coming on strong as composers for a hundred years, and here’s the proof!

PLAY DO(H). C Major is the most malleable of keys.

GI JOE. War is no game, but it has inspired some seriously imaginative music.

RUBBER DUCKY, YOU’RE THE ONE. Sesame Street’s beloved Ernie adored his bath toy: see who else jumps into the tub.

TRANSFORMERS. I’m amazed how a couple of twists and turns can transform a few unassuming blocks into something breathtakingly complex.

“Join us June 8-24 for TOY STORIES in Madison, Stoughton, and Spring Green. We’ll play together with some irresistible toys and have ourselves some serious fun.

“With a bang!”

For the schedule of performances, with times and places, go to: http://bachdancing.org

For the full programs, including the many new or neglected composers and works to be performed, go to: http://bachdancing.org/concerts/festival-concerts/

For a complete list of performing and helping personnel, go to:

http://bachdancing.org/concerts/cast-crew/

And for a complete and impressive list of BDDS repertoire throughout the years, listed in alphabetical order by the composer’s last name, go to:

http://bachdancing.org/about/repertoire-through-the-seasons/


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