The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW-Madison Professor Marc Vallon offers a personal appreciation of the pioneering French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez who has died at 90. Plus, this Sunday afternoon Wisconsin Public Radio starts a 13-week series of concerts by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

January 9, 2016
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ALERT: This Sunday at 2 p.m., Wisconsin Public Radio (WERN-FM 88.7 in the Madison area) will start a new weekly two-hour broadcast series. It features 13 weeks of live recorded concerts given by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. This Sunday’s music, conducted by MSO music director Edo de Waart, includes three outstanding works: the Four Sea Interludes from the opera “Peter Grimes” by Benjamin Britten; the beautiful Cello Concerto by Sir Edward Elgar with soloist Alisa Weilerstein; and the lyrical Symphony No. 8 in G Major by Antonin Dvorak. 

For more information about the series and performers, visit:

http://www.wpr.org/programs/milwaukee-symphony-orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

This past Tuesday, avant-garde French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (below) died at his home in Baden Baden, Germany. He was 90. No cause of death was given.

Pierre Boulez obit portrait

Just last year saw celebrations of Boulez, on the occasion of his 90th  birthday, around the world.

That included one here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music by bassoonist and Professor Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) who studied and worked with Boulez and the famous Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris.

Professor Vallon generously agreed to write a personal reminiscence and appreciation of Pierre Boulez for The Ear.

Here it is:

Marc Vallon 2011 James Gill (baroque & modern)[2]

By Marc Vallon

I had the privilege to work with Pierre Boulez in the early 1980s, a couple of years after he founded the Ensemble Intercontemporain (below) in Paris, the first-ever fully salaried ensemble devoted to contemporary music.

Ensemble Intercontemporain

Boulez was a very demanding conductor (below) and everyone would come to the rehearsals very prepared. If you were not, you would likely take the sting of his sarcastic humor.

I remember a situation when the flutist kept fumbling on a tricky passage in Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony for Wind Instruments. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, he made the mistake of saying, “I don’t understand, it worked perfectly at home,” to which Boulez replied, “Well then, perhaps we should play the concert in your living room.”

Conductor and composer Pierre Boulez from France conducts the Lucerne Festival Acadamy Orchestra during a concert at the Lucerne Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006. (AP Photo/Keystone, Sigi Tischler)

Conductor and composer Pierre Boulez from France conducts the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra during a concert at the Lucerne Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006. (AP Photo/Keystone, Sigi Tischler)

I was involved in the first performance of the work often considered as Boulez’s masterpiece, Répons for orchestra and live electronics (heard at bottom in a YouTube video). It was a fascinating window into Boulez’s compositional process.

During the two-week rehearsal period, the parts would be collected after each session and would come back on our music stands the next day with numerous additions of grace notes and changed rhythms and dynamics. The longer we worked, the more intricate and multi-layered the piece became.

This is not surprising if one remembers Boulez’s definition of good music: It is complex and can be looked at from so many different angles that it ultimately resists full analysis.

Another important contribution that Boulez brought to the French musical scene, and the artistic world in general, was the often explosive radicalism of his ideas.

From “Schoenberg is dead” to “We have to blow up the opera houses,” who else would proclaim the end of serialism or attack the conservatism of established opera houses in such provocative terms?

Boulez’s public aversion to any artistic conservatism was, in the 1970s, a much-needed antidote to an international musical scene that was often too easily tempted to fill concert halls by programming symphonies by Tchaikovsky again and again.

It is still needed today. “Boulez est mort,” but his fight for the endless renewing of musical creation should go on.

For more obituaries and appreciations of Pierre Boulez, who served as music director of the New York Philharmonic and was a major guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, here are four sources:

The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/07/arts/music/pierre-boulez-french-composer-dies-90.html?_r=0

National Public Radio or NPR:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/01/06/462176284/french-composer-pierre-boulez-dies-at-90

ABC-TV NEWS:

http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/pierre-boulez-leading-figure-classical-music-dies-90-36121322

And here is a terrific and insightful personal appreciation of Pierre Boulez, with a link to current issues and events in classical music, by Anthony Tommasini, the senior classical music critic for The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/07/arts/music/recalling-pierre-boulez-a-conductor-composer-with-an-ear-to-the-alternative.html?_r=0

 


Classical music: Here are people that classical music lost in 2015. Can you think of others?

January 2, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Each year inevitably brings losses in the world of classical music.

And 2015 was no different.

Yet it some ways it seems to The Ear that the losses are getting harder to bear.

Is it because The Ear is getting older -– and finds that aging is not as desensitizing to death as he had expected?

Is it because so many of the deaths were high-profile figures like the German conductor Kurt Masur, who resurrected the New York Philharmonic and helped broker German reunification; or the distinguished Czech pianist Ivan Moravec, who also played the music for the Oscar-winning film “Amadeus”?

Kurt Masur closeup

ivan moravec playing

Is it because one of them, Metropolitan Opera’s weekly radio host Margaret Juntwait, died much too young from cancer?

Margaret Juntwait

Is it because of a local link, like the dramatic tenor Jon Vickers (below top in a 1998 photo by Graham Trott; and below bottom, as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes) who performed in Madison when the Madison Opera was still coming of age?

GRAHAM TROTT 19/10/98 JON VICKERS, FORMER TENOR

Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes

Is it because it was someone who helped us, who brought us new beauty, as Robert Craft (below top, signing a copy of his memoir for Naxos) did with his championing of Igor Stravinsky? (In the photo below, Craft, left, is seen with Stravinsky.)

robert craft older

Robert Craft, left, and Igor Stravinsky

And there were others.

Here is a list of the classical music losses compiled by WQXR, the famed FM radio station in New York City:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/memoriam-classical-musicians-who-died-2015/

SURELY THERE WERE OTHER WOMEN AND MEN WHOM CLASSICAL MUSIC LOST IN 2015, ESPECIALLY LOCALLY, WHO HAVE NOT BEEN NAMED.

IF YOU CAN THINK OF SOMEONE, PLEASE LEAVE THEIR NAME AND A DESCRIPTION OF THEIR LIFE AND WORK IN THE COMMENT SECTION.

And to honor all those who were taken from us, The Ear offers one of the best pieces for grieving he knows, the stately and restrained “Pavane for a Dead Princess” by Maurice Ravel in the original piano version.

It is played below in a YouTube video by the late great pianist Shura Cherkassky.

 


Classical music: The Ear catches up with the hectic and fast rising career of the American Metropolitan Opera soprano Susanna Phillips, who closed this past season of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

June 2, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is no secret that the concert fees of performing artists have far outpaced inflation. The days of Madison presenters being able to afford and book superstars, with reasonable ticket prices, like the new Arthur Rubinstein, the new Jascha Heifetz, the new Marian Anderson, the new Vladimir Horowitz, the new Luciano Pavarotti and so on, are long over.

Still, Madison maestros and presenters sure know how to choose and book some up-and-coming classical stars as soloists. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Opera and even Farley’s House of Pianos have done an outstanding  job of finding great artists who are young, gifted and award-winning as well as still up-and-coming and affordable.

Take the case of the American, Alabama-born soprano Susanna Phillips, who sang Mozart concert arias beautifully when she closed the current season of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) under music director and conductor Andrew Sewell and who will be a very busy singer this coming summer and next season.

WCO lobby

Here is a press release from her public relations firm that details the upcoming 2013-14 appearances for Susanna Phillips (below), who also excels at Lieder or art songs (see the YouTube video at bottom of a song by Felix Mendelssohn).

susanna phillips

They include headlining roles in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Santa Fe Opera, Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at the Aspen Music Festival and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony at Bravo! Vail as well as the world premiere of a work by Christopher Weiss at the Twickenham Fest this summer.

Then come her appearances in three different operas at the famed Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City.

The Met hall 1

Here are the details:

“Following her resounding success in A Streetcar Named Desire at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Beverly Sills Artist Susanna Phillips returns to Santa Fe Opera as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro (June 29–Aug 23).

“In her first summer festival engagement, she celebrates the Britten centennial at the Aspen Music Festival, where she will make her role debut as Ellen Orford in a concert performance of Peter Grimes (July 27).

Aspen Music Festival

“At the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival (below), Phillips will join the Philadelphia Orchestra for Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (July 12).

Bravo Vail Gerald Ford Amphitheater.

“And the world premiere of a new commission from Christopher Weiss (below) will crown Twickenham Fest, the festival that Phillips herself co-founded in her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama (Aug 30–Sept 1).

After this full summer, the soprano looks forward to returning to New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where she will star in three important productions next season.

It was in the opening run of Jonathan Kent’s hit staging of The Marriage of Figaro at Santa Fe Opera that, “as the Countess, young soprano Susanna Phillips proved a major find” (Musical America). In the same role at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland last summer, “with a voice that is beautifully warm, brassy and blooming, the American soprano Susanna Phillips captivated from the first measures of the second act” (Forum Opera).

Now Phillips returns to Santa Fe to reprise the Countess for eight performances in June, July, and August, with baritone Zachary Nelson in the title role, and conductor John Nelson leading the revival of Kent’s production.

Last season at the Aspen Music Festival, the soprano impressed the Aspen Times with her ability to convey “emotions and memories radiantly.” Now she returns to the festival to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial, making her role debut as Ellen Orford (a part she will reprise at Carnegie Hall this November) in a semi-staged production of Peter Grimes on July 27. Led by festival music director Robert Spano, Britten’s psychological thriller will co-star Anthony Dean Griffey – “the best Grimes of the moment” (Los Angeles Times) – in the title role.

At Colorado’s Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, Phillips continues to demonstrate her range outside the opera house. On July 12 she sings solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra and acclaimed, dynamic and openly gay music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin (below) in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Finding her voice “optimally suited” to the work, the Washington Post has reported: “Phillips sang the solo with gorgeous, well-supported clarity, a shining, simple but not colorless sound, limpid and calm on the mysterious chords of ‘Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu,’ which return as a refrain.”

Yannick Nezet-Seguin in aciton

For her final festival appearances of the summer, Phillips returns to her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, for the fourth season of Twickenham Fest, the chamber music festival that she herself co-founded. As the Birmingham News recognized in a five-star review, “Twickenham Fest is well on its way to becoming a driving force in classical music in Alabama.” This year’s festival will showcase such notable guest artists as Israeli pianist Roman Rabinovich and cellist Matthew Zalkind.

Twickenham Fest gave its first world premiere last season, when Phillips sang “Speaking for the Afghan Woman,” a song cycle by William Harvey (below) set to verses by female Afghan poets that was written especially for her. The Birmingham News found the poetry “poignant, often gut-wrenching,” and reported that “Phillips’ emotive powers” were such that she “penetrated directly to the hearts of these poets.”

William Harvey composer

Continuing this exciting new tradition for a second season, this year’s Twickenham Fest will present the world premiere of a new commission from 2013 composer-in-residence Christopher Weiss, the recipient of a Theodore Presser Foundation Career Grant, whose music has been hailed by the New York Times as “wonderfully fluid [with a] cinematic grasp of mood and lighting.” The festival will be held from August 30 to September 1, and will be enriched by educational outreach programs at local schools and libraries.

Christopher Weiss composer

The 2013-14 season will also see Phillips star in three important Metropolitan Opera productions. The first of these is Mozart’s Così fan tutte, for which company music director James Levine (below) makes his long-awaited return to the Met podium. Alongside Isabel Leonard, Matthew Polenzani and Rodion Pogossov, Phillips will sing the role in which the Dallas Morning News pronounced her “a glorious Fiordiligi, her soprano honeyed and agile” (Sept 24 & 28; Oct 2 & 5; April 23 & 26). Her final performance in the role will also be transmitted live to cinema audiences worldwide on April 26, in the Met’s celebrated “Live in HD” series.

James Levine conducting

For her second Met engagement of the new season, Phillips will sing Rosalinde in Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, headlining a new production from two-time Tony Award-winner Jeremy Sams. The opening night’s performance will serve as the highlight of the company’s New Year’s Eve gala (Dec 31–Feb 22).

It was as Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème that the soprano made her Met debut, for which more than 400 residents of her Alabama hometown expressly traveled to New York. After her recent Met interpretation of the role, the New York Times noted: “Phillips (below) sparkled as the sassy Musetta, her bright, nimble soprano tinged with a coquettish flair.” Next season, she resumes her portrayal for two performances in Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic staging of the opera, the second of which will also be featured in the Met’s Live in HD series (April 2 & 5).

Susanna Phillips smiling

Details of the soprano’s upcoming engagements are available at susannaphillips.com.


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