The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross names his favorite performances, recordings and book of 2017

January 5, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Many musicologists, musicians and music fans consider Alex Ross (below), of The New Yorker magazine, to be the best music critic in the U.S.

Besides the major awards his two books – “The Rest Is Noise” and “Listen to This” — have won, Ross has a reputation for emphasizing the new, the unknown and the neglected, and for deeply perceptive judgments and original observations.

Now, a lot of other critics, from The New York Times, National Public Radio (NPR) and Gramophone magazine as well as the Grammy nominations have named their Best of 2017.

Here is a link to a posting that contains other links to those different lists:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/27/classical-music-here-are-some-recommendations-for-post-christmas-shopping/

Yet it seems particularly important and enlightening to consider what Alex Ross has selected for his recommendations for one book, 10 performances and 20 recordings.

Here is a link to Ross’ list, which has many links to samples and reviews:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/2017-in-review/notable-performances-and-recordings-of-2017


Classical music: Here is a true tale of a famous Mozart opera, sexual assault and Trump Tower

December 3, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

World-famous avant-garde stage director Peter Sellars (below, in a photo by Christian Carisius for the European Press Photo Agency) is known for his unorthodox recasting of operas and Bach cantatas.

peter-sellars-2016-cr-christian-charisiuseuropean-pressphoto-agency

But one of his productions, done almost 30 years ago, has proven especially prescient.

It involved the opera “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which years ago he set in Trump Tower.

The plot centers on the medieval “droit du seigneur” that allowed a nobleman to be entitled by law to have sex with a servant on her wedding night before the husband did. (In the YouTube video at bottom is the famous and so breathtakingly beautiful Forgiveness scene, featured in the Oscar-winning film “Amadeus,” with the faithful Countess and the philandering Count that ends the masterpiece opera.)

In 1988 Sellars set the opera on the 52nd floor of the luxurious Trump Tower (below), as the equivalent of an aristocratic estate, of net-feudalistic excess and wealth.

trump-tower-up-to-sky

With great insight and articulateness, Sellars recently discussed with The New York Times the inspired settings in light of the past history, campaign and recent election of President-elect Donald Trump.

The Ear found the interview both enlightening and entertaining, and he hopes you do too.

Here is a link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/25/arts/music/remember-when-figaro-was-set-in-trump-tower.html?_r=0

It makes you wonder: How will other forms of art deal with the new administration?

Could it be that we are in for more activist protest art, something of a return to the 1960s and such efforts as Barbara Garson’s 1967 “MacBird,” which recast Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth” as a theatrical satire of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, or LBJ, and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson as the Macbeths following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or JFK?

What do you think?

Can you think of other works that lend themselves to such an approach to contemporary affairs?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Ear gives shout-outs to guest University Opera director David Ronis – who should be hired permanent full-time by the UW-Madison — and longtime Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra conductor Andrew Sewell because they both know how to make Mozart our contemporary. Plus, here are the results of The Final Forte.

March 26, 2015
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ALERTS:

1) In case you don’t already know them, here are the results of last night’s Final Forte: First Prize went to violinist Julian Rhee; Second Prize went to pianist Vivian Wilhelms; and Honorable Mentions went to harpist Maya Pierick and pianist Isabella Wu.

Here is a link to a complete story about the high school concerto competition:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/classical-music-education-this-wednesday-night-the-annual-the-final-round-of-the-bolz-young-artist-concerto-competition-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-will-be-broadcast-live-on-wisconsin-public/

Final Forte 2015 4 finalists

2) This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, to be held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison at 900 University Bay Drive, will feature soprano Consuelo Sanudo (below) and pianist Jeff Gibbens who will perform music by Henri Duparc, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schubert.

Consuela Sanudo

By Jacob Stockinger

It has really  been a busy past couple of weeks, with so many concerts that The Ear couldn’t even preview all of them. So it’s time to catch up and offer some critical appraisals of what I heard.

Let me begin with some background.

The supremely gifted, articulate and critically acclaimed American pianist Jeremy Denk, who has performed two solo recitals in Madison for the Wisconsin Union Theater, is fond of saying the he strives to make music sound as radical today as it was when it was first composed and first heard.

There is wisdom in that approach, which balances out the other great movement of the 20th-century that opened up our ears to another kind of difference. I am referring to the use of period instruments and historically informed performance practices to recapture how the music originally sounded.

But lately I had two examples that showed me just how exciting such an established “museum” composer as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below)  can be if made to sound and look contemporary and radical to our modern ears without going backwards.

Mozart old 1782

The two examples I have in mind are from recent performances of late works, when Mozart was in full command of his art: The opera “The Magic Flute” as presented by University Opera under the guest stage director David Ronis, who hails from New York City and teaches at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and the City University of New York as well as at Hofstra University; and the well-known penultimate Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, as performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell.

THE MAGIC FLUTE

The award-winning David Ronis did several things to The Magic Flute that The Ear  really liked and found effective.

He made some judicious cuts in an otherwise overlong work.

He used surtitles for the German text.

He used spoken contemporary vernacular English for the dialogue. That not only made the opera understandable, but also lent drive to push it along and give it momentum as well as contemporaneity.

Most of all, Ronis also used cinematic Bollywood-like dance gestures and choreography (below, in photos by Michael R. Anderson) – along with the bright fusion of East-West hybrid costumes and sets that added such movement and energy,  color and humor, to the score.

I mean, don’t we see enough of opera singers just standing still, arms outstretched, with only their mouths moving?

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

Of course, some people and critics did not like the changes, and found them downright treasonous and disrespectful or just plain wrong.

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

Silly them. The Ear says the updating worked just fine. Great art is there to experiment with, not just depict. Art lives in time. It is why director Peter Sellars is such a forceful and creative influence in the world of classical music. If only classical music could be less classical and more musical! Entertainment is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, after all, why the performing arts exist.

I also think the changes are one reason why there were four sold-out performances -– not just the usual three -– and why I saw so many young people in the audience. It was, in short, a fun production.

To my eyes and ears, this production — coupled with his production of Benjamin Britten‘s “Albert Herring” in the fall — showed what a smart move it would be to hire David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) full-time to lead the University Opera. He clearly knows how to get the best out of students, has a very personal artistic vision and is willing to shake things up – which both we and The Great Artists such as Mozart can use.

David Ronis color CR  Luke DeLalio

THE BIG G-MINOR SYMPHONY

As for the Mozart symphony – the big late one in G minor not the little  early one — it was just part of an outstanding concert turned in by Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the impressive guest cellist Amit Peled (below) and his unbelievably resonant cello that belonged to and was played by Pablo Casals. Together, man and instrument justifiably brought down the house.

Amit Peled playing

But other parts of the program, which included works by Frank Bridge and David Popper, should not be overlooked or underestimated.

Conductor Andrew Sewell (below) has long demonstrated his ability to work with such Classical-era composers as Franz Joseph Haydn and Mozart as well as Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven. And here, in a very familiar work, you could hear why.

andrewsewell

While Mozart was one of music’s great melodists, Sewell’s interpretation emphasized tempo, rhythm and repetitive motifs even as he brought out the various voices, counterpoint and melodic lines.

This Mozart had drive and pep. (You can hear the familiar first movement, with an interesting abstract graph profile, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

In fact, the third Minuet movement sounded downright modern – a kind of percussive precursor to minimalism.

This was exciting Mozart, far from the genteel and primly elegant and blandly pleasant Mozart that The Ear refers to as Music-Box Mozart.

Andrew Sewell BW

This playing by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) was precise and dramatic. It made you sit up and take notice. It engaged you.

It also showed why Mozart was such an exception to his age –- why his contemporaries and those who followed him so revered his talent and music. He was a radical in his day but we often overlook how he pushed the boundaries of music closer to modernism.

WCO lobby

So The Ear offers shout-outs and hearty thanks to both David Ronis and Andrew Sewell for helping us to hear Mozart once again as a contemporary — not just a statically beautiful blast from the past.

Both cases proved to be an exciting and unforgettable experience. The Ear hopes we are in for more of them, particularly in Mozart’s symphonies and piano concertos.

Did you hear the opera and/or the symphony?

What did you think of the approaches to Mozart?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Is Beethoven still relevant and our political contemporary with his opera “Fidelio”?

August 10, 2014
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall that Ludwig van Beethoven (below) composed only one opera.

It is “Fidelio,” and it reflected his Enlightenment-era political ideas about equality and democracy –- despite the composer’s own financial reliance on patronage by aristocrats and royals.

Beethoven big

And you may recall that the Madison Opera has slated “Fidelio” for a production this coming season in Overture Hall on Friday night, Nov. 21, and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 23.

The production comes during a time of great political unrest and perhaps upheaval at home, with crucial national and state elections, and especially overseas and in foreign affairs with Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Africa’s Ebola strife and many other hot spots showing no sign of letting up.

So will the local production of “Fidelio” be more or less a traditional one? Or will the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith and its artistic director, John DeMain, who is also the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, have other ideas about how to tweak the opera and recast it for modern or contemporary relevance?

It will be interesting to see, although The Ear understands that the production will be traditional.

Here is a link to the Madison Opera’s website:

http://madisonopera.org/performances-2014-2015/

Currently, the acclaimed Santa Fe Opera is staging a controversial new version of “Fidelio”(below), created by director Stephen Wadsworth, that takes place in the Nazi death camp Bergen-Belsen. Sounds very Peter Sellars-like. (You can hear the moving music from the Prisoners’ Chorus at the bottom in a YouTube video.)

FIDELIO in Bergen-Belsen at Santa Fe

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, of The New York Times, did not like it and, in fact, said it offended her because it belittled the Holocaust. She also complained that the roles in the actual text did not match the roles that the new staging created. She saw the production as too inconsistent.

Her larger complaint seems to reflect the notion that after the Holocaust, writing poetry and creating art is impossible, that beauty has been ruined.

It is an ambitious, lofty and tempting thought, but one that is clearly not true. In fact, it is downright wrong. Great suffering and art are old pals. Sometimes art takes you away from suffering; sometimes it takes you deeper into it. It depends on the work and on the performers. But we need both.

Anyway, here is the review from the Times as well as another one with a different take. Read them for yourself. Then decide and make up your own mind. It sure sounds like a concept worth pursuing, even if flawed, to The Ear.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/04/arts/music/santa-fe-opera-sets-fidelio-in-a-concentration-camp.html?_r=0

Critic Heidi Waleson, of The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, praised the production:

http://online.wsj.com/articles/opera-review-santa-fe-opera-1407191039

Be sure to tell The Ear, and other readers, including members of the Madison Opera, if you have ever seen an updated version of “Fidelio” and what you thought of it.

Where do you think “Fidelio could be recast to best advantage The Holocaust? The Spanish Inquisition? The Soviet Gulag and Great Terror? The Killing Fields of Cambodia? The Rwandan genocide? Abu Graib prison in Iraq? A CIA black site torture prison in Egypt? The Chinese Cultural Revolution?

Or, given the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, how about a Supermax prison in Wisconsin?

You get the idea.

Go wild with your imagination, and then write in.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Here is New Yorker magazine critic Alex Ross’ list of the Top 10 classical recordings, books and movie scores of 2012.

December 28, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Alex Ross (below) of The New Yorker magazine is perhaps the best-known and most highly respected classical music critic in the US, rivaled only by Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times.

Ross, who has won major awards for his books “The Rest Is Noise” and “Listen to This,” writes a great blog and is regularly featured in the New Yorker magazine.

Alex Ross 2

Here is a link to his enjoyable and informative blog:

http://www.therestisnoise.com

In the New Yorker, as he usually does, Ross recently listed his top 10 recordings – along with a top book and a top video – of 2012 along with his Top 10 Live Performances. Although he is a strong advocate for new music, Ross also lists a generous share of new recordings of Josqjin, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, SchubertWagner  and other “standard” classical composers. And perhaps even more surprisingly, his choice of Bach is a “Saint Matthew Passion” performed NOT by an early music group but by the venerable Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle and bad-boy avant-garde director Peter Sellars (a clip is at the at bottom).

Ross’ list also includes some audio sampling or excerpts of his various selections, including royal queenly arias sung by Joyce DiDonato.

As we come into another post-holiday weekend, when you might want to use the gift cards or cash you received for the holidays, it seemed like a good list to add Ross’ list to my other holiday gift guides.

So here is a link to Ross choices:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/11/ten-notable-classical-music-recordings-of-2012.html

jeremy denk ligeti-beethoven CD

The First Four Notes coverAnd here are the other gift guides I have listed on this blog in the past month. They range from the Classical music nominations for the Grammys to best pick by critics of the New York Times.

Here are links to those postings:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/classical-music-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-2013-grammy-awards-can-provide-a-helpful-holiday-gift-shopping-guide-part-1-of-2-plus-the-uw-russian-folk-orchestra-and-madison-handbells-pe/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/12/09/classical-music-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-2013-grammy-awards-can-provide-a-helpful-holiday-gift-shopping-guide-part-2-of-2/

Grammy

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/classical-music-here-is-part-2-of-the-ears-holiday-gift-giving-guide-featuring-nprs-top-10-classical-recordings-of-2012/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/classical-music-here-is-part-4-of-the-ears-holiday-gift-giving-guides-to-classical-music-compliments-of-the-new-york-times/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/classical-music-got-a-holiday-gift-card-or-christmas-cash-to-spend-here-are-the-choice-picks-of-classical-music-in-2012-with-an-emphasis-on-new-artists-niche-labels-and-smaller-name-perfo/

(Below is a collage by photographer Tony Cenicola of the New York Times of favorite recordings of 2012 as picked by critics for The New York Times.)

NY Tmes best of 2012 1 Tony Cenicola

Please leave your own suggestions n the COMMENTS section, especially by genre (chamber music, opera, symphony, solo piano) and by artist plus composer and work. It would also be good to know to know why you like it and why you recommend it.

The Ear wants to hear.


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