The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: It’s Mother’s Day 2018. The Ear remembers his mom with a Rachmaninoff prelude

May 13, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Mother’s Day 2018.

To celebrate The Ear’s late mom, here is a piece of music with a story to tell with it.

The Ear remembers it well.

He was 13, maybe 14, and living on Long Island, New York.

It was in the afternoon, after school.

His mom was talking to a stranger long-distance on the phone. The conversation, something about preparing wild rice, was with a person in Minnesota.

The Ear was at the piano practicing and playing the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor by the young Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) – the “Bells of Moscow” – which you can hear Evgeny Kissin play in the YouTube video at the bottom.

It was music that The Ear first heard live when a babysitter played it for him. And he immediately fell in love with it.

It was hard to play, a Romantic piece with big loud chords (below is part of the score) and fast passage work. Perfect for a teenager.

Rachmaninoff's Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapi...

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapitulation of the theme, in four staves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was The Ear’s first big piece, the right vehicle for an ambitious young piano student who was anxious to use the piano to make an impression.

Anyway, the person on the other end of the phone heard the piano playing and asked if they could listen a while longer.

Mom said, Sure!

Then she placed the phone near the piano — and beamed with pride at me while gesturing for me to continue playing.

Mom didn’t know a lot of classical music. But she knew her son loved it and she did everything she could to encourage that love.

She also liked this particular Rachmaninoff prelude because it was accessible and dramatic, easy to understand and to appreciate, and most of all because her son liked it and played it.

That’s how moms are.

The other person on the line listened until the end of the prelude, then offered praise and thanks, said good-bye, and hung up.

Mom told that story over many years and always with great pride.

For a long time after, it seemed that particular prelude fell out of fashion – probably because it was too popular and too melodramatic. Even Rachmaninoff grew to despise it and referred to the work disdainfully as “It,” which he often had to play as an encore.

But lately, as often happens to overexposed pieces that fall into neglect, it finally seems to be making something of a comeback.

Several years ago, Garrick Ohlsson played it as an encore after a concerto he performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. These days, The Ear has heard the young up-and-coming, prize-winning young Georgian-British pianist Luka Okros play it on YouTube and Instagram.

Anyway, here it is, offered with fond memories of a proud mom.

Is there a piece of classical music you identify with your mom? Maybe Antonin Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which you can hear on Wisconsin Public Radio‘s “Sunday Brunch” program at about 12:30p.m. today?

Maybe an opera aria or song?

Leave a comment, with a link to a YouTube performance if possible, and let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

Happy Mother’s Day, all!

Classical music: A curmudgeon vents his complaints concerning the music scene in Madison, Plus, this Sunday Afternoon the Pro Arte Quartet plays Haydn and Dvorak in a FREE concert at the Chazen Museum of Art that will be streamed live

November 4, 2017

ALERT: The UW’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet will perform a FREE concert tomorrow, Sunday, Nov. 5, at 12:30 p.m., at the Chazen Museum of Art in Brittingham Gallery No. 3. The program features the String Quartet in E Major, Op. 53, No 3, by Franz Joseph Haydn and the String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 16, by Antonin Dvorak. The “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen” concert will also be streamed live. Here is a link:

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an essay by Larry Wells, a guest reviewer and a frequent concertgoer. He writes:

“As I have aged, I have become more of a curmudgeon. (My friends and family will readily attest to this.) It is in that spirit that I address some annoyances I have been experiencing over the past few years while attending musical events in Madison.

“I will start with a recent experience, attending University Opera’s performances of “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” at Music Hall (below). The two arms of any seat in the hall have two different numbers. Unless the guest was paying attention as he entered the row, it is unclear which number belongs to which seat. After attending a few shows there, I have figured it out. But I don’t believe I have ever been to a performance there when there hasn’t been confusion about which seat is which. I have routinely heard people asking others (who are generally equally clueless), and I have routinely seen blocks of people shift over one seat. You would think that someone at a great educational institution could figure out a way to make the seating less baffling.

“An equally annoying phenomenon occurs regularly at Mills Hall, also on campus. I discovered that, for choral concerts particularly, the sound in the balcony is far better than the sound on the main floor. However, the doors of the balcony are often locked and the ushers regularly say that the balcony is not open. Upon making further insistent inquiries, I usually manage to get someone to unlock the balcony, but I wonder why it is felt that unlocking it routinely is such an onerous task.

“I will also mention that, regardless of one’s seat location in Mills Hall, it is difficult not to notice that the sound clouds over the stage are in sore need of a dusting and cleaning.

Stephen Sondheim wrote a wonderfully amusing song for “The Frogs” called “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience.” In it the audience is reminded not to talk, cough, fart and so on. (You can hear the piece in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“At the aforementioned performances in the Music Hall (I went twice), I saw people texting and video recording the performance even though the program has, in very small print, an admonishment not to photograph or film. At a recent choral concert in Mills Hall, texting was rampant during the performance, and there was no mention about turning off cell phones in the program. The bright screens immediately draw the eye away from the stage. I find it extremely distracting.

“At performances given by the UW Dance Department, a loud and forceful announcement at the beginning of each performance instructs the audience to turn off cell phones, no texting, no photos, etc. A similar announcement takes place not only at the beginning of the concert but also at the end of intermissions for performances at Overture Center. I think it is time for the UW Music Department to address the issue in a similar way.

“Another criticism of the way that things are done by the Music Department: Why is it so hard to find out what is being performed at a recital or concert? The Music Department has a good website with a calendar that lists the performances being given on any day, but many times the program is not included in that information. I am disinclined to go to a concert when I don’t know what the program is, and I often will go to a performance just to hear one work if it’s one I am anxious to hear. Thus, I often have to go roaming around the Music Building looking for posters or sometimes even going to the person sponsoring the performance to ask what the program is. It shouldn’t be that hard.

“An issue at Overture Center is whispering. I do not understand how people have lived to the ripe old ages that most of the audience members have and not come to realize that whispering is still audible.

“Two seats away from me at Overture Hall for my symphony subscription is a woman who, at every single performance, starts to cough as soon as the music begins, noisily unzips her purse, reaches in and fumbles around until she finds her cough drop, and then noisily unwraps its cellophane cover. Every time. It is a wonderment to me that she has not discovered that she could unwrap the cough drops in advance and have them at the ready.

“When I subscribed to the San Francisco Symphony, there were bowls of wax paper wrapped cough drops at every entrance. Not a bad idea.

“And then there is the seemingly obligatory standing ovation syndrome that has become a standard feature of every performance in Madison. In the rest of the world a standing ovation is reserved for an extraordinary performance deserving special recognition. Here I think of Pavlov’s dog and sheep. The performance ends, one person leaps to his feet (that’s the Pavlov part) and everyone else stands (that’s the sheep). At the same time the sentiment has been lost, and it all seems rather provincial to me.

“I realize that these are all first-world problems of little importance. They are minor annoyances, but that is what a curmudgeon dwells on. And it feels great to vent.”

Do you agree with any of these complaints?

Do you have any major or minor complaints to add?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: “I like tunes,” says Academy Award-winning composer Thomas Cabaniss, who talks about his “Double Rainbow” piano concerto. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and guest soloists will give the world premiere of the work this Friday night.

April 24, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), which likes to mix things and up during its winter season, the concert this Friday night is something special to close out the current season.

The WCO will give the world premiere of the “Double Rainbow” Piano Concerto by Thomas Cabaniss, which was commissioned for the WCO.

The performance will also feature husband-and-wife duo-pianists Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn.

The concert is Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Also on the program is Maurice Ravel’s Neo-classical homage to World War I, “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” and the Symphony No. 2 by Robert Schumann.

Tickets are $10 to $80.

For more information about the program, the soloists and tickets, go to:

Composer Thomas Cabaniss recently did an email Q&A for The Ear:

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your career to the reader?

I’m Thomas Cabaniss (below). I am a composer and teaching artist from Charleston, South Carolina. I have lived in New York for the last 30 years, and so I greedily claim both places as home. I teach at the Juilliard School — where I met Michael and Jessica Shinn — and I also lead arts education projects at Carnegie Hall.

After graduating from Yale in 1984, I was an assistant conductor on a variety of projects including Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place at La Scala and the Kennedy Center. Setting out to forge a career as a composer, I moved to New yolk City, which had the added benefit of being the same city where my girlfriend was attending medical school. A few years later we married and settled in Manhattan.

To start, I worked primarily as a theater composer, but I was also writing piano and chamber music on the side, and doing arts education work in between shows. In 1990 I scored and arranged a short film called The Lunch Date, which won the Palme D’Or and the Academy Award. In 1995 I joined the New York Philharmonic education programs, eventually becoming the orchestra’s Education Director.

I kept composing, and wrote a chamber opera called The Sandman, which was premiered in New York in 2002 and revived again the following season. In 2004 I was appointed to special education position with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and at the same time I wrote a series of evening length dance scores that were premiered in New York.

In 2009, I began working as composer-in-residence for the LinkUp program at Carnegie Hall, which has grown in that time to serve over 95 orchestras around the world and across the U.S. – including the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

I also helped to create the Lullaby Project at Carnegie Hall, which serves young parents in shelters, hospitals and prisons, and we are working hard to extend that work across the country through a series of partnerships.

How would you describe your musical style in general and the style of the new two-piano concerto specifically? Accessible? Tonal or atonal? Modernist or Neo-Classical? Melodic or percussive? Are there composers or works that have influenced your style?

I like tunes. I like to write songs, and I like to sing, so my music tends to value melody. My works are generally tonal, often spiked with cluster chords and other atonal devices, but I am always interested in the musical gravity of tonal centers. (You can hear a sample of Thomas Cabaniss’ music in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This piece is inspired by its soloists, Michael and Jessica Shinn (below), and by the image of a Double Rainbow (also the work’s title). I have written Michael and Jessica pieces for piano-four hands, and there is one piece they have championed called Tiny Bits of Outrageous Love. Something about the chemistry of their relationship as musicians (and as husband and wife) has inspired me to create music that is particularly exciting and intimate.

And yes, I suppose most composers embed hints of the music they love in the music they write, and I am no different. Tiny Bits was a kind of homage to the Brahms Waltzes for piano-four hands, and Double Rainbow nods to Leonard Bernstein, Olivier Messiaen, Leos Janacek and John Adams. I’m sure listeners will hear other influences, too.

What would you like listeners to know about and listen for in the piano concerto? What were the special challenges of writing for duo-pianists?

This is from the program note I wrote for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra:

DOUBLE RAINBOW is based on an experience I had with my family on the Isle of Palms, South Carolina, about 20 years ago. On this particular August day, there was a huge rain in the early afternoon, many dark clouds, thunder (but no lightning). After the storm, from the porch of our beach rental house, we saw not one, but two rainbows (below). My sister-in-law is an avid photographer, and so she coaxed us all down onto the beach so she could get a pristine angle. That alone might have been enough inspiration for a piece of music, but when we got to the water’s edge, as Julia was snapping her photos, a dolphin jumped out of the water in a vertical launch, the tail clearing the water’s surface. It was one of those moments that seemed so unbelievable that none of us said a word. 

I have always been fascinated by the search for the elusive “perfect moment,” and DOUBLE RAINBOW is a sort of study of that kind of exploration. It is all bound up in the idea of “doubleness,” represented by the two pianos. It is divided into three movements: “Surfaces” (exploring the accumulation of drops of water from tiny, atomized particles), “Disturbances” (exploring imbalances and the storms that result from them), and “Revelation” (of the Double Rainbow). Not surprising in a double concerto, there is a great deal of dialogue between the pianos, and the orchestra has more of an accompanying role in the first two movements. The final movement is different, though. Everybody is in, and the music pulses with magic. The movement seems to be headed for a big climax, but at the last moment, it suddenly slows down and there are stars.

The main challenge for me in writing a double piano concerto is all those fingers! Twenty of them, and they are capable of so much. The music I write does not usually focus on virtuosity, and yet I also wanted it to be a vehicle for them to be expressive and dynamic. I worked hard to achieve a balance between the lyricism and the fireworks – we’ll see how audiences experience it.

What else would you like to say?

I am especially excited to be able to visit Madison for the premiere. I’ll get to meet members of the family of Jessica Chow Shinn (below, she is a Madison native), and I have a former student in the orchestra (Midori Samson, Second Bassoon). My Carnegie Lullaby Project collaborators include another Madison native (Ann Gregg) and Elizabeth Snodgrass, who is originally from Appleton (I think) but recently moved to Madison. I will get to meet WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) in person. We have been doing some Skype rehearsals and phone consultations. It will be great to watch Andrew in action.

While we are here, my wife Deborah will be giving Grand Rounds at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, and my son Will leads an a cappella group at University of Chicago (Voices In Your Head), and this year they have been singing frequently with a wonderful University of Wisconsin group (Fundamentally Sound).

The last few seasons the Madison Symphony Orchestra has been offering Carnegie Hall LinkUp concerts to kids in grades 3-5, and this year is no exception. They will perform The Orchestra Moves in May, for which I wrote two of the works (Come To Play and Away I Fly) and arranged another (Cidade Maravilhosa).

This project has been a few years in the making, and so for Michael and Jessica and me, this is a kind of celebration. We can’t wait to share DOUBLE RAINBOW with you.

Posted in Classical music
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