The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Your warhorses are my masterpieces — and I want to hear them

June 3, 2017
6 Comments

ALERT: This Sunday afternoon from 12:30 to 2 p.m., “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature Madison keyboard artist Trevor Stephenson performing on a restored 1855 Boesendorfer grand piano. The program includes music by Chopin, Granados, Brahms, Wagner, Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg and Satie.

You can attend it live for FREE in Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the UW-Madison’s art museum. But you can also stream it live using the link on this web page:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-6-4-17/

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the year again when music groups announce their new seasons.

And it seems to The Ear that the word “warhorse” is again being tossed around a lot, especially by experienced listeners who use the term pejoratively or disapprovingly, in a snobby or condescending way, to describe great music that is performed frequently.

But more than a little irony or inaccuracy is involved.

For example, a some people have referred to the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms – scheduled next season by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — as a warhorse.

Yet The Ear has heard that symphony performed live only once – perhaps because programmers wanted to avoid the warhorse label.

The same goes for the iconic Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, which will be performed next year by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below). It was a revolutionary work that changed the course of music history, and it is a great piece of engaging music. (You can hear the opening movement, with an arresting graphic representation, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here’s the irony: I have heard the Piano Quintet by Brahms, the Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert and the String Octet by Felix Mendelssohn – all great masterpieces — far more often than I have heard those “warhorse” symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. Can it be that connoisseurs usually seem more reluctant to describe chamber music masterpieces as warhorses? (Below in the Pro Arte Quartet in a photo by Rick Langer.)

The Ear is reminded of a comment made by the great Russian-American musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky (below): “Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is not great because it is popular; it is popular because it is great.”

So yes, I don’t care what more sophisticated or experienced listeners say. I still find the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Peter Tchaikovsky to be a beautiful and thrilling work that rewards me each time I hear it. It never fails.

Add to the list the popular symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, several piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Jupiter” Symphony and Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And one could go on and on.

They are all great masterpieces more than they are warhorses.

Plus, just because a piece of music is new or neglected doesn’t mean that it is good or that it merits a performance.

Otherwise, you could easily spend the rest of a life listening to second-rate and third-rate works out of curiosity and never feel the powerful emotional connection and deep intellectual insight that you get with a genuine masterpiece that rewards repeated hearings.

Of course, some warhorses do leave The Ear less than enthusiastic The “1812 Overture” comes immediately to mind. Boy, do the crowds like that potboiler — on the Fourth of July, of course, when it has a traditional place.

But often enough your warhorse is my masterpiece, and I want to hear it without being thought of as a philistine.

It might even be that playing more warhorses — not fewer — will attract some new audience members at a time when music groups face challenges in attendance and finances?

It may not be cool to say that, but it might be true, even allowing room for new and neglected works that deserve to be programmed for their merit — not their newness or their neglect.

So-called “warhorses” have usually survived a long time and received many performances because they are great music by great composers that speak meaningfully to a lot of listeners. They deserve praise, not insults or denigration, as well as a secure and unapologetic place in balanced programming.

Of course, it is a matter of personal taste.

So …

What do you think?

Are there favorite warhorses you like?

Are there warhorses you detest?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra closes out its fifth season next Wednesday night with music by Marquez, Bruch, Brahms and the never-fail Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1.

May 29, 2015
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will present its final concert of the season on Wednesday, June 3, at 7:30 p.m.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

The concert will take place at the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, exterior and interior), attached to Middleton High School.

Middleton PAC2

Middleton PAC1

This concert concludes MCO’s fifth year.

On the program is Danzon No. 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez; the “Haydn” Variations by German composer Johannes Brahms; the slow Adagio movement from the Violin Concerto by Max Bruch with MCO concertmaster Valerie Sanders (below top) soloing; and the never-fail Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky –- the same exciting concerto that launched the career of Van Cliburn — by performed by the talented Middleton native, Thomas Kasdorf.

Valerie Sanders MCO 2015

Tickets are $10 for general admission.  Students are admitted free of charge.  Tickets are available at Willy St. Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 7 p.m.

There will also be a meet-and-greet reception (below) after the concert.

Middleton Community Orchestra reception

Here is information about pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below):

He is a recent graduate of UW-Madison School of Music with his Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance, where he studied with Christopher Taylor.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

He was an inaugural member of the Perlman Piano Trio, which awards scholarships and performance opportunities to talented undergraduate students to give performances of chamber music.

His work with the Perlman Trio (below, with cellist Maureen Kelly and violinist Eleanor Bartsch) has been featured in performances on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Live at the Midday” series and as part of Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s House Concerts series, as well as in Middleton Community Orchestra’s inaugural season performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.

Perlman-Trio Thomas Kasdorf piano, Eleanor Bartsch violin and Maureen Kelly cello

He was named co-winner of the Irving Shain Woodwind and Piano Duo Competition, with collaborative partner, flutist Morgann Davis. He was awarded the Bolz Prize of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Concerto Competition and performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor at their Spring Youth Concerts.

He has performed in master classes given by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenburg, Pinchas Zukerman, Sam Rhodes, Steven Isserlis, Ronald Leonard, Ralph Kirshbaum, Jonathan Miller, Timothy Eddy, Robert MacDonald, Jeffrey Siegel and Adam Neiman.

Thomas has worked in a variety of roles (both on and offstage) with a multitude of local theatre groups in over 100 different shows. With a specialty in the oeuvre of Stephen Sondheim, he has been called upon to arrange and perform reduced or solo orchestrations of Sondheim scores, including “A Little Night Music,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Putting It Together,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Side by Side by Sondheim,” “Into the Woods” and, most recently, “Company.” He proudly serves on the board of directors for Middleton Players Theatre, and was the director of the company’s recent production of “Les Mis.”

Last year’s performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto (below) was Thomas Kasdorf’s third performance with the Middleton Community Orchestra. He had performed the Triple Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven as part of the Perlman Trio, and the Piano Concerto in A major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

MCO june 2014 Thomas Kasdorf plays Grieg

He has just concluded a wildly successful collaboration with MCO to produce a staged production of “Carousel,” and he says he is looking forward to his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the MCO. (You can hear Van Cliburn play the opening movement of the concerto in a YouTube video at the bottom. It has some great shots of hands and fingers.)

 

 


Classical music: Van Cliburn biopic is in the works with young star Ansel Elgort to play the late, great American pianist. Plus, Madison maestro John DeMain remembers opera maestro Julius Rudel.

July 6, 2014
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear sees that something for both the ears and the eyes is coming down the pike.

Hollywood sources have confirmed that a biographical film –- yes, a biopic -– about the American pianist Van Cliburn (below) , who died last year at 78 of bone cancer, is in the works.

Cliburn's hands

That is as it should be, despite what some classical musicians see as shortcomings in Cliburn’s artistry.

Here is a post The Ear did before about the opinions that members of the public and musicians have concerning Cliburn:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/classical-music-how-good-was-pianist-van-cliburn/

van cliburn ill

Cliburn was the first classical artist to make a million-selling record -– he played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 — on the RCA label (below and at the bottom). It was the same work with which, at age 23, he unexpectedly won the First International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.

His victory during the height of The Cold War was an event that led to a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York City (bel0w) and a meteoric career, then to premature burn-out and an early retirement from the concert stage. (You can see an archival historic footage at the bottom in a YouTube video. Complete performances by Van Cliburn of the same concerto are also on YouTube.)

Van Cliburn ticker tape parade in 1958

And, if The Ear recalls correctly, Van Cliburn became a phenom or superstar who sold out houses, and was the first classical artist to get paid a fee of $10,000 for a one-night performance.

Cliburn Tchaikovsky LP

Not many classical musicians have the stuff to become the subject of a biopic.

Some composers, especially Ludwig van Beethoven and Frederic Chopin, have lent themselves to such a treatment, several times in the latter case. (We will overlook the case of the mentally ill performer David Helfgott in “Shine,” which seemed more a pathology than a biography.)

But The Ear can’t think of another individual performer, although he remembers more general subjects like “The Competition.”

The young actor Ansel Elgort (below), who The Ear thinks resembles the young Cliburn (who resembles fellow Texan Lyle Lovett), has been cast in the leading role, which focuses on Cliburn’s early years and his victory in Moscow. Apparently, Elgort himself also plays the piano quite well -– but my guess is that he does not play well enough to play it the way that the Juilliard School-trained Cliburn did.

But Elgort’s star is on the ascent, given his performance in the much praised and popular current release (“The Fault In Our Stars,” about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love.

Ansel Elgort

Anyway here are some links to stories about Van Cliburn, Ansel Elgort and the forthcoming movie:

To CBS News:

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ansel-elgort-to-star-in-van-cliburn-biopic/

To the Dallas Morning News, in Cliburn’s hometown:

http://www.dallasnews.com/news/local-news/20140623-ansel-elgort-tapped-to-play-van-cliburn-in-movie.ece

To TIME magazine with a good video accompanying it:

http://time.com/2917530/ansel-elgort-van-cliburn/

To another video with good comparison photos of Cliburn and Elgort:

http://www.hitfix.com/news/ansel-elgort-playing-van-cliburn-in-new-biopic

To Norman Lebrecht’s tweet-like comment on his popular blog Slipped Disc:

http://slippedisc.com/2014/06/ansel-is-picked-to-play-van-cliburn-in-biopic/

What other classical music performers would you like to see treated on a biopic?

I nominate the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, a closeted gay man who led a dramatic life including encounters and confrontations with Soviet leaders and his American tour plus his eccentric late-life habits that included touring around Europe in a van playing in schools and old churches and using out-of-tune pianos. And perhaps also the legendary operatic  soprano Maria Callas, who was known for being tempestuous and temperamental as well as supremely gifted in both singing and acting. (There was a Broadway play about her, “Master Class” by Terrence McNally, the same writer who did the “Dead Man Walking,” the opera by Jake Heggie.)

richterwithcross1

Medea Maria Callas

Your nominations?

The Ear wants to hear.

JOHN DeMAIN ON JULIUS RUDEL

And speaking of celebrities, John DeMain (below, in photo by Prasad), the music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera, sent in his remembrance of the late, great opera conductor Julius Rudel, who led the now-defunct City Opera of New York and who died a week ago at 93:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Here is a link to the Rudel posting:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/classical-music-conductor-julius-rudel-longtime-director-of-the-defunct-new-york-city-opera-has-died-at-93/

And here is John DeMain’s remembrance:

“It was my great honor to be chosen for the Julius Rudel Award at the New York City Opera in 1971. The purpose of the stipend was to allow an American conductor to work closely with Maestro Rudel to learn how to become an artistic director of an opera company.

Rudel (below) was far and away the best conductor in the house. His performances were vital, theatrical, and intensely musically expressive. His “Marriage of Figaro” was an unforgettable experience for me. I prepared the auditions of singers for the company, and got to sit in on the casting conversations, and learned the criterion for casting a singer in an opera.

Julius Rudel at home in 2010 NY Times

Rudel was extremely demanding musically, and, of course, expanded the repertoire of the company in all directions. He had great flair for American opera and musical theater.

The bottom line for me, however, was he delivered totally engrossing performances night after night. He also was a mentor to me, and provided counsel and advice as new career opportunities presented themselves to me.

I consider Julius Rudel’s time at the City Opera as the “golden age” of that company. It was during that time that Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, and many other greats were singing on that stage.

I’m grateful to have had him in my life.

Julius Rudel middle age conducting NPR

 


Classical music: What are your favorite warhorses? The Ear says warhorses need defending and performing, and also thinks Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is far superior to his Second.

September 30, 2012
9 Comments

ALERT: Phenom conductor Gustavo Dudamel (below) leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” LIVE on an NPR webcast today at 5 p.m. EDT on www.npr.org. Here he discusses the landmark work with “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel: http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/28/161964987/gustavo-dudamel-on-the-magic-of-stravinskys-crazy-music

By Jacob Stockinger

Just a week ago, last Sunday afternoon, I heard a stunningly good concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

It was the perfect season opener and featured an all-Russian program plus a tribute to two MSO figures who died recently, principal tuba player Paul Haugan (below top) and longtime conductor and music director Roland Johnson (below bottom).

I agree with just about all my critic colleagues, who wrote very positive reviews. It was an extremely impressive and satisfying concert in so many ways.

The “Adagio for Strings” by UW composer John Stevens (below) was less emotionally wrenching than Samuel Barber’s well-known work of the same name. But that only made it more suited to the occasion. It held loss in a level gaze and didn’t sentimentalize the inevitability of death and loss. Plus, the MSO strings sounded so beautiful and so precise.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 “Classical” was performed with all the wit and spark that the neo-Classical pastiche requires. All sections showed the energetic snap the piece calls for.

And who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the drama and fierce rhythms, the masterful orchestration and sonic beauty of The “Firebird” Suite, which showcased the entire orchestra, by Stravinsky (below).

But as for the finale, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 44, by Tchaikovsky – well I guess I find myself in the role of the dissenter filing a minority report.

MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill), now entering his 19th season in Madison, programmed it at the suggestion of the soloist pianist Garrick Ohlsson. It proved to be a premiere performance in the almost century-long history of the MSO.

And I think for good reason.

One critic praised it as a deserving work and a wonderful piece. And it is true that the performance received an enthusiastic standing ovation.

But I think that reception was largely NOT for the music.

I think the audience’s reaction came from hearing a first-rate performance of a second-rate piece.

It is good once a while to hear this rarely performed work. But let’s not overdo it. It is true that the concerto does have some beautiful moments. But overall, it is ponderously long, especially in the first movement.

The second movement, a piano trio with less piano than cello and violin, was performed exceptionally well by principal cellist Karl Lavine (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (tomorrow bottom). But it really can’t compare for me with the beauty of the Piano Trio in A minor by the same composer. And the final movement was disjointed, albeit virtuosic.

The virtuosic Ohlsson (below) played the treacherously difficult piano part with aplomb, confidence and conviction.

But too much of the concerto just sounded to The Ear like a reworking of passages from the more famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, which has made so many careers including those of Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Van Cliburn, Emil Gilels, Lang-Lang and many others.

What drive and what lyricism that earlier concerto has. It is irresistible. It changes your world. It shakes you up. It stirs you deeply. And makes you hum or sing along.

If it is a warhorse – and it truly is – it is for a good reason. Its magic never fails. It is indisputably great. It is reliable. It never fails to deliver the goods.

It was good to hear the Second Piano Concerto by Tchaikovsky (below), but more as a curiosity than as a great listening experience. The audience would really have gone wild the First Concerto, especially the hands of such a fluent and powerful player as Ohlsson. I also bet it would have meant sellouts for all three performances at a time when symphonies can use all the attendance they can muster.

Perhaps the concert could have concluded with a Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev concerto, or even the Shostakovich Second. Or the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which like the same composer’s great symphonies, stands up to the First Piano Concerto and surpasses the Second Piano Concerto.

So I’ll be anxious to hear what other audience members have to say about Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto? Was it a great work that you liked? Or the great performance that enthralled you?

The Ear wants to hear. You be the critic.

I also want to hear what your own favorite “warhorses” are: J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins or Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”? Beethoven’s Fifth or Ninth symphonies, or maybe his “Emperor” piano concerto? Rachmaninoff’s Second or Third Piano Concertos or his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini? Mozart’s G minor and “Jupiter” Symphonies, or perhaps his Piano Concerto in D Minor? Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony? Grieg’s Piano Concerto or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”? Puccini’s opera “La Boheme”? Or maybe Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (at bottom)?

Some very experienced or even jaded listeners will call them “warhorses” and dismiss them.

But so-called warhorses get their name precisely because they are tough and reliable, and because they work. It is laudable to program beyond them, but not to ignore or dismiss them

Warhorses are usually great music that should be performed live more often, great music that will help attract new and younger audiences who might not even know them at all because, unfortunately, “warhorses” aren’t supposed to be played – and, at the risk of seeming unsophisticated, often aren’t.


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