The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Happy Bastille Day! But instead of militarism, let’s celebrate the holiday with revolutionary French music by a revolutionary French composer. What French music would you choose?

July 14, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is July 14, known in the U.S. as Bastille Day.

That is the day in 1789 when the infamous Bastille Prison in Paris was stormed by the masses and political prisoners were freed – marking the beginning of the French Revolution.

The tradition is to play “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem that grew out of the revolution. Usually there is a military side to the arrangement of the anthem and the performance of it.

After all, it was a Bastille Day parade that even inspired President Trump to stage his egotistical “Salute to America” – satirically dubbed “Tanksgiving” — on the Fourth of July this year in Washington, D.C..

But The Ear has had quite enough of militarism and of the lying draft dodger who became commander-in-chief using patriotism to camouflage his un-American actions and ideas.

With no disrespect to those who served or are serving in the armed forces, there are many ways besides the military to be patriotic and even revolutionary.

So this year The Ear is choosing something subtle and less martial to mark the day.

It is a performance of “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks), a prelude for solo piano by Claude Debussy (below), who described himself – in an age where German and Italian music ruled – simply as a “French musician.” But make no mistake: Debussy, who was rejected for admission to the Paris Conservatory, was indeed a revolutionary figure in music history for his innovations in harmony and form.

(Perhaps this past season, you heard Marc-André Hamelin give an astoundingly virtuosic performance of “Fireworks” as an encore after his Sunday afternoon concerto performances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Listen carefully and at the very end you will hear a subtle reference to the Marseillaise that adds the right touch to the pyrotechnical celebration of  “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

Added to that, the fiery performance in the YouTube video at the bottom is by Robert Casadesus, a deservedly famous French pianist.

Finally, The Ear thinks you can celebrate Bastille Day with any number of French composers and French works, many of which remain neglected and underperformed. (The Ear is particularly partial to the music of Gabriel Faure, below, who taught Maurice Ravel.)

Who is your favorite French composer?

What is your favorite French piece of classical music?

Leave a comment with, if possible, a YouTube link.

Happy Bastille Day!!


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Classical music: On Saturday night, UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor continues his virtuosic Liszt-Beethoven symphony cycle along with music by Kapustin and Schubert

February 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following press release, researched and written by Katherine Esposito, concert manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, about a noteworthy upcoming concert:

Franz Liszt (below, 1811-1886) was a superstar pianist. He was a virtuoso who invented the orchestral tone poem, taught 400 students for free, conducted and composed.

Musicologist Alan Walker wrote a definitive three-volume biography of Liszt, shedding light on all of Liszt’s work but especially his genius for transcription.

Writes Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times : “The best of these works are much more than virtuosic stunts. Liszt’s piano transcriptions of the nine Beethoven symphonies are works of genius. Vladimir Horowitz, in a 1988 interview, told me that he deeply regretted never having played Liszt’s arrangements of the Beethoven symphonies in public.”

Few pianists have tackled all nine Beethoven transcriptions.

UW-Madison professor and Van Cliburn Competition medal winner Christopher Taylor (below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) is one of them. On this coming Saturday night, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, Taylor will perform his sixth transcription — Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93.

Saturday’s concert will also include: six preludes (Nos. 19-24) from 1988 by Nikolai Kapustin (below), whose works span both classical and jazz; and the Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (based on the song “The Wanderer”) of Franz Schubert, a piece so virtuosic that the composer himself had to give up playing it  before finishing. (You can hear Kapustin’s Prelude No. 23, which Taylor will play, in the YouTube video at the bottom and can follow the intimidating-looking score to it.)

In 2020, Christopher Taylor will celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary with performances of the Franz Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, in Madison and elsewhere.

In Boston, Taylor will perform the entire set of nine in five concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Tickets for Taylor’s Feb. 9 concert at the UW are $17 for adults, and $7 for children and students. They can be purchased online or in person.

Purchasing options are here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Or, purchase online directly at this link.


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Classical music: Who are the greatest classical composers? And how do you decide?

November 24, 2018
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ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s holiday tradition of the “Community Carol Sing,” with organist Greg Zelek, is FREE and open to the public of all ages. It takes place in Overture Hall at 7 p.m. this Monday night, Nov. 26. No tickets or reservations are needed for the hour-long Carol Sing. For more information, including a list of the carols on the program, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/free-community-carol-sing/

By Jacob Stockinger

Who are the greatest composers of classical music?

Who are the most influential composers?

And which composer is the greatest of all time?

Just as important, how do you decide? How do you pick them and make your choice?

And finally, should such choices matter?

You could ask Anthony Tommasini (below), senior classical music critic for The New York Times  — who came to the UW-Madison during the Pro Arte Quartet centennial several years ago and lectured in the Wisconsin Union Theater — who has just published a new book about those very questions.

The new book is “The Indispenable Composers: A Personal Guide” (below) and is published by Penguin Books. (It could make a nice holiday gift for a classical music fan.)

In a recent story, Tommasini – who readily admits to the project being very much a subjective game – discussed the process, which comes in the wake of his publishing a two-week project in 2011 when he named the 10 greatest composers of all time.

This time he uses (below, from left) Gustav Mahler, Ludwig van Beethoven and Edvard Grieg as test cases for asking: Who is a great composer, and how do you know or decide what makes a composer great?

The Ear doesn’t agree with all the results, but he found it a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion, and figures you might too:

Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/02/arts/music/anthony-tommasini-classical-music.html

Read the overview story, and then leave word if you agree with Tommasini about the greatest of all composers. (A clue is in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Which composers would you include that he didn’t?

Who did he include whom you wouldn’t?

And let’s play along: Which composers would be on your own personal list of the Top 5 or Top 10 indispensable composers? And in what order?

Have fun!

And, pro or con, don’t be shy in saying what you think. The more controversial and stronger the opinion and the words, the better.

The Ear wants to hear.


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

May 13, 2018
4 Comments

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!


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