The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: French avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez turns 90. Do you find his music both radical and sensual?

March 29, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Once the enfant terrible of new music, French composer Pierre Boulez (below in 2011 in a photo by Martin Schalk of Getty Images) turned 90 on Thursday.

pierre boulez at 90 (2011) Matin Schalk Getty Images

But now Pierre Boulez is part of the establishment. (You can hear him discuss his approach to music, and how it differs from the 12-tone composers and atonal composers, in a YouTube video at the bottom. Somehow, I find his music more interesting to discuss than to listen to.)

Maybe you were lucky enough to attend the special concert marking the event last Friday night at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. (The Ear was unable to go.) It was organized and hosted by Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill), a French-trained bassoonist who teaches at the UW-Madison and who once worked with Boulez.

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

A lot of musicians live in awe of Boulez, who has been very influential in the development of new music. They include the Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini (below top), who championed his work early on, and the American conductor David Robertson (below bottom) who does so today.

Polliniplaying

David Robertson

Perhaps the best summary of Boulez (below, in a photo from his younger years from Sony Music) is the one that was researched and written by Tom Huizenga for the Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio).

pierre boulez younger with scorers Sony Music

It features audio samples from Boulez’ orchestral and instrumental works, from his masterpieces and his unknown works.

To be honest, I prefer the modernist Boulez who, as the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducts and records the music of Gustav Mahler and Claude Debussy. He definitely has a point of view that clarified the older music. I like his interpretations more than I like his compositions.

I am willing to admit that his music, his modernist esthetic, is important.

But I don’t think I would go so far as to call his music “sensual.” Radical, yes. But I find the sound too jagged and rough to be sensual, despite it being French. Sensual, for me, means pleasurable. And pleasurable is not an adjective I, personally, would use to describe the music of Boulez.

But then maybe I am just being overly insensitive.

Anyway, read the NPR story and listen to the samples, and then tell us how you perceive Pierre Boulez and his music.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/03/26/395318157/the-sensuous-radical-pierre-boulez-at-90

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: University of Wisconsin-Madison bassoonist Marc Vallon and saxophonist-clarinetist Les Thimmig will revive an homage to French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez in a FREE concert Friday evening that mixes Baroque and and new music.

March 31, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Bassoonist Marc Vallon and saxophonist-clarinetist Les Thimmig, who both teach and perform at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, are emerging as two of the most interesting, eclectic faculty members, who display a variety of gifts and talents, at the UW School of Music.

Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) not only performs bassoon music from the Baroque and Classical eras, he is also a conductor who will lead two performances later this month of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” for the Madison Bach Musicians.

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

Thimmig plays jazz as well as classics, and recently finished his three-concert exploration of trios by the American composer Morton Feldman.

Les Thimmig color

Here are the details that were sent by Marc Vallon to The Ear:

“Hi Jake,

“I thought I would let you know about my next musical adventure.

“In the 1960s, French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (below) had a group, called Le Domaine Musical, that played contemporary music mixed with early music by Bach, Dufay and Guillaume de Machaut — unusual music for the time.

Pierre Boulez

“As an homage, Les Thimmig and I are reviving the concept in a FREE concert on this coming Friday, April 4, at 6:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.

“The program will feature music by Alban Berg, Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Boulez, and includes Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 on period instruments.

The program includes Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op.5 (1920), by Alban Berg (below top); Twelve Notations (1945, in a piano version performed by Maurizio Pollini in a YouTube video at the bottom) by Pierre Boulez (born 1925); “D’un geste apprivoisé” for bassoon and tape (1997) by Jose-Luis Campana  (born 1949); and ) “Sequenza VII” for oboe (1969) by Luciano Berio (below bottom, 1925-2003).

alban berg

Luciano Berio

After intermission, we will perform “Kontra-punkte for 10 instruments” (1953) by Karlheinz Stockhausen (below top, 1928-2007); and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (dedicated in 1721) by Johann Sebastian Bach (below bottom, 1685-1750).

karlheinz stockhausen knobs

 Bach1

There will be a presentation of the pieces and an introduction to “Kontra-Punkte” by Lee Blasius (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), who teaches music theory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Lee Blasius Katrin Talbot

The performers include: Mi-Li Chang, flute; Kirstin Ihde, piano; Sung Yang Sara Giusti, piano; Kai-Ju Ho, clarinet; Les Thimmig, bass clarinet; Mary Perkinson, Baroque and modern violin; Eric Miller, baroque and modern cello; Joe Greer, trombone; Jessica Jensen, trumpet; Rosalie Gilbert, harp; Ross Duncan, bassoon; Kangwon Kim and Nate Giglierano, baroque violin; Sally Chisholm, Ilana Schroeder and Erin Brooks, baroque viola; Martha Vallon, Anton ten Wolde, Baroque cello; John Chappell Stowe; harpsichord; and Marc Vallon, bassoon.

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Classical music: Sound Ensemble Wisconsin performs music and poems about love and night this Sunday evening. Plus, three guitarists perform new music for FREE this Friday at noon.

February 12, 2014
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark auditorium of the historic First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright will feature guitarists Jamie Guiscafre (below), Chris Allen and Chris Murray in new music of Margaret Brouwer, Dan Cosely, Guiscafre and Justin Merritt.

Jaime Guiscafre

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement violinist and SEW founder Mary Theodore about an appealing and unusual combined concert and poetry reading that is coming up this Sunday afternoon:

“Sound Ensemble Wisconsin (below are some SEW musicians) follows November’s highly successful opening to their second season, “Sound Stories,” with a concert on Sunday, Feb. 16, at 5:45 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, the historic landmark designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Performers for this concert are SEW musicians violinist Suzanne Beia, violist Chris Dozoryst, Jen Paulson, violinist Mary Perkinson, pianist Jess Salek, violinist Mary Theodore, Maggie Townsend, and guest artists cellist Karl Lavine and soprano Rachel Eve Holmes.

SEW group

“Sound Stories:  Of Love and Night” features 60 minutes of vocal and instrumental works based on nocturnal themes, many based on love poems or ballads. It seems like a program matched to Valentine’s Day weekend.

The program includes Ernest Bloch’s Nocturnes for Piano Trio (1924); Ralph Vaughan Williams‘ Nocturne and Scherzo for String Quintet (1906); and songs by Franz Joseph Haydn and Claude Debussy. The concert features Arnold Schoenberg‘s “Verklarte Nacht” (Transfigured Night) for String Sextet (1898), based on Richard Dehmel‘s poem of 1896. (The work can be heard performed under the direction of Pierre Boulez in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

Poems by Richard Dehmel and Walt Whitman will be read by Katrin Talbot (below), a Madison violist and poet and SEW’s Artist-in-Residence for the 2013-14 season.  Talbot will also read the English translation for Debussy’s “Nuit d’Etoiles” (Starry Night).

Katrin Talbot face on

The performance will take place in the new Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) at the First Unitarian Society.  Beginning at 5:45 p.m., the event will be timed with the sunset and last a little over an hour with intermission.

Tickets are $10 with cash, check or charge at the door.

Please note: Coming soon, SEW will be collaborating with Chef Dan Bonanno and Katrin Talbot for a truly unique and delicious event at “Pig in a Fur Coat” on Sunday, March 2, at 6 p.m.  More information and tickets are available at www.sewmusic.org.

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

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Classical music: So, what symphony should be next? Maestro John DeMain, guest actors and the Madison Symphony Orchestra score a sold-out triumph with the Beyond the Score presentation of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. Plus, read the reviews of John W. Barker for Isthmus and Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine.

January 28, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

On Sunday, we saw the “New World” Symphony in a new light.

I think I can speak for both seasoned concertgoers and novices.

And what I say is no overstatement in describing the triumphant Sunday afternoon multi-media performance of the popular work by Antonin Dvorak (below).

dvorak

It was turned in by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, with the Jumbotron screen behind it) under the baton of its longtime music director and conductor John DeMain (below bottom, in a photo by Prasad), along with guests actors and the inaugural use of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s almost decade-old “Beyond the Score” format.

MSO Dvorak

John DeMain full face by Prasad

In a one-time only performance, the house in the Overture Hall of the Overture Center was sold-out, something that has happened in recent years only with the Christmas concerts. And it was an enthusiastic audience that offered two long standing ovations: the first, after the 60-minute background presentation; and the second, after the post-intermission 40-minute complete performance, which was an exemplary reading that was convincingly dramatic in the fast movements and movingly lyrical in the songful slow movement.

The Ear listened not only to what the actors and players said and did, but also to what other audience members had to say. And the judgment seemed unanimously positive.

Everyone agreed that the multi-media part of the program was very well constructed and very well presented. It was remarkably tight. There were no awkward silences or lapses or pauses. This was not like when the A-V Club used to come to your middle school science or history class and you stared at your shoes while they figured out how to make the technology work.

Instead this was a thoroughly professional presentation that proceeded smoothly from start to finish. It was well researched and well written. It incorporated historical still photos and historical film footage. It used primary sources such as the music’s score and Dvorak’s own letters; and it used secondary sources such as newspaper stories and the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” and its influence on the impressionable and culturally curious Dvorak and his interest in American Indian music and Negro spirituals.

The orchestral excerpts that underlined the points were precisely played, and such starting-and-stopping is not an easy thing to do unless you are well rehearsed.

The Ear does have one minor concern with this Musicology for the Masses: The “Beyond the Score” format tends to turn all music into program music. Still, there is no questioning that it enhances one’s appreciation of a masterpiece by putting a frame around the painting, by providing a historical context. A specialist could probably pick out small flaws or gaps, but lengthy scholarship was not the point.

All in all, this new format seems exactly what a lot of American symphony orchestras need right now, especially at a time when so many of them are financially troubled and have to figure out a way to attract new and younger audiences.

And this presentation-performance combination sure did that. Remarkably few audience members left at intermission and it was inspiring to see so many, right up to the balcony, filled. Except for an all-Gershwin concert two seasons ago, it has been a few years since such a packed house showed up for a non-holiday MSO concert.

So, who gets credit and whom do we thank? The list is long and, happily, no one got into the kind of postured declaiming that can make it feel false, too staged and overly dramatic. Distraction was kept to a quiet minimum, the characters sitting on stools on the prone of the stage. Theatricality was minimal.

Wisconsin Public Radio host Anders Yocom (below, in a photo by Jim Gill) delivered the goods as a resonant and articulate but calmly expressive narrator.

anders yocom studio  head shot cr Jim Gill

American Players Theater actor David Daniel (below) did an outstanding job of playing the composer without overdoing the Czech accent and using only a bit of a costume suit.

david daniels color

Another APT actor, James Ridge (below), played Dvorak’s son who also commented on his father’s American adventures, but never overshadowed him.

James Ridge

And local mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Colbert (below), who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who directs the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, sang Negro spirituals beautifully in a way that proved less showy and concert hall-like than you often hear today. She sang in a subdued, simple and traditional manner that seemed more authentic, more true to the music’s roots.

Jacqueline Colbert

Even conductor John DeMain got into the act playing the German conductor Anton Seidl, who headed the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and in 1893 conducted the world premiere of the symphony in New York City, with a German accent.

But perhaps the person we have to thank the most is the one whose checkbook made it possible: the Anonymous Donor, who suggested trying the format and who underwrote it financially.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly enlightening event. The Ear hopes it will get perhaps a second performance from the MSO (below in a photo by Greg Anderson) next season if the audience interest warrants it, and that it might even be incorporated into the regular subscription season. (The MSO, by the way, is using an email link to an on-line survey to sample the opinion of those who attended the concert, something i do not trembler them doing before.)

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

So the question now becomes: What symphony do you want to see done next in the new format?

In an interview I posted last week, John DeMain told The Ear that 22 symphonies have been performed this way in Chicago since the “Beyond the Score” format started in 2005. (At bottom is a YouTube video in which no less a musician than composer-conductor Pierre Boulez introduces, explains and defends the format. And you can find many other videos of Beyond the Score performance on YouTube.) 

So I vote for Beethoven’s Third and Ninth Symphonies and the “Emperor” Piano Concerto; Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Sixth “Pathetique” symphonies; Shostakovich’s Fifth; Brahms’ First and Fourth; Mozart’s “Jupiter”; and Schubert’s “Unfinished” and Ninth or “The Great.”

Which symphony would you like to hear in the Beyond the Score format?

Tell The Ear.

Tell the MSO.

In the meantime, you can read what some other critics said about the performance:

Here is a link to a review by John W. Barker (bel0w) for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=41921&sid=69de797c613436f12703124d949ffd66

John-Barker

And here is a link to the review by Greg Hettmansberger (bel0w) for his blog “Classically Speaking” blog for Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/January-2014/Madison-Debut-of-Beyond-the-Score-Opens-New-Worlds-of-Dvorak/

greg hettmansberger mug

 

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Classical music: This Friday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra performs an eclectic program that highlights the virtuosic possibilities and rarely heard repertoire of the saxophone with French great Claude Delangle.

January 9, 2013
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ALERT: In another sign that the winter intermission is over, the FREE weekly Friday Noon Musicales (below) at the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, start up again this Friday from 12:15 to 1 p.m. Oboist Scott Ellington and pianist Ted Reinke will perform the work of Jean Berger and Eric Ewesen.

FUS1jake

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear suspects that, like him, many classical music fans think of the saxophone as primarily a jazz and blues instrument. That is certainly how it achieved most of its fame in the U.S.

But the saxophone (below)  is also a staple of the classical orchestral repertoire, one that French Impressionist composers such as Debussy and Ravel used to great effect for atmosphere, as did the 20th-century Russian composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

The saxophone, which comes in several sizes and was invented in France around 1840 by the Belgian Adolphe Sax, also can provide a gateway into charming discoveries of unknown repertoire. And I find it an especially warm sound to hear in deep winter, with its sonic suggestions of more sensual climes.

Saxophones

Probably no saxophonist on the scene today is better prepared to meet that challenge than the French virtuoso Claude Delangle.

Claude Delangle

Delangle is a giant among saxophonists, and will be the guest soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), playing under music director Andrew Sewell, at 8 pm. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. This is a return engagement by Delangle, who last performed with the WCO in 2007 and was well received by the audience and critics.

Tickets are $15-$65. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141, or visit: http://wcoconcerts.org/performances/48/event-info/

WCO lobby

Delangle returns for two major works for the instrument: the “Fantasia’ by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ (below top) and the famous Concerto for Alto Saxophone in E-flat, O., 109, by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov (below bottom with a YouTube video at bottom).

Villa-Lobos BW

glazunov

Plus, adds the WCO press release, “Claude’s fine playing in 2007 brought new meaning to the words “brilliant and breath-taking.” His sublime skill and creamy sound evoke gasps of delight from his audiences. Be prepared for encores!”

Also featured on the program – typical of conductor Andrew Sewell and his eclecticism and fondness for French music — is “Jeux d’enfants,” Op.22 (Children’s Games), which many of us first heard as music for Saturday morning cartoons on TV. But it remains serious music by the gifted French composer (below) who is best known for the opera “Carmen” and who died tragically young. Originally a set of 12 for piano for four hands, Bizet (below) later orchestrated the piece into this delightful suite of five movements, which celebrates youth.

Bizet

Then the WCO turns to two Classical-era staples where it has traditionally shined:  Beethoven (specifically, the rarely heard Twelve Contradances) and Mozart (the lively Symphony No. 31 or “Paris”).

As for Delangle, here is a capsule biography provided by the WCO press release:

“Soloist, researcher and pedagogue, Claude Delangle, one of the greatest contemporary saxophonists, stands out as the master of the French saxophone. A privileged interpreter for classic works, he enriches the repertoire and encourages creation by collaborating with the most renowned composers, including Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Toru Takemitsu, Astor Piazzolla, and also promoting the youngest and newest.

“Since 1986, he has been an invited saxophonist in the famous Paris–based Ensemble Intercontemporain founded by Pierre Boulez; he also appears as soloist with the most prestigious orchestras (London BBC, Radio France, Radio of Finland, WDR Köln, Berlin Philharmonic, Kioi Tokyo) and works with D. Robertson, P. Eötvös, K. Nagano, E.P. Salonen, Miung Wung Chung, G. Bernstein and many other conductors.”


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