The Well-Tempered Ear

Does Wisconsin Public Radio play too much harp music?

March 26, 2022
7 Comments

PLEASE NOTE: Due to a technical glitch, the following commentary was posted briefly yesterday and then withdrawn. That also disabled the commentary function temporarily. Once the glitch is solved, The Ear will post it again. That means some of you will get it twice. I apologize for any inconvenience. And to the fans who have kindly greeted my return, heartfelt thanks. I will be posting more details about the use and frequency of this blog in the near future.

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

Can’t help it.

The harp always reminds The Ear of a giant egg slicer.

Still, The Ear loves the sound of the harp — in the right works.

That usually means when it is blended into orchestral works (Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Mahler come to mind) and chamber music works (Debussy and Ravel come to mind).

But when it comes to solo harp and harp concertos, no thanks. Barring some Baroque music and Classical works — Handel’s concerti grossi and Mozart’s “Brunch” Concerto for Flute and Harp — he’ll pass for the most part.

So much harp music, both original and arranged, just sounds second-rate or worse. Can anyone name a masterpiece for the solo harp written by a great composer? And I don’t mean Louis Spohr who composed for his harpist wife.

The solo harp repertoire is very small, hence the need for so many transcriptions.

That’s a problem.

The harp tends to make music for other instruments sound so .. so … so pleasant! Even when the original is dramatic, it’s all pluck pluck, twang twang, zing zing. Just listen to the YouTube video at the bottom of J.S. Bach’s mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor for Organ played on the harp.

So, The Ear asks, why has Wisconsin Public Radio started playing so much harp music on almost every show? (Below is WPR host, accomplished harpist and harp evangelist Ruthanne Bessman, who often includes harp music in her Saturday Morning program “Classics by Request.”)

Is it because the public really loves hearing the harp so much?

Is it because the radio show hosts do?

Do listener surveys indicate a preference for the harp?

Does the covid pandemic play a role in seeking bland but soothing music?

What do you think?

Do you like or even crave harp music?

Do you think WPR is programming too much harp music these days?

Too little?

Or the right amount?

Leave a comment, please.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park has been CANCELLED for tonight and RESCHEDULED for tomorrow at 8 p.m.

July 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This news is just in from Instagram and other social media:

The Madison Opera has cancelled Opera in the Park tonight and rescheduled it for tomorrow, Sunday night, July 21, at 8 p.m. in Garner Park.

Here is a statement from Madison Opera: “For the safety and health of everyone involved, based on the current forecast and dangerously unstable weather patterns, we are postponing Opera in the Park to tomorrow, Sunday, July 21, in Garner Park. Tomorrow’s forecast is cooler and much more pleasant, so we look forward to seeing everyone in the park!”

For more details about the concert and other issues relevant to the event, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/classical-music-madison-operas-annual-free-opera-in-the-park-returns-this-saturday-night-july-20-in-garner-park-and-celebrates-18-years-in-madison-plus-a-glimpse-of-the-upcoming-season/

Pass the word on!


Classical music: Sunday afternoon the Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform  “Sing To Me a Love Song” featuring the “Liebeslieder” Waltzes by Johannes Brahms

February 7, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

With Valentine’s Day coming up, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will present an afternoon of love songs including Johannes Brahms’ beloved Liebeslieder Waltzes (Set 1), sung in German. (You can hear the opening waltz in the YouTube vide at the bottom)

The program “Sing Me a Song of Love” is filled with various music styles  and sizes of ensembles. The intimate concert is a chance to hear a wide variety of music composed by Brahms, Samuel Barber, Gaetano Donizetti, Leo Delibes, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz and others.

The concert takes place this Sunday afternoon, Feb. 10, 2019, at 3 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium (below), 900 University Bay Drive.

Advance tickets for the performance are available for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or from a member of the choir.

Brahms’ Liebeslieder (Love Songs) explore various aspects of love, both pleasant and painful, set to an accompaniment of a piano duet played by Mark Brampton Smith (below top) and Sherri Hansen (below bottom).

The remainder of the program features solos, duets and small ensembles sung by talented soloists from the choir including tenor Chris Eggers (below top), contralto Natalie Falconer (below second), soprano Julie Hutchinson (below third), mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below bottom), and many other performers.

A mix of classical music and musical theater selections balance out the program, including the sumptuous “Flower Duet” from Lakmé, the opera aria Una furtiva lagrima from The Elixir of Love, and entertaining musical theater selections such as The Miller’s Son (A Little Night Music) and All I Care About Is Love (Chicago).

Immediately following the event, audience members are invited to join the singers for a reception with complimentary hors d’oeuvres, wine and chocolates.


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Classical music: Superb music-making offset awkward acting and dancing in a concert that the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society gave last weekend. This summer’s last BDDS concerts are tonight, Saturday and Sunday 

June 22, 2018
13 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, published belatedly but in time for this weekend’s upcoming closing concerts – two performances each of two programs — of the current summer season by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

It is a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Performance photos were taken by Dick Ainsworth for BDDS.

By John W. Barker

One of the two programs of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s second weekend this season was held in the Overture Center’s Playhouse last Saturday night.

The associations of its three works with war were somewhat strained, most of all for Robert Schumann’s Three Romances, Op. 94. They were composed in 1849 for the options of oboe and violin or clarinet with piano.

On this occasion they were presented in a transcription for bassoon, made by the performer, Adrian Morejon (below). He played these brief and lovely pieces beautifully, but I confess I would have liked them more if one of the stipulated, higher-range instruments had been used.

The first major work was from the contemporary American composer Kevin Puts (below), called Einstein on Mercer Street. It is a kind of cantata, a half-hour in length, cast in five sections, each beginning with spoken words but moving to singing.

The text, whose origins were not made clear, purports to represent the thinking of Albert Einstein in his last years in Princeton, N.J., as he contemplates his place in science and in the creation of the atomic bomb.

The vocal part was written for baritone Timothy Jones (below center), who performed it this time, delivering it with confident eloquence. To tell the truth, though, a lot of his words, spoken and sung, did not come through clearly, at least for where I sat.

Though the vocal writing goes through one ear and out the other, there is a lot of very pleasant melodic music in the score, and it occurred to me that, with a little tightening, the work could nicely be left just to the instrumental ensemble (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, percussion and piano), the vocal part dispensed with — heresy, of course.

The second half of the program was devoted to the classic work of 1918, L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), originally with a French text by the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, and with brilliant music, in the style of blues, jazz and ragtime by Igor Stravinsky.

The spoken text, in a rhymed English translation, calls for three actors: a narrator, a Soldier and the Devil. Jones was quite good as the narrator, but well enough could not be left alone.

With utter arbitrariness, the character of the Soldier was turned into the soldierette “Josie,” so that the Prince he woos and wins becomes a “Princess.”

This absurdity was absolutely pointless, save, perhaps, to allow the two co-directors of the festival, Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes (below) to play soldierette and the Devil against each other. In hilarious costumes, the two did well enough, Sykes especially, but the gender change grated all the way through the piece.

And there was another problem. The work was not only written for actors and musicians, but also with dancers in mind. No choreography survives, and the use of dancers in performances of the work is patchy.

Here we had hip-hop dancer Blake Washington introduced during the Three Dances movement as the recovering “Prince,” with a lot of spastic shivering and shaking that suggested more of painful decomposition than recovery.

The stars of the piece, however, were the seven outstanding instrumentalists: violinist Axel Strauss; David Scholl, double bass; Alan Kay, clarinet; Morejon, bassoon; Matt Onstad, trumpet; Dylan Chmura-Moore, trombone; and Anthony di Sanza, percussion. With truly superb playing, they upheld the high standards of the musicians that the BDDS brings us.

For more information about BDDS’ closing concerts this weekend – featuring guest soprano and critically acclaimed UW-Madison alumna Emily Birsan and music by Mozart, Schumann, Saint-Saens, Fauré, Ravel, Prokofiev, Barber and other composers in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green tonight, Saturday and Sunday, go to: http://bachdancing.org/concerts/festival-concerts/


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