The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Autumn arrives today. What composers, works and instruments do you like to listen to in fall? The Ear favors late Brahms – specially the strings, the piano and the clarinet

September 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fall arrives today.

The autumn equinox will occur at 8:54 p.m. Central Daylight Time.

As the days get markedly shorter and the night longer, one’s mood often changes as do one’s listening preferences.

Many composers have written pieces about autumn, and you are sure to hear many of them on Wisconsin Public Radio or other media outlets.

But The Ear has his favorites.

Not for nothing is the late music of Johannes Brahms described as autumnal, both because it happens late in the composer’s life and because of its bittersweet sounds, its poignant harmonies and its melancholy melodies.

For The Ear, you will find it in most of late Brahms, especially in the slow movements. He loves the string music – the violin, the cello and especially the viola sonatas – as well as the clarinet sonatas and piano intermezzi.

Below are three samples.

Here is the slow movement from the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, played by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Daniel Barenboim:

Here is the slow movement of the Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, for, in this case, clarinet or viola:

And here is a particularly moving piano intermezzo, Op. 117, No. 2, in B-flat minor, played by Arthur Rubinstein:

And should you still be unsure what music you like for the fall, here is a link to two hours of music for fall  — vocal and instrumental music by Antonio Vivaldi, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn  Alexander Glazunov, Peter Tchaikovsky, Giuseppe Verdi, Edvard Grieg, Gustav Mahler and others — put together by Minnesota Public Radio:

Is there a special composer who evokes autumn for you?

What instruments most speak to you of fall?

Are there special works you like to listen to in autumn?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section, along with a link to a YouTube performance if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players perform an all-Schubert concert on Saturday night. On Sunday afternoon, Opera Props presents singers in a benefit concert to support the opera program at the UW-Madison

September 13, 2018
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ALERT: On this Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., in the Madison Christian Community Church at 7118 Old Sauk Road on Madison’s far west side, Opera Props will present a benefit concert to raise money for the UW-Madison’s opera program and University Opera.

Student singers and piano accompanist Daniel Fung will perform arias and songs. But the spotlight will shine on University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna soprano Julia Rottmayer, who is a new faculty member at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. (Sorry, no specific program is given and no names of composers and works are mentioned.)

Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door with student tickets costing $10. Tickets include a reception with local Gail Ambrosius chocolate, fruit, cheese and wine. For more information, go to: https://www.uwoperaprops.org

By Jacob Stockinger

Why is The Ear increasingly drawn to the music of Franz Schubert (below) over, say, the music of his contemporary and idol Ludwig van Beethoven? It seems to be more than its sheer beauty and lyricism.  It also seems to possess a certain warmth or human quality that he finds irresistible, poignant and restorative, especially if it is true, as the Buddha said, life is suffering.

In any case, The Ear is not alone.

The Madison-based Mosaic Chamber Players (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) will open their new and ambitious season this coming Saturday night with a concert of music by Franz Schubert.

The all-Schubert concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the  chapel of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium — NOT at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, as was incorrectly stated earlier in this blog post.

The program includes two Sonatinas for Violin and Piano in D Major, D. 384, and A minor, D. 385; the famous “Arpeggione” Sonata, D. 821, performed on the cello with piano; and the lovely and songful Adagio or “Notturno” (Nocturne) for Piano Trio, D. 897, which you can hear with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Daniil Trifonov, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Tickets cost $15 for adults; $10 for seniors; and $5 for students. Cash and checks only will be accepted; no credit cards.

Members of the Mosaic Chamber Players are: founder and pianist Jess Salek (below top); violinist Wes Luke (below second), who plays with the Ancora String Quartet and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; violinist Laura Burns (below third), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet; and cellist Kyle Price (below bottom), who founded the Caroga Lake Music Festival in New York State and is pursuing his doctoral degree at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music with distinction and who was a member of the graduate student Hunt Quartet while he studied for his master’s.

A reception will follow the concert.

For more information about the Mosaic Chamber Players and about their new season, which includes some very varied composers but no specific titles of works, go to: http://www.mosaicchamberplayers.com

What do you find so appealing and so special about the music of Schubert?

What is your favorite Schubert work?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section with a link, if possible, to a YouTube video performance.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players and guest artists give two performances of a holiday program this coming Sunday afternoon

November 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their 2017-2018 season series “Journey” with a concert titled Quest on  this coming Sunday, Nov. 26, at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

Both concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors and $5 for students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

At the heart of this holiday-themed concert is British composer John Rutter (below) and his imaginative story about the origins of the holiday favorite In dulci jubilo.

Believed to have been sung by angels as an inspired gift to a medieval monk, the musical fable traces how life’s distractions can sometimes interfere with sublime gifts.

The quest for the carol’s completion is told with heart-warming humor.

Narrator Buzz Kemper (below) will bring the whimsical story’s characters to life along with instrumentalists and a vocal quartet.

Canadian-Slovenian composer Marjan Mozetich (below) characterizes his music as that which explores the spiritual by showing introspective and meditative qualities. Written for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet his evocative Angels in Flight is poignant and layered with a shimmering melodic framework.

The animated short of Raymond Brigg’s children’s story The Snowman was set to music by British film composer Howard Blake (below). A string quartet arrangement of his uplifting music for the film highlights the memorable moments. The suite includes the delightful “Walking in the Air” capturing the moment when imagination brings the snowman to life and it flies a young boy toward the North Pole.

The program will also include Ralph Vaughan Williams’ March Past of the Kitchen Utensils (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) and George Shearing’s jazzy arrangement of Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind. UW-trained composer and pianist Scott Gendel (below) wrote a Christmas piece — It Was My Father’s Custom — in 2011, and it will be presented by the ensemble and singers.

Guest vocalists are: Mari Borowski, Lauren Gruber, Robert Goderich and Jace Nichols.

Guest instrumentalists are: Scott Gendel, piano; Margaret Mackenzie, harp; Thalia Coombs, violin; Katrin Talbot, viola; and Jennifer Morgan, oboe.

This is the second of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2017-2018 season series entitled Journey. Remaining concerts will take place on Jan. 13 and 14; March 10 and 11; and May 19 and 20.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

The Oakwood Chamber Players is a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


Classical music: Violinist and concertmaster David Kim will discuss becoming a professional musician and will give two public master classes plus a student performance of string music by Vivaldi, Massenet and Brahms

October 16, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison about upcoming events:

“From oboist to organist, whether one performs pop or Prokofiev, every musician has a story of an intricate and sometimes unsettling pathway to a professional career.

“Violinist David Kim, (below) who will visit the School of Music TODAY and Tuesday, Oct. 16 and 17, is no different. Since 1999, Kim has been the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“On Tuesday at 7: 30 p.m. in Mills Hall, Kim will offer a talk, “From Prodigy to Professionalism – A Life in Music.” (Editor’s note: You can sample Kim’s terrific conversational style and accessible analysis in the interview with him about his violin in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“He’ll describe his experiences and struggles to reach the pinnacle of his career, interspersed with performances of some of Mr. Kim’s favorite works. It will be a humorous, sometimes jarring, and often poignant story not to be missed.

“Kim’s talk will be followed by a concert with UW-Madison strings and pianist Thomas Kasdorf. The program will include “Sonatensatz” (Sonata Movement) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897); “Banjo and Fiddle” by William Kroll (1901-1980); “Meditation” from the opera “Thais” by Jules Massenet (1842-1912); and “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).

“I’ve always shared anecdotes about my crazy upbringing,” Kim wrote in an email. “From the beginning, my story seemed to resonate, especially with parents. After all, who doesn’t have a story of an overzealous parent from some stage of life!

“Now I share my story numerous times each season and have been urged by many to write a book – a la the widely read book, ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.’

“But that will probably never happen as I prefer speaking during my concerts and love seeing the audience react in person.”

“Join us for our “Conversation & Concert” with David Kim, our strings players and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below), a UW-Madison alumnus and graduate student. Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for students, except Mead Witter music majors, who receive free admission. Buy tickets here. They will also be sold at the door, starting at 6:30 p.m.

“Additional Events: 
Violin Master Class is TODAY, Monday, Oct. 16, at 7 p.m. in Morphy Hall;
 Strings Orchestral Excerpts Master Class is on Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 11 a.m. in Morphy Hall. Both classes are free and open to the public.

“Learn more here: http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/david-kim-vivaldis-four-seasons/


Classical music: Let us celebrate Brit Grit after the Manchester terrorist attack with Elgar’s Symphony No. 1

May 24, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

First came the unforgettable.

Then came the unforgivable.

In the first case, I am talking about the woefully under-attended performance on Sunday afternoon at the Wisconsin Union Theater by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (below) under its outgoing maestro Edo de Waart.

The MSO played the Overture to the opera “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; “Schelomo: A Hebraic Rhapsody” by Ernest Bloch, with principal cellist Susan Babini as soloist; and the Symphony No. 1 by Sir Edward Elgar.

In each case, all sections of the orchestra performed stunningly well and the caliber of performance made you wonder: “Why don’t we hear this group more often?”

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra used to tour to Madison every year or so. It should do so again.

Then not long after the concert came word of the deadly terrorist attack by a suicide bomber at a pop concert in Manchester, England.

Sure, sometimes these things just happen. But coincidences can have power.

The Ear can’t think of a more stately and forceful statement of British fortitude and stoicism – the same grit that saw Britain through the Nazi blitz — than the poignant march-like opening of the first movement of Sir Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1.

Chances are you don’t know the symphony.

Chances are you know Elgar from his “Pomp and Circumstance” Marches, from his “Enigma Variations” for orchestra, from his Cello Concerto, from his Violin Concerto, from the violin miniature “Salut d’amour.”

But this is grand and great Elgar (below) who, like Brahms, turned to writing symphonies only late in his life.

We don’t hear Elgar’s first symphony often enough.

And this just happens to be the right time, both because of the world-class performance by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and because the symphony was premiered in 1908 — in Manchester — and then went on to be popular enough to have some 100 performances in its first year.

But it has fallen out of favor. The last time the Ear heard it live was years ago when the UW Symphony Orchestra played it under the baton of guest conductor and UW-Madison alumnus Kenneth Woods (below), who now leads the English Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Mahler Festival.

So here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, is a complete recording from the BBC Proms in 2012. Perhaps you will only listen to the opening movement, or even just the opening of the opening movement, with its moving theme that recurs throughout and then returns at the end.

But however much you listen to — and you shouldn’t miss the glorious slow movement – it seems a fitting choice to share today.

After all, as Leonard Bernstein once said: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

If you have another choice of music to listen to on this deadly occasion, leave word and a YouTube link in the COMMENT section.

Solidarity through music!


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