The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra reveals a leaner Sibelius and violin soloist Tim Kamps proves masterful in a rarely heard concerto by Alexander Glazunov

March 2, 2018
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CORRECTION: The performances by the Madison Symphony Chorus that were incorrectly listed for this coming Sunday in yesterday’s post took place last Sunday. The Ear apologizes and regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, 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. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

Under maestro Steve Kurr, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) again showed its capacities for offering surprisingly excellent concerts with its latest one on Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

The guest soloist was a fine young local violinist, Tim Kamps (below). His vehicle was an interesting venture off the beaten path. How often do we hear the Violin Concerto in A minor by Alexander Glazunov? Well, we were given a chance this time.

This is not your typical Romantic concerto. It is not long, and is essentially an entity in four sections—not distinct movements, but a steady continuity, with interconnecting thematic material. Glazunov did not always do the best by his themes, somewhat burying them in the total texture. Still, this is very listenable music, with a solo part that is full of virtuosic demands but avoids overstatements.

Kamps (below) did full justice to the florid parts, but used his sweet and suave tone to emphasize the lyrical side of the writing as much as he could. In all, he provided a worthwhile encounter with an underplayed work of individual quality. Kamps is an experienced member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, but he deserves more solo exposure like this.

The program opened with Rossini’s overture to his comic opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). There is a lot of good fun in this piece, but a corrupt edition was used which reinforced the brass section to coarse effect. Moreover, Kurr gave the music a somewhat leisurely pace, rather diminishing its vitality and thrust. (You can hear the familiar Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The big work of the program was the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius. Here again, as so often before, conductor Kurr and his players bravely took on a workhorse piece of challenging familiarity. There were a few rough moments, especially some slight slurring here and there by the violin sections.

But Kurr (below) wisely chose not to seek polished sound for its own sake. Rather, he drove the orchestra to convey constant tension and drama, with a fine ear for the frequent exchanges and dialogues between instrumental groups, notably in the long and high-powered second movement.

By such means, we were able to hear less of the Late Romantic bombast usually stressed and more of the lean textures that Sibelius was to perfect in his subsequent symphonic and orchestral writing.

The orchestra played with steady devotion, once again demonstrating what an “amateur” orchestra could work itself up to achieving.


Classical music: A busy week at the UW-Madison includes FREE concerts of music for strings, winds, voice and brass

February 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This week will be busy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

There is something just about every day and all of it is FREE and OPEN to the public.

For all events, including some interesting doctoral recitals and lectures, go to:

Here is a schedule of the major events:


NOTE: The concert by guest artists flutist Cristina Ballatori and guitarist Jonathan Dotson has been CANCELED.

At 7:30 in Mills Hall, a concert and discussion of Eastern European string music will be given by Maria Pomianowska (below top) and Seth Parker Woods (below bottom in a photo by Michael Yu).

For more information, go to:


At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW trombonist Mark Hetzler (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and UW collaborative pianist Martha Fischer (below bottom) will perform music from their latest CD on Summit Records “Themes and Meditations.” Featured composers include Sandro Fuga, Jan Bach, Anthony Plog, Anthony Barfield and Frank Bridge.

For more information, go to:


At 7 p.m. at Oakwood Village West, 6209 Mineral Point Road, in Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall, the UW Wingra Wind Quintet will perform a free concert. Sorry, no words on composers or pieces on the program. Members are (below, from left, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) bassoonist Marc Vallon, flutist Timothy Hagen, clarinetist Alicia Lee, oboist Aaron Hill, and hornist Joanna Schulz.


At 5 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the voice students of UW professor Mimmi Fulmer (below) will perform a “Rush Hour Recital” of classical and popular songs. Sorry, no word on composers or pieces on the program.

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW cellist Parry Karp (below left), who plays with the Pro Arte Quartet, will perform a recital with longtime partner pianist Eli Kalman (below right), who did his graduate studies at UW-Madison and now teaches at UW-Oshkosh.

The program features the “Romance for Violin and Piano” by Polish composer Karl Szymanowski as transcribed by Karp; the Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major by Johannes Brahms; and the Sonata for Cello and Piano by French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan. (You can hear the original setting of the Szymanowski Romance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information, go to:


At 3 p.m. in Morphy Hall the winners of the Irving Shain Woodwind and Piano Duo Competition will perform. The winners have not yet been named and there is no program yet posted. Stay tuned and go to here for an update:

Classical music: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:


Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Pianist Philippe Bianconi returns to solo in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend. The MSO premiere of the Concerto for Orchestra by Witold Lutoslawski is also on the program

April 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger 

Pianist Philippe Bianconi (below, in a photo by Bernard Martinez) returns this weekend to solo with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) in one of the most challenging works written for piano, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

The program opens with Schumann’s dramatic Manfred Overture, followed by the MSO’s premiere performance of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Concluding the program is a performance of the notoriously difficult Piano Concerto No. 3 composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1973-1943). The performance features French pianist Bianconi, who won a silver medal at the Van Cliburn Competition and who has performed frequently with the MSO.

The concerts take place in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday night, April 7 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, April 8, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 9 at 2:30 p.m. Ticket information is further down.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856, below) composed the Overture to Manfred in 1848 during a time of many revolutions throughout Europe, with political feelings running high across the continent.

In Bryon’s mystical poem, Manfred, Bryon’s hero, a “freedom fighter who is tortured by guilt and melancholy” perfectly suited the time and political environment of Europe.

Schumann once wrote in a letter to Franz Liszt (who directed the complete version in 1851): “I feel that it is one of the strongest of my artistic children, and I hope that you will agree with me.”

Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994, below), began work on Concerto for Orchestra in 1950. This is the first time this piece will be performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the dramatic opening of the work, performed by Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the YouTube videos at the bottom.)

Originally from Warsaw, Poland, the Lutoslawski family fled to Russia to escape the German occupation of World War I. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Lutoslawski’s father and uncle were executed by the Bolsheviks for their political activism and the family returned to Warsaw. Lutoslawski had studied piano and composition between the wars, but was then drafted into the Polish army and captured by the Nazi’s in 1933.

He escaped captivity and found his way back to Warsaw where he worked as a cabaret pianist. Lutoslawski fled Warsaw a second time, just months before the Nazis leveled the city in 1945 – “losing most of his scores in the process.” He then returned to Warsaw when it was controlled by the Soviets.

Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra is based in part on folk styles – apparently at the request of conductor Witold Rowicki, to whom it is dedicated.  It is his most popular piece.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) composed his Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1909. He spent the summer in the Russian countryside, relaxing on his wife’s family’s estate, while also writing one of the most challenging works for piano in the repertoire. This piece is a “fiery display of piano technique” that has been called “The Mt. Everest of piano concertos.”

One hour before each performance, John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), music director of the MSO, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, visit the Program Notes, written by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below, in a  photo by Katrin Talbot), at:

Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each, available at and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit,

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Exclusive funding for the April concerts is provided by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation.

For more information about the Madison Symphony Orchestra, go to


Classical music: A second photograph of Chopin has been discovered. Here it is along with how it was found and what it tells us

March 11, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

A conservative musician who admired and valued the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart above that of  Ludwig van Beethoven and his own contemporaries, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) is one of the most popular and most played of all Romantic composers.

He remains a perennial favorite of audiences, students and concert artists. Witness the recent sold-out concerts featuring Chopin’s music by Trevor Stephenson at his home and by Adam Neiman at Farley’s House of Pianos. An amazingly high percentage of Chopin’s works remains in the active repertoire.

His was no belated posthumous fame, either. Chopin, the famous Polish pianist-composer who was exiled in Paris, was well-known and widely respected in his own lifetime by the public and by other famous composers and pianists such as Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann.

Yet despite many drawings and paintings of Chopin – often at odds in their depictions — until recently only one known photograph of Chopin existed: The familiar one taken by Louis-Auguste Bisson in Paris towards the end of Chopin’s life, just months before he died of tuberculosis at age 39 in 1849.

Now a second photograph — or daguerreotype, to be exact — has been discovered. It probably dates from 1847 or so.

Here is the new photographic portrait of Chopin:

Want to know some background?

Here is the story from Poland via The Washington Post and the Associated Press:

Here are the two known photographs side by side for comparison:

And here is a terrific blog analysis of the two photographs that also discusses his late music and what the photographs tell us about Chopin:

The Ear wonders how long it will be before we start seeing the new photograph of Chopin on CD jackets and liner notes.

In any case, as an homage, here is Chopin’s last composition, the archetypically Polish form of the Mazurka in F minor, Op. 68, No. 4, played in a YouTube video by Vladimir Ashkenazy :


Classical music: Pianist Adam Neiman defines what makes for great Chopin playing. He performs an all-Chopin recital this Sunday afternoon at Farley’s House of Pianos.

February 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

What makes for great Chopin playing?

It is an especially germane question since the critically acclaimed pianist Adam Neiman (below) will perform an all-Chopin recital this coming Sunday at 4 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets are $45. For more information, go to:

Neiman –pronounced KNEE-man — has appeared here as a soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and recorded piano concertos by Mozart with the WCO. He is a critically acclaimed prize-winning pianist with a major concertizing and recording career. He also teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago and is a member of the Trio Solisti, a piano trio that has been hailed as the successor to the famous Beaux Arts Trio.

Here is a link to Neiman’s website with information about him and his recordings, including upcoming releases of Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninoff:

Adam Neiman also recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:


There are some exceptional players of Beethoven and other German composers who sound completely out of their element in Chopin. What qualities do you think make for great Chopin playing and what makes Chopin difficult to interpret?

Chopin’s music incorporates a narrative language and an emphasis on very “first person” points-of-view; in other words, it is highly personalized, expressing emotion from the perspective of the individual, including nationalistic sentiments. Often, Germanic music aims for “objective” viewpoints, with extremely stringent instructions by the composer.

For players who struggle with the open-ended idiomatic flavor in Chopin’s music, the lack of objective instruction by the composer can make it difficult for them to know what to do. (You can hear Adam Neiman discussing much more about Chopin’s personality and artistic achievement in the YouTube video at the bottom)

To play Chopin (below) at a very high level requires imagination and freedom, as well as a poetic and introspective musical tendency. The fluidity of rubato, the contrapuntal interaction between the hands and the frequent use of widely spread textures requires a nimble master of the instrument, one with the ability to emphasize the piano’s specific virtuosic abilities.

In addition, Chopin’s music is centered around a bel canto operatic style of melody, whereas Germanic melody tends to be more motivic in nature, and therefore developmental.

A composer like Beethoven will emphasize motivic metamorphosis as a means of augmenting a form to create large structures, whereas Chopin will glide from one melodic area to another, using harmonic exploration as the central means of formal expansion.

This compositional difference outlines different strengths in the pianists, as the skill set to play reams of melody lines in succession can often be very different from those skills required to highlight motivic development in a work.


Can you place the 24 Preludes that you will be playing within the context of Chopin’s entire body of works. What would you like the public to know about the preludes and how you see them individually and as a group?

The 24 Preludes were composed while Chopin was on holiday in Mallorca, Spain, which proved to be Chopin’s first palpable bout with tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed him. (Below is an 1849 photo of Chopin on his deathbed.)

Many of these works were written in a fever-state, in haste, and during a stressful time period in which Chopin was not only facing his own mortality, but also dealing with the myriad challenges of integrating with the children of his lover, the French writer Aurora Dudevant who is better known as George Sand.

These Preludes are like snapshots into the mind of the composer at a moment in time, often without regard for cohesion or development. They exist in a timeless place, where the music expresses the extremely personal sentiments roiling through Chopin’s consciousness.

In many ways, these works capture his spirit in the most distilled possible way, giving the player and listener an opportunity to view the mind and heart of Chopin without filter or refinement, hallmarks of his larger works.

Despite the widely varied emotional content of these Preludes, as a set they hold together as a marvelous and surprisingly cogent musical journey. They exemplify the 19th-century “Romantic” ideals of fantasy, freedom, individuality and raw emotion.

Chopin on deathbed photo

You will also perform all four Ballades. How they do they rank within Chopin’s output? What would you like listeners to know about each of the four ballades, about what they share in common and what distinguishes each one? Do you have favorites and why?

If the Preludes represent the pinnacle of Chopin’s ability to express poetic ideals within miniature forms, the Ballades represent the apex of his more grandiose musical philosophy.

The Ballade, as a form, emanates from epic poetry, often portraying a heroic protagonist overcoming seemingly inescapable challenges. Ballades can also be tied to nationalistic notions, and for Chopin, all four Ballades are truly Polish in their expression.

As Chopin’s native Poland was invaded and he was cut off permanently from re-entry, Chopin became an orphan of the world, whose adopted home of France revered and celebrated him without equal.

His musical mission — exemplified by the Ballades, Mazurkas and Polonaises in particular — was to heighten awareness of Poland’s cultural contributions to a European audience totally unaware of the goings-on in the east.

As a result of the immense conflicts suffered by Chopin’s homeland, and in keeping with the deep pride and identification Chopin felt as a Pole, these Ballades express the emotional rollercoaster of a lone Polish hero — perhaps Chopin himself, autobiographically — battling the world.

All four of these works make an enormous impression on the listener. From the despair and anger of the first Ballade, the bi-polar conflicts of the second (below is the opening of the second Ballade in Chopin’s manuscript), the pastoral hopefulness of the third, and the desolate introspection of the fourth, these Ballades speak to the soul and require the most intensely personal voice of the performer.

Adam Neiman 2 2016

They require the possession of immense physical power and emotional maturity, which renders these works as being among Chopin’s most challenging.

I love all four of them equally. They are true masterworks of the highest order.


In there anything else you would like to say?

I am deeply honored and extremely delighted to return to Madison to perform this recital. I look forward to seeing many familiar faces, as well as new friends. Thank you!


Classical music: The music of John Field remains underappreciated. Pianist John O’Conor will perform concertos by Field and Mozart this Friday night with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

April 19, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), under its longtime music director Andrew Sewell, will close out its current Masterworks season this Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

WCO lobby

The program – which features guest pianist John O’Conor (below) – includes the Piano Concerto No. 1 by John Field; the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 (“Elvira Madigan”), by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra by Igor Stravinsky; and the Symphony No. 1 by Carl Maria von Weber.

john o'conor pink shirt horizontal

Tickets are $15-$80.

For more information, including a full biography of John O’Conor and the purchasing of tickets, visit:

John O’Conor, who has an extremely busy career performing, teaching, recording and judging piano competitions recently agreed to a Q&A with The Ear:

john o'conor with piano

John Field is best known as the precursor of Chopin when it comes to composing nocturnes. How right or wrong is that perception and how would you change it? What else should we know about Field, his stylistic roots and his influence, especially through his other piano music, in particular his concertos?

John Field (below) is indeed the originator of the Nocturne form for piano music. He realized that the usual forms of music of the 18th century (sonatas, variations etc.) were not really suitable for after-dinner performances at the residences of the nobility in the 19th century, so he published various short pieces entitled “Pastorale” and other such names until he happened on the idea of the “Nocturne” in 1814 (when Chopin was only 4 !!) when he published his first three.

They were an immediate sensation and he quickly published many more. It is said that one of his Polish students in St. Petersburg went back to Poland in the 1820s, played some of his Nocturnes, Chopin heard them and wrote his own and the rest is history.

John Field

Field was a prodigy in his native Dublin where he was born in 1782. His father recognized his talent and spent the enormous sum of 100 pounds to apprentice him to Muzio Clementi in London when he was only barely in his teens. Clementi was not only a famous pianist and composer but also a piano manufacturer.

He soon realized that when Field demonstrated his pianos, he sold more pianos! So he brought him on a promotional your around Europe in 1802. They visited Paris and Vienna and then St. Petersburg, when winter set in and they had to stay there until they could travel again in spring.

But during the winter the very handsome Field became the darling of the salons and all the daughters of the nobility wanted to study piano with him. So when Clementi (below) left in spring, Field stayed on. He spent most of the rest of his life in Russia and died in Moscow in 1837.

Muzio Clementi

What would you like the public to know about the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major by Field that you will perform in Madison?

Apart from Nocturnes, Field also wrote four sonatas and seven piano concertos. The concertos were tremendously popular in the 19th century and his second concerto was often the debut concerto of young virtuosi — in the same way that Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 2 became so in the 20th century.

The problem with the concertos is that they often lack an advanced sense of form and meander quite a bit — but quite beautifully!

I love the first concerto because it is the most concise and best organized of the concertos. It is full of youthful exuberance and he obviously wanted to show off his considerable technique in the flying fingers of the outer movements.

The middle movement is a set of variations on a Scottish folk song and though he composed this piece while still living in London with Clementi you can already hear the gentle filigree figurations that became such a characteristic of his later Nocturnes.

The Piano Concerto No. 21 by Mozart (below) is best known for its slow movement that was used as the soundtrack to the popular film “Elvira Madigan.” What else would you like to point out about this particular concerto to the public? In your view, where does it rank among Mozart’s 27 piano concertos?

There is no connection between Field and Mozart that I know of. But the Mozart Concerto is another example of a composer showing off his virtuosity. Both the outer movements sparkle with vivacity and charm, and the beauty of the slow movement needs no introduction from me. It is one of the most beautiful movements that Mozart ever wrote. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video — with 39 million hits!~ at the bottom.)

Mozart old 1782

You are very well known internationally as a both a teacher and an award-winning performer. For you, how does each activity inform the other?

I love teaching. I have always loved teaching piano. To some people, it might seem like drudgery, but I hope none of my students have ever felt that.

Nowadays I have incredibly gifted students who regularly win prizes at international piano competitions. But even when I started teaching, I hope I made the music fun for all my less talented students. It is a privilege to give them a love of the art that will keep for the rest of their lives.


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