The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Two performances of the UW-Madison’s popular Winter Choral Concert takes place this Sunday afternoon. On Friday, composer Melinda Wagner gives a free public master class

November 29, 2018
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ALERT: On Friday, Nov. 30, from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Melinda Wagner will discuss her music in a master class, which is FREE and open to both students and the public. (You can hear an interview with her in the YouTube video at th bottom.)

For more information about the acclaimed composer, including a video interview, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/guest-artist-master-class-melinda-wagner-composer/

By Jacob Stockinger

On this Sunday afternoon, Dec. 2, one of the most popular FREE and PUBLIC events at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music will take place.

Two FREE performances of the annual Winter Concert, which always draws full houses, will take place at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue.

Six of seven UW-Madison choirs — Chorale, Concert Choir (below top), Madrigal Singers, University Chorus, Women’s Chorus (below bottom) and Masters Singers — will perform in the charity concert.

Choirs will perform choral works both as individual ensembles and jointly.

Holiday carols are part of the program, and concert-goers are invited to sing along.

Professors and graduate students Beverly Taylor (below top), Bruce Gladstone, Michael Johnson and Andrew Voth will conduct, and UW Professor John Chappell Stowe (below bottom) will play the organ.

A free-will offering is accepted at the end of the program. Proceeds after expenses will be donated to “The Road Home,” an organization that provides housing and food to homeless families.

For more information, and a list of the complete and lengthy eclectic program – which includes works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Ralph Vaughan Williams as well as traditional music, jazz, pop music and a piece by UW-Madison alumnus Scott Gendel — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/two-winter-concerts-at-luther-memorial-church/2018-12-02/


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Classical music: Two new memoirs and a new recording are revealing but uneven in marking the centennial of Leonard Bernstein

July 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

We are only a month away from the centennial of the birthday of conductor, composer, educator and pianist Leonard Bernstein, which will be celebrated on Saturday, Aug. 25. Larry Wells, who is The Opera Guy for The Ear, recently assessed three of the many works – two new books of memoirs and one new recording — reexamining the life, career and legacy of Leonard Bernstein.

By Larry Wells

During this year commemorating the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell), one need only consult https://leonardbernstein.com to find a day-by-day calendar of performances of his works.

As well as world-wide opportunities to hear his works -– even in Madison — there have been two recent books about Bernstein and a new recording of his final opera, “A Quiet Place,” that might be worth your time.

“A Quiet Place” was premiered in Houston as a sequel to his earlier opera “Trouble in Tahiti.” These first performances were conducted by our own John DeMain, the longtime artistic director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Madison Opera.

This nearly two-hour one-act opera dealing with incest, bisexuality, alcoholism and psychosis did not please the critics either for its libretto or for its music.

Soon thereafter Bernstein refashioned the opera by inserting “Trouble in Tahiti” in the middle and cutting some music. His subsequent recording has always baffled me because the music is so uninteresting and the casting is so haphazard.

The new recording on the Decca label (below) is of yet another version devised by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Reducing the orchestration to a chamber ensemble of 18 players, removing “Trouble in Tahiti,” and restoring some of the cuts, this recording by Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra allows us to hear most of the original version of the opera.

(To read Sunderland’s analysis of his edition, check https://leonardbernstein.com/uploads/pages/files/PFR_2013_FW.pdf.)

The new recording is a valiant attempt by Nagano (below) to breathe some life into this dreary work, but I remain unconvinced that “A Quiet Place” is any more than a failed, final stab by a composer most of whose work I admire very much.

Charlie Harmon was Bernstein’s personal assistant, and his recent memoir ”On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius” (below) goes a long way in explaining the failure of “A Quiet Place.” (You can hear the Postlude to Act I of “A Quiet Place” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To hear Harmon tell it, by this time in Bernstein’s life the maestro depended on drugs to go to sleep, drugs to keep himself awake, and alcohol in excess.  He also had a penchant for younger men.

The picture he paints of a troubled genius is rather pathetic, and Bernstein comes across as thoughtless, self-centered and exasperating. When Harmon (below, on the right with Bernstein) writes of his shock at being groped by Bernstein, I had to wonder what else he had expected. Still, it is an entertaining read.

Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein has recently published  “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (below) Here we get a glimpse into Bernstein’s family life. The portrait of his troubled relationship with his long-suffering wife Felicia Montealegre is particularly interesting.

I heard Jamie Bernstein (below) speak recently in Tucson, and she told amazing anecdotes about Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and William Schuman.

Little of that appears in the book. She assumes that the reader is interested in her own love life and her failed pop music career. I would have preferred to read more about the many fascinating people who surrounded Bernstein and less about her privileged and entitled life.

I have always been a big fan of Bernstein. I admired him as a conductor, teacher and composer. Anyone who has even a nominal interest in the man will find both of the recent memoirs at least diverting. The recording of “A Quiet Place,” however, is only for the true devotees.


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Classical music: The fifth FREE citywide annual Make Music Madison – featuring 300 concerts at 100 venues — takes place all day tomorrow

June 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tomorrow – Thursday, June 21, 2018 — is the Summer Solstice.

That means summer arrives.

That makes it the longest day and shortest night of the year.

And that also makes it the day when the fifth annual Make Music Madison will take place. The FREE citywide festival of outdoor music-making will go on all day.

According to the official website, there will be more than 300 concerts at more than 100 venues.

The website also has a very well-organized listing of concerts, artists and venues. It features a very user-friendly search engine – called a Filter Map — where you can check out the events by genre of music, name of the performers and the venue. It also includes rain accommodations, and given the weather this week, that could come in handy.

Here is a link to the complete listings:

http://www.makemusicmadison.org/listings/2018/locations/

Here is a link to the website, which has a fascinating and impressive overview and also a gallery of photos from last year’s event:

http://www.makemusicmadison.org

Of course the majority of the music that will be played by both amateurs and professionals, both individuals and groups, will be non-classical: jazz, pop, hip-hop, rock and roll, folk, world, musical theater, early music, blues, Celtic, funk, gospel and many more.

But from what The Ear sees there are about 25 noteworthy classical offerings too. They include music for guitar, organ, brass, strings, cello, flute and piano, including a public piano that will be at the UW-Madison’s Alumni Park from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. Other venues include churches and libraries, schools and shopping malls, parks and businesses.

Here is a more detailed list of classical offerings with artists as well as venues (you can hear a vocal group from 2015 in the YouTube video at the bottom):

http://www.makemusicmadison.org/listings/2018/artists?artist_name=&genre=Classical

Happy Listening!

If you go, leave a message about your reaction and how well it went in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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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