The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here are practicing tips from pianist Emanuel Ax who uses software to help correct wrong notes

September 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even professional musicians can find practicing to be an ordeal.

“Ax is back,” says the publicity.

That’s because world-famous pianist Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) is back in Madison to help open John DeMain’s 25th anniversary season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Ax will perform the monumental and fiendishly difficult Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms tonight, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

It is a piece that Ax performed live some 200 times before he would agree to recording it.

Here is a link to more about the MSO concerts with the famous pianist:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/09/26/classical-music-this-weekend-pianist-emanuel-ax-helps-conductor-john-demain-opens-his-25th-season-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra/

And here is a link to a story about how Ax, who describes himself as a slow learner and who teaches students at the Juilliard School in New York City, practices. It contains his own tips and also talks about special software he uses to detect and correct wrong notes that is available to students and amateurs :

https://lifehacker.com/how-emanuel-ax-makes-piano-practice-less-of-a-slog-1826402441

And as a follow-up, here is a short example of the many YouTube videos of master classes with Emanuel Ax. This one small passage in a sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven gives you a good idea of the hard work that goes into the 50-minute concerto by Brahms:


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

May 22, 2018
5 Comments

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 Mosaic Chamber Players close out their season with great performances of great piano trios by Beethoven and Brahms

April 30, 2018
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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

On Saturday evening at the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, the Mosaic Chamber Players closed their season with a superlative program offering two of the greatest trios for piano and strings.

The players this time (below) were violinist Wes Luke and cellist Kyle Price, together with the group’s guiding spirit, pianist Jess Salek.

The first of the two works was the grand Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, known as the “Archduke,” by Ludwig van Beethoven. This is an expansive work, full of bold ideas and adventurous spirit, while demanding much of its players.

Of its four movements, the flanking ones are full of exuberance. The scherzo has double trios or mid-sections, and is full of tricks. The third movement is a noble set of variations on a broad, hymn-like theme. (You can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The second work, following an intermission, was the Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms. Though composed and published very early in his output, it was revised by the composer into a distinctly new version some 35 years later. It thus offers the passion of youthfulness as tempered and given better focus by age and experience.

Also cast in four movements, it is infused with full-blooded melody, especially in the first one, but the whole piece is worked out in a richness of texture typical of the composer.

Each of the two works was given a performance of unrestricted commitment and power, in the process demonstrating the contrasts in their styles. Each was introduced by violinist Luke (below), whose comments spoke to the works and their history but also to his own feelings about them.

This in fact pointed up the degree of personal involvement these performances conveyed. It was as if the three musicians were playing as much for their own delight as for the audience’s.

That quality illustrated why this Mosaic series of programs has been so very satisfying. This is chamber music playing of the highest quality and character, some of the very best to be had in Madison.

The more reason for these Mosaic concerts to be publicized widely and broadly supported by our musical public. Few cities in our country could offer better.


Classical music: Despite overly traditional staging, the Madison Opera’s “Carmen” beguiled and bewitched through the outstanding singing

November 7, 2017
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy attended Sunday’s sold-out performance of “Carmen” by the Madison Opera and filed the following review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

When I learned that Madison Opera was going to produce Bizet‘s “Carmen,” I was not surprised. It is annually one of the most frequently performed operas internationally, and it is a surefire vehicle for filling seats. It is safe.

On the other hand, once one watches repeated performances of an old favorite, the appeal can diminish. One advantage of an opera is that novel approaches to the production can prevent a warhorse from becoming stale.

I would love to say that the approach both musically and dramatically to this production of “Carmen” broke new ground, but it did not. In fact, the production was as traditional as could be. (Below is the main set, rented from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I attended a performance of “Carmen” in Tucson a couple of years ago, and the conductor Keitaro Harada breathed new life into the familiar music through interesting tempi and finely nuanced dynamics.

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo  by Prasad) conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a perfectly fine and occasionally uplifting manner, but there was little new to learn from his approach. The purely instrumental entr’actes shimmered, but during the rest of the opera the singing was at the forefront.

Maestro Harada (below), whom Madison should be actively courting, is currently conducting “Carmen” in Sofia, and the accompanying publicity clip in the YouTube video at the bottom (bear with the Bulgarian commentary) shows that the production is unconventional in its approach although it clearly is still “Carmen.” I would have enjoyed something other than the ultra-traditional staging and sets experienced here in Madison.

At times the production was so hackneyed and hokey that I chuckled to myself – ersatz flamenco dancing, the fluttering of fans, all of the cigarette factory girls with cigarettes dangling from their lips, unconvincing fight scenes, annoying children running across the stage, dreary costumes that hardly reminded me of Seville. And I could go on.

Yet “Carmen” has a way of drawing one in despite oneself. The music is marvelous, and the singing was uniformly excellent.

The four principals were luminous both in their solo pieces and ensembles. Cecelia Violetta López as Micaëla (below right) was lustrous in her two arias as well as in her duet with Sean Panikkar’s Don José (below left).

Panikkar started the performance off with little flair, but from the time he became besotted with Carmen toward the end of the first act he was on fire. He then maintained a high degree of passion and zest in his vocal performance.

Corey Crider (below right) was a wonderful Escamillo, singing his toréador role with great élan despite his unfortunate costumes.

And Aleks Romano (below) as Carmen made the most of her complex character. Her singing was luscious, and her acting – particularly her use of her expressive eyes – was terrific.

Likewise, the lesser roles – Thomas Forde as Zuniga, Benjamin Liupaogo as Remendado, Erik Earl Larson as Dancaïre, a radiant Anna Polum as Fransquita, and Megan Le Romero as Mercédès – were equally well sung. The ensemble work in the quintet at the end of Act II and in the card scene was outstanding.

The chorus (below) sounded terrific throughout, although the women’s costumes and the stage direction made the choristers appear ludicrous as times.

When all is said and done, “Carmen” still beguiled me by drawing me into its characters’ complex psychologies and motivations. Likewise, its music still bewitched me in much the same way as Carmen inexplicably bewitched hapless Don José (below).

But I seem to always wish for more – more compelling productions, more daring music making, more risk-taking.

I do look forward to this coming spring’s production of “Florencia en el Amazonas.” The recording is captivating, and the opera’s performances have pleased a wide variety of audiences by all accounts. And it is something new. Hallelujah!

Did you go to “Carmen”? 

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Get the new UW-Madison brochure for the School of Music concerts, faculty and students. It’s a MUST-HAVE and a MUST-READ, and it is FREE to anyone

September 6, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Although the UW-Madison officially opened yesterday, today is the first day of instruction. And this weekend will see the beginning of the new concert season at the Mead Witter School of Music.

On Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, faculty soprano Mimmi Fulmer and alumnus pianist Thomas Kasdorf will kick off the season with a FREE concert of music and songs celebrating the 100th anniversary of the independence of Finland.

But that’s just the beginning to an event-filled school year that includes mostly free solo recitals, chamber music, orchestral music, opera, choral music and more.

And this year, there is a new guide to the concert season and the School of Music itself.

The short and usual glossy brochure of listings has given way to a booklet guide. It is 8-1/2 by 11 inches big and has 24 well-filled pages. It is printed on regular paper and has much more information about the events and the people who make them happen. It takes you behind the scenes as well as in the hall and on the stage.

It is less showy, to be sure, but so much more readable and informative. And it feels great in your hands.

On the right hand margin, you’ll find concerts with performers and programs. To the left and in the center, you will find news, biographies and other information about musicians, donors and an update about the new concert hall building.

The new guide, which you can get for FREE, is the brainchild of Kathy Esposito (below), the music school‘s publicist and concert manager.

Here is what Esposito has to say:

“Our School of Music website, which debuted in 2014, required resources that previously had been devoted to multiple print publications.

“So we dropped back to only one, a printed events calendar.

“I’m happy to say that for the 2017-18 academic year, we finally found time to enlarge the printed concert calendar into a true newsletter as well.

“We certainly have enough news to share. Much of what’s in there had not been, or still is not, placed on the website at http://www.music.wisc.edu.

“My personal favorites are the stories from students, both undergrad and grad. As a mom of two young musicians, I can, to some degree, understand both the challenges and the thrills of their careers. Learning about their lives is the best part of my job. Occasionally I can help them, too.

“A couple of other things to give credit where credit is due.

“My assistant, Brianna Ware, who is a graduate student in piano, caught and corrected many errors.

“The brochure was designed by Bob Marshall of Marshall Design in Middleton. He did a masterful job. Bravo!

“Printing was coordinated by the fabulous Sue Lind at DoIT (Division of Information Technology) Printing and Publishing, who helped me to choose a new paper stock, a lightweight matte.

“Lastly, upon request from our older readers, we increased the font size slightly.

“We mailed the brochure to all alumni, national and international. That also was new. And our feedback has been quite positive.

“I’m happy to send readers a FREE copy of this fall’s brochure – with the somewhat humdrum title “Concerts, News and Events” – to those who email their postal addresses to me. I’ll place you on the list for next year, too. Send your name and postal address to kesposito@wisc.edu

About twice a month, we also publish an e-newsletter in the form of a blog, which I also paste into an email for those on a Wisclist, who don’t get the blog. It is the same information, but I think the blog is prettier.

That’s available via this link: https://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/


Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS — the slow movement of the Violin Concerto by Gerald Finzi

August 7, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has long had a fondness for the works of the 20th-century British composer Gerald Finzi (below).

His work may be relatively tweedy and conservative, but it is unmistakably modern. It is very poignant and appealing, with accessible harmonies and beautiful melodies. He seems much like a British Samuel Barber.

Ever since he first heard it maybe 20 years ago, The Ear has loved Finzi’s pastoral Eclogue for Piano and String Orchestra, which was meant to be the slow movement of a piano concerto but ended up being an independent work. And, judging by how increasingly  often it gets played on Wisconsin Public Radio, the Eclogue seems to be a favorite among a growing number of fans.

But there are other works.

There is the Romance for Violin and Small Orchestra.

There is the Romance for String Orchestra.

There is the Concerto for Cello.

There is his Romance for Clarinet and String Orchestra as well as the Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Orchestra.

And now The Ear has discovered the slow movement — appropriately marked “very serene” — of the Violin Concerto by Finzi, which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

It is performed by British violinist Tasmin Little (below, in a photo by Melanie Winning), who four seasons years ago turned in wonderful performances in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell. She played Finzi’s rarely heard “Introit.”

If you want to hear the whole concerto, it is available for free on YouTube from a couple of different performers. And you can find many other works by Finzi on YouTube.

In any case, The Ear hopes the Violin Concerto gets programmed at a local concert.

This past summer, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society featured a song cycle by Finzi. Even so, we need to hear more music by Gerald Finzi in live performances.

Finzi was a modest and retiring man, publicity shy and not given to self-aggrandizement or self-promotion, who went underperformed and underappreciated during his lifetime. But he is an extremely welcoming and moving modern composer.

The Ear thinks he deserves a better place among other modern British composers who have become more popular, including Ralph Vaughan Williams (shown, below right, with Finzi), Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, William Walton and others.

Are there other Gerald Finizi fans out there?

What do you think about him?

And what is your favorite work by Gerald Finzi?

The Ear wants to hear.


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