The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is Prokofiev more Romantic than modernist? Hear for yourself at the concert Friday night by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and violinist Giora Schmidt. Plus, the UW Symphony Orchestra performs a FREE concert Thursday night

February 21, 2018
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ALERTS: This Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform a FREE concert under the baton of alumnus and guest conductor Mikko Rankin Utevsky, the founder and director of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO).  The program features the Symphony No. 5 by Franz Schubert; “Entr’acte” by Caroline Shaw; and the “Holberg Suite” by Edvard Grieg.

The week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features guitarist Steve Waugh and flutist Sridhar Bagavathula playing music by Frederic Chopin, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla, Francisco Tarrega, Francois Morel and Jerome Kern. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Sometimes the frame helps to define the picture, to reveal or at least reinforce the picture’s meaning.

Such is the case with this Friday night’s appealing and stand-out concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with conductor Andrew Sewell and Israeli violin soloist Giora Schmidt (below, in a photo by David Getzschman).

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in The Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Tickets are $15-$80 with student tickets available for $10. For more information about the performers and the program, as well as how to obtain tickets, go to:

The program features the “Petite Symphonie” (Small Symphony) for winds by the Romantic French composer Charles Gounod (below), who is much better known for and more often performed for his operas “Faust” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

Then there is the melodic, popular and often performed Serenade for Strings by the Russian arch-Romantic Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (below). Like so much Tchaikovsky – both his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Violin Concerto, now staples of the repertoire, were deemed unplayable when first composed – the Serenade can  sound less challenging than it really is.

In between comes a modern masterpiece that The Ear is especially fond of: The Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor by the Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (below).

And that is where it gets especially interesting.

Prokofiev is often lumped together with his Russian contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich (below). Both were virtuoso pianists. Both faced hardships from the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. And while it is true that some of Prokofiev’s music shares a certain spikiness as well as harmonic darkness and dissonance with that of his contemporary, the pairing can be misleading.

To The Ear, much more — maybe even most — of Prokofiev’s music shares a lot more with the late Russian Romantics, including Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Roughly and with some exceptions, he sees Prokofiev as modern Russia’s Mozart for his melodic clarity, and Shostakovich as modern Russia’s Beethoven for his harmonic thickness.

The Ear doesn’t know if that same point is intended and was in mind when maestro Andrew Sewell (below) set up the concert, but he suspects it was because Sewell is a canny and intelligent programmer.

But intentional or not, no matter: the point stands.

If a single moment offers proof, The Ear would single out the opening of the slow movement of the Prokofiev concerto.

It has a beautiful melodic line, moving harmonies and a hypnotic clock-like rhythm to a theme-and-variation development that sounds unmistakably modern but accessibly modern in the same way that the never-fail Violin Concerto by the American composer Samuel Barber does.

You can hear the second movement in a YouTube video at the bottom and make up your own mind. It is performed by the way by the great David Oistrakh for whom Prokofiev composed the concerto.

Suffice it to say that The Ear has never heard that movement without the little hairs on the back of his neck standing up, much like happens with the famous 18th Variation in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” or the opening of the first and second movements of the Barber Violin Concerto.

If you know that music by Prokofiev, you will be happy you hear it again. And if you don’t already know it, you will be forever grateful to have made its acquaintance.

Anyway, The Ear will assume that the programming was deliberate and establishes for the audience a context for the Prokofiev, which is the most important and substantial work on the program.

And Giora Schmidt (below),k who is making his Madison debut, certainly sounds like the kind of virtuoso who will do justice to the work. Just read the critics’ raves on his website:


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Classical music: The reviews are in! This afternoon is your last chance to hear the critically acclaimed violin virtuoso Gil Shaham and the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff

January 21, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been 17 years since the internationally renowned, award-winning American violin virtuoso Gil Shaham (below) performed in Madison, and that was a recital with his pianist-sister Orli Shaham at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

This weekend he was back for three performances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain in an all-Russian program that featured one of the greatest violin concertos: the Violin Concerto in D major by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. (You can hear Gil Shaham performing an excerpt from the finale of the Tchaikovsky concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Both the critics and audiences loved him.

This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street is your last chance to hear Gil Shaham in the Tchaikovsky, along with the “Love for Three Oranges” Suite by Sergei Prokofiev and the Symphony No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Tickets are $18-$90.

For more information about tickets, the performers and the program, go to the website:

Here are two reviews that you can read as a preview if you haven’t yet gone or as a chance to measure your own impressions against the critics’ if you went to the performances on Friday and Saturday nights.

Here is the review that John W. Barker, a frequent guest critic for this blog, wrote for Isthmus:

And here is the review that Jessica Courtier wrote for The Capital Times:

What did you think of Gil Shaham’s performance?

Of the playing by the Madison Symphony Orchestra?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Acclaimed violinist Gil Shaham debuts here this weekend in an all-Russian program with the Madison Symphony Orchestra

January 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) performs three concerts that include the long-awaited Madison debut of violin virtuoso Gil Shaham. MSO music director John DeMain will conduct.

The all-Russian program features works by three of the most popular and beloved Russian composers of all time: the Suite from The Love for Three Oranges” by Sergei Prokofiev; the Symphony No. 3 in A minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff; and the Violin Concerto in D Major by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The concerts are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on this Friday, Jan. 19, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 20, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 21, at 2:30 p.m.

(See below for ticket information.).

“Our January concerts feature a number of significant firsts,” says MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad).

“Most important is the Madison Symphony Orchestra debut of one of the world’s premier violinists, Gil Shaham. We have sought out Mr. Shaham for many seasons, and we are thrilled his international schedule aligned with ours this year. His offer to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto led me into creating another one of my all-Russian programs.

From Prokofiev, we open the concert with MSO’s first performance in nearly 40 years of his Suite from his opera, The Love of Three Oranges. This will also be our first-ever performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony.”

“The Love for Three Oranges” Suite by Sergei Prokofiev (below) is based on a satirical opera commissioned during the composer’s first visit to the United States in 1918.

“The suite is composed in six parts and follows the story of a prince that is cursed to love three oranges, roaming the Earth searching for them. When he finds the oranges and peels them, each discloses a beautiful princess inside. The first two princesses to emerge die, but the third and most beautiful is saved, and she and the Prince live happily ever after.

“The Violin Concerto by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky (below) is one of the best-known violin concertos in the repertoire and is considered one of the most technically difficult works ever written for the violin. The concerto was written in 1878 as Tchaikovsky ended his marriage to Antonina Milyukova, a marriage that lasted only three months.”

Declared “the outstanding American violinist of his generation” by Time magazine, Gil Shaham is one of the foremost violinists of our time: his flawless technique combined with his inimitable warmth and generosity of spirit has solidified his renown as an American master.

Grammy Award-winner Shaham (below), also named Musical America’s “Instrumentalist of the Year,” is sought after throughout the world for concerto appearances with leading orchestras and conductors, and regularly gives recitals and appears with ensembles on the world’s great concert stages and at the most prestigious festivals. (You can hear Gil Shaham rehearsing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto last month in Paris in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In his Symphony No. 3, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s melodic outline and rhythm characterize what is believed to be his most expressively Russian symphony, particularly in the dance rhythms of the finale.

Composed between 1935 and 1936, this was the last symphony Rachmaninoff (below) would create, with an orchestration more transparent than that of his previous symphonies.

One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below), artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra and interim director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

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

NOTE: The MSO recommends that concert attendees ARRIVE EARLY for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk, which is free for all ticket-holders.


Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling 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 $18 tickets.

More information is at:

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.

Major funding for the January concerts is provided by the Irving and Dorothy Levy Family Foundation, Inc., Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, Inc., Marilyn and Jim Ebben, Dr. Stanley and Shirley Inhorn, Kato L. Perlman, and Cyrena and Lee Pondrom. Additional funding provided by James and Joan Johnston, von Briesen & Roper, S.C., and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: For you, what were the best, most memorable or most enjoyable concerts of 2017? Here are the highlights for critics John W. Barker and The Ear

December 29, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

The end of the calendar year is only the mid-point of the new season and the concert calendar.

Still, it is a good time to take stock of the past year and the various performers and performances that we heard.

John W. Barker (below), who writes frequently for this blog as well as for Isthmus, recently published his top picks of concerts in 2017 in Isthmus. Here is a link to his year-end assessment:

To be fair, The Ear doesn’t always agree with Barker on the quality of some pieces and of certain performances. But by and large the two of us are in accord, and even when we aren’t, the Ear respects and learns from Barker’s expertise and experience.

The Ear would only add several things he found that Barker doesn’t mention:

The all-Mozart concert in the fall by the Pro Arte Quartet (below) — with UW faculty clarinetist Alicia Lee and San Francisco cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau filling in for Parry Karp, was a much-needed balm in these times of distress.

If you are a fan of amateur music-making and love the music of Bach, the revival of the Bach Around the Clock marathon in March proved enthralling. (Below are violist father Stan Weldy and mandolinist son Alex Weldy.)

You heard all kinds of musicians, from students and adult amateurs to professionals, in all genres of music, including arrangements and transcriptions that Johann Sebastian would no doubt have approved of.

Pianist Richard Goode (below), who played this fall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, showed the power of softness and quiet.

His subtle playing was full of nuance in preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, by Johann Sebastian Bach; in a late sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven; in the only sonata by Anton Webern; in a generous group for Chopin works; and in an unexpected encore by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd. All in all, Goode proved a wonderful reprieve from some of the heavier, louder and more dramatic keyboard playing we hear.

But if you wanted drama, you only had to attend the recital by UW-Madison virtuoso Christopher Taylor (below). He excelled in everything, especially the total-body playing of the solo piano arrangement by Franz Liszt of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which wowed the house. But he also showed great restraint, tone and subtlety in contemporary American composer John Corigliano “Ostinato” based on that symphony’s famous second movement.

Then Taylor finished up with contrasting sets of six Musical Moments by Franz Schubert and Sergei Rachmaninoff.


Recognizing that the best concert is not necessary the most memorable concert, and that the best or most memorable concert is not necessarily the most enjoyable concert, please tell us:

What did you think was the best concert and best single performance you heard in 2017?

What was the most memorable classical music experience you had in 2017?

And what was the most enjoyable classical music performance you heard in 2017?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: American music is in the spotlight this weekend as pianist Olga Kern returns in a concerto by Samuel Barber and the Madison Symphony Orchestra performs Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony

October 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below in a photo by Peter Rodgers), with music director John DeMain conducting, will present its second concert of the season, featuring music “From the New World.”

“From the New World” features the return of soloist Olga Kern in her take on an American classic — Samuel Barber’s only Piano Concerto — for her fourth appearance with the MSO. This piece is accompanied by Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and is followed after intermission by Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, know as the “New World Symphony,” inspired by the prairies of America.

The concerts take place in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday, Oct. 20, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 21, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 22, at 2:30 p.m.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was originally written as a suite of “Five Children’s Pieces for Piano Four Hands” and was later orchestrated by the composer and expanded into a ballet in 1911. The piece by Ravel (below) is comprised of 11 sections, many of which are based on five fairy tales of Charles Perrault, most specifically those of his Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose Tales).

The Piano Concerto was written in Samuel Barber’s mature years, and is characterized by a gain in depth of expression and technical mastery from his earlier lyrical style. The piece was met with great critical acclaim and led to Barber (below) winning his second Pulitzer Prize in 1963 and a Music Critics Circle Award in 1964. (You can hear the second and third movements in the YouTube video at the bottom.)


Russian-American Pianist Olga Kern (below) is recognized as one of her generation’s great pianists. She jumpstarted her U.S. career with her historic Gold Medal win at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas as the first woman to do so in more than 30 years.

Winner of the first prize at the Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition she was 17, Kern is a laureate of many international competitions. In 2016, she served as jury chairman of both the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition and first Olga Kern International Piano Competition, where she also holds the title of artistic director.

Kern has performed in famed concert halls throughout the world including Carnegie Hall, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. She has appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra three times — in 2009, 2010 and 2014.

Composed in 1895 while Dvorak (below) was living in New York City, his Symphony No. 9 (often referred to as the “New World Symphony”) is said to have been inspired by the American “wide open spaces” of the prairies that he visited during a trip to Iowa in the summer of 1893.

The “New World Symphony” is considered to be one of the most popular symphonies ever written, and was even taken to the moon with Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

One hour before each performance, Anders Yocom (below, in a  photo by James Gill), Wisconsin Public Radio host of “Sunday Brunch,” will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please read the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen (below), at:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert Prelude Discussion (free for all ticket-holders) one hour before the performance.

The October concerts also coincide with UW-Madison’s Homecoming Weekend celebration — another reason that MSO patrons are advised to arrive early for the concerts this weekend, especially on Friday.

Single Tickets are $18-$90 and are on sale now at, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling 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, got to:

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 $18 tickets.

You can find more information at:

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

The first “Club 201 Concert and After-Party” of the season takes place on Friday, Oct. 20. The $35 ticket price includes one concert ticket ($68-$90 value), plus the after-party with hors d’oeuvres, cash bar, and one drink ticket. Club 201 Events are an opportunity for music enthusiasts 21 and over to connect with each other, and meet MSO musicians, Maestro John DeMain, and special guests.

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

Here is a direct link to find more information and to purchase tickets online:


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Classical music: What are the best classical music pieces for beginners to listen to? And why?

September 9, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear needs your help.

Recently a good friend said: “I don’t listen to or know much about classical music, but I wish I did. You know a lot. What would be good pieces for me to begin with?”

I said I would think about it.

So many composers and works come to mind.

But it is so subjective.

So The Ear thought: Why not turn to readers?

Why not ask readers what pieces got them started on listening to classical music?

And what pieces they would recommend to others?

There are of course some proven and popular standards such as the Symphony No. 5 and the  Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” by Beethoven; the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Tchaikovsky (played and recorded by Van Cliburn in a way that influenced a whole generation); and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff.

But there is so much more to choose from, as you can tell from the YouTube video at the bottom.

String music, wind music and brass music.

Big pieces and small pieces.

Solo music, chamber music and orchestral music.

Vocal music and choral music, including operas.

So what would you tell my friend?

Leave a suggestion and why you chose it in the COMMENT section with a link to a YouTube performance if possible.

The friend is waiting.

And The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: What is the one piece of music you could listen to over and over and over again without getting tired or bored?

September 2, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s Saturday —  time for another reader survey.

A few weeks ago, The Ear asked: Which composer or piece you really cannot stand or consider overrated, for whatever reason.

A lot of readers responded and their responses were very interesting, even unexpected. They included such composers as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Scriabin and Mahler.

It was a question of personal taste and of course was subjective – like music itself.

Here is a link to that blog post:

Today, The Ear wants to know:

What piece could you listen to over and over and over again without getting tired or bored by it?

Of course, it may not have to do with the quality of the piece, but rather with how forcefully it speaks to you.

And the piece you name now may not be the one you would name next week or next month or next year.

Right now, for example, The Ear is on a kick with the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52, by Chopin (below). He loves the work for its development and counterpoint as well as its titanic emotion, which is both Classically restrained and Romantically effusive. That’s why The Ear sees it as Chopin’s response to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata.

The Ear has tried to play the Ballade and loves comparing different interpretations. (You can hear it played by Arthur Rubinstein in the YouTube video at the bottom. And there are a lot other versions on YouTube.)

As to your choice:

It could be larger work like a Beethoven symphony or a Rachmaninoff concerto or a Verdi opera. Or it could be smaller work, like a Schubert song or a Bach prelude or a Puccini aria.

Anyway, let us know what piece you are focused on right now. It might even serve as a recommendation to other readers.

And in the Comment section, tell us what you like about it and why, and include a YouTube link to a performance if you can.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The first-ever Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival takes place this coming weekend – and looks both very appealing and very affordable

June 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

In retrospect, it seems inevitable.

But it took foresight and hard work.

For many years, the historic town of Mineral Point (below) – once a major lead and zinc mining town that is the third oldest city in Wisconsin – has been cultivating and rejuvenating itself through restoration and innovation as an enjoyable tourism stop, with fine restaurants, historic landmarks, terrific art galleries and gracious hosts.

Small wonder that the Smithsonian Magazine named Mineral Point one of the Top 20 Small Towns to Visit in the U.S.

But this coming weekend the appeal and attractions will move up a big notch.

That is because the inaugural Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival will take place this coming weekend, June 9-11, 2017.

To The Ear, the performers look excellent, the program look engaging and the prices sure look affordable.

Concerts by three young professional classical chamber music ensembles will be presented in the recently restored historic Mineral Point Opera House (below top and bottom, with the top photo by Michael J. Smith), an ideal chamber music venue with excellent acoustics.

The weekend will begin on Friday at 7 p.m. with a panel discussion by several ensemble performers and Festival Director Peter Schmalz about various aspects of classical music. A reception in the Mineral Point Public Library will follow the discussion.

Scheduled concerts include: at 1 p.m. on Saturday, the Ami String Quartet (below top) from Northwestern University in the String Quartet No. 1 by Bela Bartok and the “Harp” String Quartet, Op. 74, by Ludwig van Beethoven; at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Trombone Quartet (below bottom) will perform music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Anton Bruckner, Anton Webern, Dmitri Shostakovich and others; and at 1 p.m. on Sunday, the Ami String Quartet will perform the String Quartet No. 1 of Johannes Brahms and the String Quartet No. 12 (“American”) by Antonin Dvorak. (You can hear the first movement of the famous “American” String Quartet by Dvorak in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Ticket prices are: $10 for the panel discussion and reception; $15 for each concert; and $38 for the panel discussion and all three concerts.

Adds festival director Peter Schmalz:

“The Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival is designed to meet three goals: to create classical chamber music listening opportunities for local and nearby residents; to establish a cultural tourism experience for visitors to Mineral Point; and to provide serious off-campus performances for advanced university chamber music ensembles.

“Summer classical music festivals were established in the 20th century to provide employment for orchestral and other professional musicians during the off-season. The fortunate result for the music-lover is an abundance of listening opportunities in every genre of classical music, often in locations away from the congestion and heat of large cities.

“The Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival modifies this design by presenting accomplished undergraduate and graduate ensembles in a compelling small-town setting at a reasonable cost. (Below is the Arts Mineral Point logo.)

“In addition to the Festival concerts, we encourage listeners to enjoy the food, galleries, architecture, landscape and people of Mineral Point. In the words of Sergei Rachmaninoff, “Classical music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for classical music.”

The Mineral Point Opera House is, in size and acoustics, an ideal venue for classical chamber music. Performers were selected by competitive audition, and will be housed by local residents for the weekend.

In addition to three concerts, festival attendees can be involved in a panel discussion about issues in classical chamber music, by asking their own questions of the panel.

The UW-Madison Trombone Quartet and students from Mineral Point High School and Dodgeville High School will also present a short concert in Library Park prior to the 1 p.m. concert on Sunday in the Opera House.

For complete information about events and tickets with complete programs for each concert, go to:


Classical music: Your warhorses are my masterpieces — and I want to hear them

June 3, 2017

ALERT: This Sunday afternoon from 12:30 to 2 p.m., “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature Madison keyboard artist Trevor Stephenson performing on a restored 1855 Boesendorfer grand piano. The program includes music by Chopin, Granados, Brahms, Wagner, Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg and Satie.

You can attend it live for FREE in Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the UW-Madison’s art museum. But you can also stream it live using the link on this web page:

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the year again when music groups announce their new seasons.

And it seems to The Ear that the word “warhorse” is again being tossed around a lot, especially by experienced listeners who use the term pejoratively or disapprovingly, in a snobby or condescending way, to describe great music that is performed frequently.

But more than a little irony or inaccuracy is involved.

For example, a some people have referred to the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms – scheduled next season by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — as a warhorse.

Yet The Ear has heard that symphony performed live only once – perhaps because programmers wanted to avoid the warhorse label.

The same goes for the iconic Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, which will be performed next year by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below). It was a revolutionary work that changed the course of music history, and it is a great piece of engaging music. (You can hear the opening movement, with an arresting graphic representation, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here’s the irony: I have heard the Piano Quintet by Brahms, the Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert and the String Octet by Felix Mendelssohn – all great masterpieces — far more often than I have heard those “warhorse” symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. Can it be that connoisseurs usually seem more reluctant to describe chamber music masterpieces as warhorses? (Below in the Pro Arte Quartet in a photo by Rick Langer.)

The Ear is reminded of a comment made by the great Russian-American musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky (below): “Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is not great because it is popular; it is popular because it is great.”

So yes, I don’t care what more sophisticated or experienced listeners say. I still find the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Peter Tchaikovsky to be a beautiful and thrilling work that rewards me each time I hear it. It never fails.

Add to the list the popular symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, several piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Jupiter” Symphony and Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And one could go on and on.

They are all great masterpieces more than they are warhorses.

Plus, just because a piece of music is new or neglected doesn’t mean that it is good or that it merits a performance.

Otherwise, you could easily spend the rest of a life listening to second-rate and third-rate works out of curiosity and never feel the powerful emotional connection and deep intellectual insight that you get with a genuine masterpiece that rewards repeated hearings.

Of course, some warhorses do leave The Ear less than enthusiastic The “1812 Overture” comes immediately to mind. Boy, do the crowds like that potboiler — on the Fourth of July, of course, when it has a traditional place.

But often enough your warhorse is my masterpiece, and I want to hear it without being thought of as a philistine.

It might even be that playing more warhorses — not fewer — will attract some new audience members at a time when music groups face challenges in attendance and finances?

It may not be cool to say that, but it might be true, even allowing room for new and neglected works that deserve to be programmed for their merit — not their newness or their neglect.

So-called “warhorses” have usually survived a long time and received many performances because they are great music by great composers that speak meaningfully to a lot of listeners. They deserve praise, not insults or denigration, as well as a secure and unapologetic place in balanced programming.

Of course, it is a matter of personal taste.

So …

What do you think?

Are there favorite warhorses you like?

Are there warhorses you detest?

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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra takes The Ear over the rainbow and turns in an impressive season-closing concert that leaves him looking forward to the next season

May 3, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

To The Ear, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) just keeps getting better and better, each concert building on the last one.

Take the final concert of this season last Friday night in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

It proved typical WCO fare in the quality of the soloists and orchestra players and in the variety of the program.

WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) continues to mold his group into the tightest of ensembles. You know you are hearing precision when the rests and silences become as important to the music as the sound. And when you are listening, you feel how relaxing it is to rule out worrying about raggedness.

Here’s a rundown:

The concert opened with a tried-and-true masterpiece, the “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by Maurice Ravel (below). Each of the five dance movements pays homage to a friend of Ravel who fell in World War I, the centennial of which, the gracious Sewell explained, is being marked this year. The Ear likes such tie-ins. (The Ear also loves the original piano version, which has a sixth movement, a fabulous toccata conclusion.)

The Symphony No. 2 in C Major by Romantic master Robert Schumann is not The Ear’s favorite Schumann symphony – that would be No. 4 – and The Ear thinks that Schumann’s orchestral writing is generally not up to his piano writing, his chamber music or his songs.

Indeed, long-form music was not Schumann’s strength, as his many miniature movements in his longer suites and his fragmentary esthetic attest. Perhaps it had to do with his mental illness; perhaps it was just his preference and temperament, much as was the case with his contemporary Chopin, who also preferred the miniature to the epic.

Still, the work proved enjoyable and moving, especially in the vivacious and energetic Scherzo that was executed so precisely and then in the poignant slow movement, which was beautifully shaped with the romantic yearning that Schumann (seen below, with his wife Clara Wieck Schumann) was peerless at expressing. (You can hear the third movement, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And once again, the smaller size of the chamber orchestra — versus a full symphony orchestra — created transparency. Listeners got to hear inner voices and the interplay of parts in all sections of the orchestra that they might otherwise miss.

But the piece that everyone came to hear was the finale: The world premiere of a Two-Piano Concerto by American composer Thomas Cabaniss (below top). The WCO commissioned the piece with help from two local patrons (Jun and Sandy Lee) and the soloists, Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn (below bottom), who have ties to Madison.

The work and its three movements – “Surfaces,” “Disturbances” and “Revelation” — did not disappoint and received a rapturous reception from the large audience, which demanded and received a piano-four hands encore.

The concerto struck The Ear as perfectly fitting its title, “Double Rainbow.” You heard elements of Maurice Ravel and John Adams. But you did NOT hear the typical standout solo playing of, say, a piano concerto by Beethoven or Brahms, Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev.

This was a much more atmospheric ensemble work that shimmered and glittered, much like a rainbow. It almost seemed in many places similar to a Baroque concerto grosso, with the piano incorporated into the orchestral texture rather than standing out against it.

That is not to say the concerto, more mood than melody, wasn’t impressive. The score seemed very difficult, even virtuosic, and it certainly had moments that allowed the two soloists to show off their first-rate, Juilliard-trained chops.

Will this new concerto join other two-piano staples, such as the famous two-piano concertos by Poulenc and Mozart? It would take more hearings to be sure, but The Ear suspects not. It will surely get repeated hearings, especially from the Shinns, without becoming a go-to default piece in the two-piano repertoire. But he could well be wrong.

In any case, one would be hard put to find a better summary of the WCO approach to music-making than this outstanding concert that combined the old and the new, that mixed works from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and performed them with technical precision and moving interpretation.

Bravos to all.

And all the more reason to look forward, after the WCO’s six summer outdoor Concerts on the Square from June 28 to Aug. 2, to the next indoors Masterworks season, both of which you can find here:


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