The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: After a year recovering from an injury, Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang says he has become a more serious musician

August 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Chinese pianist Lang Lang (below) has long been popular, a best-selling superstar and one of the most bankable players in the business.

Yet such was his flamboyant showmanship and self-indulgence that many of his colleagues and critics did not take him very seriously. Many thought of him more as the Liberace of the classical concert stage.

But then a serious injury to his left arm, tendonitis from over-practicing and straining, forced Lang Lang to take a year off to recover.

During that time he married. He worked with young children and music students, even funding a new piano lab. And he released a new CD (“Piano Book”) of short pieces that he has loved since his student days. (You can see Lang Lang coaching a young pianist about a Mozart sonata that played a pivotal role in his life during a master class in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Lang Lang now says that during that recovery period he rethought everything about his career and has made some major changes from practicing to performing.

And what seems to have emerged, at age 37, is a new approach that emphasizes more seriousness and regularity coupled with greater respect for the music he plays.

Time will tell – in both live and recorded performances — how much has really changed in Lang Lang’s approach to making music.

Nonetheless, the dramatic change was recounted recently in a comprehensive story in The New York Times, which even goes back to trace the pianist’s career, including failures, from his early childhood (below) in China.

Read it and see what you think.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/24/arts/music/lang-lang-piano.html

Then tell us in the Comment section if it has changed how you think about Lang Lang.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS – the “Meditation” for solo piano by Mexican composer Carlos Chavez

July 27, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The solo piano repertoire is huge, but The Ear knows quite a lot of it.

Yet here is a piece he had never heard, live or recorded, until he finally did hear it this week on Wisconsin Public Radio.

It is the five-minute ”Meditacion” – or Meditation – by the 20th-century Mexican composer Carlos Chavez (below, in a photo by Paul Strand).

It is played beautifully and sensitively in a live performance by the unjustly neglected Mexican virtuoso pianist Jorge Federico Osorio (below), and was recorded — perhaps as an encore, given the applause at the end — with the Piano Concerto by Chavez for the nonprofit Cedille Records in Chicago and distributed by Naxos Records.

Listen to it and let The Ear know what you think.

Does anyone else hear echoes of the eccentric French composer Erik Satie in the music? Shades of other pieces or composers?

Do you like the Chavez piece?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Here are the winners of the seventh annual Handel Aria Competition held Friday night before a record audience

June 9, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Co-founders Orange and Dean Schroeder have sent the following announcement about the winners of the seventh annual Handel Aria Competition that was held Friday night in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music:

The seventh annual Handel Aria Competition was a joyous evening of arias! We had a record audience — we don’t have the final numbers yet, but we ran out of 240 printed ballots and figure there were 250 to 300 people present — despite a widespread power outage on the near west side and severe parking challenges.

The winners, accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians, were: Australian soprano Morgan Balfour, first prize (below center, in a photo by Tom Miller); soprano Emily Yocum Black, second prize (below right); and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody, third prize and audience favorite (below left).

We are excited to know that Morgan will be singing in St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, next spring thanks to the London Handel Festival. In addition, she will receive $1,500 in cash and – like all finalists — $500 toward travel costs for competing. Other awards were $1,000 for second place, $750 for third place and $500 for Audience Favorite.

Here are the arias, from opera and oratorios, sung by the three winners:

Morgan Balfour: “Spietati, io vi giurai” from “Rodelinda” and “Mean as he was, he is my brother now … Author of Peace” from “Saul”

Emily Yocum Black: “Art thou not Zaphnath? … Prophetic raptures swell my breast” from “Joseph and His Brethren” and “Credete al mio dolore” from “Alcina.”

Jonathan Woody: “Oh memory, still bitter to my soul! … Opprest with never-ceasing grief” from “Belshazzar” and “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” from “Messiah.”

Schroeder says: “The seven finalists (below in a photo by Tom Miller) were all excellent, presenting a real challenge for audience members picking their favorite as well as for the judges.” (For names and more biographical information about the finalists and judges, go to https://handelariacompetition.com

Adds Schroeder: “The caliber of applicants gets better and better every year. This year everybody was amazing and one of the judges said he was blown away by the quality of the competition. Yet we still try to make the sure that the competition is friendly and most collegial, not cutthroat.”

All the performances from all the finalists as well as the winners were video recorded and, after they are processed, will be posted on YouTube in about a month. (The Ear will let you know when they are available.)

You can also see and hear most of the finalists from the past six years on YouTube now; and more information about the past six years of the competition is on its home website at https://handelariacompetition.com/past-competitions

Did you go to the competition?

Did you agree with the judges about the winners and the Audience Award?

What did you think of the annual competition?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Festival Choir of Madison closes its season TONIGHT with a concert of East Asian music from China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan

May 18, 2019
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ALERT: Today and next Saturday, Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Music in Wisconsin” program, hosted by Lori Skelton, will air recorded performances from the past season by the Madison Opera. Both broadcasts start at 1 p.m. This week’s opera is the double bill of one-acts “Cav/Pag,” as Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Paglicacci” are known. Next week will see Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” with the famous soprano aria “Song to the Moon.”   

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Festival Choir of Madison (below) will present the last concert of the season, “Jasmine Flowers,” TONIGHT — Saturday, May 18 — at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, in Madison.

The choir and its artistic director, Sergei Pavlov (below right in front row), will perform arrangements of famous songs such as the Japanese “Sakura” (Cherry Blossom), arranged by the late Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (his version is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); and “Mo-Li-Hua” (Jasmine Flower), a popular Chinese folk song used variously as a national anthem and for the Olympics, arranged by the leading Korean composer Hyo-won Woo.

The choir will also feature other recent compositions sung in Taiwanese, Korean, Chinese, English and French  — including works by Chen Yi, Libby Larsen, Bob Chilcott, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel — inspired by the musical traditions of East Asia.

Admission, with general seating, is $10 for students, $15 for senior citizens, and $20 for adults, with tickets available at the door the day of the concert. Tickets can also be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets at:

https://www.festivalchoirmadison.org/concerts/2019/5/18/jasmine-flowers

The Festival Choir of Madison is an auditioned, mixed-voice volunteer choir of over 50 experienced singers. The choir performs thematic concerts of artistically challenging choral music from around the world for listeners who enjoy traditional, modern and eclectic works, and for singers who enjoy developing their talents with others.

To learn more about the Festival Choir of Madison, go to www.festivalchoirmadison.org.


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Classical music: Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma goes to NPR to perform and talk about spending 58 years learning and playing Bach

August 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma has just recorded the six suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach for the third time.

Ma, now 62, started learning them when he was four years old.

Over so many years, his approach has changed. He says he finds new things in the music as he himself changes and matures, much the way you see different things in the same novel you read at 18 and then again at 55 after you have experienced more of life.

That’s why Ma calls his latest recording “Six Evolutions.” And truth be told, to The Ear his interpretations seem lighter, dancier and more up-tempo while his earlier readings seemed heavier, sometimes even gooey thick.

Anyway, the cellist (below), who has won 19 Grammy Awards and has often performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, recently stopped by the studios of National Public Radio (NPR) for a Tiny Desk Concert.

He played three movements, and he talked about his long experience with playing and learning and exploring Bach to students, who loved him.

It is well worth listening to.

Here is a link: https://www.npr.org/2018/08/16/639206471/yo-yo-ma-tiny-desk-concert

What do you think?

Do you have an opinion about Ma’s current readings of solo Bach versus his past ones?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: You’re invited to a FREE 12-hour marathon birthday party for Johann Sebastian Bach this Saturday. Plus, tonight’s concert of African-American music has been CANCELLED

March 14, 2017
2 Comments

ALERT: Tonight’s concert of African-American spirituals and songs has been CANCELLED because guest scholar and singer Emery Stephens is ill. The UW-Madison School of Music hopes to reschedule the event later this spring. 

By Jacob Stockinger

Guess who turns 332 on March 21?

This coming Saturday will bring a 12-hour, noon to midnight, marathon party for the Birthday Boy – Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750, seen below in a humorous poster for a similar event held several years ago).

The local event – now part of the nationwide “Early Music Month” — is being revived, thanks to Madison violist Marika Fischer Hoyt (below), who performs with the Madison Bach Musicians, the Ancora String Quartet  and the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  and to many sponsors.

The party will take place at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below) on Regent Street. (Several years ago, the event, when it was sponsored by Wisconsin Public Radio, was held at the Pres House.) There will be live audio-visual streaming and free wi-fi, and the event will be recorded.

Here is a link to the updated schedule of performances:

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com/concert-schedule/

Here is a link to an earlier post about the upcoming event:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=bach+around+the+clock

If you love the music of Bach (below) – and The Ear doesn’t know anyone who is into classical music who doesn’t revere Bach — there will be a lot to love and to listen to at this FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC  celebration.

The event is modeled after a longtime similar event in New Orleans and those who attend it can come and go and come back again.

Local performers include groups and individuals who are professionals (Madison Bach Musicians and Wisconsin Chamber Choir), amateurs and students (Suzuki Strings of Madison).

The impressive program includes lots of variety.

There will be preludes and fugues.

Cantatas and concertos.

Sonatas and suites.

Obscure works will be performed.

But there will also be popular works such as two Brandenburg Concertos (Nos. 3 and 5), The Well-Tempered Clavier (Books I and II), the Magnificat, a Violin Concerto, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and some of The Art of Fugue. (You can hear Fugue No. 1  from “The Art of Fugue,” which will be performed at BATC, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

There will be music played on period instruments and on modern instruments, including the harpsichord and the piano; the baroque violin and the modern violin; older recorders and newer flutes, the viola da gamba and the cello. And of course there will be lots and lots of singing and organ music.

Given such a marathon undertaking, you should know that there will be refreshments (coffee, tea, bottled water and snacks), comfortable seating and special birthday cakes — served at midnight — provided by Clausen’s Eurpean Bakery in Middleton.

NOTE: You can find out more when several organizers and performers from Bach Around the Clock are Norman Gilliland’s guests on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” this coming Thursday from noon to 12:30 p.m.

For more information –including how to support the event with a donation and how to participate in it as a performer – go to the event’s homepage:

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com

Here are some links to previous posts on this blog about attending earlier versions of Bach Around the Clock. Read them and look at the pictures, and you will see how enjoyable they are and how informative they are.

From 2010:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2010/03/20/classical-music-events-here-is-the-line-up-for-saturdays-bach-around-the-clock/

From 2011:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/classical-music-review-the-marathon-“bach-around-the-clock”-concert-is-now-officially-a-tradition-in-madison-wisconsin/

From 2012:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/classical-music-here-are-8-lessons-i-learned-from-my-day-of-berlitz-bach-at-wisconsin-public-radios-bach-around-the-clock-3-last-saturday/

See you there!


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