The Well-Tempered Ear

NPR names relevant classical albums in a musical Diary of the Plague Year of the pandemic, racial protests, wildfires and hurricanes

December 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

For an unusual and difficult year, NPR (National Public Radio) and critic Tom Huizenga have found a new and unusual way to recommend this past year’s top classical music recordings.

On the  “Deceptive Cadence” blog for NPR, Huizenga kept a personal month-by-month diary of “music and mayhem.”

For last February, for example, this ancient image of The Dance of Death inspired contemporary composer Thomas Adès to compose his own “Totentanz” or Dance of Death. (You can hear an excerpt from the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Some of the thematically-related music is modern or contemporary, some of it is from the Baroque or Classical era.

In June, as protests against the death of George Floyd (below top) flared up and spread worldwide, NPR names a recording of the “Negro Folk Symphony” by African-American composers William Dawson and Ulysses Kay (below bottom), thereby helping to rediscover Black composers whose works have been overlooked and neglected in the concert hall and the recording studio.

Devastating wildfires on the West Coast, Presidential impeachment and hurricanes on the Gulf Coast also found their way into the choices of music to listen to.

It is an unusual approach, but The Ear thinks it works.

See and hear for yourself by going to the sonic diary and listening to the samples provided.

Here is a link to the NPR album diary: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/12/21/947149286/music-and-mayhem-a-diary-of-classical-albums-for-a-troubled-2020

But many roads, if not all, lead to Rome, as they say.

What is also interesting is that a number of the NPR choices overlap with ones listed by music critics of The New York Times as the 25 best classical albums of 2020.

Some choices also are found on the list of the nominations for the Grammy Awards that will be given out at the end of January.

In other words, the NPR diary can also serve as yet another holiday gift guide if you have gift cards or money to buy some new and notable CDs, and are looking for recommendations.

Here is a link to the Times’ choices, which you can also find with commentary and a local angle, in yesterday’s blog post: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/17/arts/music/best-classical-music.html

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/12/27/the-new-york-times-names-the-top-25-classical-recordings-of-2020-and-includes-sample-tracks/

And here is a list to the Grammy nominations: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/11/28/for-holiday-shopping-and-gift-giving-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-63rd-grammy-awards-in-2021/

What do you think of the NPR musical diary of the plague year?

Do you find it informative? Accurate? Interesting? Useful?

Would you have different choices of music to express the traumatic events of the past year?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Next season the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will expand to two performances of its winter Masterworks concerts by adding a Saturday night concert in Brookfield, near Milwaukee

May 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Next season will mark the 20th anniversary of Andrew Sewell (below top) coming to Madison to serve as the music director and principal conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below bottom).

It is hard to imagine a better Bravo! or anniversary gift for the maestro – who has said he wants the WCO to become a chamber orchestra, as its name implies, for the entire state of Wisconsin — than what will in fact take place: the WCO will expand its winter Masterworks concerts to two performances by adding a Saturday night performance at 7:30 p.m. in the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts (below) in Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee. (Sewell is also the music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California.)

Madison performances of Masterworks will continue to take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

You can find out more about the Masterworks programs for next season by going to the WCO home website:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/masterworks

There you will find the usual eclectic mix of new guest artists and new or neglected composers and repertoire that has marked Sewell’s tenure and brought him critical acclaim.

Pianist Orion Weiss will perform the popular  Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 – “Elvira Madigan” – by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; violinists Giora Schmidt and Eric Silberger will perform concertos by Dmitri Kabalevsky and Niccolo Paganini, respectively; harpist Yolanda Kondonassis will perform a concerto by Argentinian Alberto Ginastera; and Andrew Balio (below), principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, will return to Madison where he grew up and perform a 1948 trumpet concerto by Italian composer Andre Tomasi.

Early music and new music to be featured includes works by: Donald Fraser (an acclaimed English conductor, composer and arranger, below) who now lives in Illinois, and often comes to Madison); Joseph Martin Kraus, known as the “Swedish Mozart”; Norwegian composer Johann Svensen; and three English composers (always favorites of Sewell who was born and educated in New Zealand) who are John Marsh, James Macmillan and York Bowen. (In the YouTube video at the bottom you can hear the English Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Woods — a native Madisonian who will return next season to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra — recording the Scherzo movement from Donald Fraser’s “Sinfonietta,” the same work that the WCO will perform.) 

Works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn and Sergei Prokofiev also figure prominently, including Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” in honor of the composer’s 250th birthday in 2020.

Also on the website, you will find the upcoming season of Wednesday night Concerts on the Square for this summer (June 26-July 31) plus the dates and themes – although no guest artists or works — for 2020 (June 24-July 29).

Go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances

You can also find information for next season about the WCO performing George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker” with the Madison Ballet; the Young Artist Concerto Competition; the free Family Series; and the community Super Strings program for elementary students.

To receive a brochure with information about all these events and about how to get tickets — an “early bird” discount on subscription tickets runs through May 31– call (608) 257-0638 or go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org


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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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