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: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-ii-3/

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:

https://www.gioraschmidt.com


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Classical music: A major reassessment of Rachmaninoff is under way. Plus, French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez has died at 90 and the Unitarian Society’s FREE Friday Noon Musicales start again this week

January 7, 2016
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ALERT: The influential and controversial French avant-garde composer and conductor Pierre Boulez had died at 90. The Ear will feature more about him this weekend. Stay tuned.

ALERT: The FREE Friday Noon Musicales at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society of Madison‘s Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, start up again this Friday after a break for the holidays. The concert takes place from 12:15 to 1 p.m. and features bassoonist Juliana Mesa-Jarmillo and pianist Rayna Slavova in music by Gustav Schreck, Eugene Bordeau, Gabriel Pierne and Antonio Torriani.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear can remember when Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) was treated as something of a joke by serious classical musicians – especially by the 12-toners and atonalists, who were more into R&D music (research and development) than into offering pleasure and emotional connection.

Rachmaninoff

The academic musicians, and some prominent music critics too, thought that the Russian composer’s music was too Romantic — meaning too accessible, too shallow and even cheap. They just didn’t consider Rachmaninoff a major 20th-century composer or artist.

But time is proving them wrong.

And how!!!

Surely The Rachmaninoff Deniers would like such popularity, durability and enthusiasm for their own music.

Haha.

Not likely.

Because Rachmaninoff had real genius linked to real heart.

So surely The Ear is not the only listener who finds so much of Rachmaninoff’s music -– especially his preludes, concertos, etudes and variations — irresistible and even moving.

Rachmaninoffold

Last fall saw Rachmaninoff’s appealing final work, the Symphonic Dances, performed by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under John DeMain, and the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra, under James Smith.

And pianist Joyce Yang played the momentous Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor at her recital in the Wisconsin Union Theater.

This year’s Grammy nominations also include a whole CD of Rachmaninoff’s solo and concerto variations, including the wonderful tuneful and ingenious Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Last year also saw “Preludes,” (below, in a photo by Tina Fineberg for The New York Times) ) a successful play about the young Rachmaninoff — or Rachmaninov — climbing out of a deep depression with the help of therapist and hypnotist Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who helped him compose again and become world-famous with his Piano Concerto No. 2.

Rac and Rachmaninoff Tina Fineberg NYT

Just this fall and winter, the New York Philharmonic with music director and conductor Alan Gilbert and pianist Daniil Trifonov (below), performed a retrospective featuring the complete cycle of Rachmaninoff piano concertos.

danill trifonov 1

trifonov rachmaninov

And here are some very perceptive and respectful remarks by conductor Marin Alsop (below) about Rachmaninoff’s life and work and about the less frequently played Symphony No. 3 in A minor that she will discuss and conduct.

Marin Alsop big

It comes from an interview with Scott Simon on Weekend Edition for NPR or National Public Radio. The Ear found her remarks about Rachmaninoff’s life in Beverly Hills and his effect on other exiled European musicians working in Hollywood to be especially perceptive.

Indeed, you may recall that Rachmaninoff was offered a lucrative chance to write a movie score and refused. So the moviemakers hired the British composer Richard Addinsell to write a piece that sounded like Rachmaninoff. The result was the Warsaw Concerto and the result does indeed sound a lot like Rachmaninoff.

Alsop, you may recall, was a student of Leonard Bernstein and is now the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra in Brazil.

Here is a link to the NPR story, which has audio samples of the Symphony No. 3, that also features a written essay by Marin Alsop about Rachmaninoff:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/12/28/461281186/rachmaninoff-an-american-without-assimilation

I like a Rachmaninoff tune. How about you?

So here is a YouTube performance, made in 1920, of Rachmaninoff himself playing my favorite Rachmaninoff piece — the wistful Prelude in G Major, Op 32, No. 5:

 


Classical music: Here is Holiday Gift Guide No. 5 — the Best Classical CDs of 2015 as chosen by critics for The New York Times.

December 12, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The holidays have started and the shopping days left are winding down.

And just in time, this past week, the critics for The New York Times have published their selections for the Best Classical music Recordings of 2015.

NY Times CD 2015

Here is a link to that listing:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/11/arts/music/best-classical-recordings-2015.html?_r=0

Of course, this is not the first such list or holiday gift guide that The Ear has posted.

On Black Friday, The New York Times published a classical music gift guide that The Ear linked to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/11/28/classical-music-its-small-business-saturday-here-are-classical-music-gift-suggestions-from-the-critics-for-the-new-york-times/

Then The Ear published similar lists by the BBC Music Magazine and the Telegraph newspaper:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/classical-music-here-are-the-best-classical-music-cds-of-2015-according-to-the-bbc-music-magazine-and-the-telegraph-newspaper/

And yesterday The Ear published the 2015 Grammy nominations, which also offered some outstanding suggestions:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/12/11/classical-music-the-new-grammy-nominations-can-serve-as-a-holiday-gift-guide/

You will notice that there are some duplications, such as the CD of Daniil Trifonov and Yannick Nézet-Séguin performing various themes and variations by Sergei Rachmaninoff – plus some by Trifonov himself — on a Deutsche Grammophon CD (below).

Such agreement is a good indication that the recording in question is truly outstanding and will appeal to many tastes. The Ear sure likes that particular recording.

trifonov rachmaninov

Same goes for tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s CD of arias by Puccini, which you can sample through the famous “Nessun dorma” from “Turandot” in a YouTube video at the bottom. What a big, beautiful voice! And he seems as home in Puccini as in Wagner!

jonas kauffmann puccini

You will also notice that each year seems to see an increasing role for new music. Whether that means the new music is getting better or the critics have just altered their priority remains to be seen.

Whatever is the case: Happy Buying! Happy Receiving! Happy Listening!

And be sure to leave your own suggestions from your own listening experience in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: BBC Music Magazine asks 10 concert pianists to name 10 unknown piano concertos that deserve more attention and performances.

February 22, 2015
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Maybe you were lucky enough to attend the gala showcase concert two weeks ago where winners (below) of the annual Concerto Competition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music performed. (They are below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson. From left they are: Keisuke Yamamoto, Ivana Urgcic, Jason Kutz and Anna Whiteway.)

2014 Concerto Winners

Here is a link to a preview post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/classical-music-four-uw-madison-concerto-competition-winners-and-a-student-composer-will-be-featured-in-a-special-concert-and-reception-this-coming-sunday-night-at-7/

If so you heard some relatively unknown works by Ernest Chausson (a Poem for Violin and Orchestra played by Yamamoto) and Francois Borne (a Fantasy on Themes from “Carmen” for flute and orchestra played by Urgcic) plus soprano Whiteway singing a famous aria from “Romeo and Juliet” by Charles Gounod.).

But the finale was Kutz (below) playing a somewhat truncated version – edited for time constraints of the competition — of the famous “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Jason Kutz playing Rachmaninoff Rhapsody 2015

Kurtz did a bang-up job of this great work, which for The Ear, may just be his best and most concise work for piano and orchestra.

You just can’t beat that work’s ultra-Romantic 18th Variation – at the bottom in a popular YouTube video with pianist Arthur Rubinstein and Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – that is, a friend remarked, much like the “Nimrod” Variation of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. It is irresistible and never fails.

But the concerto repertoire is such a rich one! There is something just so appealing about seeing the dramatic cooperation bertween the soloist and the orchestra.

So I was pleased to see that the BBC Music Magazine recently asked 10 concert pianists to name 10 concertos that they think are neglected and should be better known and performed more often.

The story included enlightening statements as well as audio-video clips of excerpts.

So in the spirit on the concerto winners, here is a link to the story:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/10-piano-concertos-you-may-not-know

Read and listen and see what you think.

The Ear knows a fair number of piano concertos, but a lot of these were new to him.

What do you think of the list?

And do you have any names of concertos and composers to add to the list?

The Ear wants to hear.


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