The Well-Tempered Ear

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

May 22, 2018
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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: Pianists Peter Serkin and Julia Hsu will play works for piano-four hands by Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms this Saturday night at Farley’s House of Pianos.

March 31, 2015
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Our friends at Farley’s House of Pianos write to the blog with news of a noteworthy piano concert this Saturday night:

Renowned American pianist Peter Serkin (below top) and Julia Hsu (below bottom) will perform piano, four-hand pieces by Schumann, Bizet, Mozart and more, as part of the Salon Piano Series concerts held at Farley’s House of Pianos at 6522 Seybold Road on Madison’s far west side near West Towne.

Peter Serkin

Julia Hsu

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday night, April 4 and will include an introduction by Karlos Moser (below), a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of music and former longtime director of the University Opera at the UW-Madison School of Music.

Karlos Moser

The program includes: Six Etudes in the Form of Canons for Pedal-Piano, Op. 56, by Robert Schumann; Three Pieces from “Jeux d’Enfants” (Children’s Games) by Georges Bizet; the Sonata in B flat Major, K. 358, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the Allegro ma non troppo in A minor (the dramatic and lyrical “Lebenssturme” or “Lifestorms” that you can hear in a live performance in a YouTube video at the bottom), D.947, and the Rondo in A Major, D.951, by Franz Schubert; and Four Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms.

Tickets are $45 and are expected to sell quickly. They are available online at www.salonpianoseries.org and http://www.brownpapertickets.com/profile/706809 or at Farley’s House of Pianos, (608) 271-2626.

For more information about the Salon Piano Series, visit: http://salonpianoseries.org

The distinguished American pianist Peter Serkin has performed with the world’s major symphony orchestras with such conductors as Seiji Ozawa, Daniel Barenboim, George Szell, Claudio Abbado, Eugene Ormandy and James Levine. A dedicated chamber musician, Serkin has collaborated with artists including violinist Pamela Frank and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

An avid exponent of the music of many contemporary composers, Serkin has brought to life the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Michael Wolpe, and others for audiences around the world. He has performed many world premieres written specifically for him, in particular, works by Toru Takemitsu, Oliver Knussen and Peter Lieberson. Serkin currently teaches at Bard College Conservatory of Music and the Longy School of Music. Serkin became friends with the Farleys in 1994 when he was in town for a concert and visited the Farley’s showroom (below).

Farley Daub plays

Originally from Taiwan, Julia Hsu received scholarships to study at The Purcell School for young musicians at the age of 14. She has also studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London and at the Hannover Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Germany. Julia has collaborated with conductors Fabio Panisello, Lutz Koeler and cellist Ivan Moniguetti. She was a Festival Fellow at Bowdoin Music Festival, and a scholar at the Banff Centre, Canada before she became a Piano Fellow at Bard College Conservatory of Music in 2013.

The Salon Piano Series is a non-profit founded by Tim and Renée Farley to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos.

Upcoming concerts include the internationally acclaimed Czech pianist Martin Kasík (below top), who will play the “Moonlight” and “Les Adieux” Sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven and Sonata No. 3 by Sergei Prokofiev, on Saturday, April 18, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. Jazz pianist Dick Hyman (below bottom) will perform on May 30 and 31, 2015, at 4 p.m. both days.

Martin Kasik w piano

dick hyman

For ticket information and concert details see www.salonpianoseries.org.

All events will be held at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, Madison, on Madison’s west side near the Beltline, and plenty of free parking is available. It is also easy to reach by bicycle or Madison Metro.


Classical music: Next Friday night, Madison percussionist and marimba player Nathaniel Bartlett will explore the electronic music of Karlheinz Stockhausen in a concert at the Overture Center. Plus, this afternoon (Saturday, May 11) WYSO chamber musicians perform two FREE and PUBLIC concerts on the UW campus.

May 11, 2013
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ALERT: This afternoon (Saturday, May 10), members of the Chamber Music Program (below) of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) will perform two FREE and PUBLIC  concerts at 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall in the UW-Madison Humanities Building.  Sorry, no word about programs and pieces.

WYSO Chamber music

By Jacob Stockinger

Next Friday, May 17, at 6 p.m. in Promenade Hall at the Overture Center, the Multi-Channel (Surround) Electronic Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (below) will be performed by the Madison percussionist Nathaniel Bartlett.

Tickets are $16, $9 for students and seniors. Call the Overture Box Office at (608) 258-4141 or visit http://overturecenter.com/production/nathaniel-bartlett

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Nathaniel Bartlett – who studied and worked with Stockhausen — and the Sound-Space Audio Lab will present a performance featuring the multi-channel (surround) electronic compositions GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE (Song of the Youths, 1955-1956) and KONTAKTE (1958-1960) by Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007).

This concert will also include a performance of “Autumn Island” (1986) for solo marimba, by Roger Reynolds (b. 1934), performed by Nathaniel Bartlett.

For more on Nathaniel Bartlett: www.nathanielbartlett.com

For more on Roger Reynolds: www.rogerreynolds.com

For more on Karlheinz Stockhausen: www.stockhausen.org

In advance of the event, Nathaniel Bartlett (below) agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:

Nathaniel Bartlett BW portrait

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your career?

I perform, compose, improvise, engineer, and record music with a special focus on the nuances and inner details of sound and its expression in a physically immersive listening space. My main creative avenue is my music for marimba plus three-dimensional, high-definition, computer-generated sound. I have recorded four albums (all on multi-channel, high-resolution media), and will be releasing my fifth album at my May 17 event.

I was born, in 1978, and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to studying privately with marimbist Leigh Howard Stevens, I studied at the Eastman School of Music (Rochester, New York), the Royal Academy of Music (London). I hold a doctoral degree in music composition from the University of Wisconsin­Madison School of Music. I currently live with my wife Lisa in Madison, where I m a postdoctoral associate at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

For more information, I invite you to visit my website: www.nathanielbartlett.com

Nathaniel Bartlett 2

What is the appeal of percussion in general and especially the marimba (below) for you?

The appeal of percussion is its huge palate of sounds, which importantly include all varieties of non-pitched sounds.

The appeal of the marimba specifically for me is harder to capture in a few words. One aspect to the marimba is its immediately impressive sonic beauty, especially when played in a nicely reverberant acoustic space.

A five-octave marimba (starting at a cello’s lowest note), like the one I use in performance, has a sonic scope and depth which allows the performer/composer to create extremely visceral, earthy and elemental sonic expressions that give the instrument the power to produce profound musical statements.

Nathaniel Bartlett marimba

What is the appeal of new music and electronic music for you, and why should audiences pay attention too it?

This question is also a difficult one to tackle succinctly, but here are some brief thoughts. New (and recent) music is the cornerstone of a healthy musical culture, and the concert music (or art music, or whatever term one uses) culture in the US right now is profoundly sick.

The organizations in our culture that seem to think so highly of themselves — orchestras, NPR “classical” stations — are essentially zombies. They are dead bodies that only appear alive to a casual observer because they are still staggering around.

The appeal of electronic musical resources is actually similar to the appeal of percussion. Through the use of electronics, I have access to a huge sonic palate, not only in terms of timbres, but whole sonic concepts, for example, the complex kinetic spatialization of sound, and the exact repetition of a musical fragment via live recording and playback.

electronic music

Tell us what you think of and would like audiences to know about Karl Stockhausen and his importance and beauty as a composer?

In short, Stockhausen (below) was a composer (1928-2007) who produced a large body of work that included pioneering endeavors with: electronically produced/manipulated sound, sound spatialization, musical structure, concert presentation, and more. He had a great deal of influence on many other composers, and part of understanding the music of today is understanding its lineage.

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Is there anything special audiences should listen for in your upcoming program of specific works by Stockhausen?

Talking about specific musical characteristics with only the text I am writing here might be a little too abstract. I will, however, talk briefly about the works at the concert before they are projected.

What I can say here is that I will encourage listeners to meditate on how old this music is (1955-1960) and what that means from both artistic and technological perspectives.

For listeners new to this music, I think my only advice would be to listen to the sounds Stockhausen (below, with pre-digital electronic equipment) created for his works, as opposed to thinking about what sounds or parameters he is not using.

This is not metric, tonal music. Listening to this kind of music through a “Mozart framework” would be like attending a Shakespeare play and remarking that it did not make sense because there was no tennis being played.

karlheinz stockhausen knobs

Is there more you would like to say or add?

Yes! Thank you very much for asking about the upcoming performance, I really appreciate it, and it has been my pleasure to answer your questions!


Classical music: This is a big week for Madison percussionist Nathaniel Bartlett as performer and composer. Ensemble SDG performs the early music of Johann Pisendel

September 28, 2012
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ALERT: The Madison-based early music duo SDG — Edith Hines on broque violin and John Chappelle Stow on harpsichord and organ — sent the following message:  “You are invited to Ensemble SDG’s second Madison performance of the season, this Saturday, September 29, at 8 p.m. in Morphy Hall in the UW Humanities Building (455 North Park Street). Admission is FREE. Our program, “Music from Dresden in the Time of Johann Georg Pisendel,” will feature music connected to the virtuoso violinist who was concertmaster of the Dresden court orchestra in the second quarter of the 18th century.  We will play two sonatas by Pisendel himself; a sonata by Tomaso Albinoni dedicated to Pisendel; a sonata by Jean-Marie Leclair that he copied out for the court library; and a suite by Dresden court lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss that was arranged for violin and keyboard by Pisendel’s friend and colleague J. S. Bach.  We will be performing Bach’s version of the suite with Lautenwerk, a harpsichord strung with gut strings.  For information, visit sb1685.blogspot.com

By Jacob Stockinger

Although he has performed in his native Madison for many years, percussionist Nathaniel Bartlett (below) will come into the spotlight this week as both a performer and composer.

On Saturday at 6 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Promenade Hall, Bartlett will perform a one-hour concert of his new original music “Return Transmission” that uses three-dimensions and computer-generated sounds.

The Ear is always wary of art that requires long, technical and complicated notes or explanations, whether it is about music or wall labels at a museum. But the fact is that a lot of new and unusual music requires such explanation, which often seems part of its appeal. 

So, here are program notes:

“Nathaniel Bartlett’s performances seamlessly meld his five-octave acoustic marimba with a powerful Linux-based computer, custom computer control interfaces, a variety of hardware audio electronics, and eight loudspeakers (plus subwoofer) arranged in a cube. With the audience positioned in the center of the loudspeaker cube, an elaborate, kinetic, three-dimensional sound environment can be projected into the audience space, totally immersing the listeners in the music. In his immersive sound environments, spatialization (the positioning and movement of sounds in physical space) becomes a central musical parameter, along side of pitch, rhythm/time, timbre, and so on.

“The sound environments of Bartlett’s compositions are composed of sounds culled from many sources and techniques, including digital audio manipulations of his live marimba, digital audio manipulations of recorded acoustic sounds stored on his computer, and synthetically engineered sounds. The intricate three-dimensional sound environments of Bartlett’s works are further enriched by the use of high-definition audio (24 bit/88.2 kHz, superior to CD-quality), which allows for a significant increase in sonic nuances.

“In his performance rig, two computer monitors are used in place of a conventional music stand. The music notation, now free from the physical realm of paper and ink, is created and manipulated in real time, just as the computer-generated sounds are created and manipulated in real time.

“Bartlett designed his performance rig for maximum mobility without compromising audio quality, and has performed all across the US in a wide variety of venues, such as art galleries and museums, concert halls, dance spaces, “DIY”/”underground” spaces, and many universities and colleges. In order to present his music in its original three-dimensional, high-definition form at every performance, he always tours with all his own electronic equipment and marimba.

“Recordings of Bartlett’s original compositions and other projects — all on multi-channel, high-resolution media — can be found on Albany Records, and on his own label, Sound-Space Audio Lab.

“Bartlett performs on a Malletech Imperial Grand five-octave marimba, and uses a custom, silent (true 0dB) computer created by endpcnoise.com.

“Nathaniel Bartlett was born in 1978 in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to studying privately with marimbist Leigh Howard Stevens, he graduated from the Eastman School of Music (Rochester, NY), the Royal Academy of Music (London), and holds a doctoral degree in music composition from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently lives with his wife Lisa in Madison, and is a postdoctoral associate at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (below).

And it is the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery, 30 North Orchard Street, across from the new Union South, that his work “luminous machine” for solo percussion will also be premiered by Justin Alexander in a FREE public  performance on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 5:15 p.m.

For more information, visit: Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, Town Center

Performer Justin Alexander is currently serving as Adjunct Instructor of Percussion at Troy State University in Troy, Alabama. He is the Principal Timpanist with Sinfonia Gulf Coast and a section member of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra, and currently serves as chair of the Percussive Arts Society’s Collegiate Committee.

www.alexanderpercussion.com

Here are the composer’s notes about “luminous machine”:

“luminous machine — composed 2011, ca. 12 min. — is a solo percussion work focusing on separating instruments, sounds, and musical textures into binary, opposing states. Two types of implements are used to strike the instruments: hard mallets and soft mallets. Two main instrument groups are used: metal and wood.

“Within each instrument group, there is also a binary relationship. For the metal instruments, the relationship is between the sound signatures of solid instruments (triangles, threaded rods) and membrane-like instruments (gongs, bowls, metal sheet). For the wooden instruments, the relationship is between the sound signatures of solid instruments (claves) and hollow instruments (temple blocks). Finally, the piece is constructed out of two opposing rhythmic textures: metric (steady and mechanical; “digital”) and ametric (free and smooth; “analog”).

“The score for luminous machine, like all my recent compositions, uses my original notation system in order to render the musical concepts clearly and intuitively. I have included a few score excerpts below. Visit: www.nathanielbartlett.com


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