The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Meet Marin Alsop, the pioneering American maestra who will conduct the closing concert of the BBC British Proms concerts this Saturday night.

September 11, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you listen regularly to NPR, or National Public Radio, you will often hear stories featuring the American conductor Marin Alsop (below) and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra she leads on Saturday mornings. That is when Scott Simon interviews her about her latest projects for Weekend Edition.

Marin Alsop big

And you may know Alsop’s name as a student and protégée of the legendary Leonard Bernstein and as the music director and conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil.

Marin Alsop marching

You might also know that Alsop thinks classical music has become elitist and so she works hard for educational programs and community outreach.

But you may not know that in 2013 Alsop was the first woman chosen to conduct the mammoth closing night of the popular Proms concerts (below) in London’s Royal Albert Hall for the BBC in England. (You can hear the rousing and popular speech she gave then in a YouTube video at the bottom. And be sure to read some of the sexist and homophobic reader comments.)

BBC Proms

This Saturday night she returns to the United Kingdom to conduct the closing concert of this summer’s Proms, which will have a huge audience of over 40 million listeners worldwide via TV, radio and the Internet.

Here is a link to the portal for listening to the concert:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/6vczskH1yMvp1bRKpDpnq4/last-night-of-the-proms-and-proms-in-the-park-2015-how-to-watch-and-listen

Thanks to a story and a Q&A interview in The Economist, here is a chance to meet Marin Alsop and learn more about this impressive musician:

http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2015/08/bbc-proms

 

 


Classical music: Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa’s solo recital of music by Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninoff is a MUST-HEAR for piano fans. It is this Thursday night at 8 in the Wisconsin Union Theater.

November 18, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Compared to the start of many seasons, surprisingly this fall hasn’t seen a lot of piano music— either solo recitals or concertos.

The Ear says “surprisingly” because box office statistics seem to suggest that piano concerts general draw good audiences. Pianists are favorites as soloists with orchestra fans -– as you could see in October when Russian pianist Olga Kern performed a concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain to a big, enthusiastic house.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that so many people take piano lessons when they are young. Or maybe it is because the repertoire is so big, so varied and so appealing.

And, true to form, next semester promises a whole lot more piano concerts of all kinds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Salon Series at Farley’s House of Pianos.

Anyway, one piano standout of the fall is about to happen this week.

The Ukrainian-born and Ukraine-trained pianist Valentina Lisitsa (below) will perform on this Thursday night at 8 p.m. in the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Valentina Lisitsa

The program is an outstanding one. It features the dramatic “Tempest” Sonata in D minor, Op 31, No. 2, by Ludwig van Beethoven; the “Symphonic Etudes” by Robert Schumann; a medley of the late piano intermezzi and other miniatures, Op. 116 through Op. 119, by Johannes Brahms, works we hear too infrequently, possibly because they are more for the home than the concert hall; and the rarely played Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Tickets are $40, $42 and $45; $10 for UW-Madison students.

For more information, plus a video and some reviews, visit this link:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/season14-15/valentina-lisitsa.html

And here is a link to a story about her unusual career that appeared in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/arts/music/valentina-lisitsa-jump-starts-her-career-online.html?_r=1&

This is Valentina Lisitsa’s third appearance at the Wisconsin Union Theater. She has performed there twice when she accompanied American violinist Hillary Hahn in what The Ear found to be memorable programs that offered a wonderful balance of dynamics in a chamber music partnership.

Lisitsa_Valentina_2

Lisitsa has established a special reputation for building her live concert and recording career not through the traditional ways or by winning competitions, but through using new media. In particular, she has amassed a huge following with something like 62 million individual views of and 98,000 subscribers to  her many YouTube videos.

Valentina LIsitsa playing

So impressive was her record with YouTube, in fact, that the venerable record label Decca offered her a contract. Her first release was a live recording of a recital of music by Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin that she gave in the Royal Albert Hall in London — a recital for which she let her fans determine the program through voting on-line.

Then she recorded the complete knuckle-busting Rachmaninoff concertos, an all-Liszt album and a bestselling CD of “Chasing Pianos” by the contemporary British composer Michael Nyman, who wrote the well-known score for the popular gothic romance film “The Piano.”

valentina lisitsa and michael nyman

Here is a link to an interview Valentina Lisitsa did with NPR (National Public Radio):

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/classical-music-youtube-sensation-pianist-valentina-lisitsa-talks-with-npr-about-her-unusual-career-and-her-new-recording-of-music-by-michael-nyman-she-performs-next-season-again-at-the-wisconsin-un/

Now she has a new and nuanced recording out of the complete Etudes, Opp. 10 and 24, by Frederic Chopin plus the “Symphonic Etudes” By Robert Schumann that she will perform here. (You can hear Chopin excerpts from the new CD in a YouTube video at the bottom.) The Ear is betting that, if an encore is in the offing this Thursday night, it will be a Chopin etude or two from the new recording — perhaps a slow and poetic one, perhaps a virtuosic one, or perhaps one of both kinds.

Valentina Lisitsa Chopin Schumann etudes CD cover

Her Madison appearance features a big and difficult program. But Lisitsa has the technique and power, the chops, to bring it off. She also demonstrated how she combines that substantial power with sensitive musicality in memorable solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos. And she claims to have developed a keyboard method that allows her to play difficult music for long periods of time without strain or injury. To one admiring reader comment about the new YouTube etude video, she says simply: “Playing piano is easy!”

Valentina Lisitsa's hands

Well, good for her! But I say go and judge for yourself — and don’t forget to enjoy the music as much as the musician.


Classical music: Is there better graduation music than the old stand-by, “Pomp and Circumstance” No. 1 by Sir Edward Elgar? The Ear doubts it.

May 17, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is graduation weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This year, the biggest ceremonies will be held outdoors in Camp Randall Stadium, as in the photo below.

It started last night, Friday night, with doctoral students, MFA‘s and professional degree students including doctors, lawyers, business people and veterinarians who had their ceremony indoors at the Kohl Center.

Today, Saturday, May 17, 2014, is devoted to the largest number of graduates -– the undergraduates as well as master’s students.

UWcommencement

The Ear wants to honor all UW students who are graduating, but especially the students — both undergraduate and graduate — at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music who have brought him so many hours of pleasure and memorable listening.

But what to choose to play?

Believe me, I have thought long and hard about it.

And for the life of me, I still do not think there exists anything better than the old stand-by: The “Pomp and Circumstance’ March No. 1, originally written by Sir Edward Elgar (below) for the coronation of a King of England. (You can hear it in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Edward Elgar

Of course, there are other fine marches by Elgar in the same set.

But none surpasses the really famous one, the omnipresent one at this time of year, THE Pomp and Circumstance March that captures the vitality and rush, yet also the dignity and hope of the event — and yes, all the bittersweet sadness of leaving behind close friends and mentors.

If you know of a better musical offering for graduation or commence, please leave a reply or comment with a YouTube link is possible and certainly the composer’s name and work’s title.

In the meantime, here it is again. You have no doubt heard it before probably many times. But no matter that it is a cliché or that is banal. It never fails to give me both goosebumps and tears, and it always makes me wish that I too were among those students processing through commencement.

Are you ready?

Graduates: Please line up, adjust your robe and mortar board, and smile.

Maestro, a downbeat please!

Best wishes and congratulations to all.

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Classical music: YouTube sensation pianist Valentina Lisitsa talks with NPR about her unusual career and her new recording of music by Michael Nyman. She performs next season again at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

May 2, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Ukrainean-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa is no stranger to Madison.

Lisitsa_Valentina_2

She has performed at the Wisconsin Union Theater as the accompanist for the American violinist Hilary Hahn. The recital was stupendous and she proved a terrific chamber music partner.

But Valentina Lisitsa, who possesses  a seemingly flawless technique and endless strength and stamina, is also a great keyboard virtuoso in her own right. That side of her talent is what you heard on impressive display when she appeared twice in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos.

As a reminder, here are some links to older posts:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/classical-music-how-youtube-vaulted-pianist-valentina-lisitsa-to-fame-and-fortune-plus-here-are-reminders-about-concerts-today-at-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-and-the-university-of-wisconsin-scho/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/classical-music-news-new-media-can-lead-back-to-old-media-just-ask-pianist-valentina-lisitsa-whose-superstar-status-on-youtube-has-led-to-her-a-contract-with-decca-classics/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/08/20/classical-music-review-the-ear-gets-more-than-an-earful-of-franz-liszt-and-valentina-lisitsa-and-thinks-of-liberace/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/classical-music-review-recitals-don’t-come-more-perfect-than-the-one-by-violinist-hilary-hahn-and-pianist-valentina-lisitsa-at-the-wisconsin-union-theater/

Recently, NPR did an interview with Valentina Lisitsa on the occasion of new Decca recording, a CD of piano music by the British Minimalist composer Michael Nyman, best known probably for his score to the film “The Piano.”

valentina lisitsa and michael nyman

In the interview she discusses how she almost gave up on her piano career; how she turned to YouTube and the Internet the chance they could rescue her career; and how that led her to tens of millions — something like 75 million — followers, who, in turn, got her a recital at Royal Albert Hall that was recorded live and a recording contract with the major label Decca. With Decca, she has also recorded piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff and solo piano music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Alexander Scriabin and especially Franz Liszt among others in a program that her YouTube followers got to choose by voting on the web. (Her YouTube video of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata has over 7 million hits. Check out her YouTube repertoire. It is vast and varied.)

In short, Valentina Lisitsa may well be the model of the new kind of successful career in classical music in The Digital Age of high technology

And show will perform on the Wisconsin Union Theater series, when it reopens in the renovated concert hall I call the “Carnegie Hall of Madison” on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014.

Here is the NPR link. The Ear suggests listening to it, not just reading it:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/04/25/305652669/valentina-lisitsa-chasing-pianos-and-youtube-fans

 

 

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Classical music: German cellist Alban Gerhardt talks about the rarely played Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante that he will perform this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra as well as his hectic life on the road and in the recording studio. Part 1 of 2.

February 5, 2013
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UPDATES and ALERTS: The Madison Symphony Orchestra is offering a two-for-the price of one ticket sale to this concert if you mention the promotional code word CELLO either in person or on the phone at the Overture Center box office or use it on-line. The sale started today and ends at midnight Wednesday. Also, on this Thursday at noon, on Wisconsin Public Radio‘s “The Midday” with host Norman Gilliland (88.7 FM in the Madison area), cellist Alban Gerhardt will be the guest.

By Jacob Stockinger

There are many things that appeal to The Ear about this weekend’s concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra with its music director and conductor John DeMain.

In deep winter, it will be so welcome to feel the scented warm air of Spain as evoked in Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole.”

And then there is the chance to hear a rarely heard Beethoven symphony – the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, which was recently named an ideal piece of classical music for exercising and workout. This symphony usually falls in the shadows of its predecessor (No. 3 “Eroica”) and successor (No. 5). But it is great music nonetheless.

Yet perhaps the biggest draw remains something of a curiosity –- Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante (or Cello Symphony), which is not often heard in performance or recordings.

Also appealing is the cello soloist: the German cellist Alban Gerhardt (below), who has played in Madison several times. Born in 1969, he started piano and cello lessons at 8.

Alban Gerhardt playing 2

Gerhardt is outstanding and is known not only for his exceptional tone and musicianship, but also for his intense and emotional but outgoing playing that connects with audiences.

He is, in short, an unabashed and unapologetic extrovert, as he demonstrated in the email Q&A he recently gave to The Ear and which was written on the road between concert stops in Saarbrucken and Brussels.

The concerts are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16.50-$78.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, visit:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/gerhardt

For very informative and accessible program notes by MSO trombonist and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen, visit:

http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenj/MSO/NOTES/1213/6.Feb13.html

And here is a link to Gerhart’s own well-organized and illuminating website with his biography, concert dates, repertoire, photos, music in schools and other activities (it is also available in German):

http://www.albangerhardt.com/english/index.html

Here is my email Q&A with cellist Alban Gerhardt in two parts. Today, he discusses his huge repertoire and his hectic life as a professional cellist on the road and in the recording studio as well as his view of the Prokofiev work. Tomorrow, he will discuss how he came to the cello, what he thinks of Madison and his views about the best ways to educate young people about music and to involve new audiences of adults.

alban gerhardt playing.pg

What are your current and future plans in terms of concertizing, recordings and other projects?

As always, the repertoire at hands is quite diverse — last month it was the Friedrich Gulda Concerto in Brussels, and now in Brussels, but with an orchestra from Germany, I am playing Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo” Variations.

After my Prokofiev performance in Madison, I was supposed to perform the Elgar Concerto in Minneapolis, but the orchestra is unfortunately locked out by management, so these concerts got cancelled. That is good for me, as it gives me a few extra days at home in Berlin before playing the Dvorak Concerto in Dublin and the Schumann Concerto in Zürich.

After a couple of recitals I will play Britten’s gorgeous Cello Symphony in Madrid, Walton’s Cello Concerto in Spokane, Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto in Nurenberg, the sixth Bach solo suite at Sir John Eliot Gardiner‘s Bach Marathon at the Royal Albert Hall (below) in London (quite an honor for me as the only cellist to be asked by the one of the world’s foremost Bach specialists to play the greatest of all Bach) — and this is only until April.

Royal Albert Hall exterior

After that I am not counting as I try to live more in the moment. Recording projects there are plenty as my label Hyperion wants me to record quite different things for them. In their series Romantic Cello Concertos, I am going to record two concerti by Henri Vieuxtemps and two pieces for cello and orchestra by Eugene Ysaye at the beginning of April in Antwerp.

In late August I will record all the Hindemith concertos with the DSO Berlin, and later this year another encore disc plus a Russian recital disc with Cecile Licad with Rachmaninov and Prokofiev Sonatas.

But my biggest undertaking will be to convince my unborn son to come into this world when I am in Berlin middle of June with this kind of schedule: June 1, Dvorak in Leipzig; June 2, chamber music (with my violinist wife) in Braunlage; June 4 and 5 rehearsals in Munich; June 8, Brahms Double Concerto in Berlin with the RSB; June 10 and 11, the Chin Concerto in Munich with Kent Nagano and the State Opera Orchestra; June 14, another Dvorak near Leipzig; June 16, a recital in Bad Kissingen; and June 28, a Brahms Double Concerto in Hamm (with my wife).

The due date is June 18, but both of us were two and three weeks early. So probably he’ll come beginning of the month. I am praying for June 3, which is also easy to remember: 6-3-13.

alban gerhardt casual

What would you like to say about Prokofiev’s “Sinfonia Concertante”? Why do you think it isn’t it programmed and performed more often? Are there certain things you would like listeners especially to listen for? Are there other works by Prokofiev or other composers you would compare it to? How do you think it fit a into the program with Ravel (“Rapsodie Espagnole”) and Beethoven (Symphony No. 4)?

Prokofiev’s Cello Symphony is one of the 20th century’s great concertos, created by the collaboration of a genius composer with a genius musician, Mstislav Rostropovich (below), who even wrote certain passages himself (the virtuosic moments in the first movement, for example).

Mstislav Rostropovich

It is based on Prokofiev’s first cello concerto, which is so dark and difficult that none of them were convinced it would work. So both of them sat together and by re-writing it, more or less created a totally different piece, much more accessible and impressive, even though much easier to play than the concerto.

I have recorded both pieces for Hyperion and it is interesting to see the thematic similarities, while the atmosphere and the mood are totally different.

Why is it is not performed more often? Not my fault. I play it as often as I am asked to do it — but especially in the cello repertoire, audiences seem to be more hesitant to listen to “not so common” pieces than with the piano or the violin, which is the reason why orchestras don’t dare to schedule a bigger variety of cello concertos. There are so many great concertos for the cello that are hardly ever played — when have you heard (live) the Barber Concerto, for example? And it is such an amazing work!

I heard Rostropovich play the Prokofiev (a YouTube video of him in the opening part of the “Sinfonia Concertante” is at bottom) when I was a child growing up in Berlin, and I was deeply impressed and knew that one day I would need to perform this piece. As hellishly difficult as it might sound, it is s-o-o-o much fun to play.

After a short first movement comes a monster movement, pyrotechnics at first, a drop-dead-gorgeous second theme (perfect love-theme for any movie score!), a thrilling solo cadenza in which the cellist goes completely nuts, finishing off with octave scales, and the last movement follows promptly as a theme with variations, very witty, sometimes funny, sometimes dark, sometimes drunken. (Kurt Masur, when I did it with him in Leipzig, told me to play one of the variations like a drunken sailor, and I still remember this image very vividly.) The end must be the quickest and have the highest notes in the entire cello repertoire. Shortly before the end, though, you will hear a passage by the horns and the strings which sounds just like “Peter and the Wolf” — each time I perform this I can’t help feeling like a child again. It makes me so happy.

Any other piece to compare it to? No, it’s quite unique, but typically Prokofiev (below)! It fits beautifully into this program, all great music, very different colors and expressions, but all pieces that are very colorful and expressive. I love it, and can’t wait to play it!

Serge Prokofiev

Tomorrow: Cellist Alban Gerhardt will discuss how he came to the cello and his career as a professional musician; what he thinks of Madison; the best ways to educate young people about music and to involve new audiences of adults.


Classical music news: New media can lead back to old media – just ask pianist Valentina Lisitsa whose superstar status on YouTube has led to her a contract with Decca Classics.

May 31, 2012
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The media world today keeps getting, as Lewis Carroll might say, curiouser and curiouser.

Many authors now are self-publishing their first efforts because electronic books, or e-books, make it easier than ever to do so. And if the e-books sell well enough, old-fashioned publishers pick up the rights to make them into real old-fashioned cloth-and-paper printed books.

But one of the ironies is that the process also works in reverse.

Many creative talents use the so-called “new media” — blogs and the Internet — to gain access to and acceptance by so-called “old media.” Books have grown out of blogs, as have movies, such as the hit film “Julie and Julia.”

It also applies to classical music.

Take the case of pianist Valentina Lisitsa (below) who, to the best of my count, has performed in Madison four times: twice as accompanist to violinist Hilary Hahn and twice in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos.

But the Lisitsa phenomenon — and it really is a phenomenon — started about five years when she started posting her performance (of a Rachmaninoff work) on YouTube.

Since then, as the most popular pianist on YouTube (which has a huge number of current and historic piano videos) she has racked up more than 40 million individual hits or visits, as well as some 52,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel, for her many recordings of favorite works by Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Rachmaninoff and other composers.

Then last week, one of the classic great “old media” outlets – Decca Records, which belongs to the giant conglomerate Universal – signed her to a contract. It will start with a recording her debut recital at Royal Albert Hall on June 19. A digital version will available later in June and a CD will be released July 3.

Surely, Decca officials figured that so much interest on the Internet suggests that Lisitsa is very bankable and has a good chance of making money for the label.

So it will record her upcoming concert at Royal Albert Hall in London.

And guess what?

The 39-year-old Lisitsa, who was born in Ukraine but lives in the U.S., asked her fans for what program she should play – for what their favorite pieces played her are.

Here is a link to her You Tube Channel:

http://www.youtube.com/user/ValentinaLisitsa

Here is a link to my review of an impressive mostly Liszt recital she played in Madison last summer:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/08/20/classical-music-review-the-ear-gets-more-than-an-earful-of-franz-liszt-and-valentina-lisitsa-and-thinks-of-liberace/

Here are links to stories about her deal with Decca:

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/pianist-valentina-lisitsa-signs-to-decca-classics

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/9288208/Online-piano-star-Valentina-Lisitsa-gets-Albert-Hall-debut.html

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2012/05/exclusive-youtubes-favourite-pianist-signs-major-label-contract.html

http://www.classical-music.com/news/valentina-lisitsa-decca-classics

And here is a link to her program for the solo recital in Royal Albert Hall (below top shows the unusually shaped exterior, below bottom shows the spacious interior), along with information about tickets, should you want to or be able to attend it:

http://tickets.royalalberthall.com/tickets/valentina-lisitsa/default.aspx

My question is a simple one: Why would you buy a CD if you can hear the same pieces for free on YouTube?

I suppose so you can hear the artist and those works away from a computer or electronic device – at home or in the car or on an iPod.

Whatever the case, you have to assume the dramatic and temperamental, virtuosic and photogenic Lisitsa knows what she is doing.

She seems as gifted in commercial strategy as in classical piano technique and interpretation.

Below is Lisitsa playing one of my favorite Rachmaninoff preludes — in G major — though by no means one of her most popular videos, some of which have almost 3 million hits. I like the tone and the way the video shows her unusual stroking technique of hitting the keys — which seems to allow her never to strain.

Brava, Valentina!


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