The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Remembering Rudolf Serkin

January 18, 2018
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Among 20th-century pianists, Rudolf Serkin (below, in a photo by Yousuf Karsh) was a giant.

The Ear heard him live only twice.

Once was in New York City when Serkin played the “Emperor” Piano Concerto by Beethoven with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

The second time was years later in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, when he played an all-Beethoven program of sonatas during the Beethoven bicentennial.

Then there were his many recordings, no less wondrous and captivating. They set standards hard to equal, let alone surpass.

The Ear especially loved his Beethoven concertos and sonatas, but also his Mozart and Schubert, his Schumann and Brahms. One of The Ear’s favorite recordings was Serkin playing both the Piano Concerto and the Piano Quintet by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the opening of the Piano Quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Serkin was a complete musician who excelled in solo music, chamber music and concertos.

Recently, The Ear saw the finest essay he has ever read about Serkin — who often seems overlooked or forgotten these days when the spotlight usually falls on his contemporaries Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz — in The New Yorker magazine.

Richard Brady, who usually writes about movies, captures the special magic that was Serkin’s.

In addition, the story offer 12 carefully chosen samples of Serkin’s playing, taken from solo recordings, concertos and chamber music, from older standard composers and classic works to more modern composers and works.

Here is a link:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/2017-in-review/my-favorite-classical-music-release-of-2017

Did you ever hear Rudolf Serkin live?

What did you think?

Do you have a favorite work, live or recorded, played by Rudolf Serkin?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Why is Beethoven so popular? And why do all-Beethoven concerts work so well? Pianist Bryan Wallick answers these questions even as he prepares to play the “Emperor” Concerto this Friday night in the all-Beethoven concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

April 29, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) and pianist Bryan Wallick, who won the Vladimir Horowitz Prize and is returning to Madison, will perform under longtime WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell an all-Beethoven concert to end the WCO’s indoors Masterworks season.

WCO lobby

The program includes the “Leonore” Overture No. 1, the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” and the Symphony No. 7.

Tickets are $15-$62.

For more information, visit: http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks-v

The Ear asked Bryan Wallick to explain why all-Beethoven concerts work so well and why Beethoven remains so popular with the general public. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra will also close its season with Beethoven, specifically the Symphony No. 9 (“Choral” or “Ode to Joy”) on May 8, 9 and 10.)

Wallick (below) kindly responded to an email Q&A:

Bryan Wallick mug

Beethoven, along with a handful of other composers, including Mozart and Tchaikovsky, is one of the few composers who can make up a single-composer concert that also attracts the public. What accounts for that?

Beethoven had the luxury of living a longer life than many of the famous composers, so his compositional output is larger than that of many other composers.

His compositional style also changed dramatically over the course of his life, and there aren’t too many composers whose music is so categorically defined as early, middle and late works.

At the Juilliard School, the famous Beethoven class taught by the late Jacob Lateiner (below) described five different categories of musical progression in Beethoven’s career. This diversity gives many different variations and possibilities of programmatic combinations that are stimulating and exciting.

However most all-Beethoven programs often program works from his middle or late period, and the music is just that good that we are happy to only hear Beethoven. He was perhaps the greatest genius to ever put his pen to music, in a different capacity than Mozart.

Jacob Lateiner

What role has Beethoven played in your career? Are there works in particular that you were drawn to as a student or a performing professional?

Beethoven has been a huge influence in my career, and probably most any pianist’s career as he wrote so much music for the piano.  His 32 sonatas are one of the greatest musical achievements ever produced, so there is always an unending supply of great piano music that most pianists never even get to in their careers unless they become Beethoven specialists.

As a student, I remember a general rule that I was given that I should always be learning some Beethoven sonata while learning everything else that I was working on. As a child, I often listened to Beethoven sonatas before I went to bed, and this music was very motivational in driving me to develop my technique to the level where I could perform these pieces.

Bryan Wallick at piano

Beethoven (below) consistently ranks as the general public’s favorite classical composer. Why is that, do you think?

As I said earlier, the diversity of works is enormous, but I think the general public isn’t that aware of the huge diversity of works. Those are mostly precious gems for musicians to savor, but the tonal language is very acceptable to a wide audience. Plus, the stories of his fiery temper and his deafness add a certain mystery to his genius that can interest a wide audience.

In the work which I will play, the “Emperor” Piano Concerto, it is harmonically very simple, he often just moves between a I chord and a V chord, but how he does it is so interesting and the emotional depths which he contemplates with these very simple chords is astounding. How he is able to encapsulate his struggles and personal hardship in his music is perhaps the reason why his genius could exceed that of Mozart.

Beethoven big

Is there an aspect of Beethoven that you think the public needs to pay more attention to and that you intend to emphasize in your interpretations?

I wish the public had the time and opportunity to become more familiar with a broader range of Beethoven’s music. They often get to hear the famous works, but when one understands and sees the connections between the famous pieces and the ones written in between, the appreciation for what he does in the famous works only becomes greater.

One can always strive to hear more things in the music, and the great experience of performing these works is that even though we’ve played this music many, many times, we as musicians still keep finding new things in this music, and the experience always keeps growing and changing.

Is there anything you would like to say or add?

I love this concerto for many reasons, but one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is how simple it is, and I believe it is a struggle for many pianists to leave this piece alone and not to do too much with it. (Below is the notebook manuscript of the opening of the “Emperor” Concerto from measure 3 until the second theme enters.)

emperor concerto ms from measure 3

The phrasing is very logical, well written, and if a pianist tries to do too much with it, somehow the music doesn’t work.  For example, I feel there is a lot of room for a pianist to manipulate and turn phrases 1,000 different ways in the fourth piano concerto.

But this piece has a structure, logic and direction that I feel a pianist must just accept, appreciate, respect; and they must find a simple way to bring this to an audience. (You can hear the acclaimed Beethoven interpreter and pianist Rudolf Serkin and conductor Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra perform the “Emperor” Concerto in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

I’ve heard many performances of this piece where pianists try to over-interpret things, so my goal is to just let this great music speak on its own with just little “comments” here and there from myself.


Classical music: Are super-high concert fees morally right or wrong? Do they contribute to the wealth gap and lack of young audiences? What can music consumers do?

October 24, 2014
20 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Are artist concert fees — like those charged by tenor Placido Domingo (below top), soprano Renee Fleming (below middle) and violinist Itzhak Perlman (below bottom) —  too high these days and too unaffordable for most American concert-goers?

FRENI

reneefleming

Itzhak Perlman close

What would Janet say?

Maybe that refrain could become the economic equivalent of What Would Jesus Say?

I am speaking of Janet Yellen (below), the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve who last week made headlines when she spoke out publicly against the widening wealth gap as being contrary to America’s historic democratic ideals.

Key Speakers At Seminars At The IMF & World Bank Annual Meetings

But let’s localize the issue.

By all accounts superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, along with pianist Kathryn Stott, turned in a terrific performance — his seventh — at the Wisconsin Union Theater last Saturday night.

The Ear didn’t go, but here is a rave review from the student newspaper The Badger Herald, which agrees with the word-of-mouth reviews I have heard:

http://badgerherald.com/artsetc/2014/10/20/yo-yo-ma-and-kathryn-scott-transcend-classical-music-norms-at-shannon-hall/#.VEfBQYeENUQ

yo-yo ma and kathryn stott

And for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy tickets, the Wisconsin Union Theater even webcast the concert live and for free.

Still, with seats that sold for well over $100, The Ear got to wondering: Are really high artist fees morally right or wrong?

We all hear about the widening wealth gap, and especially about the astronomical pay given to CEOs versus their workers as compared to the same ratio several decades ago.

Well, what about well-known and in-demand concert artists?

If The Ear heard correctly, Yo-Yo Ma’s fee for that one-night performance was either $90,000 or $95,000 -– or about $42,500 or $45,000 an hour.

Can Yo-Yo Ma demand and get that extravagant fee in the so-called “free market” society with its corporate welfare and tax loopholes for the wealthy? Of course, he can — and he does. That is why he sold out the Wisconsin Union Theater.

But should he?

It makes one wonder.

Is Yo-Yo Ma really that much better as a cellist and musician -– and not just as a celebrity — than many other cellists, including MacArthur “genius grant” winner Alisa Weilerstein, Alban Gerhardt, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Steven Isserlis, Carter Brey, Joshua Roman and others? (You can hear Yo-Yo Ma’s interpretation of a movement from a solo cello suite by Johann Sebastian Bach in a  YouTube video — with over 11 million hits — at the bottom and decide if it is that much better than other cellists play it.)

Now I don’t mean to pick just on Yo-Yo Ma. I have gone to a half-dozen of his other performances here and I have met him and talked with him. He is without doubt a great musician, a fine human being and an exemplary humanitarian.

The problem that I am talking about transcends any single performer and applies to the whole profession.

Maybe at least part of the problem of attracting young audiences to classical music concerts can be placed right in the laps of the performing artists themselves.

When The Ear was young, he got to hear all sorts of great musical artists—including Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein (below), Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman, Rudolf Serkin, Isaac Stern, Emanuel Ax and others for quite affordable prices. Not that those artists didn’t live well -– but I doubt that they were paid the equivalent of $45,000 an hour.

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

Maybe it is time for economic populism in the performing arts.

Fees like that exclude a lot of families from participating. Some fans might find it better and cheaper to hear a CD or download than go to a live concert.

Too many performing artists – opera stars come immediately to mind as a class — seem to have taken the same path toward justifying greed as movie stars, sports figures, rock stars and CEO’s who make out like bandits.

In short, can it be that classical musicians are helping to kill off classical music?

Smaller theaters like the Wisconsin Union Theater and even the Overture Center simply cannot book such well-known artists without charging a ridiculous amount of money for a seat – and at a time when many people of all ages just can’t afford it. It just adds to the Wealth Gap and the One Percent problem.

SO THE EAR WOULD LIKE TO ASK CONCERT ARTISTS: PLEASE ADJUST YOUR CONCERT FEES TO HELP SUSTAIN THE FUTURE OF YOUR ART.

Well, these are just some brain droppings.

The Ear wonders what you think of stratospheric artist fees?

Do they contribute to the wealth gap?

Do they hurt the popularity of the art form, especially younger generations?

Are they contributing to the decline of cultural literacy?

In short, are such high artist fees morally right or wrong?

And if wrong, what can we arts consumers do about it? Boycott certain artists until they become more reasonable in their fees?

Ask artist and management agencies to adjust the fees to make them more affordable?

Go to alternative concerts that are perfectly acceptable without star power and cost less or, like those at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, free?

Tell us what you think in a COMMENT.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music Q&A: Shakespeare turns 450 today. Pianist Ryan McCullough talks about Beethoven’ problematic profundity and his Shakespearean sense of pacing and rhetoric. He will perform Beethoven’s titanic last three piano sonatas -– through which he sees a progression — this Saturday night at Farley’s House of Pianos.

April 23, 2014
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NOTE: Today’s in the 450th birthday of playwright William Shakespeare — a fitting date for the blog post below to appear. Do you have a favorite work or composer who stands up to comparison with Shakespeare or whose music or opera best incorporates work by The Bard? Leave a COMMENT.

shakespeare BW

By Jacob Stockinger

At 8 p.m. on this Saturday night, April 26, pianist Ryan McCullough (below top) will play the last three Beethoven piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, on the new Salon Series of concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos (below bottom is Farley’s Steinway‘s 1877 Centennial Concert Grand), located 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side, not far from West Towne.

Ryan McCullough above keyboard

Farley 1877 piano

McCullough has appeared with orchestras including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he performed to acclaim at the Token Creek Festival in Madison in 2010. For more information, visit his website www.rmmpiano.com.

He is comfortable with repertoire ranging from classical works to electro-acoustic improvisation, and serves as Sage Fellow in Contemporary Performance Practice at Cornell University.

For this concert he will play Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 30 in E major, No. 31 in A-flat major and No. 32 in C minor. You can call (608) 271-2626 to reserve your tickets. Tickets are $30 in advance; $35 at the door. A free reception follows the performance and is included.

McCullough graciously answered an email Q&A for The Ear.

Ryan McCullough mug small

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your major accomplishments, and talk about your background including when you started piano lessons and what was your Aha! Moment when you knew you wanted to become a concert pianist?

By my nature, it is hard for me to claim any major “accomplishments” since I attribute any such thing to luck and circumstance (provided I’ve done the work!). But I will say I am very happy and feel very lucky that I’m a concert pianist, and especially that I’m satisfied with the breadth and variety of musical projects I get to work on. I can’t really even take sole credit for that, though, since I’ve had a lot of support from family and teachers all along the way.

My mom started me on piano when I was 5, but at the time I wasn’t really into it–I wanted to be a pilot. Something happened when I was 11, however, and suddenly music became an insatiable fascination for me.

I began composing, I began playing the clarinet, which gives me a lot of respect for the musicians on the “other side of the podium.” I started going to little competitions and I just knew that this was what I was going to do. I never decided, I just found myself.

ryan mccullough informal big

What is it about Beethoven and especially late Beethoven sonatas that appeals to you? Do you have a favorite among the last three sonatas?

There is a lot of cultural baggage that comes with Beethoven’s music, and this is of course nothing new. Composers, performers and music-lovers have racked their brains over his music and especially his late music for close to 200 years, and so I often wonder if it is really possible to unpack what is really Beethoven from what is just the Beethoven mythology.

But trying to think as objectively as possible about these works, I have been thinking recently about how much I love the pacing of his music. It’s very dramatic, in the thespian sense of the word, and revelations and changes to the motion of the music seem to happen at exactly the right moment. It is well-known that Beethoven (below top) loved Shakespeare, and the connections between dramatic rhetoric and music were very deep in the 18th-century, so I imagine this was a very serious consideration for him.

Beethoven big

One of the challenges of playing Beethoven’s late works is grappling with profundity. Ask anyone who knows a little about Beethoven’s music to describe his late music and you’ll get responses like spiritual, profound, transcendental, mystical, otherworldly, and so on. This is just a part of our cultural understanding of Beethoven, which is of course backed up by Beethoven’s own words, such as the indication atop the third movement of op. 109, “mit innigster Empfindung,” or “with deepest feeling.”

Of course, while I do believe Beethoven was a very spiritual man with a deep interest in the philosophical and cultural trends of his time, 200 years of critical hyperbole since his death have made it such that playing this music feels to us as if his notes contain the secrets of the universe, and so as a performer it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to be profound through these works when just letting them be what they are is already profound enough.

ryan mccullough playing 1

Why do you think that the last three sonatas, and the late sonatas in general, have replaced the more “heroic” middle period sonatas like the “Tempest,” the “Appassionata” and the “Waldstein” that used to figure so prominently in piano recitals?

There is probably no accounting for why certain pieces begin to feature more regularly in concerts, especially in the piano circuit, which is so heavily influenced by (or contrary to) competitions. I also think it depends where you’re looking. I have heard many performances of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata recently, especially at top-tier competitions where it seems to be the “no s/he didn’t!” piece of choice these days.

I heard the last three sonatas played by my teacher, John Perry, back in 2004, before I began studying with him, and got it stuck in my head at that point that I would do that one day as well, so I think that’s at least one reason how certain repertoire disseminates.

That being said, I also heard a performance of the complete 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day by one person, and that is not something I would ever want to do.

Do you see any kind of connection or relationship among the last three sonatas? What would you like to point out to readers about each sonata, and about your performance in Madison?

This ties into the notion of profundity I mentioned a moment ago, whether it’s latent in the work or imposed by the observer (which of course includes the performer). Obviously Beethoven made the decision to put them in that particular order (Opp. 109, 110, 111), and opus order is something we know he was conscious of, especially with his late string quartets.

Whether that actually means anything specifically is anyone’s guess, and probably has as much to do with the composer’s business relationships with his publishers as it does with the actual music.

For the purposes of performance as a set, I do perceive a progression through the three.

Op. 109 (a manuscript page is below) feels very domestic, grounded in the realities of everyday living. Emotions ebb and flow, from comfortable simplicity to passionate arguments, but the piece never really wanders very far from home and there’s a certain quiet satisfaction that overrides the whole work, even in its most ecstatic moments.

Beethoven ms Piano Sonata Op.109

Op. 110 (a manuscript page is below) is a much more complicated piece, and for me is the hardest of the three. It seems to begin somewhat where Op. 109 leaves off — comfortable, satisfied, glittering, but there is a certain disquietude in the first movement, evidenced by the fact that Beethoven keeps leaning towards the dark key of F minor but manages just to avoid it or only touches on it briefly. The second movement is a wild romp in, not surprisingly, F minor, so whatever it was Beethoven was trying to avoid in the first movement seems to eventuate in full.

The third movement, which emerges out of the second, is one of the most depressing, emotionally draining pieces of music Beethoven ever penned, so whatever happened in the second movement was evidently quite a test. After a couple of attempts to pull the music out of this stupor, the piece ends up in a wildly ecstatic version of where the sonata began, but with the same harmonic hints at disquietude as the first movement, suggesting a kind of cyclical story-telling that Beethoven was very interested in at that time. It’s this combination of tightly-woven composition and boundless, fantasia-like wandering that makes the piece hard to pull off. The pacing, as I mentioned before, is very important.

beethoven ms piano sonata op 110

Op. 111 (below is the title page form the first edition) is undoubtedly my favorite, certainly conceptually. Its two movements could not be more different from each other. The first movement is very much the stormy Beethoven we all read about, unkempt, his chamber pot full, frantically and obsessively scribbling the same short musical gestures over and over until he’s found just the right version (which was usually the first version, 20 versions ago), the deaf man beating out this wild music at the piano while listening through his earhorn.

Beethoven Title page Sonata Op. 111

The second movement, then, is as if you woke up from that bad dream and found yourself watching some sort of eternal celestial ritual that had no beginning, no terminus, and only seemed to exist for as long as you were there watching it. The way the movement is constructed reminds me somewhat of the great old science film “Powers of 10” (http://vimeo.com/6150677) where the universe is shown proportionally in both its infinite vastness and smallness—the falling motive Beethoven starts with is continually divided in half, somewhat like a single bacteria, and becomes such a cloud of activity that it seems to engulf us until inadvertently we find ourselves back where we started. (You can hear the second movement played in a live performance by the great Rudolf Serkin in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Many see Beethoven’s sense of musical abstraction as a precursor to 20th-century modernity; but the 18th-century was a pretty crazy time conceptually, and artists and philosophers were already considering ideas that modernists in the 20th-century would claim as their own invention. Beethoven just happened to be a very effective bullhorn for these ideas. (Below is a manuscript page of Op. 111.)

Beethoven ms Piano Sonata Op. 111

Is there something else you would like to add or say?

I am dedicating this performance and another that I am giving at Cornell University to a great friend and music-lover Leon Berliner (below), who owned a Classical music recording shop in my hometown of Eureka, California.

Leon Berliner

Leon was born into a Jewish family in Belgium, and Beethoven was one of the first sounds he heard after the liberation of his country from the Nazis. He held an annual Beethoven’s birthday party at his store on December 16, and he died this last year from lung cancer on December 15. That’s as amazing a coincidence as you’re ever likely to get, and I very much hope he’s enjoying his “eternal celestial ritual.”

 

 

 

 

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Classical music: What pieces and performers first hooked you on classical music? Here is what hooked critic Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times.

July 20, 2013
23 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Every once in a while, it’s good to look back and realize with renewed appreciation what pieces and performers first hooked you at a young age on classical music.

That is exactly what Anthony Tommasini (below), the senior music critic for The New York Times, did this past week.

tommasini-190

You could call it nostalgia, but it really was more of a Proustian act of recovering lost time, without a lot of sentimentality but instead with a lot of clear-eyed adult analysis and appreciation.

He was born into a non-musical family, but the young Tommasini nonetheless found himself inexorably drawn toward classical music.

As a young pianist, he got hooked on some unusual repertoire, short pieces that are often overlooked today. Can you guess which pieces by which composer? They might surprise you.

And he favored certain well-known dramatic works by Beethoven (below) especially one particular piano sonata he attempted to play as well as a couple of other sonatas and one of the piano concertos.

Both sets of works, small and large, were performed by two of the Truly Great Pianists of his youth — Arthur Rubinstein and Rudolf Serkin.

Beethoven big

Tommasini also write about his first opera that hooked him for life on opera. Care to guess which one by which composer? And where he heard it?

You may recall that Tommasini, a trained composer, is probably the most respected classical music critic in the U.S. today, along with Alex Ross of The New Yorker magazine.

And local readers may recall when Tommasini (below right) came to Madison to do a residency during the UW-Madison’s centennial celebration of the Pro Arte Quartet two seasons ago. He spoke articulately and passionately at the Wisconsin Union Theater, then did a Q&A with composer William Bolcom (below left) and UW piano professor Todd Welbourne (below middle) before the world-premiere performance of a commissioned work, William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2, with the Pro Arte Quartet and UW pianist Christopher Taylor:

William Bolcom, Todd Welbourne, Anthony Tommasini

Anyway, here is a link to Tommasini’s story, complete with a terrific and an unexpected anecdote at the end as well as recordings of the specific pieces form his youth that you should listen to:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/arts/music/a-critics-ode-to-a-childhood-joy-in-classical-music.html

It wasn’t the first time Tommasini talked about seminal classical works in his past. Here is another that involved Chopin:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/18/arts/music/anthony-tommasinis-musical-moments.html?pagewanted=all

Like Tommasini, I too was given to romantic drama, or even melodrama, as a young person. That, I suspect, is typical. Young people don’t generally first fall in love with the Baroque. I just adored Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Prelude in C-sharp minor, called “The Bells of Moscow” by its fans and called “It” by Rachmaninoff who grew to detest the popular piece that he was always asked to play as an encore. And I too had to try my hand  or hands at it, to play and perform it. And then it was Rachmanioff’s lush Piano Concerto No. 2 in a great old recording by Arthur Rubinstein and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner.

What pieces and performers first hooked you on classical music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music poll: Who were the 10 greatest pianists of all time?

August 7, 2012
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

An interesting and accomplished monthly Australian magazine – Limelight Magazine (below) – is devoted to classical music and the fine arts in the Land Down Under. Limelight recently polled contemporary well-known concert pianists today and asked them to name the Top Ten Pianists of All-Time. But what I do find funny, and even questionable or suspect, is that they all equated the qualifier “Of All Time” with the 20th century. Partisans of Arthur RubinsteinVladimir Horowitz and Rudolf Serkin might also find some grounds for minor disagreement. And feminists will almost certainly object to the sexist list, which completely excludes women, including such talents Guiomar Novaes, Teresa Careno and Martha Argerich (below).

Granted, perhaps that is because we do not possess recordings of certain figures. But you might think that, even without recordings as documents, someone might name, say, Chopin (below top) and Liszt (below bottom) as among the most accomplished pianists of all time.

Some of you might also be a bit disappointed in how such titanic figures as Claudio Arrau (below), Josef Hoffmann and Leopold Godowsky rate in the listing.

Take a look for yourself: http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/Article/306444,the-10-greatest-pianists-of-all-time.aspx/0

Published since 2003, the Australian magazine itself — given the home country’s geographical location — understandably has a lot to say about the classical music scene in Asia and about less well-known names of performers and compositions. It is worth checking out. It seems to publish a lot of Top Ten lists and features rarely heard performers, groups and compositions.

Here is a link to its home website: www.limelightmagazine.com.au

And be sure to leave your own nominations for the Best Pianists of All Time in the COMMENT section.


Classical music news: Is this “au revoir” or “adieu” for classical music at the Wisconsin Union Theater, The Ear asks after pianist Peter Serkin performs Beethoven and new music to bring down to the curtain?

May 11, 2012
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night’s piano recital by Peter Serkin (below) at the Wisconsin Union Theater was certainly timely.

It was a perfect event for bringing down the curtain for the next two seasons at the Union Theater as the Memorial Union undergoes a major renovation in time to reopen for the theater’s 75th anniversary season in September of 2014.

The question is: Does this mean “au revoir” or “adieu” – that is, “until next time” or “farewell” – to classical music at the Wisconsin Union Theater after 73 seasons?

(NOTE: A Curtain Down Party and Open House will be held — free and open to the public — from 2 to 6 p.m. this Saturday. For details, see http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/curtaindown/

I speak as someone who sincerely hopes the answer is “Au revoir.” After all, I have often referred to the Wisconsin Union Theater as “The Carnegie Hall of Madison.” It is where The Great Ones have played – and continue to play — as you will see shortly in my review of Peter Serkin’s Beethoven, which was done on the same legendary stage where I heard his famous father Rudolf Serkin (below) also perform Beethoven 40 years ago. Now that is tradition and legacy! History and longevity!

But I also know that classical music has been a tough sell for the past several seasons at the Wisconsin Union Theater. The audiences are dwindling, due, I am sure, to competing events, to tough economic times and to shifting priorities in how young people – or older people, for that matter – choose to spend their discretionary money and leisure time.

While the jazz festival and world music series continue to draw large crowds or even sold-out houses, the classical concerts usually sell under half a house.

How long, one has to ask, can that go on?

True, next season, the Union Theater’s four classical concerts will largely take place in Mills Hall, the same hall in the UW School of Music where pianist Jeffrey Siegel (who will mark his 25th anniversary performing “Keyboard Conversations” in Madison) and the UW faculty and the school’s guest artists now perform. It has about 750 seats compared to the Union Theater’s 1,200 seats.

In addition, the classical series is holding down ticket prices and is trying out scheduling mini-concerts at non-traditional times in non-traditional venues — at lunchtime at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery, for example — to generate interest and audience.

Plus, there is clearly a decision to mix in some of the appeal of world music by booking groups like the Grammy-winning Imani Winds (below, below in a photo by Jeff Fisano) and The Knights chamber orchestra (below middle) with the pippa player Wu Man (below bottom) in a Silk Road Ensemble-type event .

More traditional classical bookings include cellist Joshua Roman (below top, in a photo by Tina Su), who will do a solo recital and also play a concerto with the UW Symphony Orchestra; and up-and-coming pianist Jeremy Denk (below bottom), who first appeared there as an accompanist for violinist Joshua Bell and last season played a fabulous and monumental recital of J.S. Bach and Ives and who offered a master class and blogging workshop as well as a lecture on Chopin at the UW School of Music.

For details, visit: http://uniontheater.wisc.edu/materials/theater_b_T503_SeasonSeries_12_1046_OF.pdf

You have to believe that cultural arts director Ralph Russo (below, in a photo by Jeff Miller of UW-Madison) and the student directors whom he works with are doing their very best to make the classical concert series succeed. But I already have heard several veteran subscribers who say they will pass on subscription tickets next season and wait to see what else is happening that week or day.

That doesn’t bode well –- though I could be, and hope that I am, wrong.

Time will tell, as they say. Maybe larger new audiences will indeed replace lost audiences. Something has to happen, that is for sure.

Whatever it takes for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s classical series to succeed and become popular again, I hope that is what happens. But I do fear for the worst – which is that it will continue to wind down to the point of disappearing. That would be a shame. We just can’t let that happen.

AS FOR PETER SERKIN (below): It was a memorable concert that featured Serkin’s specialties.

The first half was devoted to contemporary music by British composer Oliver Knussen, Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu and American composer Charles Wourinen.

Of them all, I preferred the “Adagio” by Wuorinen (below), which had a great sense of spaciousness and placidness while so much contemporary music seems abusively aggressive.

But I also have to confess that largely atonal new music is not my thing and that I find the music just can’t get traction, as they say, on my being.

I think I need more melody or tunes in the music, more obvious sense-making or structure and emotional directness with less cerebral puzzle-solving, for new music to reach me and seem like something other than R&D – or research and development. I seek emotional resonance.

I think you could play a sampling from any one of the pieces and almost no one could tell you which composer or which piece it was.

I also think it says something that even someone as experienced with those works as Peter Serkin – who commissioned the Wuorinen and Knussen and continues to champion them in performance – had to use scores to play them. On the other hand, the hour-long, late-life magnum opus “Diabelli” Variations by Beethoven (below) proved no challenge technically, musically or memory-wise. For players or listener, the Diabellis stick, so to speak, while the other works do not.

Playing without a score, Serkin turned it a fabulous interpretation that treated each of the 33 virtuosic and encyclopedic variations on an insipid  simple waltz by Beethoven’s publisher Anton Diabelli (below) as a discreet composition unto itself.

Even for someone like me – who finds any number of Beethoven’s piano sonatas to be much more rewarding music than these often pedantic as well as inspired variations – found many memorable moments, like the subtle fugue, where the music and the performer (who has recorded the Diabellis twice) all came together. 

But it is the kind of program where opinion can vary widely. So here are some others.

Here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and its blog Classically Speaking:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/May-2012/Serkin-Gives-Union-Theater-Its-Last-for-now-Curtain-Call/index.php

And here is a review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal by Lindsay Christians:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/serkin-brings-exceptional-performance-to-union-theater/article_4a230040-9787-11e1-9e91-001a4bcf887a.html

What did you think of Peter Serkin’s recital?

And what do you think about the future of the Wisconsin Union Theater and about its next season?


Classical music: Is true independence of human fingers even possible? Pianists and other instrumentalists might be surprised by the anatomical facts of fingers and hands.

March 8, 2012
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most puzzling aspects of playing an instrument – and especially the piano, I find, though others might say the same about a string instrument or, for that matter, any instrument– is fingering.

I find it hard enough to get a good fingering, a right fingering, a fingering that works well and reliable – one that hits the right note with the right force at the right time.

And then I read about professional concertizing artists, like the late Rudolf Serkin (below) or the very much alive Stephen Hough, who actually change fingerings to refresh their interpretation of a particular piece. As if getting one good fingering isn’t enough of a challenge!

Or just maybe it is to adapt to their own hands and fingers as they age.

In any case, one of the most fascinating pieces of literature about how human hands and fingers really work was recently printed in the Science Times edition of The New York Times. It has some basic information that all of us — including typists — who rely on ours hands and especially fingers should know:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/28/science/a-gripping-tale-each-flick-of-a-finger-takes-the-work-of-five.html

It left me wondering: Is true independence of the fingers, even among professional performing artists, even possible?

Do you have stiffness around the base of your thumbs? You’re not alone.

Do you find it hard to move your fourth finger without moving your pinkie finger, or vice-versa? You’re not alone.

I suspect some of these anatomical realities are the basis of such things as the Dorothy Taubman Method and other techniques or exercises to avoid injuries.

And could it be that some great musicians or great instrumentalists – and the two are NOT necessarily the same — just have the good fortune to be “freaks” of nature and have different length fingers (I think pianist Arthur Rubinstein, below, had pinkies almost as long as his middle finger) or better working tendons and ligaments than the rest of us, the same way that great basketball players are unusually tall?

Well, I’m getting into speculation now.

Does this story agree with your own personal experience?

Do you think true finger independence is a dream, an unattainable ideal? Is it just relative or comparative?

What do you think are the best ways or exercises to develop finger independence?

The Ear wants to hear.


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