READER SURVEY: Today is Valentine’s Day. What is the best piece of romantic music you know of to listen to or to send to someone to celebrate this day? You can even leave a link to a YouTube video and a dedication in the COMMENT section. Here is a link to Limelight Magazine’s Top 10 Sexiest Moments in Classical Music:
By Jacob Stockinger
Little things can add up to a big difference.
Take the annual concert given by the winners (below) of this year’s concerto competition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.
Here are links to background of the event and the performers in the preview story that was posted on this blog and and a link to the performers’ biographies that appeared on “Fanfare,” the outstanding bog of the UW School of Music:
Someone at the SOM (as the School of Music is referred to by insiders) rightly decided that the event deserved a higher public profile. (Except where noted, performance photos are by The Ear.)
So they made a few adjustments.
They booked Mills Hall for a Saturday night – last Saturday night, in fact — the best night of the week for entertainment events.
Then they rechristened the event the Symphonic Showcase, since the UW Symphony Orchestra (below with graduate student and assistant conductor Kyle Knox) is the common denominator and accompanies all the concerto winners and also premieres the winning piece by a student composer. The Ear likes that emphasis on collective or collaborative music-making.
They started the concert early, at 7 p.m.
That was because they also added a small and informal dessert reception from 9 to 11 p.m. — with all the proceeds of a $10 ticket going to a student scholarship fund — at the nearby Tripp Commons in the UW Memorial Union.
And what were the results?
Nothing short of a spectacular success.
Mills Hall was packed just about full (see the photo below by Michael R. Anderson).
And the big, enthusiastic audience greeted each performer with cheers and a standing ovation. And they deserved that. All of the winners played well and all chose great works to perform.
Here a rundown by contestant.
If you weren’t there -– well, you probably should regret it, You missed out on a lot of fun and a lot of beautiful music-making by a very impressive group of talented students. Maybe some state legislators were in the audience and will stop clowning around trying to micro-manage and ruin the UW while they say they’re really trying to fix it.
The evening started out with an orchestral showpiece, a kind of Romantic tone poem-concerto grosso that highlighted each section. That might be expected since the “Russian Easter” Overture came from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a master orchestrator who taught Igor Stravinsky the craft of scoring music.
Graduate student Kyle Knox (below) conducted and did a fine job of bouncing the music around to various sections and keeping a clear line.
Violinist Madlen Breckbill (below) confidently commanded the stage with an appropriately lyrical and heart-breaking reading of the first movement of Samuel Barber’s masterful Violin Concerto. It was a thoroughly convincing rebuff to those people and critics who say you need to hear a new piece of music several times to know it is great. This kind of greatness you get from the first notes.
Saxophonist Erika Anderson (below left) played and projected with absorbing conviction the new “Poema” (2014) by student composer 24-year-old Russian-born composer Daria Tennikova (below right), who writes in an impressively accessible yet thoroughly modern idiom.
Clarinetist Kai-Ju Ho (below top) brought both lyricism and swing to Aaron Copland’s underperformed Clarinet Concerto, pleasing conductor James Smith (below bottom right), himself a very accomplished clarinetist who performed the same concerto five times under the composer.
SeungWha Baek (below top, playing; below bottom by Michael R. Anderson) brought out the sizzle and virtuosity in the dazzling first movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with its ingenious Hanon-like five-finger exercise motif – except that this is no work for beginners, as you can see and hear at the bottom in a YouTube video with pianist Martha Argerich and conductor Andre Previn.
Flutist Mi-Li Chang brought beautiful tone and playfulness, even Gallic charm, to the Concerto for Flute by Jacques Ibert.
And pianist Sung-Ho Yang brought the show to a close with a surprising subtle reading of Franz Liszt’s flashy and bombastic Piano Concerto No 1. The whole work is like one long cadenza – not one of the Ear’s favorites — so it was refreshing to hear Yang emphasize the quiet passages and subtlety, all the while bringing out the dialoguing back and forth between the piano and the orchestra.
And after the music, we went to a quiet but friendly reception that featured coffee and tea as well as chocolate cake and pumpkin bars (below), set out much like a Wayne Thiebaud painting. It was a chance to meet the musicians and thank them for a splendid evening.
Bravo to all.
The Ear is betting and hoping that next year will find the new format repeated.
Tinkering with failure is one thing.
But why tinker with success?
By Jacob Stockinger
If you have been waiting for the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics (below is the official logo), tonight is the night it all begins for real –- at least officially because some preliminary rounds of sporting events like figure skating and snowboarding have already been held — even amid the terrorist threats, corruption, unfinished construction, dog roundups, authoritarianism and homophobia.
Many of us here in the U.S. will be tuning in at 8 p.m. EST to NBC-TV and streaming the games on-line. Here is a link to a schedule, to background stories and to other links.
For a complete schedule of events, check out:
And tonight is the opening ceremonies, the March of Nations, where all the athletes will march into the main stadium.
Could it also be payback time for Russian superstar musicians?
The maestro of music for the Olympics is the ever busy, often unshaven and always critically acclaimed conductor Valery Gergiev (below), who guest conducts around the world and holds his own podium at the Mariinsky Theatre in St.Petersburg.
But ironically, the maestro is a very close friend and political supporter – as is superstar soprano Anna Netrebko (below), who may or may not show up at Sochi — of the heavy-handed and thuggish Russian President, and former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin. (Below is a photo of Vladimir Putin pinning a state decoration on Valery Gergiev.)
The combination of the two V-Men — Vladimir and Valery — creates certain ironies and some wariness or even dissatisfaction.
Here is a link to a fine story about Gergiev, Putin and the Olympics that aired in NPR. It also has links to some music.
And The New York Times has also published a story about Gergiev that focuses on his role as an ambassador and defender of Russian culture’s rebirth under Putin, whom Gergiev endorsed in the last presidential election (both are below), despite the foreign political fallout.
So, will Anna Netrebko (seen below in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin”), who also endorsed Putin, show up to sing?
Will some of the famous ballet dancers from the famed but beleaguered Bolshoi company in Moscow also perform?
Tune in and see.
But while we wait for the Winter Olympics to reveal themselves and for their many cultural contradictions to surface — and to help warm you up in this cold, cold Midwest winter -– here is some of the best music ever composed for the Olympics or sports events: A YouTube video of Milwaukee-born composer Michel Torke’s “Javelin” written for the 1996 Summer Olympics Games in Atlanta, Georgia:
By Jacob Stockinger
You know the new concert season is well underway when the major opera houses rev up.
And this weekend marks the start of the new “Live From the Met in HD’ series. It features 10 new productions, including some very well-known work operas and some lesser-known one.
The opening production by the world-famous Metropolitan Opera (below, the interior seen from the stage) in New York City is Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin,” which the Madison Opera staged to critical acclaim last season.
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra will be conducted by Russian globe-trotting conductor Valery Gergiev (below, in a photo from Getty Images), which is sure to give sparkling account of the tuneful Waltz, probably the most famous and popular moment in the entire opera (at bottom in a popular YouTube video) by that Melody Master of a composer.
It is a curious and sure-fire musical combination that may also be controversial, given how both Anna Netrebko and Valery Gergiev have been outspoken supporters of Macho Man Russian President Vladimir Putin (below), despite his oppositional defense of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad and despite his human rights record, especially fostering the oppression of gays and lesbians in Russia. And how ironic it is that they will perform in an opera by Tchaikovsky, who was himself gay,
Here are two popular posts I recently did about that issue, posts that drew some great reader comments you should check out:
One wonders; Will the singer or conductor hear any boos or jeers as they start the production, which the Met’s general director Peter Gelb has refused to dedicate to Russia’s gays and lesbians? It could be interesting. But given the cost of seats at the Met, The Ear suspects not. Art will probably win out over politics, at least on the expensive Mother Ship – though the reception might be more vocal and dissenting in local and more affordable cinemas.
But who knows? Still, one can hope.
Anyway, the “Met LIVE in HD” shows will be screened by satellite at the Point Cinemas on Madison’s far west side and the Eastgate Cinemas on the city’s far east side. The opera starts at 11:55 a.m. CDT and runs just over four hours.
Tickets are $24 for adults, $18 for children.
Below are some links with more information about this opening production and about the full season.
Here is a link to the complete season on 10 productions so you can check for conflicts, set aside dates (encore performances are usually the following Wednesday evening) and buy tickets in advance.
Here is a useful link to the notes with a synopsis of the plot of “Eugene Onegin”:
Here is a link to some videos (below is the ball scene) that may whet your appetite to see and hear the production:
And here are links to two detailed an dwell researched stories in The New York Times that give the history of the Met Live in HD series and offers insightful critiques of what the series means for live opera and the opera scene in general in the U.S. and around the world.
Here is the link to the story with historical, demographic and economics background:
Here is the analysis and critique:
If you go, let us know what you thought of the production and whether something unusual happened -– be it a boycott or protest, jeers or boos.
The Ear wants to hear.
A REMINDER: The last performance of the season-opening concert by Madison Symphony Orchestra (below in a photo by Greg Anderson) takes place at 2:30 p.m. today in Overture Hall. The program of Aaron Copland’s dance suite “Appalachian Spring,” Richard Wagner‘s “Love Death” (Liebestod) from the opera “Tristan und Isolde” and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov‘s symphonic tone poem ”Scheherazade” celebrates the 20th anniversary of conductor John DeMain‘s tenure. And the performances have received rave reviews. Here are links to reviews by John W. Barker of Isthmus and Greg Hettmansberger of Madison Magazine:
By Jacob Stockinger
You may recall that last weekend I asked whether we should boycott the performances and recordings of superstar soprano Anna Netrebko (below top) and globe-trotting conductor Valery Gergiev (below bottom) because they supported the election of Vladimir Putin, the thuggish former KGB agent who is the scheming and vicious President of Russia.
There is a lot to complain about Vladimir Putin (below, pictured on a poster in a pro-=gay rights protest) and his record of injustice, human rights and political intrigues. In particular, putting aside questions of Syria and internal Russian dissent, I chastised Netrebko and Gergiev for not standing up to and not speaking out about Putin’s support of extremely harsh and oppressive anti-gay laws in Russia, especially both musicians no doubt work with and depend on gay and lesbian colleagues in performing artists.
The comments led to some pretty heated responses from various readers.
Here is a link so you can see for yourself:
Then a god friend and loyal, knowledgeable reader of the blog, who is on a bicycling tour of Hungary, checked in and sent on a link to a piece about how opera houses – including the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City — have been asked to sign petitions and at least dedicate their opening night performances against Putin and his supporters.
The Met’s general director Peter Gelb (below) refused, pleading that the arts are separate from politics, and some other opera leaders agreed with him. Well, what do you expect from management?
Here is a link to that fascinating story in the Wall Street Journal:
The whole idea of Vladimir Putin (below) as an opera villain got me thinking: Which villain in the opera repertoire best parallels or embodies Vladimir Putin, seen as a parody of himself as a real-life bare-chested macho man in the photo below top? (The beef-cakey baritone Nathan Gunn, below bottom) would be an ideal choice to cast int the role no?)
Could he be the notorious Duke of Mantua who betrays his friend in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto”?
Or maybe Mephistopheles in Charles Gounod’s “Faust”?
Perhaps Modeste Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov as leader who runs astray of the law and the people?
And there many other villain who kill, torture and betray.
In fact, to help you decide here is a list – by no means complete – of the Top 10 opera villains as provided by the famed radio station WQXR FM in New York City.
Maybe you can think of others?
And just maybe we will see a contemporary opera composed that is based on Putin. Why not, The Ear asks, since recently world premiere of a commissioned opera ‘”Anna Nicole” based on the glittery and totally superficial life of the trashy Anna Nicole Smith recently took place at the Royal Opera in London?
Anyway, which opera villain do you think best embodies Vladimir Putin?
And could the real Vladimir Putin himself serve as a villainous role in a new and contemporary opera?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Like everybody else, I am pretty angry, disappointed and frustrated about Russia and the spoiler role it continues to play in defending Syria’s genocidal actions and in blocking justified moves by the United Nations against President Assad and his murderous regime.
But I am also very irritated, annoyed and angered by the way that Macho Man Russian President and former KGB agent Vladimir Putin (below) and the Russian right-wing politicians have stigmatized gays and lesbians and passed laws against the LGBT community.
Which is also why I was so proud of U.S. President Barack Obama for openly meeting with LGBT advocates in Saint Petersburg when he recently went there for the G-20 summit of economically powerful nations.
So why can’t other important figures speak out about gay rights, as I bet the famous late cellist, conductor and outspoken dissident and defender of human rights Mstislav Rostropovich (below) would have done.
How about the opera superstar soprano Anna Netrebko?
And how about the globe-trotting and critically acclaimed Russian orchestra conductor Valery Gergiev?
You may recall that in the Russian election both of those artists supported the strongman Vladimir Putin as their candidate. (Below top is a photo of Valery Gergiev, on the right, with Vladimir Putin, below bottom, Vladimir Putin greets Anna Netrebko with flowers)
Isn’t that special? as The Church Lady used to say on “Saturday Night Live.”
Well, The Ear wonders why the two world-renowned classical musicians don’t go to their favored candidate and enlighten him about gays and lesbians? About gay rights as human rights?
I mean is it is not as if they are personally ignorant of or uninvolved in the important role that gays and lesbians play in the world of classical music and opera, and in the performing arts in general.
It is impossible to believe that both Anna Netrebko and Valery Gergiev don’t count gays and lesbians among their closest friends and collaborators.
Why are they holding back?
What are they afraid of?
They are being hypocritical and should be ashamed. (Below is a YouTube video, with almost one million hits, of Anna Netrebko singing the famous aria “Sempre Libera” — Always Free — from Giuseppe Verdi‘s popular opera “La Traviata.)
Or could it possibly be that they actually support Putin’s oppressive and repressive policy – now official law – that makes it a crime even to speak about homosexuality openly for fear of spoiling and recruiting young people?
Why don’t they speak out against the violent and thuggish beatings that the intolerant Russians have inflicted on gays and lesbians? Why don’t they support gay rights protests and protesters in Russia? And if they have, who don’t we know about it?
It would sure be news, even if it meant bad box office in their native land.
And if it is the case that Netrebko and Gergiev have remained silence and uninvolved, then The Ear says: It is time to boycott their productions, concert appearances and their recordings. It would be similar to the boycott of Russian vodka that gay rights advocates have called for (below).
What do you say?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Much or even most of the festival is directed by Bard College president Leon Bostein. Concerts are held in the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts (below) that was designed by the noted architect Frank Gerhy.
This year’s theme was Igor Stravinsky, and the first weekend of the festival examined his Russian roots and his earlier work. Last weekend I offered the insightful account and assessment by The New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe, who has been named by some sources — including famed critic Norman Lebrecht — as the designated successor to senior music critic Anthony Tommasini.
Here is a link to that posting:
Lass weekend saw the conclusion of “Stravinsky and His World.” It examined later works, with an emphasis on his neo-Classical works (listen to the tuneful clarity of the YouTube video of Stravinsky’s “Pulchinella” Suite at the bottom performed by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic); the composer’s and culture’s reaction against Richard Wagner and the lushness of late Romanticism as well; and the general career and music of Stravinsky (below, in a photo by Richard Avedon) while he was in exile in France and the U.S.
The activities included a performance of “Perspehone” with Jean Stillwell as the narrator (below in a photo by Cory Weaver of the New York Times).
Here is a link to another perceptive assessment by another critic for The New York Times, Steve Smith (below):
I’m sure the festival was filled with great music, great performances and rare insights.
For that reason as I wrote last time, the Bard Music Festival is one that really tempts me. What other festival would treat music more as philosophy and history and less as entertainment? What other festival would devote itself, for example, to Camille Saint-Saens or Jean Sibelius?
By Jacob Stockinger
Today is our national holiday: The Fourth of July – America’s annual Independence Day, which celebrates when the new nation’s Declaration of Independence (below) from Great Britain was issued in 1776.
Every summer, even as they are cheering and applauding the music and fireworks, a lot of Americans ask the same question: How did Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” – complete with ringing bells and booming cannons – become such an integral part of Fourth of July celebrations?
And an integral part of July 4 and Independence Day it certainly is, as you can hear in almost all celebrations and fireworks displays. nJust listen to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s second Concert of the Square tonight, starting at 7 p.m.
For more information the WCO’s “Star-Spangled Spectacular” concert tonight, visit:
This summer, where the dangerously dry weather doesn’t force officials to cancel fireworks, Fourth of July celebrations and fireworks shows will begin this weekend and go through the week, with some celebrations postponed until August or even September.
And chances are good that most or even all of these will feature the “1812 Overture.”
It was commissioned by the Czar and written by Tchaikovsky (below) to mark Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s invasion. So how did it become such a part of American lore? Even the people who love hearing the music can’t really answer that question. But the answer is easier and makes more sense and is more recent than you might think.
But recently musicologist Jan Swafford recently answered that question on NPR. It was the best and most comprehensive answer that The Ear has ever heard. It eve has a section-by-section analysis of the music with samples.
It is worth reading and especially listening to if you want to know, once and for all, how the famously loud overture was transplanted to the American celebration of Independence Day.
Here is a link complete with musical examples and analysis as well as the historical and artistic context both here and in Russia:
By Jacob Stockinger
Well, it is just a few weeks or more before a lot of some major political events, all of them quite polarizing, contentious and controversial, get decided.
And curiously enough, classical music – which is normally left out of such major social events and political discussions – seems to be playing an important role right now.
And then there is the upcoming election in Russia where Vladimir Putin (below, riding brazenly beefcake and defiantly bare-chested) – often accused making his opponents “disappear” — hopes to return as President.
Of course music creeps into politics now and then. Recently, President Obama made headlines and videos that went viral when he crooned a few bars of Al Green and then later some blues with B.B. King and Rolling Stone Mick Jagger.
But classical music and opera?
How do they figure all of a sudden in politics?
Could it be because so many of these extremist-type candidates turn to something more artistically traditional for validation and mainstream cultural acceptance?
Here are some stories to consider:
Mr. Blowhard Speaker Newt Gingrich isn’t doing very well in the polls and primaries. But his former aide, mistress and now third wife, Callista (below), is using music education as the theme she says she would champion as First Lady the same way that Michelle Obama is promoting healthy food and fighting childhood obesity:
Hugo Chavez is so anxious to have good press to retain almost dictatorial power that he is willing to co-opt the superb music education program in Venezuela – the same “el sistema” that brought us superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel (seen below with Chavez) and the system’s famous founder Juan Antonio Abreu – and thereby to neutralize opposition from all the grateful young performers and audiences who benefit from the system he didn’t even start.
Here is a great New York Times story about him and them:
And here is a backgrounder about the success of El Sistema and the loyalty it inspire among its participants:
And then there are the mass demonstrations against former Russian president and KGB secret police agent Vladimir Putin, who seems about to pull off a shady return to power. But that doesn’t seem to prevent him from getting endorsements from some pretty big classical music stars including conductor Valery Gergiev (below top, shaking Putin hand at the recent Tchaikovsky competition) and sexy opera diva soprano Anna Netrebko (below bottom with Putin), who denies rumors that she had an affair with Putin (how operatic that would be!):
For background, try this:
I’ll bet there is more as elections draw closer and the American Presidential Election draws closer.
Do you have any more tips or ideas, suggestions or comments about music and current politics here or elsewhere?
The Ear wants to hear.