The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This week the UW-Madison will put the spotlight on vocal music reclaimed from the Nazis and contemporary theater music inspired by Samuel Beckett

March 19, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Coming just before the Spring Break, this week will be a busy one at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Here are the highlights that include a lecture and a concert about vocal music resurrected from the Nazis as well as an evening of contemporary works inspired by the 20th-century playwright Samuel Beckett.

But other important events, including some graduate student recitals, are also on the Events Calendar at

All events listed here are FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.


Tonight at 6:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, guest trumpeter Richard Illman (below) with present a multimedia video concert with UW trombonist Mark Hetzler and UW trumpeter Alex Noppe.

Sorry, no word on composers or works on the program.

For more information, go to:

At 7 p.m. in 2411 Humanities Building, a FREE lecture will be given by the guest award-winning singer Kristina Bachrach and UW pianist Daniel Fung on the “Rediscovered Voices Initiative.” The project seeks to reclaim musicians and musical works that were killed or suppressed by the Nazis during World War II. (This lecture was originally scheduled for March 9.)

The duo will also give a performance Tuesday night. For details, see below.

For more information, go to:


At 7 p.m. in Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill, guest singer Kristina Bachrach and UW pianist Daniel Fung (below) will give a concert for the “Recovered Voices Initiative” that rediscovers and revives music and musicians lost to the Nazis in World War II. (The concert was originally scheduled for March 10.)

For more information about the performers, the project and the complete program, go to:


At 7:30 p.m. In Mills Hall, a FREE concert will be given by the UW Concert Band (below top) under Mike Leckrone (below bottom). Sorry, no word on the program.


At 1:30 p.m. in Music Hall, the Decoda Chamber Ensemble (below in a photo by Matt Dine) from New York City will give a FREE and PUBLIC master class and workshop for student chamber ensembles. The focus is on interactive performance and audience engagement.

No word on composer or pieces. But for more information, go to:

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, “Sounding Beckett” will be presented. The concert features the intersection of music and drama as inspired by the Nobel-Prize winning playwright Samuel Beckett (below).

The performers feature guest group Cygnus Ensemble (below), which will play six short musical works based on three of Beckett’s one-act plays (“Footfalls,” “Ohio Impromptu” and “Catastrophe”).

The two works for each play include compositions by UW-Madison alumnus Chester Biscardi (below top) and current UW composer Laura Schwendinger (below bottom). You can hear Biscardi’s music for “Ohio Impromptu” in the YouTube video at the bottom.

There will also be instrumental master classes, a lecture and panel discussion with UW drama professor Patricia Boyette as well as Laura Schwendinger.

NOTE: A master class will also be held but the date, time and place have not yet been announced.

For an excellent longer story with more background and details, go to:

Classical music: Today is the winter solstice. What music best captures or celebrates winter?

December 21, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Winter Solstice.

Winter arrives at 10:28 a.m. Central Standard Time.

That means we are turning the corner. Starting today, nights will get shorter and days will get longer.

But there is still plenty of the year’s most blustery and bone-chilling weather ahead of us.

Lots of classical music celebrates winter.

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is a popular choice.

So is the “Winter Dreams” symphony by Tchaikovsky.

Here are links to two compilations of winter music, lasting for a total of more than two hours, on YouTube:

But no music is more wintry than the celebrated song cycle “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey” by Franz Schubert (below).

Every year, The Ear uses the solstice and the coming of winter to listen once again to this deeply moving and surprisingly modern song cycle.

Many excellent recordings exist. Famed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (below left, with pianist Gerald Moore) made multiple recordings over many years.

In recent years Matthias Goerner, Thomas Quasthoff, Mark Padmore, Jonas Kaufmann and many others have already made acclaimed recordings, always with distinguished pianists including Gerald Moore, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Daniel Barenboim and Paul Lewis.

Yet I always find the most satisfying version to be the one made by English tenor Ian Bostridge with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andnes.

Bostridge’s tenor voice lends a lightness that has a certain clarity and almost speech-like quality to it.

And Bostridge, who wrote the excellent book “Schubert Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession” – a song-by-song analysis of the cycle — knows the texts and contexts of the songs inside and out. His are well-informed and thoroughly thought-out interpretations.

The whole cycle takes about 70 minutes to listen to.

This year The Ear might do one of the 24 songs in the cycle each day and then the entire cycle in one sitting at the end.

The different approach might yield some new insights and new pleasure.

Anyway, choose your own artists and your own way of listening.

But it is a great and timely choice.

Here is “Good Night,” the first song of “Winterreise”:

And here is “The Organ Grinder,” the last song and a favorite of writer Samuel Beckett who found a shared sensibility in the lean austerity of the music of the music and the text:

What winter music would you listen to or recommend to mark the solstice and the coming of winter?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Today is the Winter Solstice and winter officially starts. The Ear greets it once again by listening to Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise.”

December 21, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Despite all the snow and cold of the past few weeks, winter officially begins today.

The winter solstice, bringing with it the longest night of the year, arrives today at 4:44 a.m., Central Standard Time, this morning, Wednesday, Dec. 21.

Winter Trees

To mark the occasion, people often listen to appropriate music such as the “Winter” section of “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi or the “Winter Dreams” Symphony by Peter Tchaikovsky.

Over the past several years, something else has become a tradition for The Ear.

Every year on the arrival of the Winter Solstice, he listens to a recording of the song cycle “Winterreise” (Winter Journey”) by Franz Schubert.

It takes about 70 minutes.

One unforgettable hour plus.

Too bad it isn’t performed live every year or featured every year on Wisconsin Public Radio.

There are so many excellent recordings of the work.

Over the years, The Ear has listened to the songs performed in recordings by Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Haken Hagegard, Mark Padmore, Jonas Kaufmann and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe, who one year did perform it live with pianist Martha Fischer on the Winter Solstice at the First Unitarian Society of Madison *(below) — and it was magical.

Winterreise applause

Yet his favorite remains the version by the English tenor Ian Bostridge with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes for EMI Records. (Bostridge also made one for Hyperion Records with pianist Julius Drake.)

The Ear likes the way Bostridge uses a kind of Sprachstimme or speech singing to bring expressiveness to the music. He also like the touch of lightness that the tenor range brings to the music, which is plenty dark by itself.

Also, every year, The Ear sees if he has a new favorite song in the cycle. But so far he still has two favorites, which you can find on YouTube along with the rest of the cycle.

One is the opening song, “Gute Nacht” or “Good Night.” It is hard to imagine a better way to kick off the mysterious cycle than with such an obviously metaphorical song in which “night” plays so many roles and has so many meanings.

Here it is:

And of course, he also loves the last song, “Der Leiermann” or “The Organ Grinder.” Listen to its alternation with between voice and piano, to that drone broken by silence showing despair, solitude and loneliness, and you understand why it was also a favorite of the great modernist playwright Samuel Beckett.

Here it is:

The Ear wishes you a hopeful winter – despite all the signs that it will instead be a winter of deep discontent – and hopes you will find time to take in “Winterreise.”

It is Franz Schubert’s winter journey.

But it is also my own and yours.

Here is Bostridge talking about what the cycle means to him:


And tell us if you have a favorite performance of “Winterreise” and why?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Fortepianist Trevor Stephenson and baritone Joshua Copeland perform and record Franz Schubert’s epic song cycle “Winterreise” TONIGHT at 7 p.m. in Sauk City.

October 9, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Our good friend and fine musician Trevor Stephenson, the ever-busy founder and director of the Madison Bach Musicians, which twice performed cantatas and concertos this past weekend, writes:

“Bass-baritone Joshua Copeland and I have been recording Franz Schubert’s song-cycleWinterreise” (Winter Journey) this week at beautiful Park Hall in Sauk City.

“The acoustics are simply amazing and the ambiance is, well, take a look at these photos that Kent Sweitzer took there Tuesday morning.

Winterreise Hall

“The concert is TONIGHT, THURSDAY EVENING, OCT. 9, AT 7 P.M.

Joshua Copeland Winterreise CR Kent Sweitzer

Winterreise Trevor Stephenson recording Kent Sweitzer

“Sauk City is only 20 minutes from Madison’s west side—closer than American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

Here are directions: “To get to Park Hall at 307 Polk Street:  Just take Highway 12 west to Sauk City; cross the Wisconsin River; then turn right on John Adams Street, go two blocks and turn left on Polk Street, and you’re there. There is plenty of parking!

“All tickets are $25. You can purchase them in advance from MBM ticket outlets or at the door.”

Adds The Ear: At  bottom is a YouTube video of the legendary baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Murray Perahia performing “Gute Nacht” (Good Night), the opening song of the “Winterreise” cycle that in the first two lines announces the whole cycle’s motif: “A stranger I arrive, and a stranger I depart.”

No wonder the cycle was a favorite of the absurdist Irish playwright and writer Samuel Beckett.


Classical music: On Saint Patrick’s Day, The Ear explores Irish classical music and classical music in Ireland -– who composed it, who played it and how important it has been.

March 17, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day.


There will be big, loud. colorful and music-filled parades (below top), complete with leprechauns, around the country and around the world wherever the Irish gather and celebrate their heritage. Even the Chicago River even turns green (below bottom).

And a lot of us who aren’t remotely Irish will nonetheless eat the traditional Saint Patrick’s Day dinner of corned beef and cabbage.

saint patrick's day parade albany 2010 leprechaun

Green Chicago River on Saint Patricks Day

So The Ear asks: What about Irish classical music? And what about classical music in Ireland?

After all, the Irish seems a deeply musical culture. But there must be more to Irish music than Riverdance (below top), Celtic Woman, The Irish Tenors and The Chieftains (below bottom), don’t you think?


The Chieftains

For all the immense popularity of Celtic music these days, for all the justly famous Irish literature by William Yeats, James Joyce, John Millington Synge, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien, Roddy Doyle, Maeve Binchy and many others –- especially fiction, poetry and plays -– one never hears very much about Ireland and classical music.

(To be fair: The Ear does recall a memorable and rare performance a couple of seasons ago of a John Field piano concerto by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell, who also happens to be an adventurous programmer.)

So today seems a fitting occasion to take a look both those issues.

Oh, there are some well-known composers.

In the 19th century John Field (below), who spent much of his career in Russia, is said to have invented the nocturne form that Frederic Chopin turned to and mastered and made famous. He also wrote quite a few piano concertos and a piano quintet.

John Field

Of course Irish singing and fiddling are justly famous. But how did it affect the classical music tradition.

These days the early 20th-century composer E.J. Moeran (below) seems to be undergoing something of a revival. He had strong Irish roots, but is technically an English composer if you look at his biography.

e.j. moeran

So who are the Irish classical composers – and their masterpieces – that we should know about?

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford seems to be one candidate. 

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford

What about Irish classical music performers? Perhaps the most well-known candidate today is the prize-winning and award-winning pianist John O’Conor, who, concertizing and teaching at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, has championed Irish piano music as well as the piano music by Ludwig van Beethoven and other standard classical composers?

John O'Conor_1

And what about the role that some famous, non-Irish classical music composers and performers –- including George Frideric Handel, who premiered his oratorio “Messiah” in Dublin, the violinist Paganini and the pianist Franz Liszt -– played in the history of Irish culture?

Here are some links to help you explore the question of Irish classical music and classical music in Ireland.

And here are two sound samples to help celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day.

The first is the Irish Rhapsody No.1 by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford:

And the second sound sample is the lovely Nocturne No. 2 in C minor for solo piano by John Field as performed by John O’Conor:


And the chances are good that some of you readers know more about Irish classical music and classical music in Ireland than The Ear does.

So be sure to leave what you know in the COMMENTS section along with links to websites, blogs and YouTube videos that will illuminate me and other readers.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: The Ear takes away some pleasure and many lessons from the Madison Opera’s production of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea.”

January 15, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the final performance by the Madison Opera of a largely sold-out run of Handel’s “opera” “Acis and Galatea.” (All color production photos used below are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

You may recall that guest reviewer John W. Barker (below) reviewed it on opening night last Thursday and found much about the inauthenticity to criticize in the production. Here is a link to that review:


Now since I am not as avid an opera fan as John, and since he has forgotten more about opera, classical music and history in general than I will ever know, I was convinced I would like it more than he did and was prepared to go and file a minority report, a dissent if you will.

But surprise! I found much to agree with in John’s review, and just a few points on which to disagree.

So let me get to them – and to wish the Madison Opera congratulations and hope that we will see more Baroque-era opera and early Classical-era opera (some Gluck, perhaps? maybe “Orpheus and Eurydice”?) in The Playhouse of the Overture Center, the intimate theater being a perfect place to stage small-scale opera.

All that plus the fact that Madison Opera considers the run a commercial and artistic success. It had an astounding overall sales-attendance rate of 94 percent, according to marketing and communications director Ronia Holmes, who added that it is never bad for a production to get patrons talking. So the Madison Opera’s new General Director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill)  can be proud of her achievement. Kudos!

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Anyway, on to my points, in no special order:

1. John Barker was completely right about the excellence of the small musical ensemble. Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain, who is also music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, did an outstanding job of keeping the scale and balance. Modern instruments projected an early music sound, and the pace was up-tempo.

It was enough to make me wish that the Madison Symphony Orchestra would use a smaller ensemble and program on its concert series some outstanding Baroque music – especially the Concerto Grossi by Handel;  the Brandenburg Concertos, the violin concertos and the keyboard concertos by J.S. Bach; and some string and wind concertos by Vivaldi. Increasingly, larger ensemble are returning to that early repertoire with spectacular results – Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra come immediately to mind – as long as they incorporate the lessons taken from the movement toward historically informed performance.

John DeMain HeadShot color by James Gill

2. The form of the masque or whatever you want to call the original score of “Acis and Galatea” is just that — an artificial, highly stylized convention. And this century has its own peculiar conventions. But I am no purist. So, why not mix them? I say.

For example, recasting the lead male roles into World War I soldiers seemed a gratuitous updating at first and made no sense — until you realized that the topic of the opera is to lament the frustrations and short life of love, with Acis and Galatea as a case study. And what generation of women ever lost so many men, so many lovers and boyfriends and husbands – as the World War I generation. The concept staging by director David Lefkowich (below) didn’t work perfectly, but it worked well enough and much better than the flimsy original for these days and this time.

Acis David Lefkowich

3. I go to opera for the music. In fact, I find all opera plots pretty much banal and trite, melodramatic and predictable. I mean, you wouldn’t set my kind of theater — Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” —  to music, would you? But others love the theatrical aspect of opera.

So the beautiful sets, the gorgeous lighting and the inventive costumes (below) – all explain why the production drew generous laughter and a standing ovation from the audiences who are not specialists and who enjoyed themselves and appreciated the efforts that went into the production.

acis gill galatea set

4. “Acis and Galatea” may have been popular in its own time, but its endlessly repetitious libretto – which, with all the da capo lyrics, becomes downright slow, tedious and boring much of the time – seemed to be a second-rate text. (“Happy, happy me” is hard to believe  was written by the same John Gay who wrote “The Beggar’s Opera”.) And it is coupled with mostly second-rate music (you would never guess this was the same composer who wrote “Messiah”).

True, there were indeed moving moments where the genius of Handel (below), whose music is generally more extroverted and accessible than Bach, shone through, especially during the opening Overture and at the beginning of Act II.) It just seems hopelessly outdated. Period. But when you are a professional composer-musician — not a paid church musician like Bach or Telemann — I guess you sometimes just have to grind it out to please your patron and earn a living to pay the bills.

Overall, I found the opera flimsy and fluffy stuff, exactly as John Barker described it. But it seemed suited to the purpose originally it served. I imagine aristocrats after a feast sitting around looking at this masque or entertainment or enchantment, even talking during it, instead of watching TV or dancing.

If you think of this mythological “opera” going along with an after-dinner cordial (green crème de menthe seems an ideal complement), well, it changes your perspective and makes the production more of an acceptable work. Back then, I suspect, audiences thought more metaphorically and less literally.

handel big 2

5. Baroque music is so popular and so easy to like that you forget how hard it can be to perform. The main voices were quite good – but they really needed to be even better, especially when it came to ornamentation and projecting a non-physical intensity and expressiveness.

6. Most of all, the entire production, both musical and theatrical, simply needed better material. ‘Acis and Galatea” serves as a fine introduction, as an hors-d’oeuvre or appetizer. But it does give one an appetite to see and hear meatier fare, more and better Baroque opera by Handel, Scarlatti and Vivaldi.

7. The production had some original and quite inventive moments, but none proved more enjoyable than when the Cyclops Polyphemus (sung by Jeffrey Beruan, below top) has voodoo-like box (below bottom) through which he literally twists the pastoral Edwardian peasants to his wishes. It was a nice stage touch – and the production benefitted from such a clever liberty.

acis gill Jeff Beruan as Polyphemus cyclops

Acis model of set

But here are some other reviews by other reviewers that make different points from either John Barker’s or mine.

Here is Gregg Hettmansberger’s review for his blog “Classically Speaking” for Madison Magazine:

Here is Lindsay Christians’ review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

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