The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This Saturday night brings both the Escher String Quartet to the Wisconsin Union Theater and the UW-Madison Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra to the Hamel Music Center

January 22, 2020
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CORRECTION: The Ear received the following correction to the story he posted yesterday about the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and apologizes for the error:

 “There was a change to our rollout in Brookfield. We are only repeating the fifth Masterworks concert on Saturday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m. at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. We are NOT repeating this Friday’s concert in Brookfield.

“We will perform a Family Series concert of “Beethoven Lives Next Door” on Sunday, March 29, at 3 p.m. at the same Brookfield venue.”

By Jacob Stockinger

The upcoming weekend is a busy one for classical music.

The busiest night is Saturday night when two major concerts will take place: a performance by the Escher String Quartet and the postponed concert by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra with soloists.

Here are details:


The concert by the Escher String Quartet (below) with cellist David Finckel (below bottom. formerly of the critically acclaimed Emerson String Quartet) takes place on this Saturday night, Jan. 25, at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The performance is part of the special season celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Concert Series.

The program includes the sublime Quintet in C Major, D. 956, with two cellos, by Franz Schubert and the String Quartet in A minor by the great early 20th-century Viennese violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler (below).

Tickets are $30-$50. For more information and to reserve tickets, go to:

For more information about the Escher String Quartet, including a video performance and detailed background, go to:


Also on this Saturday night at 8 p.m., in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center at 740 University Avenue, the UW Choral Union  and UW Symphony Orchestra (below top), along with two vocal soloists – soprano Chelsie Propst (below middle) and baritone James Harrington (below bottom) — will perform a concert originally scheduled for Dec. 7 and then postponed.

The program, without intermission, is one 80-minute work: the epic and influential “A Sea Symphony” by the great 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (below).

General admission tickets are $18 for the general public and faculty or staff; and $10 for UW students. To reserve tickets, go to Campus Arts Ticketing at:

Beverly Taylor (below), the longtime director of choral activities at the UW who will retire this spring, sent the following note:

“The text by American poet Walt Whitman presents four symphonic scenes of great breadth and imagination, with lush harmonies and constantly varying tempos and dynamics.” (You can hear the Waves section, or third movement, from “A Sea Symphony” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)


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Classical music: Pop pianist Bruce Hornsby takes a surprising turn to classical music. He performs in Madison on Oct. 30.

September 19, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Pop pianist Bruce Hornsby (below) has made quite the reputation for himself over the past 25 years or so as a keyboard wizard — and singer — who explores all kinds of music, including rock and folk, with impressive improvisations and interpretations.

bruce hornsby with piano

But imagine The Ear’s surprise when Hornsby announced that he was looking and playing and even programming classical music as well as jazz.

And on top of that, some of the classical music he is favoring comes from the Second Viennese School – the difficult 12-tone and atonal composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. He also plays music by Gyorgy Ligeti and Olivier Messiaen.

Clearly, Hornsby’s classical tastes runs to early modernism. One can’t be sure that kind of music will be included in the upcoming concert, but it sure sounds as if it will.

Hornsby’s concert in Madison is in Overture Hall at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 30. Tickets run $39.50 to $59.50.

Here is a link to more information about the concert and tickets, which have been on sale for about two weeks now and which can also be reserved by calling the Overture Center box office at (608) 251-4848.

Hornsby also talked to All Things Considered, on NPR or National Public Radio, about his turn toward the classics, especially in the wake of being a relatively late bloomer as a student instrumentalist. (And the classical stuff he plays is hard and very challenging both for performers and listeners.) But you can tell he has impressive technique in the YouTube video at the bottom.

You may also notice that buying a concert ticket gets you a copy of his latest 25-track, 2-CD set with The Noisemakers called “Solo Concerts,” which includes some of the classical music.

Anyway, here is a link to the NPR story about Bruce Hornsby’s Classical Moment:



Classical Music: NPR gives all “Operaholics” a place to confess and can teach you “How to Talk Like an Opera Geek.”

May 6, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, I posted Zachary Woolfe’s extraordinary report in The New York Times on watching and listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s “LIVE in HD” broadcasts all around the country. (Below is Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde in this season’s production of Wagner ‘Die Walkure.”)

But maybe you want to sound more like what NPR called an “Operaholic” as in their series “Confessions of an Operaholic”?

Then you should check out NPR’s terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence” with the ever-growing category “How to Talk Like an Opera Geek.”

You can find out all sorts of things, from how to talk about postwar operas in Europe to how to discuss classic operas in the repertoire.

Take a look and listen, and see what you think.

Then tell us –- and NPR.

Classical music: What do rap and opera have in common to make them major musical blind spots for the public?

February 19, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Last weekend, I asked: “What musical blind spots do you have?” It was inspired by the same question that was asked by the “Delayed Cadence” blog on NPR’s website, where some professional musicians started off the responses.

“What works and composers just don’t speak to you” is how I couched it. For myself, I put the Second Viennese School – the 12-tone, atonal and serial composers like Schoenberg (below), Webern and Berg– and works right at the top of my own list.

Both for me and for NPR, the question got a lot of responses from readers, both listeners and professional and amateur musicians.

Here is a link to that posting by me:

And here is a link to the original posting at NPR:

But apparently the national audience of NPR showed a trend toward to two big blind spots: Rap Music and Opera.

Rap (below, an image of rap legends) didn’t surprise me so much. Age, of course, is one major reason. Race and class are probably other important factors. Artistically, to me — at least with few exceptions – the music in rap seems secondary or tertiary at best. The words and rhythms seem to matter most.

So I can accept rap as social commentary, but not as a beautiful sound experience – at least not in very many cases. Oh well – poor me, I guess. But, then, why don’t I feel more deprived when I don’t hear it?

But opera as a major and popular musical blind spot?

That one took me by surprise, since opera – with all its visual elements and grandeur – seems to be thriving today while symphony orchestras and chamber music groups are suffering financially and attendance-wise.

So what do you think makes opera a blind spot?

Is it the length of operas? Or the emotional and cognitive cross-interference that often comes from mixing words and sound? The sometimes silly plots and improbable characters? The stylized costumes? The self-aggrandizing posing and dramatically exaggerated presentation? The fact that in both cases the language is often hard to understand or that the volume often makes it seem like they are singing at you? Is it the preposterous reliance on bling and gold, glamor and props? Just look at the photos of the two singers — once rap and the opera.

Here is the follow-up link to the NPR post about blind spots:

Take a look and be sure to read – or at least sample — the more than 250 comments, many of which are quire insightful and thought-provoking.

Then let us know why you either agree or disagree that opera – or rap, for that matter — is a major blind spot and why you think the way you think.  

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music survey: What musical blind spots do you have? What works and composers just don’t speak to you?

February 12, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

I find much to praise in the honesty and intellectual forthrightness of people who admit that some important and widely accepted kinds of classical music – or art, in general – somehow escape them.

It is as though they are saying: I don’t care what everyone else thinks or says, this just doesn’t speak to me somehow.

It isn’t always the result of ignorance, stupidity or insensitivity.

It can also happen with some pretty standard works and some really big or important composers. I know of serious classical music fans, for example, who just don’t like Handel, Mozart or Brahms.

There are other examples.

Take NPR’s “Delayed Cadence” blogger Tom Huizenga (below) on the music Haydn, a towering figure who never quite connects with him as he should:

On a smaller scale, the gifted and urbane American pianist Jonathan Biss (below), who has started a Beethoven sonata cycle and who has written an outstanding book on Beethoven (“Beethoven’s Shadow”), responded to Huizenga’s challenge by admitting that he feels bad about his ignorance of Brahms’ vocal music, especially his duets:

It is a good exercise to try on oneself. It can point to directions to grow in. Or, if you hear the same response others, it can validate your own responses. It will be telling to see who else responds to NPR’s challenge in the coming weeks and months, and what else they say.

And what about The Ear? you may wonder.

One of my major blind spots is a lot – though by no means all — of pre-Bach music, especially scratchy violin sonatas by, say, Heinrich Biber (below).

I also have a blind spot with a lot of contemporary classical music.

Both of them too often just seem boring and tedious, kind of like R&D (research and development) music. I mean, it is good music, even great music sometimes, like that of the Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi or the contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov. But too often I hear it and think, ho-hum. For me, I guess, J.S. Bach (below) remains the Big Bang.

But surely my biggest musical blind spot is the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg (below), Anton Webern and Alban Berg.

Even a century after this music was written, it just doesn’t reach me directly or speak to me with enough urgency. It still seems like one ambitious but failed experiment, despite the pleas of musicians, critics and historians I respect and despite the supposed revolution that this atonal, 12-tonal and serial music brought about. Just give me a tune, please.

But what about you?

What do you consider to be your major blind spots?

What major composers or major works just escape you or disappoint you?

Are there other composers and music that you think is overrated by others?

The Ear wants to hear.

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