The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: You must hear this – how Debussy provided a soft way to end a season

May 24, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

It seems perfectly normal and natural that big groups like to close their season with a big ending.

So the Madison Symphony Orchestra closed this past season with the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek, which used a lot of brass and a large choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra went for an all-Beethoven program that featured the Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist John O’Conor, and the forceful, driven Fifth Symphony.

Yet there was something particularly soothing and reassuring about the way the Ancora String Quartet (below) closed its 17th season last Friday night. (Member, below from left, are Wes Luke and Robin Ryan, violins; Benjamin Whitcomb, cello; and Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola.

The group opened with a welcome rarity: the fourth and final string quartet by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It proved a fine offering, especially noteworthy for the hymn-like slow movement that brought to mind the open harmonies of Aaron Copland.

But the concert ended ever so quietly and warmly with the only String Quartet, Op. 10, written by French composer Claude Debussy (below).

The poet T.S. Eliot said the world ends not with a bang but a whimper.

But this ending was neither bang nor whimper.

The Ear would call it a sigh, a long and sensual sound bath that left you leaving the performance less with admiration or wonder than with gratitude for the group and for the music.

Plus, it was all the more affecting for the way that violinist Wes Luke (below) clearly explained how the main themes of all movements grow out of one motif and cohere.

The Debussy string quartet, he explained, is one of the most performed and recorded of the entire string quartet repertory. Yet its sensuality always makes it seems so fresh and so French.

The highlight was, as always, the third movement, the slow movement. And as the spring season completes winding down and the summer seasons starts to pick up, here it is for your enjoyment in a YouTube video of the Juilliard String Quartet.

What did you think about the season-closing concerts this spring? Did you have a favorite?

What do you think of the Debussy string quartet?

If you know of a better slow movement from a string quartet, please leave a COMMENT and a link, if possible, to a YouTube performance.


Classical music: Music for piano-four hands played a vital historical role in disseminating classical music and also in encouraging amateur musicians and a socially acceptable form of erotic intimacy.

April 1, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

First things first — a full disclosure because today is April 1 or April Fool’s Day.

april fools day

But this is no April Fool’s post. The Ear detests using the media, old or new, for April Fool’s stories and pranks. The Ear finds them stupid and reprehensible. They undercut credibility and insult readers or consumers by taking advantage of their gullibility.

So …

Yesterday, you may recall, I posted a preview of the upcoming recital this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. by pianists Peter Serkin and Julie Hsu at Farley’s House of Pianos.

Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/03/31/classical-music-pianists-peter-serkin-and-julia-hsu-will-play-works-for-piano-four-hands-by-mozart-schubert-schumann-and-brahms-this-saturday-night-at-farleys-house-of-pianos/

But as background, or perhaps an appetizer or teaser, I thought you might like to see a link sent to me by a professor friend at Stanford University. It covers a book by his colleague in German that offers not only history but also the role of four-hand playing in encouraging intimacy, a kind of erotic sensuality and sexuality that was socially acceptable. Then, too, music playing also bridged the worlds of professional and amateur musicians.

Whether or not you attend the concert at Farley’s, it is good to read the overview of the vital role that music for piano-four hands (below is the team of Varshavsky and Shapiro who perform quite often in the area) played in the history of Western classical music. They helped to disseminate into ordinary homes versions of the symphonies by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven at a time when hearing a real symphony was a rare occasion.

And of course they also encouraged Hausmusik — the playing of music in private homes before commercial concerts became established. A piano was like the CD player or radio or television of its day.

Stanislava Varshavski-Diana Shapiro

Madison hears its fair share of such music. It is always featured at the Schubertiades, held by wife-and-husband pianists Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music in late January.

Schubertiade 2014 stage in MIlls Hall

Such music has also appeared regularly at the free Friday Noon Musicales at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen Museum of Art, the annual Karp Family Labor Day Concerts, the summer Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, Farley’s House of Pianos, and other important series.

The Ear has enjoyed such music – in addition to the many social works by Franz Schubert, I have heard Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms, Slavonic Dances by Antonin Dvorak and Polonaises by Franz Schubert, for example — but was never fully aware of what, historically, he was listening to.

So The Ear found the historical essay fascinating and thought you might also appreciate it.

Here is a link to the essay:

http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/december/piano-monster-daub-120814.html

And here is a link to a YouTube video of the piece that is perhaps the crown jewel of piano-four hand literature — Franz Schubert’s late Fantasy in F Minor, D. 940 — performed by two of my favorite British pianists, Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis:


Classical music: French avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez turns 90. Do you find his music both radical and sensual?

March 29, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Once the enfant terrible of new music, French composer Pierre Boulez (below in 2011 in a photo by Martin Schalk of Getty Images) turned 90 on Thursday.

pierre boulez at 90 (2011) Matin Schalk Getty Images

But now Pierre Boulez is part of the establishment. (You can hear him discuss his approach to music, and how it differs from the 12-tone composers and atonal composers, in a YouTube video at the bottom. Somehow, I find his music more interesting to discuss than to listen to.)

Maybe you were lucky enough to attend the special concert marking the event last Friday night at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. (The Ear was unable to go.) It was organized and hosted by Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill), a French-trained bassoonist who teaches at the UW-Madison and who once worked with Boulez.

Marc Vallon 2011 James Gill (baroque & modern)[2]

A lot of musicians live in awe of Boulez, who has been very influential in the development of new music. They include the Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini (below top), who championed his work early on, and the American conductor David Robertson (below bottom) who does so today.

Polliniplaying

David Robertson

Perhaps the best summary of Boulez (below, in a photo from his younger years from Sony Music) is the one that was researched and written by Tom Huizenga for the Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio).

pierre boulez younger with scorers Sony Music

It features audio samples from Boulez’ orchestral and instrumental works, from his masterpieces and his unknown works.

To be honest, I prefer the modernist Boulez who, as the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducts and records the music of Gustav Mahler and Claude Debussy. He definitely has a point of view that clarified the older music. I like his interpretations more than I like his compositions.

I am willing to admit that his music, his modernist esthetic, is important.

But I don’t think I would go so far as to call his music “sensual.” Radical, yes. But I find the sound too jagged and rough to be sensual, despite it being French. Sensual, for me, means pleasurable. And pleasurable is not an adjective I, personally, would use to describe the music of Boulez.

But then maybe I am just being overly insensitive.

Anyway, read the NPR story and listen to the samples, and then tell us how you perceive Pierre Boulez and his music.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/03/26/395318157/the-sensuous-radical-pierre-boulez-at-90

The Ear wants to hear.


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