The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here are the best classical recordings of 2016 as chosen by critics for The New York Times. Plus, take a break from Christmas music when the Middleton Community Orchestra plays music by Dvorak, Mendelssohn and Brahms tomorrow night

December 20, 2016
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REMINDER: Had your fill of holiday music yet? The Ear sure has. Listening to too much Christmas music is a little like drinking too much eggnog or eating too much fruitcake.

So he is grateful to the Middleton Community Orchestra, a mostly amateur but very accomplished ensemble that performs tomorrow night, Wednesday, Dec. 21, at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School.

Happily, the MCO has a program that features conductor Kyle Knox and Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz. The music runs counter-intuitive to most seasonal programming and offers a break from all things Christmas except for beauty and joy: some Slavonic Dances by Antonin  Dvorak, the terrific Violin Concerto in E minor by Felix Mendelssohn and the sunny Symphony No. 2 by Johannes Brahms.

Admission is $15 (NOT $10 as mistakenly stated earlier); free to students.

For more information, go to:

By Jacob Stockinger

There is still time for giving and getting this holiday season.

So here are The Best Classical Recordings of 2016, as chosen by critics for The New York Times.


The Times listing has good discerning commentaries and even some audiovisual excerpts of the recordings named. And at least one of the recordings — a CD of Haydn and Ligeti by pianist Shai Wosner — has connections to Madison and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

One can also use this list as a starting point.

The Ear likes to package a recording with a book and even a ticket to a live performance. And these choices offer much food for thought. For example. the recording of the Symphony No. 1 by Edward Elgar, recorded by conductor Daniel Barenboim, will be performed at the Wisconsin Union Theater this spring by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under its outgoing director Edo de Waart.


Here is a link:

And here is a link to two other gift guides.

The first is the post-Thanksgiving guide, which includes books and DVDs, by The New York Times:

The second is the list of nominations for the 2017 Grammy Awards:

Enjoy and leave word of your agreement or disagreement along with other selections in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Sequels come to classical music – centuries after the originals

September 8, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Sequels are not just for books, movies and Broadway shows any more.

Classical music is also starting to generate them — centuries after the originals.

It may be hard to imagine writing sequels to masterpiece sonatas, chamber music, symphonies and concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Igor Stravinsky and others.

But in a kind of musical postmodernism, that’s what is being done with more and more frequency.

The composer Timo Andres (below top, in a photo by Tawny Bannister for The New York Times) wrote a piano concerto based on Beethoven for the great young American pianist Jonathan Biss (below bottom), who has performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Biss, along with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, has commissioned five piano concertos in the spirit of Beethoven’s five piano concertos.

Timo Andres CR Tawni Bannister NYT


And the great young American violinist Jennifer Koh (below top, in a  photo by Loren Wohl for The New York Times) and her equally terrific recording partner, pianist Shai Wosner (below bottom) – who has performed several times in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — have commissioned three sonatas based on the work of older composers from three modern composers.

Jennifer Koh CR Loren Wohl NYT

Shai Wosner

But musicians and especially modern composers, including the important composer John Adams (below), have mixed feelings about such derivative projects.

john adams with pencil

Here is a fine story about the phenomenon of sequels that appeared in The New York Times:

Classical music: After hearing pianist Shai Wosner play two Haydn concertos with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, The Ear asks: When will Wosner return for a solo recital?

February 25, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last weekend brought a lot of conflicting classical music concerts to Madison.

But one of the best events proved to be the concert on Friday night in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

The program featured the supremely gifted but much under-publicized pianist Shai Wosner (below, in a photo by Marco Borggreve). He performed two contrasting keyboard concertos by Joseph Haydn — No. 4 in G Major and the better known No. 11 in D Major.

It was simply a sublime use of a modern instrument to make older music that was originally composed for the harpsichord. Never was the witty music by Haydn overpedaled or overly percussive or distorted for virtuosity’s sake. In every way, Wosner served Haydn — not himself.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

The concert was also noteworthy because it featured the longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell. He led the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) to shine in an eclectic program that included the Samuel Barber-like neo-Romantic and neo-Baroque Prelude and Fugue by the 20th-century Italian-American composer Vittorio Giannini and especially the youthful Symphony No. 2 by Franz Schubert.

WCO lobby

Plus, Sewell (below) proved a perfect accompanist in the Haydn concertos. Clearly, chemistry exists between Sewell and Wosner, who have also performed together concertos by Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with the WCO.


It was, in short, a program that was beautifully planned and beautifully played – even down to Wosner playing an encore by Schubert (the late Hungarian Melody, a lovely bittersweet miniature) that set up the second half with the Schubert, whose musical attractions Wosner explains so insightfully in a YouTube video at the bottom.

For his part, Sewell brought out balance and voicing, along with the expressive, but not excessive, lyricism that befits the ever-songful Schubert. As he has proven many times with his readings of Haydn and Mozart symphonies and concertos, Sewell is a master of the Classical style.

Wosner’s subtle and suitably quiet playing — he always puts virtuosity at the service of musicality — was also a model of clarity and restraint, perfectly suited to Haydn. But it left me with only one question:

When will we in Madison get to hear Shai Wosner in a solo recital?

(Below, you can hear Shai Wosner perform the second and third movements of the “Appassionata” Sonata by Beethoven at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in a YouTube video.)

Three of Wosner’s four acclaimed recordings are solo recitals of difficult works. They feature the music of Johannes Brahms, Arnold Schoenberg, the contemporary American composer Missy Mazzoli and especially Franz Schubert, with whom Wosner obviously feels, and shows, a special affinity. The fourth CD is a violin and piano duo done with the gifted young violinist Jennifer Koh.

I don’t know what presenter, besides the Wisconsin Union Theater, would bring Wosner back — and benefit from the WCO audiences that already have heard him. Or maybe the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra could sponsor a solo recital as a sideline. But we could use more solo piano recitals in Madison — especially if they offer playing of the scale of Wosner’s.

I don’t know how it would happen, but I sure hope it does happen.

Shai Wosner is a great pianist who deserves a wider hearing in a wider repertoire.

Classical music: This will be an outstanding semester for piano fans in the area. But it starts with a “train wreck” this Friday night with dueling piano concerts by Christopher Taylor and Ilya Yakushev.

January 20, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

For piano fans, the first semester in Madison proved a bit underwhelming, even disappointing when compared to many past falls.

But that is about to change this semester, starting this weekend.

Of course this piano-rich week comes complete with the inevitable piano “train wreck,” as The Wise Critic terms such scheduling conflicts and competition.

Farley's House of PIanos MMM 20141


For many area listeners, the big annual piano event is on this Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. That is when the UW-Madison School of Music virtuoso Christopher Taylor (below) — whom The Ear hears other schools are trying to lure away from the UW — performs his annual solo faculty recital.

Taylor, famed for his prodigious technique and fantastic memory, has won praise nationwide and even internationally for his performances of all kinds of difficult music, from Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven to Olivier Messiaen and Gyorgi Ligeti as well as contemporary musicians like Derek Bermel.


Taylor’s program this time is an unusual one that mixes old and new.

It features another of the dazzling two-hand transcriptions by Franz Liszt of the symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven, which Taylor has been performing elsewhere in a cycle. This time he will perform the famous Symphony No. 6 in F Major, “Pastoral.”

Also on the program are seven of the 12 etudes by the contemporary American composer William Bolcom, who taught at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and the Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5, by Johannes Brahms — a wondrously dramatic and beautiful work that you can hear performed by Van Cliburn International Piano Competition winner Radu Lupu in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Tickets are $10 and benefit the UW-Madison School of Music Scholarship Fund.

For more information, including some national reviews of Taylor, here is a link to the UW website:

But, as I said, there is a problem.

At exactly the same time on Friday night, in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, is a terrific concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who last performed Prokofiev and Gershwin concertos with the WCO.

This Friday night’s program includes Yakushev in two well-known concertos: the keyboard concerto in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach and the Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Felix Mendelssohn.

ilya yakushev 3

Also on the program – typically eclectic in the style that conductor Andrew Sewell (below) favors — is the English Suite for Strings by British composer Paul Lewis and the Chamber Symphony No. 2 by Arnold Schoenberg.

For information, go to:


But this piano weekend doesn’t stop there.

On Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., Ilya Yakushev will open the new season of the Salon Piano Series when he plays a solo recital in the concert room (below) at Farley’s House of Pianos, on Madison’s far west side.

The program includes the famous Sonata in C minor “Pathétique,” Op. 13, by Ludwig van Beethoven; the Sonata No. 2 by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev and “Carnival” by Robert Schumann. A reception will follow the recital.

Farley Daub plays

Here is a link with more information:

And as background, here is a Q&A that The Ear did in 2011 with Ilya Yakushev:

ilya yakushev mug


Of course this is just the beginning of Piano Heaven.

There is still the concerto competition for the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) to come, along with the UW-Madison concerto competition, the Bolz “Final Forte” Concerto Competition of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and others.

Later this semester, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will also feature two other returning pianists –- Shai Wosner (below top) and Bryan Wallick (below bottom). They will perform, respectively, two concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn and the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major “Emperor” by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

Bryan Wallick mug

Here is a link to the WCO website:

And let’s not forget the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to the above piano events and others, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will feature the Irving S. Gilmore Competition winner Ingrid Fliter (below), a native of Argentina, in the lusciously Romantic Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor by Frederic Chopin on Feb. 13-15 – perfect fare for Valentine’s Day weekend.

Ingrid Fliter playing

That program which also includes the Symphony No. 4 by Robert Schumann and British composer Benjamin Britten’s “Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge” -– Bridge was Britten’s teacher — promises to be a memorable performance by a renowned Chopin specialist who last played a solo recital here ay the Wisconsin Union Theater.

And if you know of more. just add them in a Reader’s Comment for others to see,



Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opens its new winter season Friday night with masterpieces and rarities with guest violinist Rachel Barton Pine. Get there early, and check out the photographs of Paul Vanderbilt.

October 7, 2014
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ALERT: If you have a chance before attending a concert at the Overture Center, be sure to check out the impressive show of black-and-white landscape photos by Paul Vanderbilt (below), the former curator of photography at the Wisconsin Historical Society. It is a stunning exhibit that features single shots and also couplings with poetic commentaries by Vanderbilt.

The images are on show in the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, on the top floor of the Overture Center. The show runs through Sunday, Nov. 2. A FREE panel discussion will be held on Saturday, Oct. 18, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. in the auditorium at the State Historical Society, 816 State Street (NOT the museum on the Capitol Square).

Here is a link to more information and other related events:

Paul Vanderbilt

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear is all excited.

One of the major players on the Madison music scene will open its new season this coming Friday night.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of its longtime music director and conductor, Andrew Sewell, will perform a concert of music by Henri Vieuxtemps, Camille Saint-Saens, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Benjamin Britten and Franz Joseph Haydn. It takes place at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

WCO lobby

The new WCO season is heavy with three fine pianists (Shai Wosner, Ilya Yakushev and Bryan Wallick)  -– which The Ear likes since he is himself an avid amateur pianist -– but the opening concert is special and an exception.

The guest soloist is Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below), who received a rave review when she performed the famous Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra last season for the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Here is a link to that review by John W. Barker:

Here is a link to a preview interview that The Ear did with Rachel Barton Pine:

Rachel Barton Pine

Rachel Barton Pine will perform the Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor by the 19th-century Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps (below top) and also the showpiece “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” by French composer Camille Saint-Saens (below bottom, at the piano circa 1900 in a Corbis photo). You can hear the flashy Saint-Saens piece at the bottom performed by Itzhak Perlman in a popular YouTube video.  

henri vieuxtemps

Camille Saint-Saens at the piano

Then she will be joined by the young Juilliard School-trained violist Mathew Lipman in a performance of the early and rarely heard Concerto for Violin and Viola by the 20th-century British composer Benjamin Britten (below bottom).

matthew lipman violajpg

Benjamin Britten

Bookending the program are Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” and Haydn’s late Symphony No. 96 in D Major, “The Miracle” -– so-called because a chandelier fell during the premiere performance in London but didn’t injure anyone in the audience.

The program is typical for Andrew Sewell (below), an avowed Francophile who likes to combine well-known works with rarely heard works. And it should be even more memorable because the Classical-era style of Mozart and Haydn plays to Sewell’s strong suit.

Andrew Sewell BW

Tickets are $15 to $75. Call the overture box office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, including audio-video clips and artist biographies, for this opening concert, visit:

For more information about the entire WCO Masterworks winter season, including an all-Beethoven concert, visit:





Classical music: A major and long overdue revival of Franz Joseph Haydn seems at hand –- and The Ear applauds it.

May 23, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

The evidence just keeps on mounting, at least to The Ear’s ears.

What I hear tells me this: We are on the verge of a major rediscovery and revival of the works of Franz Joseph Haydn, who too often seems little more than a token inclusion or an afterthought in so much classical programming. The repertoire usually runs: Lots of Mozart, lots of Beethoven, some Schubert and far less Haydn.


Almost all classical musicians, historical and contemporary, concede that “Papa” Haydn -– a more complex personality than it would appear at first, especially if you read the authoritative biographies and essays by H.C. Robbins Landon  — was one of the most inventive and creative, the most prolific and influential composers of all time.

Haydn was more or less the father of the symphony, as we know it; the string quartet as we know it; the piano trio as we know it; and the piano sonata as we know it.

But curiously, Haydn has never received the same intense attention that his more famous colleagues such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert, have enjoyed. And this is even despite the fact that he was a teacher or mentor to all of them.


And on what does The Ear base his hunch about a Haydn revival?

Well, this past season I heard many more of Haydn’s string quartets and piano trios than usual. I also heard one of his two cello concertos and a trumpet concerto.

The string quartets and piano trios came from the Pro Arte Quartet (below top), plus the Hunt Quartet (below middle) and the Perlman Trio (below bottom, seen with a guest pianist and guest cellist) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music as well as from chamber musicians in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Plus, the annual summer Token Creek Chamber Music Festival often likes to explore Haydn’s piano trios, although I don’t yet know this summer’s programs. (You can hear part of a great Piano Trio in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Pro Arte Quartet in Haydn at Mernier

Hunt Quartet Mills 2-2014 USE

perlman trio 2014 2 Esposito

I have also heard many more symphonies everywhere, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus concert halls to Wisconsin Public Radio and SiriusXM satellite radio. More importantly, I have heard far more of the 104 symphonies than the usual favorites such as “the Farewell,” “The Clock,” “The Drumroll” and “The Surprise,” including fine performances by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain — which played Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto with soloist Tine Thing Helseth — as well as the UW Symphony Orchestra and UW Chamber Orchestra under conductor James Smith.

WCO lobby

Then take a look at the concertos, which are relatively rare in the concert hall.

Next season the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will feature Shai Wosner (below, in a photo by Marco Borgrevve), a first-rate and sensitive musician, performing two of Haydn’s many piano concertos, the unheard No. 4 in G Major and the more popular No. 11 in D Major. This season, his Piano Concerto in D Major –- the most famous one — was also featured at Edgewood College, and it will again be programmed this summer by the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO). That kind of repetition programming means something and bodes well.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

One major disappointment of the revival so far is that local pianists don’t seem to be doing their part. They are not picking up on the 52 piano sonatas that are such a rich field of repertoire.

Too bad!

The Ear finds the piano sonatas of Haydn interesting and varied, and I am not alone: They were favorites of none other than the titanic talent Sviatoslav Richter (below top), who possessed a gigantic repertoire, but always spotlighted Haydn in performances and recordings. Alfred Brendel, Emanuel Ax, Leif Ove Andsnes, Andras Schiff and especially “super-virtuoso” Marc-Andre Hamelin (below bottom) -– all top names currently on the concert circuit –- have also championed Haydn through performances and recordings.


marc-andre hamelin

But perhaps those shortcomings will be overcome in time. After all, this past season, Archiv issued an outstanding CD of Haydn’s rarely played violin concertos with Giuliano Carmignola ad the Orchestra of the Champs-Elysees.

Giuliano Carmignola

Another area that needs some catching up with is Haydn’s choral music. It has been quite a few years since we have heard either of his large and magnificent oratorios “The Seasons” or “The Creation.” And I am not even talking about his wondrous, smaller-scale late masses (“Mass in Time of War,” “The Lord Nelson Mass”) that deserve far more performances than they usually receive, maybe from the UW Choral Union.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Will Haydn ever displace or dethrone the bigger masters and more famous names? Probably not.

The Ear finds Mozart more beautiful, but Haydn more interesting. 

Beethoven (below) is more dramatic, virtuosic and powerful, though much of what he learned about development, he learned from Haydn with whom he studied counterpoint, and whose work he knew intimately.

Beethoven big

And except in some of the “Storm and Stress” symphonies, Haydn seems more formal and objective, and rarely expresses the kind of heart-wrenching empathy and soulful humaneness we find in Mozart (below top)  and Schubert (below bottom), who were supreme melodists.

Mozart old 1782

Franz Schubert big

In fairness, we have to admit that Haydn did have his weak points. He wrote far too many works (123 trios!) for the outdated baryton (below) –- a kind of cello or viol with vibrating sympathetic strings -– simply because his royal patron at the Esterhazy Palace in Austria (now Hungary) played it. One can only imagine what would be the result if such energy had gone into other more important genres where Haydn excelled.


Also, Haydn’s many operas seem deservedly neglected when they are compared to Mozart’s. Haydn just didn’t seem to have the flair necessary to combine theater and music in an engaging and insightful or moving way. And perhaps Haydn didn’t really take to vocal music because he subconsciously resented how close he had come to being castrated to preserve his boy soprano voice. Still, it might be interesting to see the Madison Opera do one of the better Haydn operas as its winter offering, or to see the University Opera, which often does neglected repertoire, tackle one. (Below is the English Touring Opera performing Haydn’s opera “Country Matters.”

Haydn's opera %22Country Matters%22 by the English Touring opera

But make no mistake. Haydn’s life and career were very long and his enormous output constitutes an endless vein of precious ore to mine, as these approximate numbers show: 104 symphonies, 60 piano trios, 72 string quartets, 52 piano sonatas, dozens of concertos and operas, a dozen or two major choral works.

Haydn, a humorous and good-natured man as well as a hard worker -– he always composed at the keyboard (below) — was a driving force behind all of them. And even though he developed and changed immensely over long life -– he was born in 1732 and died famous in 1809 -– all stages of his work offer masterpieces that deserve performances and acquaintance, and certainly far more attention than they generally receive.


That is especially so now that early music, period instruments and historically informed performance practices are the norm. But I personally find that Haydn, unke some other composers, sounds terrific on either period instruments or modern instruments.

Haydn’s early symphonies like the triptych “Morning, Noon and Night;” (Symphonies Nos. 6, 7 and 8) are rich; his middle-period “Storm and Stress” minor key symphonies from his middle period are extraordinary and surprising for a Classical era composer. His sophisticated late work, when he twice took London by storm, includes the “Paris” and “London” symphonies as well as the “Oxford,” to celebrate his receiving an honorary degree. Next season, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will perform Symphony No. 96, “The Miracle.”

The Ear would love to see WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below)  -– who has shown himself to be a masterful interpreter of Haydn – undertake either a major cycle or at least a major survey of Haydn’s symphonies in coming seasons. Maybe the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet could do the same with the string quartets.


So rich is Haydn’s work that even if a major revival happens -– if it indeed has already started – it can keep going for a very long time to come, and still keeps surprising us and pleasing us.

Does anyone else sense that a major Haydn revival is at hand?

Why do you think Haydn has been comparatively ignored?

What Haydn works do you like best?

And what Haydn works would you like to get to know better or to see better known by the general public and performed more often?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra turns in a two-fold triumph with a Madison’s first live Bruckner symphony and a darkly elegant Mozart piano concerto with Shai Wosner as soloist. Moreover, the WCO plans on another Bruckner symphony (No. 2) next season.

March 25, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Is this a case of saving the best for last (or next to last) ?

Probably not, as most performing groups want to put their best foot forward all season long.

But now there can be no doubting that the smaller David took on the bigger Goliath (the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra vs. the Madison Symphony Orchestra, though they are really friendly competitors, not enemies) for the honor of presenting live Bruckner symphonies in Madison first – and won. Moreover, the ambitious and accomplished WCO has programmed Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 for next season while the MSO has once again taken a pass.

So some history was made, and much beauty was created at last Friday night’s concert in the Overture Center‘s Capitol Theater by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) under its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom).

WCO lobby


The evening started off with the Israeli-born and now New York-based pianist Shai Wosner (below) once again substituting for a missing Anne-Marie McDermott in Mozart’s dark and dramatic masterwork the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor. K. 491.

Wosner is a master of clarity, elegance and rounded tone with a great gift for playing quietly, with understatement.  His scales remain strings of individual pearls — not a choker. Trained as a composer, Wosner also played his own cadenzas in the first and last movements, and provided his own variations and ornamentation in the second movement when the theme gets repeated five times.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

Most of all, Wosner displayed in abundance what great Mozart concertos – which are  difficult to bring off because of their transparency – require. Both Wosner and the WCO played the concerto as chamber music, holding dialogues with the various sections of the chamber orchestra.

The effect was magical and moving. It was an enthralling performance, and makes one hope to hear more of the Wosner-Sewell partnership in more Mozart piano concertos as well as other repertoire. There are, after all, 27 piano concertos by Mozart, of which at least 12 or 18 are undeniable masterpieces. And Wosner told The Ear that is looking into recording piano concertos by Haydn and Ligeti. Madison could be a test run.

The audience appreciated the Mozart performance so much that they elicited from Wosner a perfect encore: a Schubert miniature, the haunting “Hungarian Melody,” which Wosner plays on his all-Schubert CD for the Onyx label. (Below is a YouTube video with Andras Schiff playing part of it.) The audience was hushed and spellbound by the entrancing beauty played so subtly, so fluidly and so warmly.

It sure makes one hope that someone – perhaps the Wisconsin Union Theater or Farley’s House of Pianos – brings Shai Wosner back for a solo recital.

Then, after intermission, came the historic Bruckner.

This is officially his “Zero” or “Nullte” Symphony, as good a place as any to start a Bruckner quest. And once again the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Sewell showed their respective talents in this long and difficult, if early, score by the deeply religious and solitary Austrian Bruckner (below):

Anton Bruckner 2

All the sections  — strings, brass, winds, percussion — performed superbly with sharp attacks and even sharper silences.

To be clear: This is certainly not Bruckner’s greatest symphonic work. But it is well worth playing and hearing, and it proved a wonderful first introduction to hearing live Bruckner symphonies in Madison.

I loved especially the first movement, with its haunting violin opening that made one wonder if the sophisticated movie composer and orchestrator Bernard Hermann had listened to it or had it in mind while he was writing the edgy score for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Compare the opening minutes of the two works with the sharp, jagged violins and judge for yourselves:

The slow movement proved lovely, and the Scherzo, which looks forward and is perhaps the most Brucknerian movement, proved by turns forcefully dramatic and songfully lyrical.

All in all, this was one of the finest and most impressive pairings – of both the programming and the performances – of this season. It was on par with the outstanding concert of an early Mozart Violin Concerto and a late Shostakovich symphony that the Madison Symphony Orchestra performed only two weeks ago. Are we in Madison not lucky? One can only hope for more concerts like these two.

Of course, we are all critics. And you should know that The Ear is not alone is his very positive regard for the WCO concert with Wosner and Bruckner.

Here, for example, is the review by John W. Barker, a frequent guest blogger for this blog, that appeared in Isthmus and briefly explores the contrasts between Bruckner and Mahler, who are so often mentioned together:

 And here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger for the “Classically Speaking” blog he writes for Madison Magazine:

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and pianist Shai Wosner (substituting for Anne-Marie McDermott) offer a MUST-HEAR concert of Mozart and Bruckner this Friday night. Plus, guitarist Joseph Spoelstra and singer Alyssa Anderson perform the “Dream Songs Project” this Friday night.

March 21, 2013
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REMINDER: Today is the 328th birthday of J.S. Bach (below) and between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. this morning WORT 89.9 FM will mark the occasion by airing local performers playing Bach works. I posted about this yesterday. Here is a link:


ALERT: Guitarist Joseph Spoelstra and mezzo-soprano Alyssa Anderson (below) will perform the acclaimed “Dream Songs Project” this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive. The “We the People” program includes Benjamin Britten’s inventive arrangements of British Folksongs for voice and guitar; three of Brahms’ German Folksongs; Four French Folksongs by Hungarian Matyas Seiber; the very popular arrangements of Brazilian Folksongs by Laurindo Almeida; and as new arrangements of Swedish, and American folksongs.  Tickets: $10-$15 at the door or at For more information about the project, visit:

Dream Song Project Jospeh Spoelstra and Alyssa Anderson

By Jacob Stockinger

Madison has been waiting a long time to hear the late Romanticism of Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (below in a photo from 1894).

Anton Bruckner in 1894

The Madison Symphony Orchestra and its maestro John DeMain have repeatedly promised that it would soon do one of the big symphonies, especially now that the playing of the ensemble has reached a high enough level to surmount the technical challenges of Bruckner’s scores and do justice to the music.

But just this past week, the MSO announced its next season – and Bruckner was once again nowhere to be found.

Well, if you need consolation perhaps you should consider attending the concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) this Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater. The WCO and music director-conductor Andrew Sewell, it seems, believe they are up to the challenge.

Tickets are $15-$65. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141. Here is a link to WCO website where you can more out more information about the program, the performers and tickets:

WCO lobby

Only two works make up the program “Viennese Virtuosi.” But both works promise to be memorable.

The concert’s first half is made up of Mozart’s dramatic and stirring Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491. It is one of the two great piano concertos (the other, more popular one is in D minor, K. 466) that Mozart composed in darker minor keys.

It is also the piano concerto that the young piano virtuoso and composer Ludwig van Beethoven heard and sop impressed him that he remarked something to effect, “We shall not hear its like again.”

And indeed, we probably didn’t until Beethoven’s own Piano Concerto in C minor, OP. 37, the third of his five published piano concertos, appeared.

The soloist in the Mozart WAS to be Anne-Marie McDermott (below), an extremely talented, distinguished and much honored pianist as well as an Artist Member of the famed Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. (McDermott, who made her debut at 12, has received, among many honors, an Avery Fisher Career grant and the prestigious Andrew Wolf Chamber Music Award.)

But McDermott had to cancel at the last minute because of a family emergency. She will be replaced by the Israeli-born, New York-based pianist Shai Wosner (below), who performed the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 beautifully with the WCO two years ago — that time also as a substitute for McDermott who then had a scheduling conflict. 

This time Wosner will play the same great Mozart concerto that was originally programmed. It will be interesting to hear his Mozart.  Wosner has made terrific recordings of Brahms and Schoenberg along with an all-Schubert CD.

Here is a link to his website:

And here is a link to a previous post about his last appearance with the WCO:

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

The second half will be devoted to Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 0 (called “Die Nullte”) in D minor. (Apparently there are major problems with the numbering and publishing and composing chronologies of Bruckner’s symphonies, which is how we end up a ZERO.)

But his ZERO is definitely NOT the same as nothing. It is really more of Symphony 1-1/2, coming between No.1 and No. 2, but retracted for revisions and never performed in the composer’s lifetime.

For more information about Bruckner (below), his life and his problematical work, here is a link to the Wikipedia entry:

Anton Bruckner 2

However the symphony is labeled, one thing is clear. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and its music director Andrew Swell have beaten the older, larger and bigger Madison Symphony Orchestra to offering orchestral music by Bruckner (below). True, the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra did the deeply religious Bruckner’s “Te Deum” for chorus and orchestra many years ago.


Bruckner’s combining of modernism and polyphony, his radically long and repetitious and, yes, sometimes ponderous and pompous aesthetic that used unorthodox pre-modern harmonies, is not to everyone’s liking. But when it works, I have found, it works wonderfully -– which may be why his now popular contemporary Gustav Mahler (below), who shared a propensity for length and complex inventiveness, called Bruckner “half-simpleton and half-God.”

Gustav Mahler big

I love the Symphony No. 4 “Romantic” with its great brass work:

The rousing and almost scary Scherzo from the incomplete Symphony No. 9 (also in D minor) was used to terrific effect in the soundtrack to “Saraband,” the last movie by the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.

In any case, this strikes The Ear as close to perfect programming, much the way that recently John DeMain and the MSO mixed a Mozart violin concerto with a Shostakovich symphony. The two minor key works should, across the centuries, resonate and echo with each other.

Plus, increasingly, Bruckner’s earlier symphonies — more Schubert-like in texture and orchestration than the bigger and bolder later works — than are being played by chamber orchestras and not only full-blown symphony orchestras. (Hear the first movement of the Bruckner Symphony No. 0 in D minor, with Sir George Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in the YouTube video at bottom. Nice and not so intimidating, nicht wahr?)


Classical music: One musician’s cancellation can make another musician’s career. Just ask conductors Leonard Bernstein, Fabio Luisi and Michael Tilson Thomas; pianists Lang-Lang, Yuja Wang, Jonathan Biss and Jeremy Denk; and singer Renee Fleming among many others.

April 28, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

We are all disappointed when we buy a ticket to hear a well-known musician perform a great piece of music, only to find out that the artist is “indisposed” and has cancelled.

In some cases, of course, it can be downright ludicrous.

For example, whenever pianist Martha Argerich (below) – who was notorious for cancelling concerts – used to release a schedule of her upcoming concerts for the next seasons, some waggish critics would joke about her releasing her list of upcoming cancellations for the next season.

Sometimes it is something as simple as a scheduling conflict. That is how the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra gave us the local debut of the terrific young Israeli-American pianist Shai Wosner (below) last spring when Anne Marie McDermott had to cancel. (She will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Minor with the WCO next March.)

But most often, I suspect it is genuine. Still, there is an upside when a performer becomes ill or sick or otherwise indisposed.

It often marks the beginning of another stellar career and gives a break to a promising artist who needs a break to advance their career or have a major debut. Just ask conductors Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas and Fabio Luisi; pianists Lang-Lang, Yuja Wang, Jonathan Boss and Jeremy Denk; and superstar singer Renee Fleming among many others who got their big break through someone else’s illness.

In fact, you have to wonder if sometimes the famous artist who cancelled wasn’t really sick at all but instead cancelled deliberately to give a younger talented colleague they admired a break in such a competitive profession. Why not? I say. Whatever works.

For example, that’s how soprano Renee Fleming (below) got to make her Metropolitan Opera debut a year earlier than scheduled, much like Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic. And there are many such stories and examples. Just look up musicians’ biographies in Wikipedia and check out their early careers.

Here is a link to a fine in-depth story, which also talks about repertoire complications and how the right substitutes are found, in the Wall Street Journal about that phenomenon:

Have you ever heard a great musician by chance and because he or she was a substitute for the scheduled “indisposed”performer who had to cancel?

Who was it and what did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music Q&A: Pianist Shai Wosner talks about his new all-Schubert CD, emphasizing the dark side to Schubert and the diversity of styles from peasant dances to Mahler-like anxiety.

April 4, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Just over a year ago, the Israeli-American pianist Shai Wosner, who studied with Emanuel Ax, made his debut in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Andrew Sewell, in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4.

It was an impressive and poetic performance that announced Wosner as a major talent to watch. His career has continued to blossom, including an appearance on “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor. And I hope he will return to Madison soon, preferably for a solo recital or chamber music performance, though another concerto would be just fine.

Now the UK-based label Onyx has released his second CD. (His first recording, below, was an unusual and effective mix or splicing of Brahms’ Six Fantasies, Op. 116, and Schoenberg’s “Six Little Piano Pieces.”)

 Now Wosner has turned to Schubert, for which The New York tImes praised him when he performed it in Carnegie Hall. He plays an all-Schubert disc that includes both big well-known works and smaller more rarely heard works. The  recording is remarkable both for his interpretations and his tone. Wosner’s Schubert is always ear-catching and ear-holding — no small feat in familiar works.

 An avid Schubert fan and an avid Wosner fan, I was intrigued. So I asked and Wosner (below, in a photo by Marco Borggreve) generously agreed to talk, via email, about his new recording:

How and why did you choose the individual pieces you recorded? It strikes me as, an unusual but appealing and contrasting mix of short dances and the rarely heard and rarely performed but beautiful Hungarian Melody coupled to the big Sonatas on D Major and C major?

I started with the D Major Sonata which – I think – is one of Schubert’s absolute masterpieces. One of the things that stand out in it is the use Schubert makes of the folk style, a certain kind of idyllic tone that somehow permeates the sonata.

In that sense, it’s not unlike Beethoven’s D Major Sonata, Op. 28. Beethoven didn’t call it “Pastorale” himself, but it has somehow earned that subtitle for good reason. The Beethoven sonata has, for example, folk-like drones in the bass and bag-pipe-like tunes in the last movement. The Schubert work has an ebullient tarantella in the first movement, and ländler-like Scherzo, as well as many tunes that seem to evoke folk songs.

But the difference is telling. Like in many of Schubert’s works from that period, there is a dark, unsettling current under those beguiling melodies, which makes the folk element seem much more poignant than in the Beethoven, almost like a symbol for another existence that would never come back.

In fact, Schubert wrote it in one of the happiest moments of his life, while he was physically surrounded by gorgeous scenery touring the Austrian countryside. But the question whether that “dark side” – which erupts in the huge second movement – is biographical or not is secondary because it is works that resonate universally that tend to survive and become indispensable.

I think if the feeling was that he is really “describing” what he was going through at the time, it wouldn’t be the powerful piece that it is. And that tension between the idyllic tunes and the disturbing undercurrents in this piece appealed to me very much as a starting point.

For the same reason, I felt that the C Major Sonata would be a fitting complement. On one hand it’s a very difference piece, and yet it makes very significant use of a folk-like tune, a ländler, in its second movement. Of course, the folk theme ties the German Dances and the Hungarian Melody as well.

Can you tell us briefly about what you would like listeners to take from or pay attention to in each of the four works on the CD?

Six German Dances and the Hungarian Melody: Both the German Dances and the Hungarian Melody are simple pieces, likely written for the two girls Schubert was tutoring at the time, but there is also something poignant about them, particularly with the Hungarian tune.

Sonata in D Major: For me, the most striking element of this piece is that it’s almost as if it is standing on its head. The most active and exuberant movement is in the beginning and the piece ends with a ruminating rondo that sort of dissipates into silence. I feel that there is really a sense of a life’s-journey in this work and while there is a clear ending to it, it is also somewhat mysterious and leaves us wondering.

Sonata in C major “Reliquie”: It’s an interesting case for debate. Only the first two movements are finished, and yet they work as a monumental pair just like the “Unfinished” Symphony does. Can an unfinished work acquire another identity after the composer left it aside? What is it that gives it that identity? Is it merely tradition, or is it simply that whatever’s left of it is so powerful that it makes up for the fact that there was supposed to be more? It’s probably a bit of both. In other words, like Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, the end of the slow movement became an ending to the piece as if the music demanded it, not so much by the force of tradition but by the force of the music itself, thus probably giving the piece a different identity from what the composer had originally intended.

Critics have praised your new Schubert CD. What attracts you to Schubert? And are there other works by Schubert – perhaps the last three sonatas, the Impromptus or the Moments Musicaux  – you hope to record?

I certainly hope to have an opportunity to record more of Schubert’s music. There are many things that I find irresistible in his musical world – the searching quality, his unique sense of time, his courage in reaching for the darkest places, his sense of doubt.

It seems that a lot of musicians have turned to Schubert lately – Emanuel Ax, Paul Lewis, Jonathan Biss, the Takacs and Jerusalem Quartets and Imogene Cooper among others. Is there something in the today’s culture that makes us – or you — particularly receptive to Schubert?

I don’t know if there is something specific in today’s culture, which in case is better judged from a certain distance anyway. And clearly Schubert transcends any particular period or genre, just like Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin do.

But I do think that Schubert’s music had a narrow but profound influence on later generations, particularly on the music of Mahler (below, another composer whose songs are central to his output), which has a lot of Schubertian elements in it, and through it on to Berg and beyond.

I think the anxiety that we associate with some of the modernists and expressionists has a lot in common with the anxiety that can be found in some of Schubert’s works (and not only the late ones), particularly when Schubert juxtaposes the idyllic and the anxious. Maybe the distant, seemingly-naive ländler of the second movement of the C Major Sonata isn’t all that far-off from the offstage lilting piano tunes of Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1?

Schubert has been traditionally identified with a songful lyricism. And while I hear a lot of that in your performances, I also hear a new muscularity in your interpretation and in some of the others I mentioned above. Beyond Schubert’s admiration of Beethoven, is there some reason why our view of Schubert seems to be changing?

I don’t know. I think it’s natural that appreciation for an artist’s work changes over time and it doesn’t necessarily mean people like it more or less. For example, a composer’s work can suddenly seem different because of changes in the way his or her works are being performed, or because different pieces become more prominent.

Schubert himself is a good example, because for many years after his death he was still primarily regarded as a song composer and gradually his larger works assumed a more central role in the appreciation of his music. Or Brahms, for example, who was famously considered a conservative, even by his admirers and still in his lifetime while Schoenberg famously argued the exact opposite decades later.

I think while the songs are certainly one of the building blocks of his language, there are other important elements as well. In instrumental works, more than the song-quality perhaps, there is often a rather symphonic sensibility, even in the sonatas and chamber works, as reflected in the grand scale of many of his movements, the extended developments.

Perhaps the common thread through all of these is the idea of the journey, whether in a short song, or a big song-cycle (the Winter’s Journey) or one of the expansive structures such as in the late quartets.

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