The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What music is good to listen to every day for a year? And why? Clemency Burton-Hill discusses her book “Year of Wonder” on PBS’ “Newshour”

March 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What different pieces of classical music would be good to listen to every day of the year?

And what should you know about it?

Those are the simple but ambitious questions that the British writer Clemency Burton-Hill — who now works for the famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City — tackles in her book “Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day” (below).

You can get a sample by going to the book section of Amazon.com and looking inside the book. Just click on the Introduction for an overview and then click on some specifics dates to see how it works.

But recently Burton-Hill (below) also appeared on “The NewsHour” on PBS to talk about the book, where she explained her purpose and method, especially her intent to help expand the audience for classical music.

Her remarks impressed The Ear who has ordered a copy of her book and hopes to learn from it and maybe even pass along some lessons from it.

All the genres, all the great composers (dead and living) and most of the great works are covered, as are many other neglected composers and unknown works. So the book can be considered a terrific resource for music education for both beginners and those who are experienced.

Her commentaries are also a model of brevity and engaging interest.

All in all, “Year of Wonder” seems a supremely practical, unpretentious and informative guide to daily listening, especially given how many of these works – often they are shorter sections of larger works — can be found for free on YouTube. (In fact, a playlist of music featured in the book is available on YouTube. Go to YouTube and type in “Year of Wonder Playlist” into the search engine, then look to the upper right for a list. A sample is at the bottom. Or use this direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wNTNEZYoHg&list=PLKPwLlyrD2y-1x-uKmUBzSOiAh83GhU7A

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a link to the television interview:

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/embracing-classical-music-and-its-potential-for-sonic-salvation

The Ear hopes you find the interview both informative and useful.

Happy listening!


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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, with guest singer Emily Birsan, closes its 27th annual summer chamber music season on the highest note

June 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Performance photos are by Dick Ainsworth for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

By John W. Barker

Last Saturday night, I was able to attend the second program on the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s third and final weekend this season.

The opening work was American Haiku, a duo for viola and cello, by the American Paul Wiancko. Obviously inspired by Japanese musical traditions, it is a longish piece, notably lacking in the brevity of its poetic model. It was diligently played by two of the budding young musicians the society has been fostering, violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below left) and cellist Trace Johnson (below right).

Further on in the first half came the Flute Concerto in D minor (H. 484:1), by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, dated to 1747, three years before papa Johann Sebastian died. It presents the composer as a transitional figure, anchored in the Late Baroque but tugging toward the Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity of feeling or expression) of the Early Classical period.

As the reduced orchestra, we had local violinists Leanne Kelso League and Suzanne Beia, with Kienbaum and Johnson, and, on the harpsichord continuo there was the deferential pianist Satoko Hayami.

The flute soloist (below) was, of course, BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt, who played her role with obvious relish but with splendid precision, and (notably in the lively finale) real panache. The other players joined in with fine spirit.

For me, one of the two prime features of this program, however, was the participation of soprano Emily Birsan (below), a past product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and now an international star. Every time she returns to Madison is welcome, and provides us with a progress report on herself and her career. Her voice has continued to fill out with strength and beauty.

Accompanied by pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below), she sang in the first half of the program a set of four songs, Op. 27 (once again, the number of the BDDS’s anniversary) by Richard Strauss. This set includes some particular gems by the composer, ending with the sublime Morgen! (In the Morning!). Birsan magically made each song a contrasting vignette of character and mood.

Birsan was back after the intermission, again with Sykes.

They performed Samuel Barber’s set of 10 Hermit Songs, using marginal manuscript scribblings by Medieval monks as texts. With the strong support of Sykes, Birsan was superlative in conveying the simple irony and naivety of these affectionately lyrical miniatures. This performance leaves a surely enduring memory.

The other high point, for me, was the Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 for piano and strings by Robert Schumann. This is a fundamental work in the chamber music literature, a piece to wonder at.

I had forgotten how much rich prominence is given to the viola, within ensemble context, in the greatly varied second movement. Kienbaum projected it with eloquent strength, and the other players heard in the C.P.E. Bach work were utterly involved. (You can hear and see the prominent role of the viola in the opening movement of the quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is the kind of first-class chamber playing that we have come to expect from the BDDS, and why we cherish it so.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Seraglio” stood out for its singing and staging, its local sets and costumes, and provided a crowd-pleasing comic romp in trying times. Plus, Friday brings FREE piano and viola da gamba concerts

February 15, 2018
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FRDAY ALERTS: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Eric Miller playing the viola da gamba in a recital of early baroque music by Marais, Forquery, Sainte-Colombe, Abel, Hume and Ortiz. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

Then on Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the critically acclaimed guest pianist Marina Lomazov will perform a FREE recital of all-Russian music that includes “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky. Lomazov’s recital is part of a larger event, “Keyboard Day,” that has a French focus and takes place all day Saturday at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. See tomorrow’s post for more information about Saturday. For more about Lomazov, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/guest-artist-marina-lomazov-piano/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy filed this review of last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera:

By Larry Wells

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the second and final performance of Madison Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

This comic romp utilized a beautiful set and wonderful costumes designed and constructed in-house. (Below, Matt Bueller as Osmin peers out the door of the palace, or seraglio, at David Walton as Belmont.)

The orchestra, drawn from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and ably led by maestro John DeMain, was situated backstage. This was an effective novelty, although the sound was somewhat muffled, at least from where I sat in mid-orchestra.

The dialogue was in English while the singing was in German with English supertitles. I looked over the lengthy original libretto and was thankful that it had been heavily abridged for this two-hour production.

It had also been updated to be both hip and politically correct about Islamic culture and Turkey, where the story takes place. But it made me idly wonder what the reaction would be if the music had been likewise updated to be more in tune with the times.

The production was all about the singing.

David Walton’s Belmonte (below right, with Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze) was beautifully sung, particularly in the second act. He has a Benjamin Britten tenor voice with remarkable breath control.

Eric Neuville’s Pedrillo was also admirably sung. Neuville is an accomplished comic actor, as well.

Ashly Neumann’s singing as Blonde (below center, with women of the Madison Opera Chorus) was clean, clear and bell-like.

Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze (below right with Brian Belz as Pasha Selim)  was virtuosic. She displayed vocal fireworks several times and was especially effective in her lament toward the end of the first act.

This quartet’s ensemble work in the second act was a vocal high point. (You can hear the quartet from a different production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But to me the most impressive singing and comic acting belonged to Matt Boehler as Osmin. His bass was simply majestic. (Below, from left, are Brian Belz as Pasha Selim; David Walton as Belmonte; Matt Boehler as Osmin; Eric Neuville as Pedrillo; Ashly Neumann as Blonde; and Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze.)

The well-prepared chorus appeared briefly in each act, adding some color and motion to the production.

Musically and visually the production was a success. The audience responded with 19 ovations during the performance – yes, I counted. Every time the orchestra reached a cadence and paused, the audience members applauded as if they were at a musical. With the incessant coughing throughout the performance, I felt like I was at a performance of “South Pacific” in a tuberculosis ward.

The audience leapt to its feet at the end, and this made me wonder what it was that they found so praiseworthy. The story itself is inconsequential and has little relevance to life today.

The singing was very good, but this is not La Scala.

The music itself, with the exception of a couple of sublime moments, does little more than foreshadow the mature Mozart of “The Magic Flute.”

I concluded that the opera is unalarming, unthreatening, and simple. This is perhaps what people long for in these trying times.

I do look forward to the Madison Opera’s production of Daniel Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” this spring. Based on repeated hearings of the recording, I guarantee that Madison will be in for a treat. And there is nothing threatening or alarming or complex about the music, despite it being a work of the late 20th century.


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