The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Opera supertitles turn 35 and will help audiences this coming weekend at the University Opera’s three performances of “La Bohème.” Plus UW percussionists perform new music Tuesday night

February 19, 2018
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ALERT: On this Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. the UW-Madison Western Percussion Ensemble will perform a FREE concert with new works by eight student composers — six from the percussion ensemble and two from the composition department.

By Jacob Stockinger

February is proving to be Opera Month in Madison.

Just over a week ago, the Madison Opera staged its production of “The Abduction From the Seraglio” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m., Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University Opera will stage its production of what is certainly the most popular opera in the repertoire: “La Bohème” by Puccini.

For more information about the production of “La Bohème,” including staging information, the cast and tickets ($10-$38), go to:

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/la-boheme/#additional

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-puccinis-la-boheme2-23/

In both cases, English supertitles (below) were used. For Mozart, they translated German. This weekend they will make the Italian-language production, set in Paris in the 1930s, much more accessible.

Today we take them for granted, even in English language productions where you can’t always understand the words because of the singing.

Occasionally, they prove frustrating because they fall behind the singing or skip repeated passages or black out or even have a howler of a mistranslation.

But by and large, supertitles seem so normal and natural these days, so standard and so much easier than gazing in the dark at translations of the libretto in small type.

They were first used in 1983 by the Canadian Opera Company’s production in Toronto of “Elektra” (below) by Richard Strauss.”

Audiences loved them, and supertitles help to explain the subsequent popularity of opera.

Yet in the early days supertitles faced a major struggle, largely waged by purists, before they were widely accepted. Now they seem indispensable.

That’s all the more reason, then, to read or listen to the background story that recently appeared on National Public Radio (NPR) about  the 35th anniversary of supertitles.

Here is a link:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/01/21/578663092/read-em-and-weep-celebrating-35-years-of-opera-supertitles

Do you support or oppose the use of supertitles?

Do you like them and find them helpful?

Would you be less likely to attend an opera without supertitles?

Please put any reaction or observations in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Here are lists of the Best Classical Recordings of 2017 as named by The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes magazine and Gramophone magazine

December 16, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Just in time for last-minute holiday shopping and streaming – whether by others or yourself – some major publications and critics have published their lists of the top classical recording of 2017.

Personal preferences and taste matter, to be sure. So opinions inevitably differ.

But in some cases, the verdicts seem close to unanimous.

Take the case of some pianists.

You can, for example, find overlapping agreement on the merits of the 24-year-old Italian pianist and Cliburn Competition silver medal laureate Beatrice Rana playing the famed Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Same for the 33-year-old Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olaffson who gives revelatory readings of works by contemporary American Minimalist composer Philip Glass.

And many critics give raves to acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing neglected piano miniatures by Finnish symphonic titan Jean Sibelius. (See Andsnes discussing Sibelius in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The various lists cover all genres from solo piano music to songs, chamber music to symphonies, oratorios to operas.

You can find lots of neglected repertoire — both early and new — unknown artists and small labels.

But there are also major stars, tried-and-true repertoire and large vintage or heritage labels.

In short, both beginners and experienced classical listeners and players can find plenty to please them.

In addition, some of the lists for the past year include links to lists from previous years. And those lists too still have some excellent choices that hold up.

Here is a link to the 2017 list in The New York Times, which was compiled by several critics:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/13/arts/music/best-classical-music-recordings-2017.html

Here is a list by a critic and columnist for Forbes magazine:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenslaurson/2017/12/13/the-10-best-classical-recordings-of-2017/#60b8fd87ebca

Here is the list from John von Rhein for the Chicago Tribune:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/vonrhein/sc-ent-best-classical-recordings-2017-1206-story.html

And here is a list from the British Gramophone magazine, which often favors artists and groups located in the United Kingdom:

https://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/the-best-new-classical-albums-december-2017

And in case you missed it before, here are lists from other sources that this blog has posted and linked to:

From famed WQXR-FM radio in New York City:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/14/classical-music-here-are-the-top-20-classical-recordings-of-2017-as-chosen-by-famed-radio-station-wqxr/

And here are the classical nominations for the 2018 Grammy awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/classical-music-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-2018-grammy-awards-they-make-a-great-holiday-gift-list-of-gives-and-gets/


Classical music: What are the best classical music pieces for beginners to listen to? And why?

September 9, 2017
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear needs your help.

Recently a good friend said: “I don’t listen to or know much about classical music, but I wish I did. You know a lot. What would be good pieces for me to begin with?”

I said I would think about it.

So many composers and works come to mind.

But it is so subjective.

So The Ear thought: Why not turn to readers?

Why not ask readers what pieces got them started on listening to classical music?

And what pieces they would recommend to others?

There are of course some proven and popular standards such as the Symphony No. 5 and the  Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” by Beethoven; the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Tchaikovsky (played and recorded by Van Cliburn in a way that influenced a whole generation); and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff.

But there is so much more to choose from, as you can tell from the YouTube video at the bottom.

String music, wind music and brass music.

Big pieces and small pieces.

Solo music, chamber music and orchestral music.

Vocal music and choral music, including operas.

So what would you tell my friend?

Leave a suggestion and why you chose it in the COMMENT section with a link to a YouTube performance if possible.

The friend is waiting.

And The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will explore “Necessary Music” by Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Ravel, Harbison and other composers from Aug. 26 through Sept 3

August 17, 2017
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 By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post about an annual event that puts on a lot of MUST-HEAR programs:

TOKEN CREEK, WIS. –    In what way, and for whom, is a certain kind of music necessary?

Certainly the presenters of a chamber music festival would be presumptuous to offer a program as a sort of prescription for listeners. And at Token Creek we won’t.

So often the music we need arrives by chance, and we did not even know we needed it until it appears. And other times we know exactly what we are missing. And so we offer this year’s programs of pieces that feed the soul.

Saturday, Aug. 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 27, at 4 p.m., Program I: Continuo

Some works of art are so rich that they sustain a lifetime of inquiry and encounters, each time revealing fresh new insights only possible through sustained engagement, pieces so resilient they admit multiple interpretations, approaches, nuances, shadings.

We open the season with music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below), pieces we’ve played before and some we have not, music that continues to compel for the very reason that it can never be fully plumbed, music that rewards over and over again. In a concert dominated by Bach, the requirement of the other pieces is really only that they offer sufficient originality and integrity not to be dwarfed or rendered ephemeral by his authority.

Flutist Dawn Lawler (below top), cellist Sara Sitzer (below second) and pianist Jeffrey Stanek (below third join the artistic directors composer-pianist John and violinist Rose Mary Harbison (below bottom) for this opening program.

Works:
BACH Sonata in E minor for violin and continuo, BWV 1023

HAYDN    Trio in F major for flute, cello and piano XV:17

BACH   Two Fugues, from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080

HARBISON    Mark the Date, for flute and piano (pre-premiere)

BACH Sonata in G major for violin and continuo, BWV 1021

BACH Three-Voice Ricercar, from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079

BACH Sonata in C minor, from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079

Wednesday, Aug. 30, at 7:30 p.m. Program II: Schubert

A sequel to last year’s all-Schubert program, which offered Die Schöne Müllerin and the “Trout” Quintet, this season we offer two late masterworks by  Schubert (below): the song cycle Schwanengesang (Swan Song) and the solo piano set of six Moments Musicaux (Musical Moments).

In structure, ingenuity and invention these two large works offer an eloquent counterpoint and complement to one another. We are pleased to welcome back pianist Ya-Fei Chuang (below top), and to introduce tenor Charles Blandy (below middle) with pianist Linda Osborn (below bottom).

Works:

SCHUBERT      Andante, from Sonata in C for Piano Four Hands (“Grand Duo”),  D.812

SCHUBERT     Moments Musicaux, D.780

SCHUBERT      Schwanengesang, D.957

Saturday, Sept. 2, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 3, at 4 p.m. Program III: Waltz

This program explores the familiar form of the waltz as an unexpectedly flexible and diverse musical type, with uncommon approaches from a wide variety of composers from Schubert through Sur.

We conclude the season with Schumann’s splendid Piano Quartet, whose third movement offers one of the greatest of slow waltzes of all time. (You can hear it performed by the Faure Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

We are pleased to introduce violist Becky Menghini (below top) and cellist Kyle Price (below bottom).

Works:

FRITZ KREISLER   Three Old Viennese Melodies for Violin and  Piano

DONALD SUR        Berceuse for Violin and Piano

SCHUBERT      Waltz Sequence

RAVEL     Valses nobles et sentimentales

GEORGE CRUMB    Sonata for Solo Cello

SCHUMANN     Quartet in E-flat for Piano and Strings, Op.   47

The Token Creek Festival has been called a gem, a treasure nestled in the heart of Wisconsin cornfields, a late-summer fixture just outside of Madison.

Now in its 28th season, the Festival has become known for its artistic excellence, diverse and imaginative programming, a deep engagement with the audience, and a surprising, enchanting and intimate performance venue in a comfortable refurbished barn.

The 2017 festival offers five events to close the summer concert season, Aug. 26–Sept. 3.

Performances take place at the Festival Barn (below), on Highway 19 near the hamlet of Token Creek (10 minutes north of Madison, near Sun Prairie) with ample parking available.

The charmingly rustic venue—indoors and air-conditioned with modern comforts—is invitingly small, and early reservations are recommended.

Concert tickets are $32 (students $12). Reservations can be secured in several ways:

More information about the Token Creek Festival and all events and artists can be found at the website, www.tokencreekfestival.org or by calling 608-241-2525.


Classical music: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/arts/music/jeremy-denk-chopin.html

Enjoy!

Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.


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