The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The music of Beethoven played a major role in modern China. Here’s how

September 3, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you think classical music has lost much of its relevance in modern times, you might want to read or listen to this terrific interview about the importance of Ludwig van Beethoven in modern China.

Below is a photo of the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Choral” Symphony with the famous “Ode to Joy,” done in 1959 by an all-Chinese orchestra with Chinese singers and sung in Mandarin.

Plus, a radio broadcast of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony also played a major role in modern China following the Cultural Revolution.

Beethoven in China 1959

The interview, with two native Chinese musicians who now teach at Stanford University. was done by NPR or National Public Radio, for its Deceptive Cadence blog. The Ear found it both eye-opening and inspiring.

Perhaps it even helps to explain why these days classical music often seems more vital to the East than it does to the West.


Classical music: The St. Lawrence String Quartet will perform works by Haydn and the Midwest premiere of the String Quartet No. 2 by John Adams this Friday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Plus, this Tuesday night UW-Madison alumnus and violist Elias Goldstein will perform a FREE concert of the famous Caprices by Paganini

February 1, 2016
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ALERT: University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music 2011 alumnus and violist Elias Goldstein is on his way to Carnegie Hall in New York City to perform all the virtuosic 24 Caprices originally for solo violin by Niccolo Paganini. But first he will perform them here in a FREE concert that also includes other works with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, another UW-Madison alumnus, on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. (Sorry, no word on the rest of the program.) Goldstein will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on Wednesday at 2:25 p.m. in Morphy Hall.

For more information, go to:

By Jacob Stockinger

How does a contemporary American composer channel classic composers from more than 200 years ago?

You can find out by going to hear the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ, below). The critically acclaimed string quartet will perform this Friday night at 8 pm, in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

St.Lawrence String Quartet 2016 2 BIG USE

Tickets are $27.50 to $42.50.

For more information, including reviews and video samplings, visit:

The program features two quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, including the popular and famed “Emperor” Quartet and the earlier “Joke” Quartet as well as the Midwest premiere of John Adams; String Quartet No. 2.

NPR, or National Public Radio, recently featured an interview with Adams discussing Beethoven:

But Christopher Costanza, the cellist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, recently gave an enlightening Q&A from the quartet’s point of view to The Ear:

christopher costanza playing cello

Can you briefly bring the public up to date since your last appearance in Madison, when you performed “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” by Osvaldo Golijov? Major residencies and tours? Major commissions? Major performing and recording projects?

The St. Lawrence String Quartet has been busy with a wide range of projects in the years since our last appearance in Madison.

We’ve had a personnel change – our newest quartet member is Owen Dalby, our second violinist, who joined us in the spring of last year.

We happily continue as Artists-in Residence at Stanford University, where we are involved in a great number of activities, including teaching, performing, and collaborations with a wide range of schools and departments on campus.

And our international touring schedule remains very active, with concerts throughout North America and Europe; our most recent European tour, in late summer of 2015, included concerts in Scotland, Germany, Romania, Hungary and Switzerland, and we will tour Europe twice in 2016.

We’ve performed several pieces commissioned for us, including works by such composers as Osvaldo Golijov, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Samuel Adams, Jonathan Berger, James Matheson and George Tsontakis.

Of particular significance, John Adams has composed three works for us, two string quartets and a quartet concerto, “Absolute Jest,” which was written for the SLSQ, the San Francisco Symphony and the SF Symphony’s music director Michael Tilson Thomas.

We’ve performed “Absolute Jest” on several national and international tours with the San Francisco Symphony, as well as with the London Symphony, the Toronto Symphony, and the New World Symphony. Our recording of the work with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas was released this past summer.

We’ve recently embarked on a recording project of the Opus 20 quartets of Haydn, and other recording projects are in development.

john adams absolute jest

Why did you choose to perform two Haydn string quartets to open and close the program, instead of a work by Beethoven, given the Beethoven influences in the String Quartet No. 2 by John Adams?

We often perform programs that begin and end with a Haydn quartet, with a contemporary work (or works) in between. This showcases the great variety and brilliance of Haydn’s gigantic contribution to the quartet repertoire.

It also provides an interesting contrast between the earliest works for quartet and current compositional offerings, stressing the fact that Haydn (below) essentially invented the string quartet and paving the way for other composers to explore creativity in their compositions for quartet.

In truth, we do often program Beethoven (below) with the Second String Quartet by Adams. For this program, I think the Adams/Haydn juxtaposition will be a meaningful comment on the evolution of quartet writing, from the early years to works of the present.

Beethoven big

As an exercise in compare and contrast programming, what would you like the public to know about the “Joke” and “Emperor” Quartets by Haydn? About Haydn’s music in general?

Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet, from his Op. 33 set, is, as you might guess, filled with humor and wit. The quartet is actually quite straightforward structurally, filled with robust and positive energy and simple, appealing melodies. It’s a compact work, inviting and charming.

The “Emperor” Quartet, from the Op. 76 set, comes from a later period of Haydn’s compositions, and it is a work of considerable length and weight. This quartet shows a natural link to Beethoven in its duration, dynamic contrast, emotional range, and overall musical substance. (You can hear Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet performed, analyzed and discussed by the St. Lawrence Quartet in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Of significant note, the “Emperor” is named thusly for the second movement, a theme and variations based on the tune Haydn (below) originally wrote for the Emperor Francis of Austria as a sort of national anthem.


What should readers know about the String Quartet No. 2 by John Adams (below)? How is it similar to or different from his other works that the public knows such as “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer,” “Doctor Atomic” “Harmonielehre” and “On the Transmigration of Souls”? Will this performance be the Midwest premiere? Will you record the quartet?

John Adams’s Second String Quartet is very strongly based on two motivic ideas from Beethoven’s Op. 110 piano sonata, as well as a variation from Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations.

The Beethoven elements are clearly presented in clever and skilled ways, and I think many of them will be evident to the astute listener. Most importantly, John is brilliant in his transformation of the Beethoven quotes, and the piece is very clearly an Adams piece, characterized by driving rhythms, great energy, and a true sense of musical intent and balance.

To get a sense of the piece prior to hearing it, I suggest listening to “Absolute Jest” (our recent recording) – another of John’s pieces inspired by Beethoven and filled with late Beethoven quotes – and the Op. 110 Piano Sonata by Beethoven.

We’ve performed the Second Quartet on several occasions since we premiered it at Stanford University about a year ago, but I do think our Madison performance will be a Midwest premiere. We are currently considering the possibility of recording the work, but specific plans have not yet been made.

john adams with pencil

What else would you like to say?

We’re thrilled to be returning to Madison after a gap of several years. It’s very exciting to be bringing a program of music by two of our favorite composers, Joseph Haydn and John Adams, and we think contrasting the two will be interesting and enlightening to all.

Classical music: Bach and the H-Bomb. The Ear celebrates five years of writing his blog by offering a poem about thermonuclear weapons, Edward Teller and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

August 22, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, marked the fifth anniversary of The Well-Tempered Ear blog, which this past June surpassed one million hits and now has over 1,800 daily posts and 6,200 comments. Thank you, all, for your loyalty and your participation. The results have exceeded my wildest expectations or hopes.

To mark the occasion, I thought I would do something different, something I have not done before: Offer a poem of my own from a personal project: A collection of poems I often write about the piano pieces that I am myself playing or listening to. Maybe a reader out there who likes the poem will know, or even be, a literary agent or a publisher of some kind who would be interested in seeing the poem, and others like it, reach a larger audience. The YouTube link at the bottom to the music in question adds a certain unusual attraction.

This particular poem is based on historical fact, but I have of course taken some liberties. It is like historical fiction, only in the form of poetry.

The poem concerns Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) and the late Hungarian-born and controversial theoretical physicist Dr. Edward Teller (1908-2003, below bottom), who was the model for Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s famous 1964 satirical movie of the same name. Teller developed the Atomic Bomb, created the Hydrogen Bomb and proposed Star Wars.


Edward Teller

Here is a photo of the young Dr. Edward Teller, whose mother was an accomplished concert pianist, playing the Steinway piano that he bought at a hotel auction in Chicago, while his wife Mici looks on:

Edward Teller plays piano with wife MIci CR Jon BrenneisIf you wish to check out more biographical information, including his being named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1960, here are some links:;jsessionid=2C9ABDC3269E3F2ABC31706C137871EA

Here is a biography with a video clip at the bottom of the web page of Edward Teller playing the first movement, in an overheated manner, of the “Moonlight” Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven at his home at Stanford University, California, in 1990, when he was 90 years old. He died there of a stroke at 95, two months after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush.

At bottom is a link to a YouTube performance by Friedrich Gulda –- a famous jazz musician but also an important teacher of classical piano titan Martha Argerich — of the Bach prelude and fugue in question.

I hope you like the poem and find it rewarding. If you do, let me know, and perhaps I will post some more in the future.

Hydrogen Bomb


By Jacob Stockinger

Late at night, when he is not in his lab
Building the world’s first atomic bomb,
Dr. Edward Teller is back in his barracks.
He thinks through his fingers
As he pedals with his fake right foot,
Practicing and playing on the century-old Steinway
He had shipped to the high New Mexico desert.

The physicist’s taste runs to Mozart and Beethoven.
But tonight he is working on Prelude and Fugue No. 8
In E-flat Minor and D-sharp Minor,
from Book I of Johann Sebastian Bach’s
The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

Since childhood, his mind has been held captive
By only two things: the music of mathematics
And the mathematics of music.

This slow, melodious and mournful
Music, he finds, is solidly, stolidly built.
The paired-up pieces match,
Mirror-like in their linkage
Like fission and fusion,
Like Bombs A and H.

Bach and bombs seem compatibly ingenious,
Old equations for a new beauty.
He likes how the main melody at the core
Radiates and grows, outward and inward,
Down and up, across treble and bass.
The multiple voices echo in a chain reaction of sound,
Like the counterpoint of nuclei and electrons,
And the dialogue of chalkboard equations.

The transparent thickness of Baroque beauty
Suits his scientific bent and emotional need,
His taste for a stately and elegant destruction
In which he can lose himself and others.

He knows that the two pieces remain something of a mystery,
The only ones Bach wrote in those keys,
Obscure keys that no one used back then.
But rarity equals a kind of originality
and that attracts Teller, who is still thinking up
“The Super,” his own word for an even
more powerful thermonuclear device.

That is what he now calls apocalyptic energy,
When he is not playing Bach.

And especially when he is.

© Jacob Stockinger


Classical music: A two-day FREE and PUBLIC mini-festival at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this Friday and Saturday will explore the electronically-enhanced Disklavier and music and videos that have been written for it.

March 5, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

University schools of music are often accused being too tradition-bound.

But that is less the case at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

New music often gets performed there, thanks to a couple of well-know faculty composers (Stephen Dembski and Laura Schwendinger) and the UW Contemporary Chamber Music Ensemble as well as many faculty members and undergraduate and graduate students who focus on, study and perform new music.

And now there is also a push to study and increase awareness of new instruments.

In this case, the object of study is the Disklavier.

Disklavier Player

Piano professor Todd Welbourne, who is now the director of graduate studies at the UW School of Music, has always been interested in modern and contemporary music and in interactive media, including an installation he did to mark the bicentennial of Franz Liszt. To read about that event, use this link:

Now Welbourne has arranged a two-day Disklavier festival that will take place this Friday and Saturday afternoon and night. All events are FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

Welbourne (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) recently spoke via email to The Ear about upcoming festival:

Todd Welbourne by Katrin Talbot

What is a Disklavier and what advantages does it have? Why focus on it rather than the traditional piano?

A “Disklavier” is normal acoustic piano (grand or upright) that has a sensory system added to capture the movements of the hammers as they strike the strings. The system does not affect or interfere with the operation or sound of the piano.

Disklavier grand

The movements are recorded and the information can then be used to reverse the process and cause the piano to play back exactly what was previously recorded much the way a “player piano” records and replays by means of a piano roll.

Instead of a roll of paper, though, the information is recorded in a computer language called MIDI.  Technically, then, a Disklavier is a “MIDI-piano.” The Disklavier, made by Yahama, is simply a brand name that has become a “proprietary eponym” basically through market domination.

The MIDI information can be used not only to reproduce sound but, in conjunction with a computer and additional software, can also be used to trigger events outside the instrument. These include images on a screen, and other sounds for example from a separate synthesizer or computer-generated sounds.

What is Disklavier Fest and why is it being held at the UW-Madison School of Music? Will it become an annual tradition here?

It’s part of our annual Guest Artist Series, which is always a good opportunity to bring in artists that are doing new and interesting things. But it is definitely a one-time event.

Who are the guest artists and why were they chosen? 

The guests are Daniel Koppelman (below top) from Furman University in South Carolina, and Jaroslaw Kapuscinski (below bottom) from Stanford University.

I had met them at various New Music Conferences around the country and liked their work and wanted them to share their work with our students, faculty and interested community members.


Jaroslaw Kapuscinski

What events or programs will take place, and what music will be played?

There are two concerts and two “info-sessions”: on Friday, March 8, and Saturday, March 9.  Info-sessions are at 3 p.m. in Room 2411 of the Mosse Humanities Building at 455 North Park Street in Madison; and concerts are both at 8 p.m. in Morphy Hall.

Friday night’s program by Koppelman is all sound and includes: “Gestural” (2012) by Christopher Dobrian (b. 1959); “Nocturne Fragments” by Benjamin Broening (b. 1963) (Mercurial; Flexible, mysterious, resonant; Gentle, tolling); “A Case of You” (1970) by Joni Mitchell (below, b. 1943); Sonatina (1941) by Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) (Presto, Moderato, Allegro molto; INTERMISSION; “digitalisman’ by Daniel Koppelman (b. 1957); “Chips of Chiseled Clouds” (2013) by D. Koppelman; and “Upon Reflection” (2012) by C. Dobrian.

Joni Mitchell 1

Saturday night’s program is all multi-media and employs visual elements.

It will include: “Mondrian Variations” – video [10 min.] — Inspired by musical variation form, the video transforms, deconstructs and reconstructs five  paintings by the 20th century Dutch artist Piet Mondrian in three movements: Moderato, Lento and Boogie-Woogie (Below is Mondrian’s famous painting “Broadway Boogie-Woogie”); “Oli’s Dream” (in collaboration with Camille Norton) [7 minutes.] …a dream in which a piano becomes a typewriter and in which a typewriter becomes a piano. “Oli’s Dream” is therefore an experiment in synesthesia, an attempt to fuse the temporal modes of music with the spatial and temporal domains of words.; “Juicy” (in collaboration with John Edmark) [10 minutes] — a six-movement suite, which fuses images of fruits with live piano music.

Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian

Also included is “Where is Chopin?” [31 minutes], …a performance/installation, in which an original composition based on Frederic Chopin‘s 24 Preludes (Op. 28) is played on the Disklavier piano and controls a multi-channel video projection showing rapt listeners. The images are a search for traces of Chopin’s music in minds and faces of people from around the world.

To carry out this project, Kapuscinski performed a series of personal interviews with over 150 volunteers in selected cities in countries where Chopin (below) is hugely popular but where he personally never set foot (Tokyo, San Francisco, Wellington, Sydney, Seoul, Beijing, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Helsinki, Buenos Aires, Santiago and Mexico City).


During these interviews Kapuscinski performed Chopin’s preludes and discussed them with the listeners while camera operators and photographers documented the emotional reactions.

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