The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: On Sunday, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will crack the code of Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations

March 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

So what is the mystery or puzzle behind the famous “Enigma” Variations by the British composer Sir Edward Elgar?

On this Sunday afternoon, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below) and music director John DeMain will explore Sir Edward Elgar’s famous and frequently performed Enigma Variations.

The concert is at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street. Ticket information is below.

Created by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, “Beyond the Score® Elgar: Enigma Variations” is a musical experience that involves a multimedia examination of the music. This is the third “Beyond the Score” production done by the MSO.

The first half is accompanied by photos and image projections, musical excerpts and narration by Wisconsin Public Radio’s Norman Gilliland (below top) along with actors James Ridge (below second), Kelsey Brennan (below third), and Brian Mani (below bottom) from American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

The second half features a full performance of Enigma Variations in its entirety, with audience members listening with a deeper understanding of the composer and the music.

There are really two enigmas within the piece, the most famous work by Edward Elgar (below) after his “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1 in D Major used at graduations.

The first enigma is about whom each piece was written, bringing about much speculation as each piece is named with only initials. (You can  hear the famous “Nimrod” variation in the YouTube video below.)

The second enigma is a musical enigma about the theme being a counterpoint of a popular tune, an enigma that remains unsolved.

To prepare with more information, variation by variation, here is a link to the Program Notes written by UW-Whitewater professor and MSO bass trombonist  Michael Allsen:

This Beyond the Score® performance delves into those special personalities that are the basis for this famous musical masterpiece.

The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations.

Single Tickets are $15-$65 each and are on sale now at, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Balcony tickets are $15 and $35, and are still available.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit:

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $18 tickets. More information is at:

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Beyond the Score® is a production of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Gerard McBurney is the Creative Director for Beyond the Score®


Classical music: Longtime NPR host Robert Siegel brought his love of classical music to “All Things Considered.” Here are 10 interviews and some background to mark his recent retirement

January 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you are a fan of “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio – and The Ear certainly is – you probably already know not to listen for veteran host Robert Siegel (below) on this afternoon’s broadcast.

Or any other ATC broadcast in the future.

That is because last Friday afternoon Siegel had his last sign-off. He retired after spending 41 years with NPR – the first 10 as a reporter, including as a London correspondent, and the last 31 as a host of the prize-winning afternoon news and features magazine “All Things Considered,” which, by the way, was created by Jack Mitchell, who later came to teach Mass Communications at the UW-Madison.

There will be much to miss about Siegel. His qualities included a calming voice, a ready laugh, fairness and objectivity, a convivial studio presence and sharp but respectful interviewing skills.

One of the things that The Ear hopes will survive Siegel’s departure is the much-needed public attention he brought to classical music, which he loved and which the other media today so often ignore.

The mark his retirement, NPR classical music blogger Tom Huizenga compiled a list of 10 important interviews that Siegel conducted over the years. Then he put links to those interviews on an NPR blog.

Huizenga also got Siegel to open up about the formative influences that sparked his love for classical music. They included his young love for the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, by Ludwig van Beethoven — the so-called “Emperor” Concerto, which you can hear played by Alfred Brendel in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Siegel went on to cover big stars like superstar soprano Renee Fleming; medium stars like violinist Gil Shaham (below), who performs with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this month; and smaller and new stars like the iconoclast harpsichord virtuoso Mahan Esfahani.

He also covered a U.S. Army rifleman who performed a violin recital for Churchill and Truman, and the role that music by Beethoven played in Communist China.

And there are many, many more, for which classical music and we listeners owe a debt to Siegel.

Check it out and enjoy! Here is a link to that posting on the Deceptive Cadence blog:

Classical music: Here are many of the major figures that classical music lost in 2017

January 2, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the traditional ways to start a new year is to take stock of the past year.

That often means compiling lists of the best performances, the best recordings, the best books, and so forth.

It also means listing the major figures who died in the past year.

Two of the more prominent classical music performers who died in 2017 were the renowned Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (below top), who died of a brain tumor at 55, and the conductor Georges Prêtre (below bottom in a photo by Dieter Hagli for Getty Images).

There were many more, but they seem harder to find or to remember.

It seems to The Ear that such lists used to be more common.

It also seems to The Ear that many more of such lists for classical music are being incorporated into a overall lists of entertainers and celebrities in pop, rock, country, jazz, folk and even film stars who died. That is what National Public Radio (NPR) and The New York Times did this year.

Does that trend suggest that classical music is gradually and increasingly being marginalized or ignored? It is a reasonable question with, The Ear fears, a sad answer.

Does anyone else see it the same way?

But at least one reliable source – famed radio station WQXR-FM in New York City – has provided a list of performers, presenters and scholars of classical music who died in 2017.

Moreover, the list comes with generous sound and video samples that often make the loss more poignant.

Here is the link:

Has someone been overlooked, especially among local figures?

If so, please use the COMMENT section to leave a name or even your reaction to the other deaths.

The Ear wants to hear.


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

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:

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

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

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

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:

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


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra deliver outstanding performances of great music by Mozart and Brahms

December 12, 2017

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. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The program for the first concert this season by the UW Choral Union (below), mercifully, had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, and just offered great music.

There were only two works, one by Brahms and the other by Mozart. Surefire!

Johannes Brahms composed three relatively short works for chorus, without soloists, and orchestra. Of these, I wish conductors would get busy with two of them in particular. The Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates) and Nänie are simply superb works by one of the greatest of all choral composers.

The third, the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54, I would rate just a bit lower for musical content, but that is the one of the three that is more frequently performed, and that was the one we heard.

That said, there is much quite beautiful music in the piece, which sets a poem of Friedrich Hölderlin that moves from anxiety to desperation. Brahms (below) preceded the choral setting with a serene introduction that—to satisfy his aesthetics if not the poet’s—he repeats at the end to restore order.

Conductor Beverley Taylor (below) employed rather broad tempos, but this enabled her to bring out some of the melodic material with great beauty.

And, with a chorus of some 124 singers, she was able to give the music tremendous sonority, if a bit at the price of German diction. With the very good UW Symphony Orchestra in fine fettle, too, this was an excellent performance that should alert listeners to neglected treasures.

The main work was the unfinished “Great” Mass in C minor, K. 427, by Mozart (below). This is music inspired by the composer’s marriage and by the new (for him) artistic climate of Vienna. Even incomplete – it has a fragmentary “Credo” and is missing an “Agnus Dei”) — it still stands, with his also uncompleted Requiem, as a towering masterpiece of his sacred choral output.

Taylor displayed a fine feeling for both the overall and individual qualities of the work, projecting them with vigor and discipline.

There were four student soloists (below), with promising young voices.

But eventually the standout proved to be soprano Sarah Richardson (below). The operatic-style aria, “Et incarnatus est” from the “Credo” was apparently sung by Mozart’s wife in its preliminary performance, and is often heard as a separate solo number today. This was sung by Richardson (below) with skill and eloquence. (You can hear the aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This chorus was really a bit oversized for a work like this, but Taylor made it the real star of the performance, in singing with both power and precision.

A truly rewarding concert!


Classical music: The never-fail Willy Street Chamber Players and guest artists will perform works by Elvis Costello, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Dmitri Shostakovich this Friday night

July 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 6 p.m., the acclaimed and adventurous Willy Street Chamber Players (below) return to their home base at Immanuel Lutheran Church (below middle and bottom), 1021 Spaight Street, on Madison’s near east side.

The 90-minute program, the second of three subscription concerts this summer — the last one is next Friday — is a typically eclectic one that mixes new music with established repertoire.

It features “The Juliet Letters” by rock star Elvis Costello (below top, in a photo by James Omaha) with local tenor Adam Shelton (below middle), who will also sing the song cycleOn Wenlock Edge” by Ralph Vaughan Williams; and pianist Jason Kutz (below bottom) in the Piano Quintet by Dmitri Shostakovich. (You can hear Elvis Costello sing one of the Juliet Letters with the Brodsky String Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There will also be a post-concert reception with east-side snacks from Monty’s Blue Plate Diner and Madison Sourdough.

Admission is $15.

In addition, The Willys have inaugurated a Community Connect series to reach new audiences and perform around the city.

The Ear recently went to one of those concerts and came away grateful not only for the superb performances of great old and new music, but also very appreciative of alternative venues in the city.

But more about that tomorrow.


Classical music: Who are the 12 greatest opera singers on the stage today?

June 18, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Who do you think are the 12 greatest opera stars and singers performing today?

You can see how your judgment compares with that of the panel of experts who did the same for Limelight, an Australian arts magazine.


Here is a link:

See how you score.

And what you think of their choices.

Use the COMMENTS section to let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.



Classical music: Heard enough about Prince? Read about violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Plus, a FREE voice recital commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare is at noon on Friday

April 28, 2016

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, located at 900 University Bay Drive, features tenor Adam Shelton and pianist Vincent Fuh in the program “Assassinating Shakespeare.” The concert features music by Gerald Finzi, Roger Quilter, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Schubert and Dominick Argento.

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s a week later but news about the premature death at 57 on April 21 of the influential superstar pop rocker Prince continues to preoccupy the media.

To flood the media, really.

Prince with guitar

The Ear doesn’t want to take away from Prince and his substantial artistic achievements. Nor does The Ear mean to belittle Prince’s premature death, which is sad and unfortunate but hardly unusual in the world of pop music — and not really tragic in the larger scheme of things, given how the world is filled today with terrorism and refugees.

But he does think maybe a little perspective about this celebrity or star is required.

Does anyone else share The Ear’s impatience with such saturation coverage and think that the media have gone overboard? There have been so many stories, so much repetition, such meaningless follow-up and continuing coverage that it almost belittles Prince’s death with endless trivialities and predictable banalities.

So take a break.

Here is a story – from the Deceptive Cadence blog for NPR or National Public Radio — about this past weekend’s 100th anniversary of the April 22, 1916 birth of the famed British violinist, teacher and polymath Sir Yehudi Menuhin (below top as a child, from the Underwood Archives, and below bottom as an older man in a photo by Erich Auerbach for Getty Images).

yehudi menuhin young underwood archives

Yehudi Menuhin Erich Auerbach Getty Images

It is filled with inspiring details that command your respect for this great artist and humanitarian, who was international in his interests and many of whose accomplishments The Ear didn’t know. You can hear him playing Bach in the YouTube video at the t bottom.

It is written by Tom Huizenga and features a lot of commentary and recollection by the gifted violinist Daniel Hope (below), who played music of European Jewish composers exiled in Hollywood during World War II by Hitler and the Nazis coming to power, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra two seasons ago.

Daniel Hope playing

Here is a link:


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