The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.

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

March 16, 2018
1 Comment

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:

http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/6A.bts18.html

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 https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, 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: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.

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: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

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:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/01/05/575906745/10-interviews-celebrating-robert-siegels-love-for-classical-music


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

January 2, 2018
2 Comments

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:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/music-made-classical-artists-lost-2017

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
8 Comments

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

December 12, 2017
2 Comments

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
3 Comments

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.

il-trovatore-met-opera

Here is a link:

http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/Article/262092%2Ctoday-s-12-greatest-opera-singers.aspx

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
6 Comments

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:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/04/22/474824320/yehudi-menuhins-potent-blend-of-music-humanism-and-politics


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