The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Who are the greatest classical composers? And how do you decide?

November 24, 2018
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ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s holiday tradition of the “Community Carol Sing,” with organist Greg Zelek, is FREE and open to the public of all ages. It takes place in Overture Hall at 7 p.m. this Monday night, Nov. 26. No tickets or reservations are needed for the hour-long Carol Sing. For more information, including a list of the carols on the program, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/free-community-carol-sing/

By Jacob Stockinger

Who are the greatest composers of classical music?

Who are the most influential composers?

And which composer is the greatest of all time?

Just as important, how do you decide? How do you pick them and make your choice?

And finally, should such choices matter?

You could ask Anthony Tommasini (below), senior classical music critic for The New York Times  — who came to the UW-Madison during the Pro Arte Quartet centennial several years ago and lectured in the Wisconsin Union Theater — who has just published a new book about those very questions.

The new book is “The Indispenable Composers: A Personal Guide” (below) and is published by Penguin Books. (It could make a nice holiday gift for a classical music fan.)

In a recent story, Tommasini – who readily admits to the project being very much a subjective game – discussed the process, which comes in the wake of his publishing a two-week project in 2011 when he named the 10 greatest composers of all time.

This time he uses (below, from left) Gustav Mahler, Ludwig van Beethoven and Edvard Grieg as test cases for asking: Who is a great composer, and how do you know or decide what makes a composer great?

The Ear doesn’t agree with all the results, but he found it a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion, and figures you might too:

Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/02/arts/music/anthony-tommasini-classical-music.html

Read the overview story, and then leave word if you agree with Tommasini about the greatest of all composers. (A clue is in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Which composers would you include that he didn’t?

Who did he include whom you wouldn’t?

And let’s play along: Which composers would be on your own personal list of the Top 5 or Top 10 indispensable composers? And in what order?

Have fun!

And, pro or con, don’t be shy in saying what you think. The more controversial and stronger the opinion and the words, the better.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Here are the winners of Friday night’s sixth annual Handel Aria Competition

June 11, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The sixth annual Handel Aria Competition took place Friday night in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus at the Mead Witter School of Music.

It was, as usual, much fun.

Such serious fun deserved a bigger audience. But The Ear suspects that the opening night of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society at the Overture Center and the aria competition cut into each other’s audience. Maybe that scheduling conflict can be avoided in the future.

Everyone seems to agree that every year, as word of the competition continues to spread far and wide, the singers get better. This year, the seven finalists – five sopranos and three mezzo-sopranos chosen from 113 international applicants — were all terrific.

Special thanks should also go to the Madison Bach Musicians, who in a short amount of rehearsal time turned in outstanding accompaniment in music that can be hard to follow because or ornaments and embellishments as well as subjective interpretations and the Baroque singing style.

The wide repertoire included recitatives and arias from “Semele,” “Giulio Cesare,” “Rodelinda,” “Theodora,” “Hercules,” “Ariodante,” “Judas Maccabeus” and “Ricardo Primo, re d’Inghilterra” (Richard the First, King of England).

The biggest disappointment – in truth not very big — was that the competition had no male voices. There were no tenors, countertenor, baritones or basses to add to the variety. (You can hear the 2017 Audience Favorite, tenor Gene Stenger, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But that is how judging on merit works, so who can argue?

Once again, The Ear and many of his voice-savvy friends disagreed with the three professional judges. That seems to happen every year. But there will be more about that, as well as some other observations, another time.

In the meantime, let us celebrate the results.

Here, from left to right in a photo by David Peterson, are this year’s winners: soprano Sarah Hayashi, Second Prize; soprano Suzanne Karpov, First Prize; mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, Audience Favorite; and mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit, Third Prize.

All of the performances will be posted on YouTube at a later date, which The Ear will announce when it happens.

For more information about the seven finalists and the three professional judges, as well as updated news and how you can support the ever-expanding competition, go to:

https://handelariacompetition.com

https://handelariacompetition.com/2018-competition/


Classical music: Here are the Top 20 classical recordings of 2017 as chosen by famed radio station WQXR

December 14, 2017
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

As he has done in previous years, this year The Ear is offering various compendiums of the best classical recordings from the past year.

Such lists are, of course, subjective.

But many of the “judges” have a vast experience with classical music and are worth listening to and at least considering.

The lists can give you an idea of new artists and trends as well as of new releases of famous artists and tried-and-true repertoire.

So far, The Ear has offered the nominees for Grammy Awards. But that list is chosen by the industry.

Here is a link to that Grammy list:

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/

The famed New York City radio station WQXR seems more objective and less commercial, although you will find well known veteran artists such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Evgeny Kissin mixed in with newcomers such as pianist Beatrice Rana (below).

The genres and periods are quite mixed too, going from early music to new music, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Philip Glass and Osvaldo Golijov.

Similarly, the list has familiar labels and small, relatively unknown labels.

The list could serve as a guide to what you want to give as a gift or what you want to receive as a gift.

But you can also take the list just as more information about the classical music scene, which is under-reported in the mainstream media.

In addition, each of the 20 selections features the CD album cover and a sound sample of the recording and a compact explanation of what makes the performance exceptional or outstanding.

Here is a link:

http://www.wqxr.org/story/best-classical-recordings-2017/

Hope you enjoy it.

Use the COMMENT section to let us know what you think and whether you agree or disagree with the choices.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: What classical music do you find necessary and why?

August 19, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has heard many themes for concerts and festivals.

But he really, really likes the title of this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival (below, inside the refurbished barn that serves as a concert hall).

It runs from Aug. 26 through Sept. 3.

Here is a link to complete details about the performers, the three programs and the five concerts that focus especially on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Schubert, Maurice Ravel and Robert Schumann:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/08/17/classical-music-this-years-token-creek-chamber-music-festival-will-explore-necessary-music-by-bach-schubert-schumann-ravel-harbison-and-other-composers-from-aug-26-thr/

The theme or concept is NECESSARY MUSIC.

Of course, as the festival press release says, the Token Creek organizers recognize that the whole idea is subjective, so they refuse to be prescriptive:

“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.”

The Ear likes that concept.

And he thinks it applies to all of us.

So today he wants to know: What music is NECESSARY FOR YOU and WHAT MAKES IT NECESSARY

Of course, the idea of necessary music changes over time and in different circumstances.

Do you need relief from the anxiety of political news?

Are you celebrating a happy event?

Are you recovering from some kind of personal sadness or misfortune?

But right now, what piece or pieces of music – or even what composer – do you find necessary and why?

In the COMMENT section, please tell us what it is and what makes it necessary?

And please include a link to a YouTube video performance, if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This is your brain on music! New scientific research shows that the human brain evolved special channels for hearing music. Read all about it!

February 13, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

What is your brain like on music? (The illustration below is by Marcos Chin.)

music and brain CR Marcos Chin

One of the most fascinating stories The Ear has ever read about music and science came last Tuesday in this week’s Science Times section of The New York Times.

The “Music Channel” story was reported by the acclaimed science writer  and journalist Natalie Angier (below), who won a Pulitzer Prize and has been nominated for a National Book Award She also included a sidebar story about her own experience undergoing the kind of MRI scan that helped researchers.

natalie angier

The upshot is this: No matter what kind of music you like – classical, jazz, folk, country, rock, pop – the human brain has developed special neural pathways to perceive the music.

In short, the human brain seems to have its own music room.

The story says this may help to explain why music seems a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon and why the first music instruments, such as the vulture bone flute found in Germany (below, in a photo by Jensen of the University of Tubingen) date back 42,000 years — some 24,000 years before the first cave painting appear in Lascaux, France.

Vulture bone flute CR Jensen:University of Tubingen

Plus, the story points out that the scientists and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) do not get the same result with non-musical noises. The special nerve pathways or circuits seem to have evolved specifically to receive musical information.

There is a lot more fascinating information in the story.

For The Ear, the bottom line is that we are closer to knowing why music has such deep appeal in so many different ways. And the researchers say that this study is just the beginning. (You can hear more about the effects of music on the human brain and body in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear looks forward to seeing more research about why music is special to the human brain: Is it the structure of music? The logic and intellectual content? Primarily the melody or harmony or rhythm? The emotional content?

Here is a link to the must-read story:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/science/new-ways-into-the-brains-music-room.html?_r=0

And here is the sidebar story, “Lending Her Ears to MIT Experiment,” about Natalie Angier’s own experience with the MIT research study about music and the human brain. It explains the research methods in details from a subjective point of view:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/science/lending-her-ears-to-an-mit-experiment.html


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