The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: For you, what were the best, most memorable or most enjoyable concerts of 2017? Here are the highlights for critics John W. Barker and The Ear

December 29, 2017
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The end of the calendar year is only the mid-point of the new season and the concert calendar.

Still, it is a good time to take stock of the past year and the various performers and performances that we heard.

John W. Barker (below), who writes frequently for this blog as well as for Isthmus, recently published his top picks of concerts in 2017 in Isthmus. Here is a link to his year-end assessment:

https://isthmus.com/music/best-2017-classical-music/

To be fair, The Ear doesn’t always agree with Barker on the quality of some pieces and of certain performances. But by and large the two of us are in accord, and even when we aren’t, the Ear respects and learns from Barker’s expertise and experience.

The Ear would only add several things he found that Barker doesn’t mention:

The all-Mozart concert in the fall by the Pro Arte Quartet (below) — with UW faculty clarinetist Alicia Lee and San Francisco cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau filling in for Parry Karp, was a much-needed balm in these times of distress.

If you are a fan of amateur music-making and love the music of Bach, the revival of the Bach Around the Clock marathon in March proved enthralling. (Below are violist father Stan Weldy and mandolinist son Alex Weldy.)

You heard all kinds of musicians, from students and adult amateurs to professionals, in all genres of music, including arrangements and transcriptions that Johann Sebastian would no doubt have approved of.

Pianist Richard Goode (below), who played this fall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, showed the power of softness and quiet.

His subtle playing was full of nuance in preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, by Johann Sebastian Bach; in a late sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven; in the only sonata by Anton Webern; in a generous group for Chopin works; and in an unexpected encore by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd. All in all, Goode proved a wonderful reprieve from some of the heavier, louder and more dramatic keyboard playing we hear.

But if you wanted drama, you only had to attend the recital by UW-Madison virtuoso Christopher Taylor (below). He excelled in everything, especially the total-body playing of the solo piano arrangement by Franz Liszt of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which wowed the house. But he also showed great restraint, tone and subtlety in contemporary American composer John Corigliano “Ostinato” based on that symphony’s famous second movement.

Then Taylor finished up with contrasting sets of six Musical Moments by Franz Schubert and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

BUT NOW IT IS YOUR TURN: YOU BE THE CRITIC!

Recognizing that the best concert is not necessary the most memorable concert, and that the best or most memorable concert is not necessarily the most enjoyable concert, please tell us:

What did you think was the best concert and best single performance you heard in 2017?

What was the most memorable classical music experience you had in 2017?

And what was the most enjoyable classical music performance you heard in 2017?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


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