The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This Saturday and Sunday, the Token Creek Festival explores how an unrequited love for Clara Schumann helped make Brahms and his music autumnal

August 22, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johannes Brahms (below) remains the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use. This is due to his fastidiously high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players.

His music is universally admired for its combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact, ranging from the most muted private conversation to the most passionate and revealing passages he ever composed.

But putting aside his own personal temperament as well as his melancholy melodies, his bittersweet harmonies, and his masterful use of strings and woodwinds, what gives Brahms’ music that quality of sadness that so many listeners and critics describe as “autumnal”?

No discussion of Brahms can take place without engaging with the most important person in his life — Clara Schumann (below, in a  Getty photo), who was born Clara Wieck and became a virtuoso pianist and a composer whose 200th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year.

Brahms was deeply in love with Clara. But unfortunately she was married to Robert Schumann (below right with Clara), one of Brahms’ closest friends and most loyal promoters. Even after a mentally ill Robert Schumann died of suicide at 46, Clara remained loyal to his memory. For the rest of her long life, she performed, edited and promoted his music and rejected Brahms as a lover or second husband.

Almost overnight, Clara’s rejection seemed to cause Brahms to turn from a handsome young man (below top) to the more familiar figure of an overweight, cigar-smoking, bearded and prematurely old curmudgeon (below bottom).

Clara Schumann’s hidden presence is involved with all of the pieces on the Token Creek Festival program, which will be performed at 4 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 24 and 25, in the festival’s refurbished barn (below) at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.

The program includes the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, illustrated with a performance of Brahms’ “Regenlied” (the “Rain Song” that precedes it and introduces the theme of the sonata); the Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano in E minor; and the Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor, a piece that retains its distinctive charge of unresolvable emotion. (You can hear that unresolved emotion in the beautiful slow movement of the Piano Quartet No. 3 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performers are violinist Rose Mary Harbison, co-artistic director of the Token Creek Festival; violist Lila Brown; cellist Rhonda Rider; pianist Janice Weber; and Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson.

THE REST OF THE FEST

Upcoming programs include “Words & Music,” a belated 80th birthday tribute to artistic co-director John Harbison, on Wednesday night, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The intimate program will include readings by poet Lloyd Schwartz, the premiere of new Harbison songs, plus works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Arnold Schoenberg.

The festival closes with “The Piano” program on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, both at 4 p.m. The festival welcomes back pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer, here composers who were also formidable pianists:  Mozart, Maurice Ravel and Franz Liszt. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of John Harbison’s Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, complete the program.

For tickets ($32) and more information, go to www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.


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Classical music: Let us celebrate Brit Grit after the Manchester terrorist attack with Elgar’s Symphony No. 1

May 24, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

First came the unforgettable.

Then came the unforgivable.

In the first case, I am talking about the woefully under-attended performance on Sunday afternoon at the Wisconsin Union Theater by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (below) under its outgoing maestro Edo de Waart.

The MSO played the Overture to the opera “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; “Schelomo: A Hebraic Rhapsody” by Ernest Bloch, with principal cellist Susan Babini as soloist; and the Symphony No. 1 by Sir Edward Elgar.

In each case, all sections of the orchestra performed stunningly well and the caliber of performance made you wonder: “Why don’t we hear this group more often?”

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra used to tour to Madison every year or so. It should do so again.

Then not long after the concert came word of the deadly terrorist attack by a suicide bomber at a pop concert in Manchester, England.

Sure, sometimes these things just happen. But coincidences can have power.

The Ear can’t think of a more stately and forceful statement of British fortitude and stoicism – the same grit that saw Britain through the Nazi blitz — than the poignant march-like opening of the first movement of Sir Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1.

Chances are you don’t know the symphony.

Chances are you know Elgar from his “Pomp and Circumstance” Marches, from his “Enigma Variations” for orchestra, from his Cello Concerto, from his Violin Concerto, from the violin miniature “Salut d’amour.”

But this is grand and great Elgar (below) who, like Brahms, turned to writing symphonies only late in his life.

We don’t hear Elgar’s first symphony often enough.

And this just happens to be the right time, both because of the world-class performance by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and because the symphony was premiered in 1908 — in Manchester — and then went on to be popular enough to have some 100 performances in its first year.

But it has fallen out of favor. The last time the Ear heard it live was years ago when the UW Symphony Orchestra played it under the baton of guest conductor and UW-Madison alumnus Kenneth Woods (below), who now leads the English Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Mahler Festival.

So here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, is a complete recording from the BBC Proms in 2012. Perhaps you will only listen to the opening movement, or even just the opening of the opening movement, with its moving theme that recurs throughout and then returns at the end.

But however much you listen to — and you shouldn’t miss the glorious slow movement – it seems a fitting choice to share today.

After all, as Leonard Bernstein once said: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

If you have another choice of music to listen to on this deadly occasion, leave word and a YouTube link in the COMMENT section.

Solidarity through music!


Classical music: University Opera will stage three performances of “Transformations” this Friday night, Sunday afternoon and next Tuesday night.

March 8, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Take children’s fairy tales – such as “Sleeping Beauty” (below) — and recast them through adult reinterpretations. You can get some pretty weird and dark and humorous results.

Henry Meynel Rheam painting Sleeping Beauty

That is not only the formula for Stephen Sondheim’s popular Broadway musical and later Hollywood movie “Into the Woods.”

It also worked for the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Anne Sexton, who grew depressed and killed herself at age 45. Her versions then became an opera.

anne sexton

The music, described as tonal and accessible, is by Conrad Susa (below), who taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The contemporary opera has been popular and widely staged.

Conrad Susa

This weekend and early next week, University Opera – the opera program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music – will give three performances in Music Hall of the work on Friday night at 7:30 p.m., Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. (NOT 3:30 as first posted here mistakenly) and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOTE: An ad on Wisconsin Public Radio erroneously lists the performance times on Friday and Tuesday nights as 7 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively.)

Admission is $25, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.

Members of the cast even posted an invitation video on YouTube:

For more information, visit the A Tempo blog of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, which features remarks from interim opera director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio), who is based in New York City, and details about the pre-concert discussion on Friday night from 6 to 7 p.m. (There will also be talk back sessions after each performance.):

https://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/university-opera-presents-spring-show-transformations/

David Ronis color CR Luke DeLalio

The music director is graduate student in conducting Kyle Knox (below), who recently conducted Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” for the Madison Opera and who conducts ensembles at the UW-Madison and the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Kyle Knox 2

For even more background, visit:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2016/02/12/university-opera-presents-transformations/

Here is a sample, a YouTube video of the “Hansel and Gretel” section of “Transformations”:


Classical music: If you are saddened by the deaths of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, YOU MUST HEAR THIS: Johann Sebastian Bach’s keyboard transcription of the slow movement from the famous oboe concert by Alessandro Marcello.

August 14, 2014
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Not a lot of words today.

I feel like hearing music, not talking or writing.

Maybe I feel like hearing soulful and quiet music because of the sad news about the deaths of comedian Robin Williams (below top) and actress Lauren Bacall (below bottom), two losses — the first a suicide, the second natural — that make my world smaller, less beautiful and less fun.

Robin Williams

Lauren Bacall

So here, in a popular YouTube video at the bottom, is the French pianist Alexander Tharaud (below, in a photo by Marco Borggreve)  – an artist I really like, especially in Baroque repertoire like the Johann Sebastian Bach, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Francois Couperin and Domenico Scarlatti works that he has recorded.

Here he is playing the transcription that Johann Sebastian Bach made of the profoundly beautiful slow movement from the Baroque oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello. He has also recorded it on CD for Harmonia Mundi. Such beautiful music, and not so hard to play, at least technically.

Alexandre Tharaud  Marco Borggreve Virgin Classics

Mr. Bach (below) knew a good thing when he heard it and wasn’t afraid to transcribe this wind and orchestra work to the keyboard, which was his forte. Bach was no purist.

Bach1

So enjoy as you will.

And leave your own suggestions, with a link if you can.


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