The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What are the best classical music pieces for beginners to listen to? And why?

September 9, 2017
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear needs your help.

Recently a good friend said: “I don’t listen to or know much about classical music, but I wish I did. You know a lot. What would be good pieces for me to begin with?”

I said I would think about it.

So many composers and works come to mind.

But it is so subjective.

So The Ear thought: Why not turn to readers?

Why not ask readers what pieces got them started on listening to classical music?

And what pieces they would recommend to others?

There are of course some proven and popular standards such as the Symphony No. 5 and the  Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” by Beethoven; the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Tchaikovsky (played and recorded by Van Cliburn in a way that influenced a whole generation); and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff.

But there is so much more to choose from, as you can tell from the YouTube video at the bottom.

String music, wind music and brass music.

Big pieces and small pieces.

Solo music, chamber music and orchestral music.

Vocal music and choral music, including operas.

So what would you tell my friend?

Leave a suggestion and why you chose it in the COMMENT section with a link to a YouTube performance if possible.

The friend is waiting.

And The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Did anyone else hear Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and think of Donald Trump’s America as well as Stalin’s Russia?

November 21, 2016
15 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has to agree with a knowledgeable friend.

If you heard the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under music director John DeMain, perform the famous Symphony No. 5 in D minor — the same key as Beethoven’s Ninth — by Dmitri Shostakovich almost two weeks ago, you heard a performance that rivals or surpasses any other one, live or recorded, you’ve probably heard.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The performance was nothing short of stunning. And it was especially moving, given its timing in coming right after the presidential election in which Republicans Donald Trump and Mike Pence won an upset surprise victory over Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.

mike-pence-and-donald-trump

So here is what The Ear wants to know:

Was The Ear the only one who found himself thinking that the symphony proved an especially fitting, perhaps perfect, choice even though it was programmed a year ago? (You can hear the moving third movement, a lament with such pathos that people cried at its premiere, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Was The Ear the only one who identified with Shostakovich, who felt an even deeper empathy with the oppressed composer (below), who, fearing with good reason the dictator Joseph Stalin and his reign of Terror in the USSR, always kept a small suitcase packed with pajamas and a toothbrush by the front door in case the KGB secret police came knocking at 3 a.m., the usual arrest hour?

dmitri shostakovich

The symphony is dark music for dark times. And The Ear hopes he wrong when he fears that America is headed for some dark times of its own, times when various people and members of our society will live in constant fear and dread of what they might suffer?

This is not to suggest that President-elect Donald Trump can be equated to the murderous Joseph Stalin (below), or the United States in 2016 to the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

jospeh-stalin-2

But it is to suggest that some comparisons — if not equations — might be in order.

It is to suggest there will be a constant and unsettling anxiety in the US created by a new ruling order that seems based on insults and intolerance, that excludes and condemns what it doesn’t approve of, that seeks to suppress or destroy opposition?

Like Latino and Syrian immigrants.

Like Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians.

Like African-Americans, Native Americans and other non-whites.

Like poor people.

Like liberals and progressives, dissenters and protesters .

Like LGBT people.

Like women and women’s health advocates and organizations that favor reproductive rights.

The list could go on and on.

But you get the idea.

If either as a musician or an audience member you agree – or disagree – leave a COMMENT.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Twin-sister pianists, the Naughtons return to their hometown this weekend to perform a Mozart concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The powerful Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich is also on the program. On Election Day, what piece of music should be played for the new president-elect?

November 8, 2016
2 Comments

ALERT: Today is ELECTION DAY. Be sure to vote. Then leave a COMMENT and maybe a YouTube link telling The Ear what piece of classical music should be played for the new president-elect — Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement:

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below), with music director John DeMain conducting, performs two early 20th-century works. One is neglected and rarely performed while the other one is considered a powerful masterpiece,.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Madison’s very own Christina and Michelle Naughton (below) also return, for a performance of the witty and energetic Concerto for Two Pianos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

christina-and-michelle-naughton-2016

The concert begins with Le Printemps (“Spring”) by Claude Debussy, an Impressionist ode to the living.

The Naughton twins then perform the lyrical Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos, followed by a performance of the Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich. It showcases the composer’s artistic triumph over the forces of Soviet repression. This is also the piece conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) conducted for his impressive audition here over two decades ago.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The concerts are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on Friday night, Nov. 11, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Nov. 12 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 13, at 2:30 p.m.

An early version of Debussy’s Le Printemps was actually lost in a fire. The piece, originally written in Rome in 1886-87, premiered in Paris in 1913. Upon writing the score, Debussy (below) wrote to a friend, “…I’m calling it Printemps, not ‘spring’ from the descriptive point of view but from that of living things.”

Claude Debussy 1

The Naughtons will then play Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos. This piece, which is said to have been a favorite of Mozart (below, with his sister), was originally written for himself and his sister Maria Anna, nicknamed “Nannerl,” to perform. (The concerto was featured in the soundtrack to the Academy Award-Winning film “Amadeus” and you can hear the last movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is the first time this piece will be performed by the MSO. The listener will be able to imagine a smile, or at least a sly wink from Mozart to Maria Anna hidden within the harmonic score.

mozart-and-sister-maria-anna-nannerl

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 was originally completed in 1937. This will be the third time this piece has been performed by the MSO.

The Soviet Union oddly enough was a major influence for this work. In 1933 a doctrine was released, which was intended to control the content and style of Soviet literature and other various forms of art, including music. Soviet music was hence used to serve the propaganda needs of the state.

Symphony No. 5, which the composer subtitled “The practical answer of a Soviet artist to criticism,” is a composition that was written to save Shostakovich (below) from imprisonment. You can hear the personal anxiety of an artist being controlled by the State in this historic symphony.

dmitri shostakovich

One hour before each performance, Anders Yocom (below), Wisconsin Public Radio Host, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

anders yocom studio head shot cr Jim Gill

For more background on the music, visit the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/3.Nov16.html

Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each, available online at madisonsymphony.org/naughtons, in person at the Overture Center Box Office, 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

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

For more information visit, madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office, 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is available at: 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.


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