The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Famed opera diva Kiri Te Kanawa says she will not be singing in public anymore

September 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It happened a year ago.

But since then Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (below), the celebrated soprano and opera diva, has kept her insight to herself: She would not sing again in any kind of public performance.

She is 73, so the news is not surprising.

But it is disappointing.

Much as The Ear admires superstar soprano Renée Fleming, he preferred Te Kanawa’s tone, phrasing and vibrato. He particularly liked her voice in operas and other music  by Mozart, Puccini and Richard Strauss. (You can hear her in her prime singing the aria “O mio babbino caro” by Puccini in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But whatever your preference, seeing such a career come to an end is a sad milestone, however inevitable.

Perhaps the best story about the New Zealand artist’s retirement that The Ear has seen came in The Guardian. Here is a link:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/13/kiri-te-kanawa-quits-public-performance-after-five-decade-career

And here is a column about retirement in various fields, including professional sports, that praises Te Kanawa’s decision and timing:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/13/kiri-te-kanawa-bowed-out


Classical music: What is the greatest symphony ever written? And what are the other nine in the maestros’ list of the Top 10 symphonies?

September 9, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The BBC Music Magazine recently surveyed 151 conductors about their favorite symphonies. (Below is a photo of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Of course, the maestros – who were asked to name their Top 3 symphonies to generate a master list — might well disagree with the public. One suspects that conductors like BIG, difficult and complex works that challenge them.

Here’s a big surprise — NOT: the list is heavily weighted toward German and Austrian composers. And The Ear doesn’t mean Haydn, Schubert or Schoenberg.

Now making such rankings and lists is certainly a subjective experience, some say, silly.

Still, it can be informative as well as fun.

Here are the results, as reported in The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/aug/04/beethoven-eroica-greatest-symphony-vote-bbc-mozart-mahler

Do you agree with the maestros?

What modern and contemporary symphonies would you name?

What great symphony, from any period, do you think is missing from the Top 10 and would you add?

The Ear – who confesses his special fondness for the Symphony No. 1 “Titan” by Gustav Mahler — wants to hear.


Classical music: On the eve of his performance at The Proms, meet Ivan Fischer – a modest maestro who gets great results from his orchestra

August 21, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

In less than a week from now, on this coming Friday night, Hungarian maestro Ivan Fischer (below) will make his debut at the famed British BBC Proms with the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

Ivan Fischer big headshot

In an age of jet-set, millionaire celebrity maestros, The Ear finds that the modest Fischer – a pianist by training who is also the music director of the Konzerthaus in Berlin, Germany — shows a refreshing lack of ego and ambition.

Fisher — who has also challenged the conservative right-wing government of Hungary –seems to have a healthy perspective on making music, which depends on taking the long view, with the acclaimed Budapest Festival Orchestra (below), which he founded and still leads.

Fischer is also extremely thoughtful and articulate in words as well as music, as you seen in his insightful remarks about the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Fischer is also well know for his recorded interpretations of Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Antonin Dvorak, Peter Tchaikovsky, Bela Bartok and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

In short, Ivan Fischer seems a model non-superstar musician.

Ivan Fischer with Budapest Festival Orchestra

The Ear hopes you agree.

Here is a terrific profile that appeared in The Guardian newspaper in the UK:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/aug/12/how-ivan-fischer-found-greatness-with-the-budapest-festival-orchestra


Classical music: What is your favorite piece of music to greet Spring with? Plus, British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has died at 81

March 20, 2016
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SURVEY: This is the first day of Spring. The vernal equinox  just arrived here in Madison, Wisconsin and the Midwest about a half-hour ago, on Saturday, March 19, at 11:30 p.m. CDT.

What is your favorite piece of music to greet the season with? Antonio Vivaldi‘s “Four Seasons”? Robert Schumann‘s Symphony No. 1 “Spring”? A miniature piano piece by Felix Mendelssohn or Edvard Grieg? A song by Franz Schubert? Leave word in the COMMENT section, with a link to a YouTube performance if that is possible.

Here is a link to a similar post from 2011:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/classical-music-which-piece-of-classical-music-best-expresses-the-coming-of-spring/

The Ear especially loves the “Spring” Sonata for Violin and Piano by Ludwig van Beethoven. Here is a link to a YouTube video with the first movement played by pianist Arthur Rubinstein and violinist Henryk Szeryng.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAcWGVC4Nqc

By Jacob Stockinger

He was a contrarian who was widely accepted and valued.

He was an iconoclast who achieved the height of respectability when Queen Elizabeth II of England named him to an honorary knighthood.

And he was an eclectic composer, whose style could be charmingly simple, melodic and tonal, or knottily atonal, difficult and complex.

The British composer and conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (pronounced Davis, below) died this past week at his island home off the coast of Scotland. He was 81 and had been ill with leukemia. (You can hear his “An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise” in a YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Peter Maxwell Davies full face

The year is early yet, but it has not been a kind one to classical music. We have already lost the avant-garde French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, the German-Austrian conductor and early music pioneer Nikolaus Harnoncourt and now Davies.

Here are obituaries about Sir Peter Maxwell Davies with video and audio clips:

From BBC:

http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-35802564

From the Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio):

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/03/14/470408883/british-composer-peter-maxwell-davies-dies-at-81

Peter Maxwell Davies at rehearsal

From the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/arts/music/peter-maxwell-davies-contrarian-british-composer-dies-at-81.html?_r=0

Peter Maxwell Davies up close

From The Guardian:

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/mar/14/sir-peter-maxwell-davies-obituary

Peter Maxwell Davies mid-rage

And from Classical-music.com:

http://www.classical-music.com/news/sir-peter-maxwell-davies-dies-aged-81


Classical music: Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who pioneered an originality and difference that changed our appreciation of early music, has died at 86

March 12, 2016
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ALERT: The UW Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of music director UW-Madison Professor James Smith, will perform a FREE concert on this Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. The program features “Mathis der Mahler” by Paul Hindemith and the Symphony No. 1 by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

By Jacob Stockinger

The pioneering conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt (below) died this past week.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt portrait

He was 86. He had been ill, and died only three months after his last public appearance on the concert stage.

He leaves behind a huge recorded legacy, some 560 entries — including many multiple-disc boxes — according to a search at Amazon.com.

Harnoncourt started as a concert-level cellist who was especially well-known for who conducting early music. But he also worked with more modern orchestra groups and soloists in a lot of big mainstream music. (Below, in photo from Getty Images, he is seen conducting in 2012.)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt rehearsing in 2012 Getty Images

True, it for his Johann Sebastian Bach, his Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Ludwig van Beethoven — done with the group he and his wife Alice founded, the Concentus Musicus Wien — that The Ear will most remember him for. They were strong and forceful. No music box Mozart for Harnoncourt!

But Harnoncourt refused to be pigeonholed into smaller Baroque ensembles.

The Ear also likes him with much larger modern groups in mainstream Romantic fare such as the symphonies and concertos by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner and Antonin Dvorak with the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. He even conducted Johann Strauss waltzes for the New Year’s Concerto from Vienna.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting

Harnoncourt often found beauty in unexpected places, in music that we thought had nothing new to say after so many performances and such a long history. But he loved vibrancy and modernity. He did what Ezra Pound advised poets to do: Make it new.

And boy, did Harnoncourt — a thoughtful and passionate advocate — ever make music new, whether it was Baroque, Classical or Romantic! Although he was not a pioneer of new music per se, he always seemed to turn early music or whatever else he touched into new music.

The Ear recalls with relish some of the ways he put percussion and brass forward in early music, giving incredible rhythm and impulse or momentum to it. The same goes for using boy sopranos instead of women in the cantatas, oratorios and passions by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Harnoncourt always seemed less interested in authenticity as a justification than in the results he got from such changes or such different interpretations.

Often Harnoncourt had certain differences he wanted to emphasize. They were not always convincing, but they were usually convincing. And they were always interesting and illuminating, even if you disagreed with them.

nikolaus harnoncourt popeye conducting

In the special memorial  YouTube video at the bottom is the Sinfonia from J.S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 156 in a performance by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna:

Here are some illuminating obituaries:

From The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/07/arts/music/nikolaus-harnoncourt-conductor-and-early-music-specialist-dies-at-86.html?_r=0

From the Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio) by Anastasia Tsioulcas:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/03/07/469505636/remembering-nikolaus-harnoncourt

From The Guardian in the United Kingdom:

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/mar/06/nikolaus-harnoncourt-obituary

From The Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/nikolaus-harnoncourt-conductor-of-international-renown-dies-at-86/2016/03/06/278280e4-e3df-11e5-b0fd-073d5930a7b7_story.html

And finally, here is a story from MTV, which called Harnoncourt the “punk genius of classical music,” a description The Ear likes and which he suspects Harnoncourt himself would have liked:

http://www.mtv.com/news/2750555/nikolaus-harnoncourt-was-classical-musics-punk-genius/

Do you have an observation about Nikolaus Harnoncourt to share?

Is there a specific composer, work or recording of his that you hold special?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Let us now praise elderly audiences! Plus, the 14th annual FREE Opera in the Park is TONIGHT at 8 p.m.

July 25, 2015
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

When you start talking about audiences for classical music, almost inevitably the subject turns to: How can we attract younger audiences to live concerts?

Proposals range from making tickets cheaper and concerts shorter, stressing music education and community outreach, moving to informal concert venues like bars and coffeehouses, and programming more new music.

It is a good question to revisit today, when the 14th annual family-friendly Opera in the Park, put on by the Madison Opera at 8 p.m. in Garner Park on the far west side, takes place and will draw up to 15,000. Here is a link to a posting about the event with more details:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/07/23/classical-music-on-the-eve-of-opera-in-the-park-madison-operas-general-director-kathryn-smith-recaps-the-last-season-and-previews-the-next/

Opera in Park 2012 crowd 2 James Gill

But such a discussion about audiences usually runs the risk of almost always underestimating and even insulting the contribution of older audiences. (The Sunday afternoon crowd at the Madison Symphony Orchestra comes immediately to mind.)

Not that we should ever stop looking for ways to attract young people. But isn’t it maybe a little like asking: How can we attract more blue hairs to young punk band or rap concerts? Maybe we just need different music at different stages of our life.

In any case, let us not forget to praise the immense contribution of older people or to be grateful for them.

That is the welcome and long overdue message of British pianist-composer-painter and polymath MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner Stephen Hough (below), who has performed in Madison several times, in his blog for The Guardian.

Hough_Stephen_color16

Here is a link to his posting. Read it and see if you agree and leave a message in the COMMENT section:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stephenhough/100076555/our-wonderful-elderly-audiences/

What do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: To play or not to play Hanon? Should piano students do five-finger exercises as well as scales and arpeggios? Sergei Rachmaninoff thought so and Stephen Hough thinks so. What do today’s piano students and teachers think?

May 28, 2015
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Should piano students play exercises?

Should they play repetitive five-finger etudes by Hanon (below and in a YouTube video at the bottom), Czerny and other pedagogues?

Should they learn and play scales and arpeggios?

hanon 1

Should they learn them separately? Or within the context of a musical composition?

These remain controversial questions.

But the British classical pianist Stephen Hough (below top) recently blogged about how he and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below bottom) – often considered the greatest pianist of the 20th century as well as a major post-Romantic composer –- defend the practice.

Hough_Stephen_color16

Rachmaninoff

Here is a link to the recent blog post by Stephen Hough for The Guardian newspaper in the UK:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stephenhough/100076542/remembering-what-nourished-our-roots/

The Ear wants to know what you think, especially if you are a pianist, a piano student or a piano teacher.


Classical music: Are iPhones and YouTube videos killing off live musical performances? The outspoken Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman said he thinks so as he walked out of a recital being illegally recorded in Germany.

June 10, 2013
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems that these days just about everybody has an iPhone or some other small, convenient and easily concealed smart phone that can take and email photos and videos.

iphone 5

And those photos and videos can change the world. They certainly fostered the Arab Spring  (below) and other populist uprisings and protests, including those that led to the democratization of Burma/Myanmar and to the current civil war in Syria.

arab spring

But it can also have downside, especially where the performing arts are involved and where questions of intellectual property are centrally involved.

Witness the recent episode in which the acclaimed and award-winning Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman (below), known for his playing of Chopin and his championing of Polish music, who was angry and annoyed when he stormed off the stage at a festival in Germany after someone in the audience refused to stop filming the recital on his iPhone.

krystian zimerman gray

It is food for thought, and it raises a lot of issues, including intellectual copyright as well as mass media and citizen reporting and blogging, to say nothing of private use.

It seems to The Ear that all of this is the logical outcome, change or consequence of the rise of social media like Facebook and Twitter and our changing notions of privacy. And it seems hard to allow it and praise it in one sphere of life yet try to contain its influence in another.

facebook logo

you tube logo

And of course it goes way beyond the rudeness of people who don’t turn off their cell phone that then ring during a performance. (The New York PHilhatmonic’s music director and conductor Alan Gilbert had to stop a performance of a slow movement of a Mahler symphony –- No. 9, I think it was — because of that kind of interruption.)

Now I myself don’t take unauthorized photos for this blog or authorized videos that I then put on YouTube.

But the issue is certainly close to me and relevant to the current performing arts scene.

But what do you think? The Ear wants to hear.

Did Krystian Zimerman do the right thing and sound an appropriate warning?

Or did he overreact as someone who is used to performing before thousands of audience members and even cameras and microphones? Is he trying to resist an inevitable social and technological change?

Read about it and leave your take in the COMMENT section.

Here are some links to stories about the incident:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-krystian-zimerman-20130604,0,1139427.story

http://www.itechpost.com/articles/10191/20130605/youtube-destroying-music-pianist-krystian-zimerman-storms-out-middle-classical.htm

http://www.contactmusic.com/news/pianist-krystian-zimerman-storms-out-of-concert_3704347

http://www.thecmuwebsite.com/article/leading-classical-pianist-hits-out-at-smartphone-filming-fan/

Krystian Zimerman annoyed 001

Krystian Zimerman is not alone in his point of view. Here is a link to a BBC story about musical artists in all genres protesting YouTube:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-22780812

If I recall correctly, it was the 19th-century French novelist Stendhal who remarked that mixing politics in literature is like firing a pistol during a concert — rude but something one ignores at one’s own peril.

Pianist Zimerman has a history of being outspoken about various political and social issues — including the presence of American missiles in his native country — during his performances.

Here is a good background piece from the British newspaper The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/tomserviceblog/2009/apr/28/pianist-krystian-zimerman

And here is a video of a YouTube recording of the piece by 20th century composer Karol Szymanowski — appropriately his Variations of a Polish Folk Theme, Op. 10 — that has sparked some of Zimerman’s outbursts or comments, or at least provided a context for them.


Classical music: French composer Henri Dutilleux is dead at 97. He was an accessible modernist who embodied many traditional values of French culture. And here are some of the best remembrances and obituaries.

May 25, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

The French composer Henri Dutilleux (seen below in 2005 in a photo by Jean Pierre Muller for Getty Images) died Wednesday in Paris. He was 97.

Henri Dutilleux i 2005 Jean-Pierre Muller Getty Images

Henri Dutilleux was clearly a modernist, but not a militant or revolutionary modernist, who was known for his use of color and harmony. Like much of traditional French culture in general, he had a deep appreciation for formal beauty -– for melody, for structure, for clarity.

Here is his 1976 string quartet “Ainsi la nuit” (Thus the Night) in a YouTube video:

But even though he found critical acclaim, he never found widespread favor or popularity with the general public in the U.S. and around the world.

That is too bad.

The Ear very much likes Dutilleux’s work – his symphonies, his chamber music and his solo piano music (such as the Piano Sonata performed in a YouTube video at the bottom by his wife Genevieve Joy, who died at 90 in 2009). In fact I much prefer it to the much more famous and more frequently performed music by the 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen, who was too Catholic, too mystical and religious, too self-consciously spiritual and aggressively dissonant and percussive for my taste.

Even as I am writing this, Wisconsin Public Radio is airing Dutilleux’s early Symphony No. 1.

It strikes me that Dutilleux (below, seen earlier in his career in 1959, in a photo by Ed Fitzgerald), who chided himself for not being prolific, worked in the great tradition of French refinement and craft, composing in the shadow of Maurice Ravel (who studied with Gabriel Faure, a family friend of Dutilleux’s father), that famous “watchmaker” musician.

Henri Dutilleux in 1959 CR Ed Fitzgerald

So here are some of the best remembrances and obituaries to appear so far, though curiously I have not found a great piece from the French press (if you find one, please leave a link or reference).

Here is a great overview from NPR’s wonderful classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence”:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/05/22/186052590/henri-dutilleux-leading-french-composer-dies-at-97

As always, The New York Times provides a terrifically detailed and comprehensive overview of the composer’s life and career:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/23/arts/music/henri-dutilleux-modernist-composer-dies-at-97.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

And here is along and detailed piece from the British newspaper The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2013/may/22/henri-dutilleux

And a shorter obit from the Los Angeles Times:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-henri-dutilleux-20130523,0,6606521.story

And here is an obit from the New York City radio station WQXR FM that features conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (below) discussing Dutilleux’s music along with an audio sample of his orchestral music:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/blogs/wqxr-blog/2013/may/22/henri-dutilleux-french-composer-dies-age-97/

Esa Pekka Salonen

If you don’t know Henri Dutilleux’s music, I particularly recommend an all-Dutilleux record of solo piano music (the cover is below) by the Harvard University professor, pianist and musicologist Robert Levin, who often appears at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, on the ECM Records label.

Henri Dutilleux CD Robert Levin ECM 2010

What are your favorite works by Henri Dutilleux, and what remembrances of anecdotes do you have to tell and leave in the COMMENTS section?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: 150 years later, do we still not know the real Debussy?

April 5, 2012
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

During the past few years we have heard a lot about the anniversaries of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Mahler. Next year is Wagner.

But this year is a Debussy Year, and we haven’t heard nearly as much, even in anticipation.

That is regrettable.

There is a strong case to be made for Debussy (below) as The Modernist of All Modernists, the man who broke the Germanic strangle hold once and for all on classical music and who pioneering new structure and new harmony.

So far, the best piece I’ve read is this one in the UK’s The Guardian that I have linked to. But I expect to hear much more from such well-known critics as Alex Ross, Anthony Tommasini and Anne Midgette, among others.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/tomserviceblog/2012/mar/29/celebrating-debussys-real-legacy

There is so much Debussy I love, and good Debussy with a strong rhythmic and harmonic  backbone – not just the gauzy focus and slushy sentimentality that we wrongly associate with Impressionism. There is structure and Cartesian rationality and irony galore, as well as a distinctly Gallic subversive sensuality, in Debussy’s work.

I love the solo piano works — the two books of Preludes, the two books of Images, the Estampes, the Suite Bergamasque and the Ile Joyeuse. I love the Violin Sonata and the String Quartet.  I love the orchestral tone poems like Prelude to the Afternoon of a FaunLa Mer and Nocturnes. And I especially adore his “Homage to Rameau” (at bottom, played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangelo).

How would you describe the “real” Debussy”

What are your favorite Debussy works and your favorite Debussy interpreters?

The Ear wants to hear.


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