The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Robert Mann, a founder and longtime first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, has died at 97

January 4, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

On New Year’s Day, Robert Mann, a founder and longtime first violinist of the famed Juilliard String Quartet died at 97.

He had played with the group from its beginning in 1946 until his retirement in 1997.

He was in every way a complete musician – an esteemed teacher who was also an acclaimed performer.

Mann and the quartet proved to be pivotal figures in the post-World War II rise of chamber music in America, performing both classic repertoire such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms as well as modern works such as Bartok and contemporary works or new music.

Here is a link to the obituary in The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/02/obituaries/robert-mann-dead-juilliard-string-quartet-violinist.html?_r=0

Here is a link to the quartet’s website:

https://www.juilliardstringquartet.org

And here is a link to the Wikipedia entry for the Juilliard String Quartet (below, in a 1996 photo by Ruby Washington for The New York Times, with Mann on the far left followed by second violinist Joel Smirnoff, cellist Joel Krosnick and violist Samuel Rhodes.)

The entry includes comments on its significance in live performance and recordings as well as repertoire and changes in its personnel over the years:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juilliard_String_Quartet

It is hard to choose the right piece of music as a memorial.

But in the YouTube video below is a the gently gorgeous and exquisite slow movement of Claude Debussy’s only string quartet with Mann playing with other veteran members of the original quartet, including violist Samuel Rhodes, who has often come to Madison to play with the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet.

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Classical music: Here are many of the major figures that classical music lost in 2017

January 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the traditional ways to start a new year is to take stock of the past year.

That often means compiling lists of the best performances, the best recordings, the best books, and so forth.

It also means listing the major figures who died in the past year.

Two of the more prominent classical music performers who died in 2017 were the renowned Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (below top), who died of a brain tumor at 55, and the conductor Georges Prêtre (below bottom in a photo by Dieter Hagli for Getty Images).

There were many more, but they seem harder to find or to remember.

It seems to The Ear that such lists used to be more common.

It also seems to The Ear that many more of such lists for classical music are being incorporated into a overall lists of entertainers and celebrities in pop, rock, country, jazz, folk and even film stars who died. That is what National Public Radio (NPR) and The New York Times did this year.

Does that trend suggest that classical music is gradually and increasingly being marginalized or ignored? It is a reasonable question with, The Ear fears, a sad answer.

Does anyone else see it the same way?

But at least one reliable source – famed radio station WQXR-FM in New York City – has provided a list of performers, presenters and scholars of classical music who died in 2017.

Moreover, the list comes with generous sound and video samples that often make the loss more poignant.

Here is the link:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/music-made-classical-artists-lost-2017

Has someone been overlooked, especially among local figures?

If so, please use the COMMENT section to leave a name or even your reaction to the other deaths.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Here are recommendations for post-Christmas shopping

December 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Well, it’s time to start using those gifts cards you got for Hanukkah,  Christmas and other holidays.

Or maybe just to treat yourself.

In any case, here are two more lists of top classical recordings of 2017.

Maybe you will find something of interest.

The first list has the Top 10 recordings chosen by National Public Radio (NPR) and its Deceptive Cadence blog. It has photo and sound samples:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/12/19/570182207/npr-musics-top-10-classical-albums-of-2017

And here is a list of the Top 10 from The Classical Review, along with some runners-up or honorable mentions:

http://theclassicalreview.com/2017/12/top-ten-recordings-of-2017/

Earlier in December this blog features other lists.

Here are links to some in case you need a reminder or want to compare lists and look for overlaps and agreement, such as the CD of piano music by Philip Glass in the YouTube video at the bottom:

Here are the nominations for the upcoming Grammy Awards:

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/

Here is a list from critics for The New York Times:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/11/27/classical-music-here-is-the-new-york-times-holiday-gift-guide-of-classical-music-for-2016/

Here is a link to lists by the Chicago Tribune, Gramophone Magazine and Forbes magazine:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/16/classical-music-here-are-lists-of-the-best-classical-recordings-of-2017-as-named-by-the-new-york-times-the-chicago-tribune-forbes-magazine-and-gramophone-magazine/


Classical music: Acclaimed conductor Charles Dutoit cancels concerts and loses orchestra affiliations amid allegations of sexual assault

December 23, 2017
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The scandal of sexual misconduct — ranging from discomfort and harassment to abuse and rape – keeps mushrooming.

Now Swiss-born conductor Charles Dutoit (below), who won multiple Grammy awards and led the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra for many years, has been accused of sexual assault by three opera singers and one musician.

One of the accusers is soprano Sylvia McNair (below), who has performed in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. The other three have remained anonymous.

So far, Dutoit has not responded to the allegations. But as a result, the 81-year-old has seen the cancellation of concerts later this winter and spring with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.

In addition, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, where he is artistic director and principal conductor, have also severed ties with Dutoit.

Here is a link to the story from the BBC:

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-42452715

And here is a story from The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/21/arts/music/charles-dutoit-sexual-misconduct.html

And here is a link to the original story by the Associated Press:

https://apnews.com/278275ccc09442d98a794487a78a67d4

In classical music, longtime Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine was the first big name to be caught up in the current sexual misconduct allegations. Levine was accused of sexually abusing teenage boys who were apprentices.

And here is a link to the story in The New York Times about Metropolitan Opera artistic director and conductor James Levine:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/classical-music-accusations-of-sexual-harassment-sexual-discrimination-and-sexual-abuse-extend-to-classical-music-including-former-metropolitan-opera-maestro-james-levine/

Given the egotistical reputation of so many conductors and the patriarchal, authoritarian nature of the “maestro culture” of many performers and teachers, The Ear is sure that other names of important figures will soon emerge.

Who will be next?


Classical music: Here are lists of the Best Classical Recordings of 2017 as named by The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes magazine and Gramophone magazine

December 16, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Just in time for last-minute holiday shopping and streaming – whether by others or yourself – some major publications and critics have published their lists of the top classical recording of 2017.

Personal preferences and taste matter, to be sure. So opinions inevitably differ.

But in some cases, the verdicts seem close to unanimous.

Take the case of some pianists.

You can, for example, find overlapping agreement on the merits of the 24-year-old Italian pianist and Cliburn Competition silver medal laureate Beatrice Rana playing the famed Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Same for the 33-year-old Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olaffson who gives revelatory readings of works by contemporary American Minimalist composer Philip Glass.

And many critics give raves to acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing neglected piano miniatures by Finnish symphonic titan Jean Sibelius. (See Andsnes discussing Sibelius in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The various lists cover all genres from solo piano music to songs, chamber music to symphonies, oratorios to operas.

You can find lots of neglected repertoire — both early and new — unknown artists and small labels.

But there are also major stars, tried-and-true repertoire and large vintage or heritage labels.

In short, both beginners and experienced classical listeners and players can find plenty to please them.

In addition, some of the lists for the past year include links to lists from previous years. And those lists too still have some excellent choices that hold up.

Here is a link to the 2017 list in The New York Times, which was compiled by several critics:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/13/arts/music/best-classical-music-recordings-2017.html

Here is a list by a critic and columnist for Forbes magazine:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenslaurson/2017/12/13/the-10-best-classical-recordings-of-2017/#60b8fd87ebca

Here is the list from John von Rhein for the Chicago Tribune:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/vonrhein/sc-ent-best-classical-recordings-2017-1206-story.html

And here is a list from the British Gramophone magazine, which often favors artists and groups located in the United Kingdom:

https://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/the-best-new-classical-albums-december-2017

And in case you missed it before, here are lists from other sources that this blog has posted and linked to:

From famed WQXR-FM radio in New York City:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/14/classical-music-here-are-the-top-20-classical-recordings-of-2017-as-chosen-by-famed-radio-station-wqxr/

And here are the classical nominations for the 2018 Grammy awards:

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/


Classical music: Black Friday started the holiday shopping rush. What gifts about classical music would you recommend?

November 25, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday was Black Friday – the day that ushers in the start of frantic holiday gift shopping.

Today is Small Business Saturday for local shopping and Monday is Cyber Monday for on-line shopping.

It sure sounds like decadent capitalism that is growing ever more desperate for sales and marketing gimmicks.

And it sure sounds overwhelming.

But some help is available.

As in past years, from now through late December The Ear will offer some gift ideas of his own, including books, recordings and tickets to live performances.

Also as usual, he will offer the new Grammy nominations plus list of the Top 10 of 2017 and similar lists from The New York Times, National Public Radio (NPR), WQXR-FM (see the link below), The Washington Post, Gramophone magazine, and other sources.

In fact, you can use the blog’s search engine to look up suggestions from past years. You might be surprised at how relevant a lot of them still remain.

http://www.wqxr.org/story/hand-picked-gift-guide-classical-music-lover-your-list/

Is there a trend this year?

Well, because of the Leonard Bernstein centennial there is a lot of Lenny (below) being repacked for holiday sales, including his mid-century revival of Gustav Mahler with the New York Philharmonic. (You can hear Bernstein introduce and explain Mahler to young people in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And the growing prevalence of digital streaming means that more and more wonderful box sets of operas, orchestral music, choral music, vocal music, chamber music and solo music are available for about $3 a disc or less.

But this year, The Ear also wants to encourage his readers, who are often very knowledgeable, to send in their own suggestions for holiday gift-giving.

It should be something you would either like to give or like to receive.

Plus, the recordings or whatever other products you mention do not have to be new.

The only important criterion is that you think either yourself or the recipient would enjoy it and somehow benefit from it.

Maybe it is something new you think up.

Or something you heard from someone else or another source.

Maybe it is a gift that you yourself received and think others would enjoy getting.

Anyway, let’s all educate each other and please each other this holiday season.

Let the suggestions begin!


Classical music: Want to hear the highest note ever sung at the Metropolitan Opera?

November 17, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It is called the note that has never been sung before.

Not even at the famed Metropolitan Opera (below, first from outside and then from the stage over the orchestra pit) in New York City.

It is that high.

An A.

Waaaay up there.

And with no preparation, no working up to it, in the score.

Just BAM!! There it is.

You can hear more about it, and the discipline and preparation it takes to sing it, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But it gets sung in the new opera by Thomas Adès, “The Exterminating Angel,” which will be broadcast in area cinemas this Saturday afternoon and a week from next Wednesday in “Live from the Met in HD.”

Here is a story in The New York Times that has an audio sample:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/arts/music/metropolitan-opera-high-note-exterminating-angel.html

And here is a link to a story on NPR that also allows you to hear the note sung by coloratura soprano Audrey Luna (below, in a photo by Greg James), who has a special talent, a gift, for singing high notes and specializes in them:

https://www.npr.org/2017/11/10/563224351/soprano-aubrey-luna-makes-history-at-new-yorks-metropolitan-opera

And here is a link to Audrey Luna’s website:

http://audrey-luna.com

Finally, here is a link to a previous post this week with background and details about the Adès opera and its broadcast times and date. The New York Times’ senior critic Anthony Tommasini says “”The Exterminating Angel” should be the one opera you see this year if you only see one.”

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/11/15/classical-music-this-saturday-and-next-wednesday-live-from-the-met-in-hd-will-feature-the-thomas-ades-operatic-remake-of-luis-bunuels-film-the-exterminating-angel/


Classical music: Amy Beach turns 150. Read about the woman and her music

September 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Amy Beach (1867-1944, below) was a pioneering American composer who fought against sexism in her lifetime and who benefitted greatly from the rediscovery of women artists during the feminist revival of the 1970s and 1980s.

But here is a link to the most comprehensive story The Ear has yet read about Beach and her music, which is still neglected and not getting the attention it deserves, especially the larger and more ambitious works. (You can find many on YouTube and other streaming services.)

The story marked the 150th anniversary of her birth and appeared last Sunday in The New York Times.

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/01/arts/music/amy-beach-women-american-composer.html

And here, introduced and played by Rachel Barton Pine in a YouTube video, is one of her last and more minor works: a lovely Romance for violin and piano. It remains one of The Ear’s favorites.


Classical music: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/arts/music/jeremy-denk-chopin.html

Enjoy!

Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: See and hear what happens at the Metropolitan Opera just before show time. You will be amazed and entertained

July 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most illuminating and entertaining stories The Ear has seen recently came in The New York Times.

It does exactly what great journalism does: Take you to a place where you cannot go yourself.

The Times went behind the scenes at the famed Metropolitan Opera House in New York City (below) – the Met, for short – to see what was going on before show time.

And it was a lot more than opera.

There is so much to see and listen to, as suggested below in the 1966 drawing of the Metropolitan Opera House by David A. Mackay.

From the sets, props, wig and costume shops to rehearsals by the Met and the American Ballet Theatre and the Metropolitan Orchestra and even to the kitchen and dining room, to say nothing of the classes, hallways and stage.

What emerged was an enthralling story – full of impromptu serendipity — that made good reading in the newspaper and humanized the arts. Here is the text index version (click on the picture and then on the triangle you will see):

But then The Times took advantage of the Internet to create an interactive look at the same material that features only audiovisual clips and runs 7 minutes and 21 seconds.

https://www.nytimes.com/video/arts/100000005201650/what-happens-just-before-show-time-at-the-met-opera-in-12-rooms-youll-never-see.html

The final result is impressive, both for the great videography of the shoulder-held cameras and for the succinct labeling and explaining that doesn’t interrupt the flow.

What resulted should win some kind of prize or award. It should also serve as a model for what many other media – especially television – can do with various media tools at hand.

One last observation: Is The Ear the only person who thinks the driving drum soundtrack sounds suspiciously similar to the soundtrack of the 2014 Oscar-winning film “Birdman”?

What do you think about the video?

Did you like it?

Did you learn anything?

The Ear wants to hear.


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