The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What pieces and performers first hooked you on classical music? Here is what hooked critic Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times.

July 20, 2013
23 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Every once in a while, it’s good to look back and realize with renewed appreciation what pieces and performers first hooked you at a young age on classical music.

That is exactly what Anthony Tommasini (below), the senior music critic for The New York Times, did this past week.

tommasini-190

You could call it nostalgia, but it really was more of a Proustian act of recovering lost time, without a lot of sentimentality but instead with a lot of clear-eyed adult analysis and appreciation.

He was born into a non-musical family, but the young Tommasini nonetheless found himself inexorably drawn toward classical music.

As a young pianist, he got hooked on some unusual repertoire, short pieces that are often overlooked today. Can you guess which pieces by which composer? They might surprise you.

And he favored certain well-known dramatic works by Beethoven (below) especially one particular piano sonata he attempted to play as well as a couple of other sonatas and one of the piano concertos.

Both sets of works, small and large, were performed by two of the Truly Great Pianists of his youth — Arthur Rubinstein and Rudolf Serkin.

Beethoven big

Tommasini also write about his first opera that hooked him for life on opera. Care to guess which one by which composer? And where he heard it?

You may recall that Tommasini, a trained composer, is probably the most respected classical music critic in the U.S. today, along with Alex Ross of The New Yorker magazine.

And local readers may recall when Tommasini (below right) came to Madison to do a residency during the UW-Madison’s centennial celebration of the Pro Arte Quartet two seasons ago. He spoke articulately and passionately at the Wisconsin Union Theater, then did a Q&A with composer William Bolcom (below left) and UW piano professor Todd Welbourne (below middle) before the world-premiere performance of a commissioned work, William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2, with the Pro Arte Quartet and UW pianist Christopher Taylor:

William Bolcom, Todd Welbourne, Anthony Tommasini

Anyway, here is a link to Tommasini’s story, complete with a terrific and an unexpected anecdote at the end as well as recordings of the specific pieces form his youth that you should listen to:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/arts/music/a-critics-ode-to-a-childhood-joy-in-classical-music.html

It wasn’t the first time Tommasini talked about seminal classical works in his past. Here is another that involved Chopin:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/18/arts/music/anthony-tommasinis-musical-moments.html?pagewanted=all

Like Tommasini, I too was given to romantic drama, or even melodrama, as a young person. That, I suspect, is typical. Young people don’t generally first fall in love with the Baroque. I just adored Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Prelude in C-sharp minor, called “The Bells of Moscow” by its fans and called “It” by Rachmaninoff who grew to detest the popular piece that he was always asked to play as an encore. And I too had to try my hand  or hands at it, to play and perform it. And then it was Rachmanioff’s lush Piano Concerto No. 2 in a great old recording by Arthur Rubinstein and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner.

What pieces and performers first hooked you on classical music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Should soloists perform using a score or not? Which is more liberating for the performer, for the audience and especially for the music?

January 6, 2013
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

As he often does, the New York Times’ senior music critic Anthony Tommasini recently raised an important question:

After 200 years or so, are we starting to see a trend developing whereby the stigma of performing solo music with a score is disappearing and the use of scores is increasing in legitimacy? Many conservatories or schools of music even require students to perform without a score for a degree recital. But that may be changing.

Tommasini’s column had the perfect headline: “Playing by heart – without or without the score.”

And Tommasini drew on three specific recent examples of pianists: Alexandre Tharaud, who played Scarlatti and Satie’s “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” at Le Poisson Rouge with a score; Andras Schiff, who played both books of J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” without a score; and Emanuel Ax, who used a score for solo Bach but did not use a score for solo Schoenberg. I have also seen Christopher O’Riley and others use scores on an iPad with a foot switch to turn pages. (All of Tommasini’s examples are seen below. First is Alexandre Tharaud, below, in a photo by Ruby Washington of The New York Times. Tharaud’s playing is also heard at the bottom.)

Alexandre Tharaud at Poisson Rouge with score Ruby Washington NY Times

Is this a healthy or unhealthy development? Well it seems to depend on the individual performer and certain kinds of music (generally you find Chopin played without a score, but Elliott Carter and other new music with a score.)

Here is a link to Tommasini’s think piece:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/01/arts/music/memorizations-loosening-hold-on-concert-tradition.html?ref=anthonytommasini&_r=0

The Ear is of two minds.

On the one, hand I remember reading pianist veteran Murray Perahia (below) saying that although he loved playing chamber music and did so with a score, he felt most on top of the music when he memorized it and played it without a score. And the concerts I have heard by him all suggest he is right.

I’ll also bet that Murray Perahia has excellent nerves for performing, and a relative lack of stage fright of the incapacitating kind. He has the right temperament.

murray perahia at piano

On the other hand, even a master like Sviatoslav Richter (below) spent his last years using a score – and many critics said with great results. Of course, he said he turned to the score because age brought a decline in his perfect pitch, which used to help guide him through scoreless performances without wrong notes. Plus, the ability to memorize deteriorates with age.

richterwithcross1

And I can’t deny it: There is something so basic, so elemental and essential, about seeing a musician sit down at a piano or a cello and or stand with a violin, and start making music without any music in front of him or her.

It just all comes from within. Yes it is showy and impressive, but it also inner and poetic. I feel like I am hearing more directly and personally from the performers and that the lack of a score allows for certain liberties of subjective interpretation. (Below is a photo by Ruby Washington of The New York Times of Andras Schiff recently playing J.S. Bach by memory at the 92nd Street Y.)

Andras Schiff playing Bach's WTC by menory at 92nd St Y Ruby Washington NY Times

What do you think about playing with a score?

Should solo pianists, singers, cellists, violinists and others now feel that using a score is just fine?

I’ll bet that many of them don’t t really use the score They have already have the music memorized and simply find the score reassuring, as a kind of insurance against memory lapses and the like. (Below is a photo by Hiroyuki Ito of  The New York Times of Emanuel Ax using a score to play some solo Bach before he played with an ensemble.)

Emanuel Ax using a score with NY Phil Hiroyuki Ito for NY Tmes

But what about opera singers using a score?

What do you think?

If you are a performer, The Ear especially wants to hear from you.

And if are an audience member, I also want to hear from you about what you think of heating a performer play scoreless or with a score.


Classical music: New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini revisits favorite moments in music for him – and the moments by Puccini, Debussy and Brahms submitted by readers.

December 22, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

You may recall that several weeks ago, The New York Times‘ senior music critic Anthony Tommasini (below) wrote at length about some of his favorite moments in music. They are small moments from Chopin and other composers that he sometime heard as a child or young man, moments that have lasted him a lifetime. They still move him.

tommasini-190

(You might remember that the articulate and droll Tommasini also came to speak in Madison last season at the Wisconsin Union Theater and in Mills Hall –- a photo is below with Tommasini on the right, composer William Bolcom on the left and UW pianist Todd Welbourne in the middle as a moderator — as part of the Pro Arte Quartet Centennial celebration at the University of Wisconsin.)

William Bolcom, Todd Welbourne, Anthony Tommasini

You may also recall that, in addition to the story about musical moments, Tommasini, a composer and Yale-trained pianist, posted four short videos explaining how and why those favorite moments work.  

Here is the original story, which I posted on Thanksgiving Day, and also links to the four videos:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Tommasini+Favorite+moments

Then just a few days ago, Tommasini answered reader responses and wrote a follow-up story, after his first story and the first four short videos he did. He used reader responses to speak of other favorite moments and post some other clips about the pieces:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/arts/music/readers-great-moments-in-classical-music.html?ref=anthonytommasini

Part 5: “La Boheme” by Puccini (below);

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/musical-moments-part-v-la-bohme/

puccini at piano

Part 6: “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy (below, the slow movement from his “Suite Bergamasque”:

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/musical-moments-part-vi-clair-de-lune/

Claude Debussy 1

Part 7: “Intermezzzo” for solo piano in E-flat Major, Op. 117, No. 1, by Brahms:

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/19/musical-moments-part-vii-brahms/

brahms3

Are there special moments in music that resonate with you? Please leave their titles and composers in the COMMENT section here and maybe also on Tommasini’s blog posting.

Who knows? He might use your suggestions for the next installment.

video


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