The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Which well-known composers or works can’t you stand and consider overrated?

August 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

We all have them: Composers and well-known works we just don’t like and consider highly overrated.

Composers whose musical works are deemed masterpieces by some but just don’t speak to others.

The Ear recently saw a blog post on the Internet in which a musically sophisticated British listener ranted against Johannes Brahms (below) – the epitome for so many of carefully crafted, soulful late Romanticism — and about how unlistenable and overwritten Brahms’ music is.

The Ear also knows several people who think that the music of the Classical pioneer Franz Joseph Haydn (below) is boring beyond bearable, that his music is thoroughly second-rate or forgettable – even though the great contemporary American composer John Harbison calls Haydn the most undervalued and underplayed of the great composers.

The 12-tone, serial and atonal composers – Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alan Berg – also come in for more than their fair share of dismissal.

For The Ear, one of those composers who divide the world in two – into those who love him and those who hate him – is Alexander Scriabin (below), the late Russian Romantic (1872-1915).

Oh, some of the early piano preludes and etudes are OK, largely thanks to the obvious influence of Chopin.

But even though Scriabin died young, he developed his own mature style, including the use of a mystical chord and a taste for apocalyptic and visionary frenzy .

To The Ear, those late works seem way too over-the-top and out-of-control, lacking in discernible structure and significance.

Not long ago, Wisconsin Public Radio played Scriabin’s symphonic tone poem “The Poem of Ecstasy.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Is The Ear the only person who finds it more like “The Poem of Agony”?

And then there are the late, virtuosic and pretentious piano sonatas called “White Mass” and “Black Mass” – favorites of the great Russian piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (below) who, as a child played for Scriabin.

When it comes to the Russian school, The Ear far prefers the emotion in the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and even Peter Tchaikovsky.

Well, what can you do? Such is taste.

So today, The Ear wants to know: Are there famous composers or famous works that you just can’t stand and consider highly overrated?

Leave the name and the reason you hate it so much in the COMMENT section.

Here’s hoping for some interesting and surprising responses.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players excel again – this time in music by Franz Schubert, Arnold Schoenberg and UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger

July 19, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Willy Street Chamber Players (below) gave the second concert of their 2016 season on Friday night at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spright Street, on Madison’s near east side.

Willy Street Chamber Players group color

The program might have been called the “three Sch-es” in view of the alphabetical incipits of the three composers involved.

The first item was titled The Violinists in My Life, composed in 2011 by Laura Schwendinger (below), the American composer currently on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

The Belgian violin virtuoso and composer Eugène Ysaÿe set an example with his set of six Sonatas, Op. 27, for solo violin, each one a tribute to a great musician with whom he had worked. So Schwendinger composed five pieces for violin and piano, each one a kind of character piece about violinists with whom she has had fruitful contact.

Laura Schwendinger 2

The style can be sharp and abrupt, but there is a clear individuality to each piece, evoking the different personalities. The first of the five is dedicated to UW-Madison alumna Eleanor Bartsch (below), one of our Willys, and she played the whole set, deeply engaged in it, with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, also a graduate of the UW-Madison.

Eleanor Bartsch

Kasdorf (below) joined another of the group’s violinists, Paran Amirinazari, who also graduated from the UW-Madison, in a rarely heard late work by Franz Schubert, the Fantasie in C Major (D.934).(You can hear it played by violinist Benjamin Beilman, who has performed with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Schubert’s compositions for violin and piano are rarely heard in concerts these days, but this one has particular interest in that its latter portion is another of the composers set of variations on one of his own songs—in this case, the beautiful Sei mir gegrüsst. The total piece has a lot of lively passage work, which Amarinazari played with a mix of flair and affection.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

The crowning work was that extraordinary string sextet by Arnold Schoenberg (below), Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Composed in 1899 at the beginning of the composer’s career, it catches him still emerging from Late Romantic sensibilities, a good way before his radical move into the 12-tone idiom he created.

Arnold Schoenberg 1936

The score is just a trifle longish for the musical content, but its gorgeous chromatic richness is irresistible. It was inspired by a poem of Richard Dehmel, and both the original German text and an English translation were supplied to the audience, an interesting touch.

Above all, however, the performance was glowing, avoiding too much sentimental lushness, but conveying the emotionally charged writing with beautiful balance.

A clever touch, too, was the sitting pattern chosen, with the two violas facing the two violins and the two cellos in the rear—allowing the recurrent interaction between the first violin and first viola to emerge more clearly.

In sum, this was another wonderful session of first-class music-making by this remarkable assemblage of young talent.

NOTE: A program of music by Ludwig vanBeethoven, Philip Glass and Dmitri Shostakovich will be given next Friday at Immanuel Lutheran, but at NOON; and then that evening (at 8:30 p.m.) the group will participate in a special performance of George Crumb’s “Black Angels” — with an accompanying video — at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in the Overture Center.

The final Friday evening concert will be back at Immanuel Lutheran, at 6 p.m. on Friday, July 29, with music by Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli (Concerto Grosso), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Clarinet Quintet), and George Enescu (Octet).


Classical music: Trevor Stephenson will unveil, play and explain a restored 1855 Bosendorfer grand piano on this Friday night.

May 12, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night, Trevor Stephenson (below), the founder and director of the Madison Bach Musicians, will unveil, discuss and perform on a recently restored his historic Bösendorfer Grand Piano (also below), dating from about 1855.

Trevor Stephenson standing with Bosendorfer

The event takes place in the Landmark Auditorium of the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Drive. The event includes with a lecture at 7 p.m. and a concert at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets available online at www.madisonbachmusicians.org and at the door:. They are $25 general admission; $20 for seniors; $10 for students.

Rebuilt over the last two years, the ca. 1855 Bösendorfer Grand Piano has a massive and entirely wooden frame without any of the metal insides of a modern piano–the result is an extremely complex and dark tone that suits the sensibility of most 19th-century piano music. Stephenson will discuss the restoration in detail.

Trevor Stephenson 1855 Bosendorfer collage Wein, Austria

Fittingly, the concert program will include works by Frederic Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Gabriel Fauré, Franz Schubert and Johann Strauss Jr.

Trevor Stephenson will also discuss the rebuilding process and the overall character of this remarkable historical piano.

The specific program will be:

“Berceuse” (Lullaby) from the Dolly Suite, Op. 56, by Gabriel Fauré (1845−1924) with guest pianist Timothy Mueller (You can hear the opening charming “Berceuse,” along with the Spanish Dance, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posthumous, and Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, by Frederic Chopin (1810−1849)

Sonata in C major, Op. 53 “Waldstein” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770−1827)

Intermission

Two Hungarian Dances for piano four-hands, Nos. 1 in G minor and 5 in F-sharp minor, by Johannes Brahms (1833−1897) with guest pianist Timothy Mueller

Suite Bergamasque  by  Claude Debussy (1862−1918): Prelude, Menuet, Clair de lune, Passepied

Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, by Arnold Schoenberg (1874−1951)

Moment Musical No. 6 in A-flat major by Franz Schubert (1797−1828)

The Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz, Op. 314, by Johann Strauss Jr. (1825−1899)


Classical music: This Friday night and Sunday afternoon, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs music composed by immigrants to the U.S.

April 14, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Robert Gehrenbeck (below), the talented and energetic director of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir who also directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, writes:

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will present “Songs In a New Land” on this Friday, April 15, at 7:30 p.m. in Bethel Lutheran Church, 312 Wisconsin Ave., in Madison and on Sunday, April 17 at 3 p.m. at Cargill United Methodist Church, 2000 Wesley Ave., in Janesville.

Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for students.

Advance tickets are available from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org. They are also available at the door.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir 1

The WCC’s concert will celebrate composers who were immigrants from the 15th century to the present, including emigres to the United States from China, Russia, Syria, Germany, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

At a time when immigration has become a burning issue in national politics, the WCC’s program highlights composers who emigrated from the country of their birth to make new homes elsewhere. They imported traditions from their homelands and enriched the cultural life of their adopted countries in innumerable ways.

Their reasons for leaving home were varied-some moved voluntarily but many were forced to emigrate for political, economic or religious reasons or, often, a combination of all of these.

While the experience of leaving behind all that is familiar and making a new life in a foreign country was rarely easy, the interaction of old and new influences resulted in some of the most lasting and unique artistic creations in history.

Most of the featured composers were or are immigrants to the United States, but the program opens with a set of Renaissance motets—“Stabat Mater” by Josquin des Prez (below top) and “Domine, Convertere” by Orlando di Lasso (below bottom) — demonstrating that migrant composers have played a major role throughout history.

Josquin Des Prez

Orlando Gibbons

Some of the more recent composers represented are: Kurt Weill, whose Kiddush was composed for Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City; Chen Yi (below top), represented by “A Set of Chinese Folksongs”; Osvaldo Golijov (below bottom), with an excerpt from his “Pasion segun San Marcos” (Passion According to St. Mark); and 20th-century giants Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.

Chen Yi

Osvaldo Golijov 2

Although Schoenberg and Stravinsky were known for their dissonant, modernist works, much of the music they composed in the U.S. was tempered by an effort to communicate with audiences here. During the 1940s, both men ended up settling in Hollywood, along with countless other exiled European artists fleeing totalitarian regimes and persecution at home.

In the case of Schoenberg (below), even though he is known as “the father of atonality,” and the originator of “12-tone” music, he continued to compose tonal music throughout his life, and often wrote in a more accessible style for amateur musicians. The WCC will present two such tonal works by Schoenberg: “Verbundenheit” (Solidarity) for male chorus, and the folksong arrangement, “Mein Herz in steten treuen” (My Heart, Forever Faithful).

Arnold Schoenberg 1936

In the American works of Stravinsky (below), the Credo movement of his 1947 Mass was subtly influenced by American Jazz.

Igor Stravinsky old 2

Joining the WCC will be Madison organist Mark Brampton Smith, who will accompany several pieces at the organ as well as perform solo organ works by Paul Hindemith and Joaquin Nin-Culmell (two additional mid-century immigrants to the U.S.).

Mark Brampton Smith

The movements from Stravinsky’s Mass will be performed with Brampton Smith at organ and guest trombonist Michael Dugan (below), who will also enhance Josquin des Prez’s “Stabat Mater” by playing sackbut, the Renaissance ancestor of the trombone.

Michael Dugan

Guest percussionist Stephen Cherek will enliven several of the Latin American selections, playing a variety of instruments.

Here are some YouTube links to sample performances:

Josquin des Prez, “Stabat Mater”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsayDDRl3kI

Orlando di Lasso, “Domine Convertere”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufP3S_M4mog

Kurt Weill, “Kiddush”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RI2jTYqso0

Chen Yi, “Mo Li Hwa” (“Jasmine Flower” from A Set of Chinese Folksongs)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtlsW2ZjSHA

Osvaldo Golijov, “Demos Gracias” (from La Pasion segun San Marcos)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vldVEk29s3Y

Arnold Schoenberg, “Verbundenheit” (from Six Pieces for Male Chorus)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPAeA3sIoc8

Arnold Schoenberg, “Mein Herz in steten Treuen”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPsE1LBMHrs&index=5&list=PLdXviD-nr2a7RIabEqL5XrXLi4G7V71tP

Igor Stravinsky, Credo (from Mass)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBpfSfq9v0A


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