The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Recorder virtuoso Piers Adams solos in baroque and contemporary concertos this Friday night with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

April 18, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

During his long and successful tenure with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), music director and conductor Andrew Sewell has established a reputation for championing unusual repertoire and booking young or relatively unknown soloists as well as for offering insightful interpretations of classic masterworks.

But Sewell (below) seems to be surpassing himself with the concert he will lead this Friday night, April 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

For one, the concert features the British recorder virtuoso Piers Adams (below), who established his own reputation as a part of the unusual baroque quartet Red Priest, the nickname for Antonio Vivaldi, who was indeed a priest in Venice with flaming red hair. (In the YouTube at the bottom, you can sample Adams’ virtuosity as he makes bird calls on the recorder while playing a section of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”)

You can also go to the following websites for more information about Piers Adams:

https://piersadams.com

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

The Ear can’t think of another time any major group in the area offered a soloist on the recorder – a baroque wooden flute-like instrument — except for the Madison Early Music Festival.

True to form, Adams will perform baroque music with the WCO – specifically, the Concerto for Recorder in C Major by Georg Philipp Telemann.

But to add to the more unusual aspects of the concert, Adams will also perform a contemporary work with the WCO – specifically, a 1994 recorder concerto by the English composer David Bedford (1937-2011, below) that was commissioned by Adams and has proven popular both on a recording and in concert.

For more information about Bedford, go to:

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

To round out the program, Sewell has programmed two other rarely heard works: the “Brook Green” Suite by Gustav Holst, best known for “The Planets”; and the Serenade in E-Flat Major, Op. 6, by the Czech composer Josef Suk (below), a very accomplished violinist and composer who studied with Antonin Dvorak and then became his son-in-law.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Suk_(composer)

For more information about the concert, including tickets ($12-$80) and notes on the performers and the program, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-iv-4/


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


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Classical music: We should hear more operas sung in English translation – like Wisconsin Public Radio’s live broadcast TODAY at noon of the Metropolitan Opera’s shortened version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”

December 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear thinks that we in English-speaking countries should hear more operas sung in our native language.

Yes, sung in English – not the original Italian, French or German.

You can see how you’d like it for yourself if you listen at noon TODAY– Saturday, Dec. 29 — to Wisconsin Public Radio. That’s when you can hear the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of its family-friendly production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

The Ear did so and – except for deleting the wonderful overture — loved it.

So, apparently, did a lot others. (You can hear Nathan Gunn in a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

After many years, the production has now become a holiday tradition for the Met to offer children while school is out for the holidays.

And one suspects it is developing new audiences – especially with the colorful staging and costumes by Julie Taymor, who won such acclaim for her staging of “The Lion King” on both the stage and film.

Sure, a lot of purists will probably object to substituting English for the original Italian, French, German and Russian. But it is so freeing and feels so good to understand what you are hearing without the distraction of constantly going back and forth trying to look at both the supertitles and the stage.

It also seems worth a try, given the problems that many opera companies are having competing with the “Live from the Met in HD” productions that you can see in movie theaters for far less money, and the decline of both season subscribers and single tickets.

To be honest, of course even in English you will miss some of the words. That’s the nature of singing. But excellent diction helps. And if you are lucky enough to see the production in person, supertitles in Italian, French German and Spanish and, yes, English are still provided.

It is not a completely new idea. After all, Great Britain has the English National Opera, which performs standard operas by Verdi and Puccini, Monteverdi and Handel, Mozart and Wagner, in English. So, many of the very great operas have already been translated into English and could be staged in English elsewhere.

Here are links where you can learn more about the English National Opera:

https://www.eno.org

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

Do you question how the text is hurt in translation?

It’s worth remembering that Mozart himself used the vernacular German instead of his usual opera house Italian so that he would reach the general public. Why not do the same today? Translation could make opera much more accessible, less pretentious and more populist.

The same is true for cutting the show down to 100 minutes from almost 3 hours. Let’s just admit that the attention span of the general public is much shorter than it used to be.

Orchestra and chamber music concerts as well as solo recitals are trimming their running times often down to 90 minutes or less, and meet with great approval from the public. Why not try the same approach with opera? Indeed, both the Madison Opera and the University Opera have limited but successful experiences with editing operas and using English.

It is also worth recalling that in translation we read greater words than an opera libretto. If we can translate Homer and Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Proust, why can’t we translate opera librettos? One just has to be sure to find a great translator with a sensitive musical ear– such as American poet Richard Wilbur is with his award-winning, rhyming translations of Moliere’s comedies and Racine’s tragedies. Similarly, American poet J.D. McClatchy has done a fine job with The Met’s “Magic Flute.”

Here is a link to more information about the production, including a synopsis:

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/the-magic-flute/

And here is a review of the Met’s  “Magic Flute” by Tommasini:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/arts/music/review-mozart-magic-flute-met-opera.html

What do you think?

Should more operas be staged in English?

Should long operas be edited?

Why or why not?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: A busy week at the UW-Madison brings an early opera and an all-Bernstein brass and winds program plus orchestral and choral concerts that will be LIVE-STREAMED

November 14, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

A busy week brings an early opera plus orchestral and choral concerts with live streaming to the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Here are details:

On Thursday and Saturday nights, the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music will LIVE STREAM concerts by the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Concert Choir.

“We plan to do more live streaming of ensemble groups,  especially large ones, and of non-ticketed events,” says concert manager Katherine Esposito. “It is more and more becoming the norm for music schools.”

Here is the all-purpose Live Streaming link where you can see what events will be live-streamed: https://www.music.wisc.edu/video/

At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday night, Nov. 15, in Mills Hall, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below top) will perform a FREE concert under director Chad Hutchinson (below bottom).

The program is American composer Jennifer Higdon’s “Blue Cathedral” and the Symphony No. 5 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

For information about the program and the concert, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-madison-symphony-orchestra-2/

On Saturday night, Nov. 17,  at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Concert Choir (below) will perform a FREE concert featuring the “Hymn to St. Cecilia” by British composer Benjamin Britten and “Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah” by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera as well as works by several other composers.

Conductors will be Beverly Taylor (below), the director of choral activities at the UW-Madison, and graduate student Michael Johnson.

For details about the program and individual performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-choir-2/

On Friday night, Nov. 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall there is the first of three performances by the University Opera of Italian baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea,” directed by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio).

Other performances are on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 18,  at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night, Nov. 20, at 7:30 in Music Hall. (Sorry, no photos of the UW production. But you can hear a famous duet from another professional production in the YouTube video below.)

Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.

Chad Hutchinson will conduct the orchestra.

For more information about the plot of the opera, comments by the two singers playing Emperor Nero, the production and tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/

And here is a link to a press release about the opera: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2018/10/09/university-opera-poppea2018/

On Sunday night, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Brass Ensemble and the Winds of Wisconsin join forces under conductor Scott Teeple for an FREE all-Leonard Bernstein (below) program. For details, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-wind-ensemble-and-winds-of-wisconsin-joint-concert/


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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players open their new “Vignettes” season with concerts on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

September 14, 2018
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A CORRECTION: The Ear wants to apologize for and correct an error he made in yesterday’s blog post. The correct time and address for the all-Schubert concert by the Mosaic Chamber Players is on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the chapel of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) will begin their 2018-2019 season series “Vignettes” with concerts on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 16, at 2 p.m.

The concerts will both be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors 62 and over; and $5 students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com or call (608) 230-4316 for more information for individual and season tickets.

Once again, the group will explore largely new or unknown composers and neglected music.

Each program of the 2018-19 series will focus on how composers create specific themes to tell stories, and represent emotions, places or characteristics to enhance the listening experience.

Central to the program is poetry and narration paired with music that will feature Boston-based guest soprano Mary Mackenzie (below). She has been described by The New York Times as “a soprano of extraordinary agility and concentration,” and the Boston Globe as “sensational.”

Mackenzie is a passionate performer of contemporary vocal music, and has appeared with the Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston, Collage New Music, the Da Capo Chamber Players, Fulcrum Point New Music Project, and The Knights.

American composer Byron Adams (below) was commissioned by renowned American clarinetist Yehuda Weiner to set Nightingales, a poem by British Victorian poet Robert Bridges, as a memorial to his brother. The composer chose a quartet of soprano, clarinet, cello and piano to evoke the breathtaking beauty of the natural world that is overlaid with a sense of loss and longing.

By contrast, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Jennifer Higdon (below, in a photo by Candace DiCarlo) set four poems that have titles that reference roses by James Whitcomb Riley for the combination of flute, soprano and piano.

Bentley Roses was written as a surprise tribute for the retirement of her former music teacher, Judith Bentley. The settings are sunny and accessible, the music weaves around the words with swirling energy, coy interactions, and graceful interplay.

The yearning Vocalise by conductor, composer and pianist Andre Previn conveys emotion using the voice without words as a chamber instrument. The combination of soprano, cello and piano carries the shifting harmonies and sinuous melodic line through a series of subtle yet powerful transformations. (You can hear Previn’s beautiful “Vocalise,” with soprano Barbara Bonney and the the composer at the piano, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A second piece by Previn (below) piece puts the cello and soprano in conversation with his setting of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison’s poem Stones.

American film composer and bassoonist Charles Fernandez (below) wrote Quatuor Parisienne (Parisian Quartet) for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. It consists of three movements: a tongue-in-cheek march; a gracefully flowing reflection: and a farcical musical conversation with a dash of merriment.

Budapest-based clarinetist and composer Endre Szervanszky (below) wrote his Quintet No. 1 in 1953. Audiences will hear some characteristics similar to the writing of Kodaly and Bartok. It is a pleasing four-movement work that shows his strong understanding of each of the instruments, demanding both melodic expressiveness and technical panache.

The program concludes with poetry by British writer Roald Dahl, known for his darkly humorous children’s stories. Composer Martin Butler (below, in a photo by Katie Vandyck) incorporated The Pig, The Tummy Beast, and The Crocodile into his piece Dirty Beasts for narrator, piano and woodwind quintet. Butler mirrors the acerbic wit of the text with clever effects, closing out the program with some unexpected twists and turns.

Guest performers are soprano Mary Mackenzie, pianist Joseph Ross (below top) and oboist Laura Medisky (below bottom).

They join Oakwood Chamber Players members Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Nancy Mackenzie, clarinet; Amanda Szczys, bassoon; Anne Aley, horn; and Maggie Darby Townsend, cello.

This is the first of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2018-19 season series entitled Vignettes. Remaining concerts will take place on Nov. 24 and 25; Jan. 12 and 13; March 2 and 3; and May 18 and 19. For more information about the Oakwood Chamber Players and their new season, go to: https://www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


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Classical music: With much of Wisconsin underwater from historic flooding, Britten’s opera “Noah’s Flood” seems timely. Can you think of other works inspired by floods and natural disasters?

August 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Right now much of Wisconsin lies underwater.

This past week has seen record-setting rain and historic flooding along with high winds and tornadoes that have left many towns and counties declared official disasters.

Then yesterday, Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency for the entire state. More rain and thunderstorms are predicted for all weekend and next week.

The flooding is not on the order of the deadly and destructive wildfires out west. But the situation seems nonetheless the kind of emergency or natural disaster that usually draws some kind of attention of the national media — on a smaller scale something like Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria that devastated  respectively, New Orleans, Houston and Puerto Rico.  

But this time The Ear can’t recall seeing or hearing even mentions or 10-second spot reports about the flooding of a state capital on national news programs. Can you?

New programs always seem to focus more on weather stories when they occur on the coasts and in the south. And right now the media also appear preoccupied with offering ever more words about the deaths of Senator John McCain and singer Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul.”

But the situation got The Ear to thinking and searching.

Are there works of classical music inspired by flooding and other natural disasters?

And he doesn’t mean just music inspired by and celebrating calmer and less destructive water such as George Frideric Handel’s “Water Music” or Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony or Georg Philipp Telemann’s “Ebb and Flow” Music.

One important discovery that met the criterion was the children’s opera, “Noah’s Flood,” composed by British composer Benjamin Britten (below) in the wake of his own personal and home experience with floods – as you can see in the YouTube video below.

Can you think of other works composed in response to a natural disaster?

If so, in the comment section please leave the names of the work and composer and, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: How will Brexit affect classical music in Great Britain? Many musicians and audiences are preparing for the worst

August 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

London has long been a international hub of culture, with a special reputation as the  home base of many of the great musicians who perform regularly on the Continent.

But how will “Brexit” affect the future of classical music and classical musicians in Great Britain?

Some pretty prominent, active and knowledgeable musicians, including the pianist-conductors Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim, think it will be for the worst.

One sign is that the European Youth Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Adamik, and in the YouTube video at the bottom), which receives a subsidy from the European Union, is moving from London to the city of Ferrara in Italy before Great Britain exits from the European Union.

A particular cause of concern is what kind of confused logistics will happen if visas are required for British groups to tour and perform on the Continent, something that apparently has opera houses especially worried.

A recent story goes into more detail, including charges from Brexit defenders that musicians and representatives of the culture industries in general are being alarmist.

Here is the story, published by The Independent in the United Kingdom and then reproduced in the United States in The New York Times: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/brexit-classical-music-musicians-europe-vladimir-ashkenazy-daniel-barenboim-eu-a8483271.html

What do you think?

Leave your opinion in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: It’s Mother’s Day 2018. The Ear remembers his mom with a Rachmaninoff prelude

May 13, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Mother’s Day 2018.

To celebrate The Ear’s late mom, here is a piece of music with a story to tell with it.

The Ear remembers it well.

He was 13, maybe 14, and living on Long Island, New York.

It was in the afternoon, after school.

His mom was talking to a stranger long-distance on the phone. The conversation, something about preparing wild rice, was with a person in Minnesota.

The Ear was at the piano practicing and playing the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor by the young Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) – the “Bells of Moscow” – which you can hear Evgeny Kissin play in the YouTube video at the bottom.

It was music that The Ear first heard live when a babysitter played it for him. And he immediately fell in love with it.

It was hard to play, a Romantic piece with big loud chords (below is part of the score) and fast passage work. Perfect for a teenager.

Rachmaninoff's Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapi...

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapitulation of the theme, in four staves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was The Ear’s first big piece, the right vehicle for an ambitious young piano student who was anxious to use the piano to make an impression.

Anyway, the person on the other end of the phone heard the piano playing and asked if they could listen a while longer.

Mom said, Sure!

Then she placed the phone near the piano — and beamed with pride at me while gesturing for me to continue playing.

Mom didn’t know a lot of classical music. But she knew her son loved it and she did everything she could to encourage that love.

She also liked this particular Rachmaninoff prelude because it was accessible and dramatic, easy to understand and to appreciate, and most of all because her son liked it and played it.

That’s how moms are.

The other person on the line listened until the end of the prelude, then offered praise and thanks, said good-bye, and hung up.

Mom told that story over many years and always with great pride.

For a long time after, it seemed that particular prelude fell out of fashion – probably because it was too popular and too melodramatic. Even Rachmaninoff grew to despise it and referred to the work disdainfully as “It,” which he often had to play as an encore.

But lately, as often happens to overexposed pieces that fall into neglect, it finally seems to be making something of a comeback.

Several years ago, Garrick Ohlsson played it as an encore after a concerto he performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. These days, The Ear has heard the young up-and-coming, prize-winning young Georgian-British pianist Luka Okros play it on YouTube and Instagram.

Anyway, here it is, offered with fond memories of a proud mom.

Is there a piece of classical music you identify with your mom? Maybe Antonin Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which you can hear on Wisconsin Public Radio‘s “Sunday Brunch” program at about 12:30p.m. today?

Maybe an opera aria or song?

Leave a comment, with a link to a YouTube performance if possible, and let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

Happy Mother’s Day, all!


Classical music: Celebrate Commencement Day 2018 with Brahms and Elgar

May 12, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is The Big Day – Graduation or Commencement Day 2018 — at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The weather may be too rainy and too cold, but there is little choice as an alternative to the huge outdoor ceremony for thousands of graduates, plus friends and family, at Camp Randall Stadium (below) unless there is lightning or dangerous weather that could delay and cancel the ceremony.

Still, there is some great music to celebrate with and perhaps warm up with.

If you have a favorite suggestion for graduation music, leave the name of the composer and work, along with a link to a YouTube video if possible, in the COMMENT section below.

In the mean time, here are the two most famous works that will perhaps stir you or even warm you.

First is the Academic Festival Overture, which uses a student drinking song, that was composed by Johannes Brahms when he received an honorary degree.

And what would any graduation be without the traditional old standby that still never fails to touch most of those who hear it: the stately Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 — one of five composed and then used for a royal coronation –by Sir Edward Elgar

Congratulations to the Class of 2018.

This post is for you.


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