The Well-Tempered Ear

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.


Classical music: UW choral groups and a jazz quintet join forces Saturday night for a FREE concert of world premieres to honor the bicycle

April 27, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an announcement from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music:

A FREE concert — called ”Free Wheeling: A Tribute to the Bicycle” – takes place this Saturday night at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The UW Madrigal Singers (below) and Chorale, under the direction of Bruce Gladstone, will join forces with a jazz group.

The concert opens with five world premieres, written specifically for this concert.

“I was surprised, given the bicycle’s popularity, that there weren’t many choral works about bikes,” noted Gladstone (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot). “It seems to be more the domain of the solo popular ballad or rock bands. There are loads of poems about bikes though, so I just commissioned new works from composers I know.”

There are two works from John Stevens (below), veteran composer and UW-Madison emeritus professor. “Toasting Song” is a rollicking number about the pleasures of both cycling and wine. “A Bicycler’s Song” takes a poem in praise of bicycles and cycling and sets it in a vocal jazz idiom reminiscent of the Manhattan Transfer.

UW-Madison alumus and former Madrigal Singer Scott Gendel (below) also provided two new works for this event. “She Waits for Me” is a lush ballad that celebrates the joys of love and loyalty, while “Little Things” offers us a cautionary tale of a cyclist’s visit to church one Sunday morning.

Carl Buttke, a current graduate student, composed the fifth new work for this concert, a picturesque tale of a memorable day spent in the Austrian Alps, “Cycling the Rosental.”

The program will also include a fast and fun work for women’s voices, “The Bike Let Loose,” by composer Edie Hill.

This concert occurs at the end of the School of Music’s Jazz Week by design, since the major work in the concert is scored for massed choirs and jazz quintet.

The singers are joined by the UW’s Blue Note Ensemble (below top), directed by UW professor Johannes Wallmann (below middle), for a performance of “Song Cycle” by Alexander L’Estrange (below bottom and in the YouTube video at the bottom).

The work was written in 2014 for the grand start of the Tour de France in York, England. Comprised of 10 movements, the work looks at the invention of the bicycle, the social changes that it wrought, and the joys that cycling offers to all.

It’s a charming and witty trip that is fun for the whole family, even giving the audience an opportunity to sing along.

The concert is free and all are encouraged to wear their favorite biking togs and join in the fun!


Classical music: The New Yorker critic Alex Ross profiles and praises violinist Augustin Hadelich, who performs Dvorak with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend

April 11, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The timing could not be more perfect.

Alex Ross, the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning writer who writes for The New Yorker and is considered by many to be the best classical music critic today, recently went to Detroit to report about the dramatic the rebirth of the Detroit Symphony.

He ended up devoting half the story to a great profile of the Italian-German violinist Augustin Hadelich (below), who was there as a guest soloist to play the rarely programmed Violin Concerto by the British composer Benjamin Britten.

Now it just so happens that the Grammy Award-winning Hadelich returns to Madison for the third time this weekend to perform another rarely heard violin concerto – the Violin Concerto by Antonin Dvorak – with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below in a photo by Peter Rodgers).

The “String Fever” program includes the rarely performed Sinfonia da Requiem by Benjamin Britten and the “Spring” Symphony by Robert Schumann, which is surprisingly the MSO’s first performance of this well-known work.

Performances are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $10-$90.

For more information about the artists and the program as well as how to obtain tickets, go to:

https://www.madisonsymphony.org/hadelich

For program notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen, go to:

http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/7.Apr18.html

And as usual there will be a Prelude Discussion – this time by John DeMain — one hour before each performance.

In addition, the MSO encourages audiences to arrive early because of security check-ins at the Overture Center.

But let’s go back to the profile by Alex Ross (below) of Augustin Hadelich.

In it you will read that:

Hadelich is focusing more on unusual repertoire by Britten, Henry Dutilleux, Gygorgy Ligeti and Thomas Adès than on the well-known violin concertos by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Bartok.

(An impressive virtuoso, whom Ross praises for both technical brilliance and musicality, Hadelich can be heard performing the famously difficult and familiar Caprice No. 24 by Paganini in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Hadelich has high praise for regional symphony orchestras that gave his career a boost, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which he mentions by name along with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He also points out how underappreciated many such regional orchestras are.

Hadelich is a methodical performing artist. The interview has fascinating background about how he works, including taking notes about each performance, and how he prepares for performances, including what kind of food he eats and when he eats it.

And there is more about Hadlelich’s compelling personal story as a recovered burn victim, about his outstanding playing, and about the life of an up-and-coming concert artist on the road.

The Ear found it fascinating on its own and excellent preparation for hearing Hadelich live. He hopes you do too. Here is a link:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/09/augustin-hadelichs-bold-violin-explorations


Classical music: The King’s Singers will mark 50 years when they perform Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater

April 9, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The acclaimed a cappella singing group The King’s Singers (below) will be marking its 50th anniversary when it performs the annual Fan Taylor Concert – named to honor the first director of the Wisconsin Union Theater – on this Saturday, April 14, at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall.

Tickets are $25-$45 general admission, $20 for youths and $10 for UW students. For more information, including the complete program, background, audio-video samples and how to purchase tickets, go to  https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/the-kings-singers/. You can also phone 608-265-ARTS (2787) or go in person. See locations and hours here.

Celebrating their Golden Anniversary this year, The King’s Singers are widely acclaimed for the quality of their singing and diverse repertoire, which includes over 200 commissioned works from the world’s leading composers.

The commissioned arrangements come from a breadth of musical genres: jazz standards to pop chart hits, medieval motets to Renaissance madrigals, and new scores by young composers.

The upcoming concert is part of their 50th anniversary world tour, and the program showcases their signature blend, purity of tone, and diversity of repertoire, with selections ranging from Renaissance polyphony to brand new commissions celebrating the 50th anniversary.

This love of diversity has always fuelled The King’s Singers’ commitment to creating new music. A panoply of commissioned works by many of the greatest composers of our times – including Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, John Rutter, Toru Takemitsu, Sir John Tavener and Eric Whitacre – sits alongside countless bespoke arrangements in the group’s extensive repertoire.

One of these is called “To Stand in This House” by Nico Muhly (below), which sets various texts by scholars who originated at King’s College, Cambridge, where The Kings Singers were founded.

The program, GOLD, charts a journey through the music that has defined The King’s Singers so far, from Renaissance polyphony to art song to, naturally, close harmony favorites.

The group also looks toward the future with several commissions for the 50th season from composers and arrangers with who they have ties, including, in addition to Nico Muhly’s work, “We Are” by composer/conductor Bob Chilcott, himself a former member of The King’s Singers; and “Quintessentially” by Joanna and Alexander L’Estrange (below), which humorously tells the story of The King’s Singers’ past 50 years.

The King’s Singers was founded in 1968 at King’s College in Cambridge, England. They continually wow audiences across the globe in over 125 concerts a year. The group has won two Grammy awards and was inducted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame for its vocal artistry and excellence. (You hear a sample from the group’s new anniversary album, “Gold,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Madison concert is presented by the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Performing Arts Committee.

This concert is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. WORT-FM 89.9 is the media sponsor.


Classical music: You Must Hear This: Violinist Hilary Hahn plays “Mercy” by Max Richter

March 26, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the gems in the 27 encores that violinist Hilary Hahn commissioned from 27 different composers a couple of years ago is “Mercy” by the German-born British composer Max Richter.

Hahn has played here several times, mostly at the Wisconsin Union Theater but also with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Although Max Richter’s Minimalist music has not been played in Madison as far as The Ear remembers, you might already know his name from the popular recording of his take on Vivaldi in “The Four Seasons Recomposed” or his more ambitious and most current project “Sleep,” which provides music for eight and a half hours of sleeping.

But The Ear confesses he had not heard this moving miniature called “Mercy” until recently, even though Hahn recorded it along with the other 26 encores with pianist Cory Smithe.

He likes it.

And so apparently do a lot of other listeners.

So it is something that is well worth using five minutes of your time to sample.

Write your comments, positive or negative, below.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: It’s Valentine’s Day 2018. Let us now praise musical couples and say what music we would play to celebrate romantic love

February 14, 2018
3 Comments

ALERT: If you are a fan of new music, you might not want to miss a FREE concert this Thursday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall by the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

The program of “Ideas and Landscapes,” assembled and directed by UW’s award-winning composer Laura Schwendinger, includes works by UW students and alumni as well as a world premiere of a work for solo oboe by Schwendinger herself.

For more details about the composers, the performers and the complete program, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/contemporary-chamber-ensemble/

By Jacob Stockinger

It is Valentine’s Day 2018, and music plays a big role in celebrating the holiday — as the portrait of Cupid (below) expresses.

This week, musician and teacher Miles Hoffman was featured by National Public Radio (NPR) on the program “Morning Edition” with a most appropriate story about famous musical couples who were also linked romantically.

The Ear was particularly pleased that a same-sex couple  – British composer Benjamin Britten (below left) and British tenor Peter Pears (below right) — was recognized during this time when the homophobic administration of President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence keeps attacking the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people under the guise of protecting and promoting religious tolerance. The leaders use the concept of religious freedom as camouflage for bigotry, zealotry and prejudice. 

But more conventional and traditional couples were also recognized, and deservedly so.

Here is a link to the story that also contains some wonderful musical samples:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/02/13/585121135/classical-musics-greatest-love-stories-on-and-offstage

And here is what The Ear wants to know:

First: Can you think of other musical couples – especially local ones — to single out for recognition on Valentine’s Day? The Karp family as well as pianists-singers Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer plus singers Cheryl Bensman Rowe and Paul Rowe, conductor Kyle Knox and Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, and violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino and cellist Leonardo Altino all come immediately to mind. But surely there are others The Ear has overlooked.

Second: What piece of classical music would you listen to or play in order to express love for your Valentine?

Leave the names and information, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

Happy Valentine’s Day!!


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Classical music: The Madison Choral Project features a world premiere when it performs a “timeless” program this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

February 9, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Choral Project (below) bills itself as Madison’s only professional and paid choir, and judging by the results, the a cappella group has succeeded,  creating many loyal fans. (You can hear a sample performance — of a world premiere, no less — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Such success is in large part thanks to the efforts of its founder, director and conductor Albert Pinsonneault (below). Originally a music professor at Edgewood College, Pinsonneault now works at Northwestern University.

He commutes from his home in Madison where he continues his work with the Madison Choral Project.

You can sample his and the choir’s impressive music-making this weekend at two performances in two different venues of a concert called “Drown’d in One Endlesse Day.”

Here are details:

“Drown’d in One Endlesse Day” features a world premiere of Wisconsin composer Eric William Barnum (below).

The Madison Choral Project champions new music. But also on the eclectic program are new and old pieces exploring the transformational moments when “time seems to stop.”

Featured composers and compositions include: the motet Komm, Jesu, Komm by Johann Sebastian Bach; “Crucifixus” by Antonio Lotti (below top); There is an Old Belief by the British composer Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (below second); Credo by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (below third, in photo by Getty Images); I Live in Pain and Last Spring by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer David Lang (below fourth); and Entreat Me Not to Leave You by Dan Forrest (below bottom).

PERFORMANCES:

On Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.: CHRIST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, 944 East Gorham Street in Madison on the near east side

On Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.: St. ANDREW’S EPISCOPAL,
1833 Regent Street in Madison on the near west side

Tickets are $40 for preferred seating; $24 for general admission; and $10 for students.

To buy tickets online (they are also available at the door) as well as to see more background, reviews, information and several videos of MCP performances, go to:

http://themcp.org


Classical music: On Friday night, UW bassoonist Marc Vallon and friends perform a FREE concert of music from the Baroque and modern eras. You can also hear a FREE concert of songs and guitar music at noon.

January 25, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Although the major classical music event on Friday is the concert, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, with violinist-wife and cellist-husband soloists Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Leonardo Altino, there are two other concerts worth noting.

This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature guitarists and singers Helen Avakian and Dave Irwin (below). They will perform music by Peter Mayer and Enrique Correa as well as traditional Greek music.

On Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, UW-Madison bassoonist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) and friends will perform a faculty recital of music from the Baroque and modern eras, including arrangements by Vallon himself.

The other performers are: John Chappell Stowe, harpsichord; Aaron Hill and Zachary Pulse, oboe; Daniel Fung and Satoko Hayami, piano; and David Scholl, contrabass.

The program includes:

Franz Schubert: Sonatina for Violin D. 384 (written in 1816) by Franz Schubert

Jan Dismas Zelenka (below ): Sonata No. 5 for two oboes, bassoon and continuo, ZWV 181 (1720-22), which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

INTERMISSION

Marc Vallon: Cantus II for bassoon and piano (2017)

Béla Bartók (below), Five Romanian Folk Songs (1907-1910), arranged by Marc Vallon. Bagpipers-Bear Dance- The Peacock- Lamento- White Lily

Various authors, Three English songs (ca. 1965) arranged by Marc Vallon


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