The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to:

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2:

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff:

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Classical music: Here are practicing tips from pianist Emanuel Ax who uses software to help correct wrong notes

September 28, 2018

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like It”) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Even professional musicians can find practicing to be an ordeal.

“Ax is back,” says the publicity.

That’s because world-famous pianist Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) is back in Madison to help open John DeMain’s 25th anniversary season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Ax will perform the monumental and fiendishly difficult Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms tonight, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

It is a piece that Ax performed live some 200 times before he would agree to recording it.

Here is a link to more about the MSO concerts with the famous pianist:

And here is a link to a story about how Ax, who describes himself as a slow learner and who teaches students at the Juilliard School in New York City, practices. It contains his own tips and also talks about special software he uses to detect and correct wrong notes that is available to students and amateurs :

And as a follow-up, here is a short example of the many YouTube videos of master classes with Emanuel Ax. This one small passage in a sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven gives you a good idea of the hard work that goes into the 50-minute concerto by Brahms:

Classical music: The Ear catches up with the hectic and fast rising career of the American Metropolitan Opera soprano Susanna Phillips, who closed this past season of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

June 2, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is no secret that the concert fees of performing artists have far outpaced inflation. The days of Madison presenters being able to afford and book superstars, with reasonable ticket prices, like the new Arthur Rubinstein, the new Jascha Heifetz, the new Marian Anderson, the new Vladimir Horowitz, the new Luciano Pavarotti and so on, are long over.

Still, Madison maestros and presenters sure know how to choose and book some up-and-coming classical stars as soloists. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Opera and even Farley’s House of Pianos have done an outstanding  job of finding great artists who are young, gifted and award-winning as well as still up-and-coming and affordable.

Take the case of the American, Alabama-born soprano Susanna Phillips, who sang Mozart concert arias beautifully when she closed the current season of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) under music director and conductor Andrew Sewell and who will be a very busy singer this coming summer and next season.

WCO lobby

Here is a press release from her public relations firm that details the upcoming 2013-14 appearances for Susanna Phillips (below), who also excels at Lieder or art songs (see the YouTube video at bottom of a song by Felix Mendelssohn).

susanna phillips

They include headlining roles in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Santa Fe Opera, Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at the Aspen Music Festival and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony at Bravo! Vail as well as the world premiere of a work by Christopher Weiss at the Twickenham Fest this summer.

Then come her appearances in three different operas at the famed Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City.

The Met hall 1

Here are the details:

“Following her resounding success in A Streetcar Named Desire at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Beverly Sills Artist Susanna Phillips returns to Santa Fe Opera as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro (June 29–Aug 23).

“In her first summer festival engagement, she celebrates the Britten centennial at the Aspen Music Festival, where she will make her role debut as Ellen Orford in a concert performance of Peter Grimes (July 27).

Aspen Music Festival

“At the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival (below), Phillips will join the Philadelphia Orchestra for Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (July 12).

Bravo Vail Gerald Ford Amphitheater.

“And the world premiere of a new commission from Christopher Weiss (below) will crown Twickenham Fest, the festival that Phillips herself co-founded in her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama (Aug 30–Sept 1).

After this full summer, the soprano looks forward to returning to New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where she will star in three important productions next season.

It was in the opening run of Jonathan Kent’s hit staging of The Marriage of Figaro at Santa Fe Opera that, “as the Countess, young soprano Susanna Phillips proved a major find” (Musical America). In the same role at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland last summer, “with a voice that is beautifully warm, brassy and blooming, the American soprano Susanna Phillips captivated from the first measures of the second act” (Forum Opera).

Now Phillips returns to Santa Fe to reprise the Countess for eight performances in June, July, and August, with baritone Zachary Nelson in the title role, and conductor John Nelson leading the revival of Kent’s production.

Last season at the Aspen Music Festival, the soprano impressed the Aspen Times with her ability to convey “emotions and memories radiantly.” Now she returns to the festival to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial, making her role debut as Ellen Orford (a part she will reprise at Carnegie Hall this November) in a semi-staged production of Peter Grimes on July 27. Led by festival music director Robert Spano, Britten’s psychological thriller will co-star Anthony Dean Griffey – “the best Grimes of the moment” (Los Angeles Times) – in the title role.

At Colorado’s Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, Phillips continues to demonstrate her range outside the opera house. On July 12 she sings solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra and acclaimed, dynamic and openly gay music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin (below) in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Finding her voice “optimally suited” to the work, the Washington Post has reported: “Phillips sang the solo with gorgeous, well-supported clarity, a shining, simple but not colorless sound, limpid and calm on the mysterious chords of ‘Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu,’ which return as a refrain.”

Yannick Nezet-Seguin in aciton

For her final festival appearances of the summer, Phillips returns to her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, for the fourth season of Twickenham Fest, the chamber music festival that she herself co-founded. As the Birmingham News recognized in a five-star review, “Twickenham Fest is well on its way to becoming a driving force in classical music in Alabama.” This year’s festival will showcase such notable guest artists as Israeli pianist Roman Rabinovich and cellist Matthew Zalkind.

Twickenham Fest gave its first world premiere last season, when Phillips sang “Speaking for the Afghan Woman,” a song cycle by William Harvey (below) set to verses by female Afghan poets that was written especially for her. The Birmingham News found the poetry “poignant, often gut-wrenching,” and reported that “Phillips’ emotive powers” were such that she “penetrated directly to the hearts of these poets.”

William Harvey composer

Continuing this exciting new tradition for a second season, this year’s Twickenham Fest will present the world premiere of a new commission from 2013 composer-in-residence Christopher Weiss, the recipient of a Theodore Presser Foundation Career Grant, whose music has been hailed by the New York Times as “wonderfully fluid [with a] cinematic grasp of mood and lighting.” The festival will be held from August 30 to September 1, and will be enriched by educational outreach programs at local schools and libraries.

Christopher Weiss composer

The 2013-14 season will also see Phillips star in three important Metropolitan Opera productions. The first of these is Mozart’s Così fan tutte, for which company music director James Levine (below) makes his long-awaited return to the Met podium. Alongside Isabel Leonard, Matthew Polenzani and Rodion Pogossov, Phillips will sing the role in which the Dallas Morning News pronounced her “a glorious Fiordiligi, her soprano honeyed and agile” (Sept 24 & 28; Oct 2 & 5; April 23 & 26). Her final performance in the role will also be transmitted live to cinema audiences worldwide on April 26, in the Met’s celebrated “Live in HD” series.

James Levine conducting

For her second Met engagement of the new season, Phillips will sing Rosalinde in Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, headlining a new production from two-time Tony Award-winner Jeremy Sams. The opening night’s performance will serve as the highlight of the company’s New Year’s Eve gala (Dec 31–Feb 22).

It was as Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème that the soprano made her Met debut, for which more than 400 residents of her Alabama hometown expressly traveled to New York. After her recent Met interpretation of the role, the New York Times noted: “Phillips (below) sparkled as the sassy Musetta, her bright, nimble soprano tinged with a coquettish flair.” Next season, she resumes her portrayal for two performances in Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic staging of the opera, the second of which will also be featured in the Met’s Live in HD series (April 2 & 5).

Susanna Phillips smiling

Details of the soprano’s upcoming engagements are available at

Classical music review: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra outperforms The Five Browns on the underwhelming opening night of the new season.

October 8, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

What is the key to the best-selling success of the brother and sister pianists known as The Five Browns (below), who were the guest soloists with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Friday night’s season opener?

I wish I could say the key is the music.

But it isn’t.

That key was revealed in the one encore, a solo for all five, that they played at the end of the concert, after they had performed a Mozart three-piano concerto and a work specially composed for all five of them by Nico Muhly.

Up to that point the very large audience in Overture Center’s Capitol Theater had applauded the gracious and appealing family quintet with a relatively quiet enthusiasm.

But by the of the solo encore – a flashy, trashy, souped up five-piano version of Mozart’s “Rondo a la Turca” or Turkish Rondo finale from the solo piano sonata in A major, K. 331 — the audience was on its feet. The public had been wowed.

And why not? Cascading scales, fast octaves, repeated notes and complex finger work are all impressive physical feats, even when they serve as little else than musical filler. It all bought back memories from my youth of bestsellers and fellow chart-busting duo-pianists Ferrante and Teicher (below), who scored a similar commercial success but long ago were artistically forgotten. Remember them?

And that pretty much tells the story. The Five Browns (below) are certainly more serious; but they too are nonetheless more about showmanship than musicianship. In the end, they make lucrative recordings and have had  10-year concert career because they provide a novelty or musical sideshow, and not because they are great musicians. Show biz saves them, not great interpretations. In short, they are more about entertaining than enlightening.

That is not to say that individually they are not fine musicians. After all, these two brothers and three sisters must have plenty of talent since they all attended Juilliard and all showed the chops to play very well as soloists.

But sometimes more is just more or even too much, and this one of those times. Playing the piano is not the same as making music.

When you want to open a new season with great attendance, a wise orchestra marketer once told The Ear, the statistics are clear: Choose a piano concerto.

After all, everyone loves the piano; there are plenty of piano concertos that are both popular and great; and a lot of piano students and frustrated amateur pianists will buy tickets. A great piano concerto is soul-stirring and dramatic, a metaphorical battle, like a football game with the University of Solo Pianists against the University of Big Orchestras.

But five very good pianists are not necessarily five times better than one great pianist. That point was proved in a concert that, overall, was musically underwhelming or disappointing.

True, given the soloists, the modest program of minor youthful works and no masterpieces was well-chosen –- a vintage blend of unknown pieces by well-known composers that has become the signature of WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below).

Sewell opened the concert with a light and sprightly version of the 19-year-old Mozart’s Overture to “The Good Shepherd.” It was energetic, well voiced and transparent — what you look for in fine playing of even minor Mozart. And even minor Mozart has plenty of charm, if not substance.

Then Sewell led the orchestra in an energetic and convincing reading of Mendelssohn’s rarely heard youthful Symphony No. 1. You hear hints of the great “Italian” and “Reformation” symphonies and the “Hebrides” Overture, and you see the 15-year-old Mendelssohn, who loved accessibility and clarity, mastering the past — including the taste for counterpoint that led him to pioneer the revival of J.S. Bach. He was indeed a fast learner, but still a student — not a master.

The second half was devoted to The Five Browns.

It started with the most impressive and substantive work of the evening: “The Edge of the World,” four pieces – described as “Four Nocturnes for Five Pianos” –- by the “young” 30-year-old up-and-coming American composer Nico Muhly (below).

While not a prodigy on the order of Mozart or Mendelssohn — and the unifying theme of the evening’s program was youth – Muhly has created a very atmospheric, if episodic, piece that reminded The Ear of Minimalists such as John Adams and Steve Reich, only with more variety, nuances and finesse.

It seemed to me a very difficult work, at least as I heard it in what was only its second public performance. The Browns have had a lot of time to rehearse and master it, and they play it impressively.

But even more impressive to me was how, with a lot less time, Sewell and his orchestra players (below) kept the difficult rhythms and played with conviction all those notes that can quickly become repetitive and boring. Given what they did with Mozart and Mendelssohn as well as Muhly, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra turned out to be the best part of this concert and clearly outperformed the guest soloists.

Some will see Muhly’s work as great contemporary music. To me, it is competent music that will probably find a place in the repertoire as an oddity, much like The Five Browns themselves. It seems the 21st century equivalent of a piece for a monster concert by Louis Moreau Gottschalk or perhaps the contemporary Verbier Festival in Switzerland. But I suspect that Muhly, who has written successful movie scores and operas, has composed better music and has a big future ahead of him.

Who writes a piece for five pianos except on a weird commission to make money or honor a friendship or both. (Muhly was at Juilliard while the Browns were.)

Take a listen to other works at YouTube (at bottom) or at his website:

The Browns finished the program with Mozart’s early Three-Piano Concerto, which is pleasant enough but, again, no masterpiece when compared to Mozart’s 26 other piano concertos. Here again we heard Mozart Lite.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of The Five Browns was their unwillingness to bang. Until the very end, they did not indulge in silly pyrotechnics and virtuosity or in competitions of the “Anything You Can Play, I Can Play Louder” school. Their playing showed a lightness and clarity that helped, a subtlety and cooperation that proved especially productive in Mozart’s music.

In the end, it all made me wonder, and want to hear, what just One Brown could do individually with a truly great piano concerto. Plus, I ended up really wanting the WCO’s “Masterworks” series to program at least one masterwork per concert.

Here are what other local critics had to say:

Here is what John W. Barker had to say in Isthmus:

Here are Mike and Jean Muckian in their blog Culturosity for Brava Magazine:

Here is what Greg Hettmansberger had to say in his “Classically Speaking” blog  for Madison Magazine:

And here is what Lindsay Christians had to say for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:

One last PS: In case you looked at the orchestra pit and wondered about the five Steinways provided for The Five Browns: The Ear was told the pianos – two concert grands and three smaller grands – travel with the pianists. They are Steinway artists. And membership – along with best-selling siblingship – has its privileges.


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