The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear hears the impressive young pianist Joyce Yang and thinks Madison needs more piano recitals. Plus, a FREE concert of female vocal duets is at noon on Friday.

October 22, 2015

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held 12:15-1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature sopranos Susan Savage Day and Rebekah Demaree with pianist Sharon Jensen in duets by Gabriel Faure, Jacques Aubert, Jules Massenet, Claudio Monteverdi, UW-Madison alumnus Lee Hoiby and more.

By Jacob Stockinger

There he was last Thursday, sitting in the lower balcony in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The Ear was in Piano Himmel, listening to a masterful performance.

The occasion was a solo piano recital by Joyce Yang (below), an up-and-coming, prize-winning Korea-born and America-trained pianist, still in her late 20s, who was making her Madison debut.

Joyce Yang

And the same thought haunted The Ear, himself an avid amateur pianist, that also came to him during a fine student piano recital this summer.

That thought was simply this: Madison needs to have many more solo piano recitals.

The piano is perhaps the one most commonly studied musical instrument and is a staple of music education, so the potential audience should be there. The repertoire is vast and wonderful. And the piano just hasn’t been receiving its due compared to the many new choral groups and chamber music ensembles that always seem to be proliferating in the area.

The Wise Teacher recalls years ago when almost a dozen solo piano recitals happened during a single season. This season there are only three -– and two have already taken place.

One was the recital of Mendelssohn, Franck and Chopin by Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino (below top)  on Oct. 4 at Farley’s House of Pianos on its Salon Piano Series. (The Ear couldn’t go because he is was in Chicago that afternoon hearing a piano recital by Maurizio Pollini.) The second was by Joyce Yang. The third one will be the performance by UW-Madison virtuoso professor Christopher Taylor (below bottom) on Friday, Feb 26. (No program has yet been announced.)

Daniel del PIno square

Christopher Taylor new profile

Here is an afterthought: Maybe the Madison Symphony Orchestra could start a piano series like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offers on Sunday afternoons?

Let’s be clear: This is a matter more of pleasure and education than of justice.

Take Yang’s performance, which drew an unfortunately small house of only 300-400.

The first half was remarkable for both the clarity and color she possessed. Ethnic themes, folk songs and folk dances, especially Latin American and Spanish in nature, united the first half of her program.

She opened with two sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, the three “Estampes” or Prints by Claude Debussy and two pieces from “Iberia” by Isaac Albeniz and three virtuosic “cowboy” dances by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera.

In all those works, Yang proved a complete and mature keyboard artist. Her technique is rock solid, but it is her musicality that most impresses the listener. The Ear was particularly struck by Yang’s command of dynamics, her ability to play softly and still project, and to delineate and balance various voices.

The second half, all works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, proved less satisfying to The Ear, if not to the audience. It featured two transcriptions of vocal works or songs — “Dreams” and  “Vocalise”  — by the late American virtuoso pianist Earl Wild (below).

earl wild

Unfortunately, Wild himself possessed a Lisztean (or Horowitzean) command of keyboard technique. And like Franz Liszt (or Vladimir Horowitz), Wild just couldn’t resist adding Liberace-like flourishes, flash and trash to his transcriptions in places where simplicity rather than Big Chords would have more than sufficed.

At certain points in a Wild transcription, the work inevitably sounds louche or decadent and over-the-top, like something you might hear at a piano bar or in a cocktail lounge. In short, they are more piano than music. (You can listen to Earl Wild himself performing his own transcription of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Then came  the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor by Rachmaninoff (below) in its revised 1931 edition. To be honest, this is a Big Piece that is full of sound and fury signifying not very much that The Ear can discern. (The Ear much prefers Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, preludes and Etudes Tableaux.)

To be sure, the bombastic sonata requires impressive and powerful piano playing, which must explain the muscular work’s popularity among professional pianists and certain segments of the public. It is a Wower and wow us it does, although many of us would rather be seduced than wowed.


The sonata surely is effective in live performance and brought an immediate standing ovation. That, in turn, was rewarded with another Earl Wild transcription this time of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Too bad the love once again seemed overpowered by difficult but flawlessly executed scales and runs.

But putting those shortcomings aside, the sound of an amazingly played piano recital was such a welcome experience.

The Ear hopes that many more of them are somehow in store.


Classical music: Who has stage fright and why? And how can you overcome stage fright?

August 5, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s surpising how many acclaimed professional performers -– like dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, pop singers Adele and Carly Simon, actors Laurence Olivier and Daniel Day-Lewis, and pianists Charles Rosen, Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz  and Emanuel Ax — have suffered from the same ailment that afflicts countless students and amateurs, including The Ear.

We are talking about stage fright, which ranges from mild to debilitating in its severity. (Below is an illustration by Nishant Choksi.) It can literally rob people of careers in the performing arts.

Stage fright Cr Nishant Choksi

Periodically, stories about stage fright and how to deal with it or perhaps even lessen it come to the public’s attention. (See the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The latest is a book by gifted amateur pianist Sara Solovitch (below top, in a photo by Christine Z. Mason). Her book, “Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright” (below bottom) has just been published by Bloomsbury.

Playing Scared is journalist Sara Solovitch's first book. Her work has appeared in Politico, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Wired. She lives in Santa Cruz, Calif

Playing Scared is journalist Sara Solovitch’s first book. Her work has appeared in Politico, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Wired.¬†She lives in Santa Cruz, Calif

Sara Solovich Playing Scared cover

And here is Sara Solovitch playing a work by Claude Debussy:

Several essays and interviews give a terrific overview of the book and its contents.

Probably the best is in the Aug. 3 issue of The New Yorker in a review by critic Joan Acocella. Here is a link:

Also, two stories on NPR or National Public Radio offer an engaging take on the book and the subject of stage fright:

Do you suffer from stage fright?

How do you deal with it?

The Ear wants to hear.



Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra closes its fifth season with a lively concert that featured fiery Marquez, subtle Brahms, lyrical Bruch and thrilling Tchaikovsky.

June 5, 2015
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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.


By John W. Barker

Spring is officially over now, for the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) has given the fourth and last concert of its fifth season — as usual, on a Wednesday night and before a sizable crowd at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

The opening work was a rarity from the little-known Mexican composer Arturo Marquez (b.1950, below), called Danzon 2. It is a piece that starts with promise of melodic expression, but soon slips into a piling up of the usual hard-driven Latin dance rhythms, for a large orchestra, playing very loudly. A kind of musical refried beans.

arturo marquez 3 USE

More substantial was the early orchestral masterpiece, the “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” by Johannes Brahms (below).

This is a very thickly scored piece, placing particular emphasis on the winds. I found myself, as I listened, appreciating more than ever how cunningly Brahms designed the seams and sutures among the instruments, taxing the skills of the players for subtlety. Fortunately, the Middleton musicians faced the challenges bravely and brought off a very sturdy and convincing performance.


After the intermission, it was concerto time.

First, as MCO maestro Steve Kurr (below top) has regularly done, the young concertmaster was given a chance to tackle a solo assignment. Valerie Sanders (below bottom), a new graduate from the UW-Madison School of Music, took on the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Max Bruch, though only its slow movement. She played this lovely music quite sweetly, and one was tempted to wonder how she would have fared in taking on the two bolder wing movements, in the full concerto.

Steve Kurr conducting

MCO Valerie Sanders plays Bruch

The Big Event was, of course, local pianist Thomas Kasdorf playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This is a very warhorse of the warhorses, a work that some will be surprised to learn that predates Van Cliburn, whose recording of it was the first classical album to sell one million copies. (Vladimir Horowitz was once the exponent automatically brought to mind.)

It is a colossally demanding piece, technically, and a summit of virtuosic display — as you can see and hear in the popular YouTube video at the bottom.

Kasdorf (below), a locally born, raised and educated pianist and a well-established young Madison fixture of enormous talent and virtuosity, made this his latest entry into the warhorse corral.

MCO Thomas Kasdorf plays Tchaikovsky

Yes, he had the chops to bring it off, in an undeniably exciting performance. But I had the sense that his heart was really in the quieter passages, where he had some ideas of his own.

In the prevailingly bravura writing, by contrast, he was battling for survival. He certainly won the battle, on technical points alone. But this is not a work he has fully made his own—he played from score, rather than memory. It is an interpretation in progress, rather than one securely controlled.

And I hope this is not a career effort in progress. He is too fine a musician to be just a barn-storming, roof-raising virtuoso. He should pursue rather the great variety of roles he as developed, in which he has so much more that is personal and nuanced to offer.

The orchestra, with fewer perils to face than in the Brahms, sounded confident and full-voiced.

All in all, it was a lively and stimulating concert, as we have come to expect from Steve Kurr and his remarkable Middletonians.


Classical music: Why is Beethoven so popular? And why do all-Beethoven concerts work so well? Pianist Bryan Wallick answers these questions even as he prepares to play the “Emperor” Concerto this Friday night in the all-Beethoven concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

April 29, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) and pianist Bryan Wallick, who won the Vladimir Horowitz Prize and is returning to Madison, will perform under longtime WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell an all-Beethoven concert to end the WCO’s indoors Masterworks season.

WCO lobby

The program includes the “Leonore” Overture No. 1, the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” and the Symphony No. 7.

Tickets are $15-$62.

For more information, visit:

The Ear asked Bryan Wallick to explain why all-Beethoven concerts work so well and why Beethoven remains so popular with the general public. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra will also close its season with Beethoven, specifically the Symphony No. 9 (“Choral” or “Ode to Joy”) on May 8, 9 and 10.)

Wallick (below) kindly responded to an email Q&A:

Bryan Wallick mug

Beethoven, along with a handful of other composers, including Mozart and Tchaikovsky, is one of the few composers who can make up a single-composer concert that also attracts the public. What accounts for that?

Beethoven had the luxury of living a longer life than many of the famous composers, so his compositional output is larger than that of many other composers.

His compositional style also changed dramatically over the course of his life, and there aren’t too many composers whose music is so categorically defined as early, middle and late works.

At the Juilliard School, the famous Beethoven class taught by the late Jacob Lateiner (below) described five different categories of musical progression in Beethoven’s career. This diversity gives many different variations and possibilities of programmatic combinations that are stimulating and exciting.

However most all-Beethoven programs often program works from his middle or late period, and the music is just that good that we are happy to only hear Beethoven. He was perhaps the greatest genius to ever put his pen to music, in a different capacity than Mozart.

Jacob Lateiner

What role has Beethoven played in your career? Are there works in particular that you were drawn to as a student or a performing professional?

Beethoven has been a huge influence in my career, and probably most any pianist’s career as he wrote so much music for the piano.  His 32 sonatas are one of the greatest musical achievements ever produced, so there is always an unending supply of great piano music that most pianists never even get to in their careers unless they become Beethoven specialists.

As a student, I remember a general rule that I was given that I should always be learning some Beethoven sonata while learning everything else that I was working on. As a child, I often listened to Beethoven sonatas before I went to bed, and this music was very motivational in driving me to develop my technique to the level where I could perform these pieces.

Bryan Wallick at piano

Beethoven (below) consistently ranks as the general public’s favorite classical composer. Why is that, do you think?

As I said earlier, the diversity of works is enormous, but I think the general public isn’t that aware of the huge diversity of works. Those are mostly precious gems for musicians to savor, but the tonal language is very acceptable to a wide audience. Plus, the stories of his fiery temper and his deafness add a certain mystery to his genius that can interest a wide audience.

In the work which I will play, the “Emperor” Piano Concerto, it is harmonically very simple, he often just moves between a I chord and a V chord, but how he does it is so interesting and the emotional depths which he contemplates with these very simple chords is astounding. How he is able to encapsulate his struggles and personal hardship in his music is perhaps the reason why his genius could exceed that of Mozart.

Beethoven big

Is there an aspect of Beethoven that you think the public needs to pay more attention to and that you intend to emphasize in your interpretations?

I wish the public had the time and opportunity to become more familiar with a broader range of Beethoven’s music. They often get to hear the famous works, but when one understands and sees the connections between the famous pieces and the ones written in between, the appreciation for what he does in the famous works only becomes greater.

One can always strive to hear more things in the music, and the great experience of performing these works is that even though we’ve played this music many, many times, we as musicians still keep finding new things in this music, and the experience always keeps growing and changing.

Is there anything you would like to say or add?

I love this concerto for many reasons, but one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is how simple it is, and I believe it is a struggle for many pianists to leave this piece alone and not to do too much with it. (Below is the notebook manuscript of the opening of the “Emperor” Concerto from measure 3 until the second theme enters.)

emperor concerto ms from measure 3

The phrasing is very logical, well written, and if a pianist tries to do too much with it, somehow the music doesn’t work.  For example, I feel there is a lot of room for a pianist to manipulate and turn phrases 1,000 different ways in the fourth piano concerto.

But this piece has a structure, logic and direction that I feel a pianist must just accept, appreciate, respect; and they must find a simple way to bring this to an audience. (You can hear the acclaimed Beethoven interpreter and pianist Rudolf Serkin and conductor Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra perform the “Emperor” Concerto in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

I’ve heard many performances of this piece where pianists try to over-interpret things, so my goal is to just let this great music speak on its own with just little “comments” here and there from myself.

Classical music: The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter was born 100 years ago yesterday. Here is a short but comprehensive memoir and appreciation with a lot of biographical information and a good critical appraisal of his playing.

March 21, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday — Friday, March 20, 2015 – brought us the first day of spring.

It also marked the centennial of the birth of the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter (below).

Sviatoslav Richter

Richter was such a complex and towering figure that it would take a book to really do justice to him and to his career.

But the following essay by Steve Wigler for the outstanding Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio) does an excellent job for a short-form piece of criticism.

With one exception that gets no mention.

We now know beyond question that Richter (below) was a gay man who was forced by the Soviet government into a marriage of convenience and camouflage.

Somehow that information seems particularly pertinent to The Ear, given the growing acceptance of LGBT people and of marriage equality.


Still, Wigler’s essay is an excellent read and includes a YouTube video – there are many, many YouTube videos of Richter, who had an immense repertoire, playing. This video is of a live performance by Richter in which he plays the last movement of the first piano sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

You can hear the power and energy, the subtleties and excitement, to say nothing of the originality of interpretation, that Richter brought to music.


Enjoy it -– and tell us if you ever heard Richter live and what is your favorite performance by Sviatoslav Richter with a link to a YouTube video is possible.


Classical music: Historic Steinway Hall in Manhattan to be torn down and moved.

December 29, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

I think of Steinway Hall the same way that some people think of and advertise Sedona, Arizona: A kind of navel to a spiritual world.

For many pianists, anyway, such is the case.

Steinway Hall (below is the hallmark rotunda of the famed building) is a landmark building where a historic meeting took place between composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff and keyboard virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz.

steinway hall

For generations it is where the greatest keyboard artists have gone to select the proper instrument for the Carnegie Hall and other solo recitals, chamber music concerts and concerto appearances at other venues such as Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center.

To be selected and named a “Steinway artist” was the highest professional accolade, whether you were Arthur Rubinstein or Van Cliburn or Emanuel Ax or Pierre-Laurent Aimard or Jeremy Denk or Daniil Trifonov. And there have been countless others.

But nothing can block “progress.”

Especially the progress officials call economic development.

So soon the old Steinway Hall will move to a new location, and the old Steinway Hall will be demolished to make room for upscale luxury condominiums.

Maybe it is just another example of the old real estate saying: Location, location, location.

After all, Steinway Hall is not very far from Carnegie Hall (below).


Talk about prime locations and reputable or prestigious addresses.

Here is a link to an earlier story and less complete story, with less background, from March 2013 in The New York Times. Be sure to read the Reader Comments:



Classical music: Bummer!!! The recent recital by YouTube sensation Valentina Lisitsa proved tedious and showed that great pianists aren’t always great musicians.

November 24, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Valentina Lisitsa (below), the Ukraine-born pianist who has become a YouTube sensation, played a recital here last Thursday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. It featured music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Valentina Lisitsa

All four men were accomplished pianists as well as composers.

So you would have thought that nothing could go wrong.

But it did.

Big time.

From the time she took the stage, Valentina Lisitsa seemed ill-at-ease and unsure of what to do musically. What resulted was a very long concert with too much boredom and tedium.

Her default position seemed to be to play a lot, and then play some more. It turned out to be more like a marathon or a 19th-century “monster concert” than a typical piano recital. I don’t know what the intent of her program was except perhaps to show off her undeniable stamina.

Valentina LIsitsa playing

True, the “new media” phenom, who has a clear gift for self-promotion and who attracts avid groupie-like fans to her many YouTube videos and concerts, played for the better part of three hours and never seemed to break a sweat, even in the most difficult pieces.

But I have to concur with The Wise Piano Teacher who said: “It was the worst piano recital I’ve heard in my life, and I’ve heard a lot of them. I came home angry.”

The teacher wasn’t alone.

Except for a few of the miniature intermezzi by Brahms and a few of the ingenious etudes by Schumann, the piano playing seemed disjointed and the music too often lacked musicality.

Now, my instinct is to be generous and to make allowances. Maybe it was just an “off” night. Or maybe she felt ill or sick. Or maybe she has been overbooked or underrehearsed in recent weeks.

I do know that I have heard Lisitsa play much better, though she seemed at her best when she accompanied the gifted American violinist Hilary Hahn (below), who perhaps gave her some interpretive direction.


The Ear kept thinking of the response by Vladimir Horowitz (below) when somebody asked him why he didn’t take the second repeats in sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti or why he didn’t play late sonatas by Beethoven. “I don’t want to bore the audience,” he said.

Vladimir Horowitz

Lisitsa showed no such concern for the audience. In fact her program, her stage manner and her playing all seemed listener-unfriendly. At times, her recital even seemed condescending and disdainful of the ordinary listener.

Valentina Lisitsa at keyboard 2

As a critic, I have to call it as I hear it. But I take no joy in writing this. There are few enough solo piano recitals in Madison these days, and I had really looked forward to this one. Rarely do I want to walk out of a concert of any sort, especially a piano concert. But this time I did want to walk out -– and I did leave early, during a Franz Liszt encore that was his arrangement of Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” I also saw some other serious music fans walk out even earlier.

As for the all-Romantic program itself, here are some snapshots or mini-critiques:

The “Tempest” Sonata by Beethoven (below): This great sonata was frequently reduced from a tempest to directionless wind by dropped or missed notes and choppy interpretation as well as by inattention to dynamics. It just didn’t make sense intellectually or emotionally -– and it is a great masterpiece of emotional depth. And certainly her playing of the same work in a live concert in Paris in a YouTube video at the bottom is better than what I heard live here. 

Beethoven big

The “Symphonic Etudes” by Robert Schumann (below top): Decca has just released an 85-minute recording (below bottom) of Lisitsa playing these pieces plus the complete Chopin etudes. She seems drawn to etudes, perhaps because they often favor fingers over music. And this woman has fingers and technique to spare, even if she lacks musical ideas. imagination and something to say.

Schumann photo1850

Valentina Lisitsa Chopin Schumann etudes CD cover

Selected Intermezzi by Johannes Brahms (below): She didn’t stick to the program, and didn’t announce the changes to the audience. She played 14, but after a while they all ran together and it seemed more like 114. Better she should have played a set of just three or four intermezzi as a quiet interlude –- which was their original intended purpose. But instead she too often rushed through them. We missed the poignant melodies and harmonies, the autumnal soulfulness of late Brahms, to say nothing of the careful construction and counterpoint he used.


Sonata No. 1 in D Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below): The Ear thinks Lisitsa knew she has confused and lost her small audience when she went from the long Brahms set directly into the Rachmaninoff sonata. I heard some audience members wonder about what they were hearing – where Brahms had stopped and Rachmaninoff had begun. This sonata is a hard piece to hold together, and it didn’t help that she favored big noise over music, big chords over subtle voices.


All in all, and despite a standing ovation — for her strength and brilliance, one suspects — The Ear found it a night to forget. I have heard Valentina Lisitsa (below) in better form and I wish I knew what happened here.

“Was she annoyed that the house wasn’t full?” someone asked. Maybe, although such an attitude would be highly unprofessional and too peevish or diva-like.

But I do know that when she next appears in a solo recital, I will think twice -– more than twice -– about attending.

That is too bad for me and too bad for her, too bad for the audience and too bad for the presenter.


But everyone’s a critic.

What did others of you who attended Valentina Lisitsa’s recital think?

Did you judge it a success or a failure?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Are super-high concert fees morally right or wrong? Do they contribute to the wealth gap and lack of young audiences? What can music consumers do?

October 24, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Are artist concert fees — like those charged by tenor Placido Domingo (below top), soprano Renee Fleming (below middle) and violinist Itzhak Perlman (below bottom) —  too high these days and too unaffordable for most American concert-goers?



Itzhak Perlman close

What would Janet say?

Maybe that refrain could become the economic equivalent of What Would Jesus Say?

I am speaking of Janet Yellen (below), the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve who last week made headlines when she spoke out publicly against the widening wealth gap as being contrary to America’s historic democratic ideals.

Key Speakers At Seminars At The IMF & World Bank Annual Meetings

But let’s localize the issue.

By all accounts superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, along with pianist Kathryn Stott, turned in a terrific performance — his seventh — at the Wisconsin Union Theater last Saturday night.

The Ear didn’t go, but here is a rave review from the student newspaper The Badger Herald, which agrees with the word-of-mouth reviews I have heard:

yo-yo ma and kathryn stott

And for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy tickets, the Wisconsin Union Theater even webcast the concert live and for free.

Still, with seats that sold for well over $100, The Ear got to wondering: Are really high artist fees morally right or wrong?

We all hear about the widening wealth gap, and especially about the astronomical pay given to CEOs versus their workers as compared to the same ratio several decades ago.

Well, what about well-known and in-demand concert artists?

If The Ear heard correctly, Yo-Yo Ma’s fee for that one-night performance was either $90,000 or $95,000 -– or about $42,500 or $45,000 an hour.

Can Yo-Yo Ma demand and get that extravagant fee in the so-called “free market” society with its corporate welfare and tax loopholes for the wealthy? Of course, he can — and he does. That is why he sold out the Wisconsin Union Theater.

But should he?

It makes one wonder.

Is Yo-Yo Ma really that much better as a cellist and musician -– and not just as a celebrity — than many other cellists, including MacArthur “genius grant” winner Alisa Weilerstein, Alban Gerhardt, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Steven Isserlis, Carter Brey, Joshua Roman and others? (You can hear Yo-Yo Ma’s interpretation of a movement from a solo cello suite by Johann Sebastian Bach in a  YouTube video — with over 11 million hits — at the bottom and decide if it is that much better than other cellists play it.)

Now I don’t mean to pick just on Yo-Yo Ma. I have gone to a half-dozen of his other performances here and I have met him and talked with him. He is without doubt a great musician, a fine human being and an exemplary humanitarian.

The problem that I am talking about transcends any single performer and applies to the whole profession.

Maybe at least part of the problem of attracting young audiences to classical music concerts can be placed right in the laps of the performing artists themselves.

When The Ear was young, he got to hear all sorts of great musical artists—including Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein (below), Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman, Rudolf Serkin, Isaac Stern, Emanuel Ax and others for quite affordable prices. Not that those artists didn’t live well -– but I doubt that they were paid the equivalent of $45,000 an hour.

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

Maybe it is time for economic populism in the performing arts.

Fees like that exclude a lot of families from participating. Some fans might find it better and cheaper to hear a CD or download than go to a live concert.

Too many performing artists – opera stars come immediately to mind as a class — seem to have taken the same path toward justifying greed as movie stars, sports figures, rock stars and CEO’s who make out like bandits.

In short, can it be that classical musicians are helping to kill off classical music?

Smaller theaters like the Wisconsin Union Theater and even the Overture Center simply cannot book such well-known artists without charging a ridiculous amount of money for a seat – and at a time when many people of all ages just can’t afford it. It just adds to the Wealth Gap and the One Percent problem.


Well, these are just some brain droppings.

The Ear wonders what you think of stratospheric artist fees?

Do they contribute to the wealth gap?

Do they hurt the popularity of the art form, especially younger generations?

Are they contributing to the decline of cultural literacy?

In short, are such high artist fees morally right or wrong?

And if wrong, what can we arts consumers do about it? Boycott certain artists until they become more reasonable in their fees?

Ask artist and management agencies to adjust the fees to make them more affordable?

Go to alternative concerts that are perfectly acceptable without star power and cost less or, like those at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, free?

Tell us what you think in a COMMENT.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Listen to wrong notes played by great pianists.

October 12, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, The Ear offered a blog post about stage fright and performance anxiety.

stage fright

It was written by someone who knows: Concert pianist and polymath Renaissance Man Stephen Hough (below), who is also a writer, painter, composer, photographer, culture critic and more.


But even the greatest musicians can -– and do — mess up.

So today is a follow-up.

Here is a link to a YouTube video with some pretty messed up notes and whole passages by some of history’s greatest pianists, virtuosos and technical wizards.

They include Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz (below) and Artur Schnabel – along with the actual scores to show you what is being muffed.

Vladimir Horowitz

There was no recording technology back then, but it makes one wonder what Frederic Chopin or Franz Liszt might have sounded like off the page when they played. Or even such famed keyboard virtuosos as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

After all, in the same video the great Arthur Rubinstein (below) even explains how he faked an entire difficult Chopin etude and dumped a whole batch of deliberately played wrong notes into it during a public concert — and still won rave reviews from the critics!

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

It also puts a frame around the picture, and suggests that maybe we should simply worry more about the music and less about the notes. Performers just have to learn to accept failure! Perfection is beyond any of us.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.

If you know of other examples, or have personal experiences to share, let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Scarlatti sonatas are hot again -– and not just at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, which has its closing concert this afternoon.

August 31, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Trends come and trends go.

Who knows why?

A few years ago, it seemed as if I hadn’t heard the famous and overplayed “Appassionata” Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven in decades. Everyone focused on the last three piano sonatas. And then suddenly there were four or five live performances of the “Appassionata” within a year or two. Can the “Waldstein” Sonata be far behind?

This past couple of years, it also seems almost impossible to escape “La Valse” by Maurice Ravel -– in its two-piano version or its original solo version, or in modified solo version, or in its orchestral arrangements. Maybe the popularity of the work says something about the decadence of our times and our society. Or maybe it has to do with the centennial this year of World War I, which destroyed and demolished the old monarchical “waltz” societies, much as Ravel does in his postmodern deconstruction of the waltz.

In any case, you might recall that only last Wednesday night, the 25th annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival featured Smith College pianist Judith Gordon (below) in four Scarlatti sonatas along with 12 preludes by Frederic Chopin. (The festival closes with a SOLD-OUT performance of music by Franz Schubert, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy this afternoon at 4 p.m.)

Here is a link to the festival’s website with information about the artists, the program and tickets:

Judith Gordon plays 2014

The Ear loved that program about the originality of short forms and keyboard music for both its insight and its beauty. Here is a link to my review:

I hadn’t heard live Scarlatti performances in a while.

But that will change soon, I expect.

Because voila!

It turns out that another trend is in the making. Scarlatti is hot again. There are several new recordings of sonatas by Scarlatti (below) that just came out. And they are featured on the exceptional Deceptive Cadence blog done by NPR, or National Public Radio.

The blog posting – “A Surge of Scarlatti Sonatas” – was written by blog chief Tom Huizenga and even features some sound samples from the various records.

Domenico Scarlatti

I’ll be anxious to see how they measure up to The Ear’s favorite recordings, which include, in approximate order, recordings by: Vladimir Horowitz; Alexandre Tharaud; Andras Schiff; and Mikhail Pletnev.

Here is a link to the NPR story and review. I hope you enjoy it.

And let us know which one of the 555 sonatas by Scarlatti is your favorite. Slow or fast? Major or minor? Extroverted and dance-like or introspective and meditative?

At the bottom is a popular YouTube video of one of my all-time favorite Scarlatti sonatas, in B minor — Longo 33 or Kirkpatrick 87 — and performed to perfection by Vladimir Horowitz, who brings both clarity and soul to its almost prayer-like intensity.

I would also like to dedicate the performance and the sonata to the late University of Wisconsin-Madison pianist Howard Karp, for whom a free and public memorial celebration will be held today at 3 p.m. in Mills Hall.

Include a link to a YouTube recording, if you can.

The Ear wants to hear.

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