The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra, with solo violinist Paran Amirinazari, closes its seventh season with rousing and intense performances of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky

June 9, 2017
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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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its seventh season with a rousing program offering three contrasting Russian works.

The opener was the Overture to Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, as realized by Alexander Glazunov. It served to show off the orchestra’s ever-developing string band, solid in tone, if still lacking a little in warmth.

A real gem was the second work, the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Prokofiev. By contrast with the composer’s first venture in that form — a taut, aggressive affair — this one is more relaxed and jovial, if no less demanding technically.

The soloist was Paran Amirinazari (below), stepping out of her usual concertmaster’s slot into the full spotlight. She handled admirably the great technical demands of her solo role, full of quirky and tricky writing.

But, amid all the spikiness she pointed up handsomely the real and almost neo-Romantic lyrical sweetness that Prokofiev infused into the showiness. (Just listen to the gorgeous second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is one of the truly great violin concertos, and Amirinazari — the brilliant artistic director of the fabulous Willy Street Chamber Players — demonstrated that adroitly.

The final work was a grand effort: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. This is, of course, one of those “warhorses” about which The Ear has been debating lately. It is thereby the more challenging for an orchestra to present to an audience likely to be familiar with it.

Its calculated lavishness has made it a masterpiece beloved by the public, but it is still fascinating to encounter with close listening. The composer pulled out all his tricks of dazzling orchestration and melodic invention, but in the service of a grand-scaled structure that skillfully manipulates cyclical and cross-referential transformation of themes through the score’s totality.

Maestro Steve Kurr (below) by now has nurtured remarkably solid resources for an orchestra of this kind. The potent brass choir is really well consolidated, backing fine-sounding woodwinds. Kurr made the most of these resources, in a well-rehearsed performance in which the stress on intensity of playing resulted in highly dramatic results, culminating in a truly noble ending.

This was a richly satisfying program, showcasing an ensemble of which Middleton should be button-burstingly proud.


Classical music: Your warhorses are my masterpieces — and I want to hear them

June 3, 2017
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ALERT: This Sunday afternoon from 12:30 to 2 p.m., “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature Madison keyboard artist Trevor Stephenson performing on a restored 1855 Boesendorfer grand piano. The program includes music by Chopin, Granados, Brahms, Wagner, Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg and Satie.

You can attend it live for FREE in Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the UW-Madison’s art museum. But you can also stream it live using the link on this web page:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-6-4-17/

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the year again when music groups announce their new seasons.

And it seems to The Ear that the word “warhorse” is again being tossed around a lot, especially by experienced listeners who use the term pejoratively or disapprovingly, in a snobby or condescending way, to describe great music that is performed frequently.

But more than a little irony or inaccuracy is involved.

For example, a some people have referred to the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms – scheduled next season by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — as a warhorse.

Yet The Ear has heard that symphony performed live only once – perhaps because programmers wanted to avoid the warhorse label.

The same goes for the iconic Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, which will be performed next year by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below). It was a revolutionary work that changed the course of music history, and it is a great piece of engaging music. (You can hear the opening movement, with an arresting graphic representation, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here’s the irony: I have heard the Piano Quintet by Brahms, the Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert and the String Octet by Felix Mendelssohn – all great masterpieces — far more often than I have heard those “warhorse” symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. Can it be that connoisseurs usually seem more reluctant to describe chamber music masterpieces as warhorses? (Below in the Pro Arte Quartet in a photo by Rick Langer.)

The Ear is reminded of a comment made by the great Russian-American musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky (below): “Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is not great because it is popular; it is popular because it is great.”

So yes, I don’t care what more sophisticated or experienced listeners say. I still find the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Peter Tchaikovsky to be a beautiful and thrilling work that rewards me each time I hear it. It never fails.

Add to the list the popular symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, several piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Jupiter” Symphony and Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And one could go on and on.

They are all great masterpieces more than they are warhorses.

Plus, just because a piece of music is new or neglected doesn’t mean that it is good or that it merits a performance.

Otherwise, you could easily spend the rest of a life listening to second-rate and third-rate works out of curiosity and never feel the powerful emotional connection and deep intellectual insight that you get with a genuine masterpiece that rewards repeated hearings.

Of course, some warhorses do leave The Ear less than enthusiastic The “1812 Overture” comes immediately to mind. Boy, do the crowds like that potboiler — on the Fourth of July, of course, when it has a traditional place.

But often enough your warhorse is my masterpiece, and I want to hear it without being thought of as a philistine.

It might even be that playing more warhorses — not fewer — will attract some new audience members at a time when music groups face challenges in attendance and finances?

It may not be cool to say that, but it might be true, even allowing room for new and neglected works that deserve to be programmed for their merit — not their newness or their neglect.

So-called “warhorses” have usually survived a long time and received many performances because they are great music by great composers that speak meaningfully to a lot of listeners. They deserve praise, not insults or denigration, as well as a secure and unapologetic place in balanced programming.

Of course, it is a matter of personal taste.

So …

What do you think?

Are there favorite warhorses you like?

Are there warhorses you detest?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: It is commencement weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at many other schools. Here are two pieces by Brahms and Elgar to celebrate the event

May 13, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

School is out!

This weekend is Commencement Weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Wisconsin System and many other colleges and universities across the nation.

Undergraduates will graduate in Camp Randall Stadium (below) today starting at noon.

And continuing students can at last put the hard work of classes and final papers and semester-end papers behind them.

So some celebration seems in order.

The Ear knows of two pieces that are surefire in the way they capture the spirit of the event.

For overall mood, The Ear thinks it is hard to top the upbeat energy of the “Academic Festival” Overture — heard below conducted by Leonard Bernstein in a YouTube video — which Johannes Brahms wrote on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree. It even includes an old Latin student drinking song.

The other piece is the “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1 (of 5) by Sir Edward Elgar — heard below in a YouTube video with a chorus singing “Land of Hope and Glory.”

Sure, it is overplayed for everything from elementary school to graduate school. But that is only because it fits the occasion so perfectly and captures the stately poignancy of the moment when you leave one life behind and turn to face another.

Are the two pieces “warhorses”?

Probably.

Make that certainly.

But The Ear thinks some old standards remain standards because they are just that good, not just that old.

Yet if you have other favorite works or you know of other worthy pieces – say, Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony that he wrote when he received an honorary degree –please leave word and a YouTube link in the COMMENT section.

Cheers and congratulations to all!


Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra’s music director John DeMain discusses the 2017-18 season with critic John W. Barker

May 11, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, an interview with the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s music director John DeMain about the next season, conducted and 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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Last month, I had a welcome opportunity to sit down with John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, together with his marketing director, Peter Rodgers, to discuss the orchestra’s recently announced 2017-18 concert season. (NOTE: Today is the deadline for current subscribers to renew and keep their seats. You can call 608 257-3734 or go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org/reneworder)

This meeting allowed me new insights into the various factors that go into selecting a season’s repertoire. It also gave me further appreciation of Maestro DeMain’s personality and talents.

It further revealed the unfairness of some criticism made that the coming season is “conservative” and repetitive of familiar works. In fact, his programming involves very thoughtful awareness of the differing expectations of the varied audience.

It has become customary to make the season’s opening concert a showcase for talented members of the orchestra, rather than for guest soloists.

The September program thus offers a masterpiece I particularly relish, Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a symphony with viola obbligato — featuring the orchestra’s principal violist, Chris Dozoryst (below).

But the inclusion of the neglected Fifth or “Reformation” Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn was decided as a link to this year’s 500th-anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther’s launching of the Lutheran Reformation in 1517. Also on the program is Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The October program contains a notable example of a familiar and popular “warhorse,” Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” This was indeed performed by the MSO two seasons back as part of the “Beyond the Score” presentations. DeMain indicates that the close repetition is made deliberately to connect with that past event, to expand further the audiences’ understanding of the work.

He is also juxtaposing the symphony with the appearance of the acclaimed Olga Kern (below), playing the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber and with the “Mother Goose” Suite by Maurice Ravel.

The November soloist is guitarist Sharon Isbin, in two concertos, one new (“Affinity” by Chris Brubeck) and one old (Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo)  She plays with her instrument electronically amplified, something very off-putting in my experience. But DeMain notes that all guitarists do that now in concert work, and he wanted to include the guitar to bring in new and different audience members.

Inclusion of suites by Aaron Copland and Manuel de Falla – “Billy the Kid” and “The Three-Cornered Hat,” respectively — also represent popular appeal.

January will bring a triumph for DeMain: the appearance of violinist Gil Shaham (below), after 15 years of efforts to secure him. Shaham will perform the Violin Concerto by Peter Tchaikovsky.

The all-Russian program also allows DeMain to venture for the first time into “The Love for Three Oranges” suite by Sergei Prokofiev and the Third Symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The issue of “warhorse” repetition is raised by the First Symphony by Johannes Brahms in the February program. But DeMain points out that it has been 10 years since the MSO played the work, a significant one that richly deserves performance by now.

He is also proud to include with it the outstanding Rossini opera overture (Semiramide) and the rarely heard Cello Concerto, with German cellist Alban Gerhardt (below), by the 20th-century British composer William Walton.

DeMain admits to mixed feelings about the “Beyond the Score” presentations of music and background context, but he is confident that the one offered (one night, outside subscriptions) on March 18, about the monumental Enigma Variations, by Sir Edward Elgar, (below) will work well.

The combination in April of Benjamin Britten’s powerful Sinfonia da Requiem and Robert Schumann’s First Symphony (“Spring”) with Antonin Dvorak’s sadly neglected Violin Concerto has special meanings for the maestro. It allows the return of the greatly admired Augustin Hadelich (below) as soloist.

But it also allows DeMain’s return, for his first time since 1974, to the Schumann score, with which he had a crucial encounter in a youthful appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Finally, the May program is an unusually exciting combination of Mozart’s too-little-appreciated Piano Concerto No. 22 with soloist Christopher O’Riley (below) of NPR’s “From the Top” with the roof-raising Glagolitic Mass, featuring the Madison Symphony Chorus, of Leos Janacek.

DeMain has made important commitments to the orchestral music of Janacek (below) before this, and his advance to the composer’s great blockbuster choral work is a landmark.

Amid savoring DeMain’s thoughts on the season – which also includes the MSO’s traditional Christmas concert in early December — and his wonderful recollections of past experiences, I came to recognize more than ever the remarkable combination of talents he brings to his Madison podium.

Beyond so many conductors, DeMain has had deeply engaging phases of his career in orchestral literature (large and small), in opera and musical theater, and in chamber music, while being himself an accomplished pianist.

With the breadth of his range, he brings a particular sensitivity to the contexts and diversities of what he conducts. He has become to his musicians not only a skilled guide, but also a subtle teacher, deepening their understanding without any hint of pedantry.

It cannot be said enough how truly blessed we are to have him with us in Madison.

For more information about the 2017-18 season, including specific dates and times, and about purchasing tickets for new subscribers and renewing subscribers, go to:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/17-18


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Classical music: Are they warhorses or masterpieces? Do you agree with the Top 100 classical music pieces as selected by listeners of WQXR?

January 7, 2017
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Are they warhorses?

Or are they simply great, surefire masterpieces of classical music that have meaning to many, many people even after repeated listening?

Can they be both?

Can one critic’s warhorse be another listener’s masterpiece? 

Think about it and then decide for yourself.

Here is some help.

Every year, WQXR-FM, the famed classical music radio station in New York City, asks its listeners to nominate the Top 100 pieces of classical music. From the holidays through New Years’ Day, Jan. 1, the radio station then airs those pieces in a countdown format. (You can also check out and stream much of WQXR’s regular and special programming by going to: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/

At the top of this year’s list, not surprisingly, is Ludwig van Beethoven (below). Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are also well represented.

Beethoven big

Here is a link to this year’s selections:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/wqxr-2016-classical-music-countdown/

Many, if not most or even all, of the titles will seem quite familiar.

But before you dismiss them as too easy or too popular or overperformed, The Ear reminds  readers of what the famed American playwright Edward Albee, who died last year, once observed.

Albee said something to the effect: Great art should move you and make you feel different. If it doesn’t do that, then forget it. You’re wasting your time. Find art that does.

How many of these pieces would fit that criterion for you and how many would you also have named? For The Ear, an awful lot.

How many have you heard, live or on a recording?

How many do you look forward to hearing again – on the assumption that repeated listening brings repeated pleasure and deeper appreciation and understanding?

It is also useful to remember what the great and, at the same time, popular pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff  (below) once said: “Classical music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for classical music.”

So much music!

So little time!

Rachmaninoff

Enjoy the list and the music, and leave your thoughts about these selections or about what is missing in the COMMENT section.

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
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

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

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

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.

brahms3

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.

 


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