The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Musicians need silence, says pianist Stephen Hough, who also praises the rise of artists and audiences for Western classical music in Asia

April 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Pianist Stephen Hough is rightly described as a polymath, a Renaissance Man who is a world-class performer, composer, painter, novelist and blogger.

Little wonder that Hough was the first musician to win a MacArthur Fellowship or “genius grant.”

The virtuosic Hough (below) wowed local audiences here a couple of months ago when he performed the dazzling Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saens with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Recently, he gave an interview in which he talked about the importance of silence to musicians.

Along the way, he also remarked on and lauded the “thrilling” rise of Western classical music – shown in audiences as well as the huge numbers and high quality of professional performing artists, amateurs and students – in Asia.

Hough also talked about the role of composing for performers, why it is a valuable skill and whether the performer-composer tradition is returning. (You can hear Stephen Hough perform his own Piano Sonata No. 3 “Trinitas” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear found Stephen Hough’s interview engaging and informative, and hopes you do too.

Here is a link:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carlos-gardels/musicians-silence-stephen-hough_b_9626456.html


Classical music: A new recording of Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” captures the Russian qualities the composer prized in this sacred music

April 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a record 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

For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.

A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.

Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.

Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).

It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”

It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.

Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)

Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.

The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.

Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.

Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.

I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.

They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.

While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.

One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.

This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.


Classical music: Don’t “monetize” the Pro Arte Quartet, which performs three FREE concerts this week. It embodies the Wisconsin Idea

February 1, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s no secret that the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music is strapped for money, especially for hiring staff and funding student scholarships — if less so for the construction of new buildings that are financed by selling naming rights.

Certain events, such as the UW Choral Union, have always charged admission. And most UW-Madison musical events, especially faculty and student performances, remain, thankfully, FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

But under increasing financial pressure, a few years ago the UW started charging admission to more events: the UW Brass Festival, the UW Concerto Competition Winners’ Concert and the annual Schubertiade to name a few.

So one can well imagine the temptation to “monetize” — charge admission to – concerts by the popular Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), which typically draws both critical acclaim and large audiences.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

Yet The Ear thinks that would be a mistake, even if the purpose or intent is the best.

The Pro Arte Quartet, which ended up here from its native Belgium when it was exiled here on tour during World War II when Hitler and the Nazis invaded and conquered Belgium, is a primary example of The Wisconsin Idea in action.

The Wisconsin Idea – under siege now by the governor and many legislators — is that the boundaries of the UW are the borders of the state and that the UW should serve the taxpayers who support it.

No single musical group at the UW does that job that better than the hard working Pro Arte Quartet, which has done it for many decades.

The quartet practices for three hours every weekday morning. It tours and performs frequently in Madison and elsewhere in the state, including Door County. It has played in Carnegie Hall in New York City and toured Europe, South America and Asia. It has commissioned and premiered many new works. It has made numerous outstanding recordings. It is a great and revered institution.

The Pro Arte Quartet is, in short, a great ambassador for the state of Wisconsin, the UW-Madison and the UW System. It has given, and will continue to give, countless listeners a start on loving chamber music.

If you are unfamiliar with the history of the Pro Arte Quartet, which is now over 100 years old and is the longest lived active quartet in the history of Western music, go to this link:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/pro-arte-quartet/

Pro Arte Haydn Quinten

And you might consider attending or hearing one of the three FREE PUBLIC performances this week in the Madison area:

THURSDAY

From 7 to 9 p.m., the Pro Arte Quartet will perform FREE at Oakwood Village Auditorium, 6209 Mineral Point Road on Madison’s far west side near West Towne. The program is the same as the one listed below on Saturday.

The Oakwood Village concert is OPEN to the public.

Here is a link to more information:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-at-oakwood-village/

Oakwood Village Auditorium and Stage

SATURDAY

At 8 p.m., in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte Quartet, joined by University of Maryland guest pianist Rita Sloan (below top), will perform a FREE program that features the Fuga in E-flat Major, (1827) by Felix Mendelssohn; the String Quartet No. 20 in F major, Op. 46, No. 2 (1832-33) by the prolific but neglected 19th-century French composer George Onslow (below bottom); and the rarely heard Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84, (1919) by Sir Edward Elgar. (You hear the lovely slow movement from the Elgar Piano Quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For information, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-6/

rita-sloan

george-onslow

SUNDAY

At 12:30 p.m. in the Brittingham Gallery III (below) of the Chazen Museum of Art, the Pro Arte Quartet will perform for “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen,” where over the years it has become the chamber music ensemble in residence.

The program is the same as the one on Saturday night.

Here is information about reserving seats and also a link for streaming the concert live via the Internet:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-2-5-17/

SALProArteMay2010

Do you have an opinion about the Pro Arte Quartet?

Should admission to Pro Arte concerts be started? Or should the quartet’s performances remain free?

Leave a COMMENT below with the why and your reasoning.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Four major retirements this spring could put the UW-Madison School of Music in a staffing bind and could further hurt the standing of the university

December 19, 2016
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Merry Christmas!

NOT.

Happy New Year!

NOT.

Just as the first semester is coming to an end, The Ear has learned that four major retirements in the spring will put the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music staffing and teaching in a bind that poses some major challenges.

Three of the retirements are by major performers. The fourth is by a major scholar, a musicologist and music historian.

Here they are in alphabetical order:

  • John Aley (below), professor of trumpet. Aley, who has a national and international reputation and who once played with the American Brass Quintet, is also the principal trumpet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and plays in the Wisconsin Brass Quintet. He plans to continue to reside in Madison and to continue his MSO duties one season at a time.

For more information, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/john-aley/

john aley color

  • Lawrence Earp (below), professor of musicology. Since 1984, Earp, a trained bassoonist, has taught courses about and researched music and composers across the entire history of Western classical music.

For more information, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/lawrence-earp/

Faculty

Faculty

  • Stephanie Jutt (below), professor of flute. Jutt, who is principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, also is co-founder and co-artistic director of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

Jutt plans to move to her native New York City to live, but says she will continue her duties with the MSO and the BDDS.

For more information, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/stephanie-jutt/

Stephanie Jutt CR Dick Ainsworth

  • James Smith (below), professor of conducting, who has led the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra, the UW Chamber Orchestra and is the music director of the University Opera. Earlier this year, he announced his retirement as the longtime music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

Smith, a one-time professional clarinetist, plans to move into a new house he has built in Cross Plains where he will work on his repertoire and pursue stints as a freelance guest conductor.

For more information, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/james-smith/

UW Chamber Orchestra, James Smith, conductor

All four have served the UW-Madison and area music-lovers well indeed and for a long time.

The bind for the music school is that, thanks to the boa constrictor-like choke hold on the UW-Madison’s budget and staffing by Gov. Scott Walker and his anti-intellectual, anti-education cronies in the Legislature and on the Board of Regents, tenured faculty do not usually get replaced by tenure-track positions. Instead the school has had to offer most new teachers non-renewable three-year stints as adjunct professors.

True, there is a long of talented people out there looking for jobs. So adjuncts are not necessarily inferior performers or teachers. But who wants to be moving around every few years and starting over?

As far as The Ear understands it, in the long-term the move to adjuncts is not good for the students, especially graduate students, for other faculty members and for the reputation of the School of Music, which has managed to secure major funding support for construction and physical plant projects but much less support for staff and scholarships.

Clearly, it introduces an element of instability and insecurity that hardly seems helpful in the competitive academic market place.

In any case, The Ear congratulates all the retirees on their distinguished careers and thanks them for so many years of public service and so many enjoyable hours of performing  and understanding great music. They will be missed.

Feel free to leave your own comments and reactions in the COMMENT section.

No doubt the future retirees would like to hear from you.

And The Ear too wants to hear.


Classical music: In China, Western classical music has blossomed big since the Oscar-winning film “From Mao to Mozart”

October 1, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Western classical music has really blossomed big-time in China in the past 35 years.

How and how much?

David Stern, the son of violinist Isaac Stern, returns to China and discusses the major advances made since his father’s trip to China to make the Oscar-winning 1979 movie “From Mao to Mozart.” (You can see an excerpt, of Isaac Stern teaching a young Chinese student, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

chairman-mao-zedong

Mozart old 1782

That blossoming has affected the building of new state-of-the-art concert halls; more concerts with bigger audiences; major competitions; the formation of new chamber music, operatic and orchestral ensembles; and of course superior education and training for individual performers.

from-mao-to-mozart-cover

isaac-stern-in-china

David Stern gives a blogger a detailed tour of the astonishing progress made after culture wars waged by Mao Zedong and since his father’s pioneering experience in post-Cultural Revolution China in the following story:

http://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20169/19738/


Classical music: Conservative Republican presidential candidate and Evangelical Christian Ted Cruz wants to ban the tritone – or Devil’s chord – from classical music. NOT. Then again, maybe he does

March 21, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the first day when you can vote early via absentee ballot for the presidential primary election in Wisconsin on Tuesday, April 5, when you can also vote to fill a seat on the state Supreme Court.

And tomorrow, Tuesday, brings more presidential primaries for both Republicans and Democrats in the Western states of Arizona and Utah. Plus, there will also be Democratic caucuses in Idaho.

So the following political piece — a pseudo-news report — seems timely and appropriate, especially given the drive by establishment Republicans to rally and choose the ultra-conservative U.S. Senator Ted Cruz from Texas (below) as a way to stop New York City businessman Donald Trump.

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Sure, it’s a satire.

But it is a very well done satire — about something that was indeed banned in the Renaissance and Baroque eras by the Roman Catholic  Church.

But like so much satire, it is fun that also cuts close to the bone and contains more than a grain of truth about Cruz and about his many “first day on the job” promises if he gets elected president.

Cruz, the son of an evangelical minister, is such a devout and intolerant Christian fundamentalist, it is almost as if he is waging his own jihad, much like the Islamic terrorist state ISIS, on any culture he considers unChristian and heretical to his personal faith and what he considers to be the inerrant and literal truth of the Bible.

Hmm. Does that qualify him as an extremist or radical?

To The Ear, what is really and truly scary is Cruz — not the music.

And it is hard to say who is more threatening as a potential president: Donald Trump or Ted Cruz?

Well, make up your own mind, fellow music-lovers.

Here is the satire from submediant.com. It’s a good read with lots of details, specific composers and food for thought.

http://www.submediant.com/2016/03/15/citing-evangelical-faith-ted-cruz-calls-to-ban-satanic-tritone/

And here is a YouTube lesson in music theory that offers an explanation with examples of the Satanic tritone:


Classical music: University Opera will stage Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” this coming weekend and next Tuesday night. The Ear thinks it has all the makings of a Don’t Miss event.

October 19, 2015
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The University Opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music will stage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro” in Music Hall (below, at the foot of Bascom Hill) this coming Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m., Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. and next Tuesday night at 7 p.m.

MusicHall2

Tickets are $25 for adults; $20 for seniors; and $10 for students with ID.

The stage director is David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio), a guest director from the Aaron Copland School of Music at CUNY in New York City who is here at the UW-Madison for a second year in a row.

David Ronis color CR Luke DeLalio

The Ear recalls that last year’s eclectic and sold-out production by Ronis of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” was a highlight of the season. Ronis drew incredible performances from the students and the costumes and sets, which mixed India‘s Bollywood aesthetic with a traditional Western monastic aesthetic. The opera was well sung and eye-popping in the best sense. It was Big Fun.

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

So The Ear has big expectations of this opera, which he likes even more, and which will be performed by the same stage director and music director, James Smith (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson), conducting the UW Symphony Orchestra.

In fact, The Ear is willing to bet that once again Ronis, Smith and student performers will deliver the goods and sell out all four performances, not just the three that were typical of past productions.

UW Chamber Orchestra, James Smith, conductor

The Ear asked Ronis, who is among the national pool of candidates who have applied to fill the post of University Opera director permanently, why he chose another Mozart opera. (Last year, he also did Benjamin Britten‘s “Albert Herring.” This coming April he will do Conrad Susa’s and Ann Sexton’s “Transformations.”)

Here is his answer:

“As far as why we’re doing “Figaro” in light of just having done “The Magic Flute.”  Simple: it was the best choice for the group of students that we have this year in terms of educational value and the current talent pool.  It happened to be Mozart (below) – with absolutely nothing planned or any connection between the two.”

Mozart old 1782

If you would like to know more about the production and about the cast – and also about how to buy tickets — visit this site with the comprehensive press release from the UW-Madison:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2015/09/23/university-opera-presents-the-marriage-of-figaro/

One final word: The Ear says this Mozart opera is especially known for its sprightly Overture (below in a YouTube video featuring conductor Fabio Luisi and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra).

But even more importantly, The Ear says it is worth a seeing if for no other reason than hearing the sublime forgiveness quartet at the end. (You can hear it in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The music is otherworldly and heart-wrenching in its beauty.

And as Mr. Mozart knew so well: Who doesn’t need love and isn’t moved by forgiveness?

 


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