The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Remembering Rudolf Serkin

January 18, 2018
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Among 20th-century pianists, Rudolf Serkin (below, in a photo by Yousuf Karsh) was a giant.

The Ear heard him live only twice.

Once was in New York City when Serkin played the “Emperor” Piano Concerto by Beethoven with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

The second time was years later in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, when he played an all-Beethoven program of sonatas during the Beethoven bicentennial.

Then there were his many recordings, no less wondrous and captivating. They set standards hard to equal, let alone surpass.

The Ear especially loved his Beethoven concertos and sonatas, but also his Mozart and Schubert, his Schumann and Brahms. One of The Ear’s favorite recordings was Serkin playing both the Piano Concerto and the Piano Quintet by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the opening of the Piano Quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Serkin was a complete musician who excelled in solo music, chamber music and concertos.

Recently, The Ear saw the finest essay he has ever read about Serkin — who often seems overlooked or forgotten these days when the spotlight usually falls on his contemporaries Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz — in The New Yorker magazine.

Richard Brady, who usually writes about movies, captures the special magic that was Serkin’s.

In addition, the story offer 12 carefully chosen samples of Serkin’s playing, taken from solo recordings, concertos and chamber music, from older standard composers and classic works to more modern composers and works.

Here is a link:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/2017-in-review/my-favorite-classical-music-release-of-2017

Did you ever hear Rudolf Serkin live?

What did you think?

Do you have a favorite work, live or recorded, played by Rudolf Serkin?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: What music best expresses the “bomb-cyclone” and Arctic blasts?

January 6, 2018
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Weather-wise, the past couple of weeks have been unforgettable and, in many ways, unbearable.

First, around Christmas, we had one bitterly cold Arctic blast.

Then after New Year’s Day came the massive “bomb-cyclone” that brought snow and ice, high winds and flooding, to the East Coast all the way from Florida to Maine.

Next came another Arctic blast – that put most of the country into the deep freeze with sub-zero temperatures that broke records over a century old.

(How, The Ear wonders, does the Arctic blast differ from the Polar Vortex of a few years ago? And who invents such colorful names that certainly seem new.)

Such extreme wintry weather has brought misery, hardship and even death to wherever it struck.

With luck, the coming week will see a return to more normal temperatures and more normal winter weather.

Still, the past few weeks got The Ear to wondering: What music best expresses such extreme kind of winter weather?

The highly virtuosic and aptly named “Winter Wind” Etude in A minor, Op. 25, No. 11, by Frederic Chopin came to mind. Its swirling notes suggest the howling wind and bitter cold while the minor-key melody has a certain dirge-like or funereal quality to it.

You can hear it played by Evgeny Kissin in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But The Ear is sure that many readers could suggest other musical depictions of extreme winter weather.

So please leave the name of the composer, the title of the work and, if possible, a link to a YouTube video performance at the bottom.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Robert Mann, a founder and longtime first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, has died at 97

January 4, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

On New Year’s Day, Robert Mann, a founder and longtime first violinist of the famed Juilliard String Quartet died at 97.

He had played with the group from its beginning in 1946 until his retirement in 1997.

He was in every way a complete musician – an esteemed teacher who was also an acclaimed performer.

Mann and the quartet proved to be pivotal figures in the post-World War II rise of chamber music in America, performing both classic repertoire such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms as well as modern works such as Bartok and contemporary works or new music.

Here is a link to the obituary in The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/02/obituaries/robert-mann-dead-juilliard-string-quartet-violinist.html?_r=0

Here is a link to the quartet’s website:

https://www.juilliardstringquartet.org

And here is a link to the Wikipedia entry for the Juilliard String Quartet (below, in a 1996 photo by Ruby Washington for The New York Times, with Mann on the far left followed by second violinist Joel Smirnoff, cellist Joel Krosnick and violist Samuel Rhodes.)

The entry includes comments on its significance in live performance and recordings as well as repertoire and changes in its personnel over the years:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juilliard_String_Quartet

It is hard to choose the right piece of music as a memorial.

But in the YouTube video below is a the gently gorgeous and exquisite slow movement of Claude Debussy’s only string quartet with Mann playing with other veteran members of the original quartet, including violist Samuel Rhodes, who has often come to Madison to play with the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet.


Classical music: NPR explores Opus 1 works to mark Jan. 1 and New Year’s Day

January 3, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Each year, the media look for new ways to mark the holidays and especially New Year’s Day.

One of the best and most original The Ear has seen and heard in a long time came from National Public Radio (NPR).

On Morning Edition, the radio network consulted Miles Hoffman (below), a violist, conductor and educator, about the first works – the Opus 1 works – that various composers published.

Hoffman’s remarks touch on quite a few young composers and prodigies, including Ludwig van Beethoven (below top), Felix Mendelssohn (below middle) and Ernst von Dohnanyi (below bottom).

Here is a link to the story, which should be listened to, and not just read, for the sake of the music and sound samples:

https://www.npr.org/2018/01/01/574932138/on-the-first-day-of-the-new-year-celebrating-composers-opus-one

And from YouTube here are two more Opus 1 works that The Ear would add.

The first is the Rondo in C Minor, Op. 1, by a young Frédéric Chopin (below, in a drawing from Getty Images) and performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy. It shows just how early Chopin had found his own style and his own distinctive voice:

And here are the “Abegg” Variations by critic-turned-composer Robert Schumann (below), played by Lang Lang:

Can you think of other Opus 1 works to add to the list?

Please leave the composer’s name, the work’s title and a YouTube link to a performance, if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: For reviving and securing Bach Around the Clock, The Ear names Marika Fischer Hoyt as “Musician of the Year” for 2017

December 30, 2017
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Regular readers of this blog know how much The Ear likes to recognize community-based initiatives, amateur participation, and events that are affordable or free to the public and so help build and widen the audience for classical music.

On all those counts, the Musician of the Year for 2017 goes to Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) who revived Bach Around the Clock and has given it a seemingly secure future.

In Madison, Bach Around the Clock was originally sponsored and put on for several years by Wisconsin Public Radio’s music director Cheryl Dring. But when Dring left for another job five years ago, WPR ended the event, which got its national start in New Orleans and is now celebrated in many other cities to mark the March birthday of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

Yet it is not as if Fischer Hoyt didn’t already have enough on her plate.

She is a very accomplished and very busy violist.

As a modern violist, she plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and is a founding member of the Ancora String Quartet (below), with which she still plays after 17 seasons. She is also  a member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

As a specialist on the baroque viola, she is a member (below far left) of the Madison Bach Musicians who also plays for the Handel Aria Competition and the Madison Early Music Festival.

In addition, she is a private teacher who finds time to attend early music festivals around the country.

To get an idea of what she has done to put Bach Around the Clock (BATC) on a stable footing here, read the update posting from a couple of days ago:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/classical-music-bach-around-the-clock-2018-is-set-for-march-10-here-is-a-year-end-update-with-more-impressive-news/

Not only did Fischer Hoyt obtain the participation of some 80 performers — students and teachers, amateurs and professionals, individuals and groups– she also got cooperation, facilities, performers and help from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street, on Madison’s near west side.

She obtained donations of money and even food to stage the event.

She herself played in the event that drew hundreds of listeners.

She lined up local sound engineers who recorded the entire event, which was then broadcast in parts by Rich Samuels (below) on WORT-FM 89.9 and streamed live as far away as London.

She served as an emcee who also conducted brief interviews about the music with the many performers (below right, with flutist Casey Oelkers)

Recognizing she can’t keep doing so much by herself, the energetic Fischer Hoyt has turned BATC into a more formal and self-sustaining organization with a board of directors.

She has sought advice from experts about Bach and Bach festivals.

She applied for and won one of five national grants from Early Music America in Boston.

She has consulted legal help to make BATC a nonprofit charitable organization, which should help guarantee a steady stream of funding.

And artistically, she has added a back-up mini-orchestra to accompany singers and instrumentalists.

The event this year is on Saturday, March 10, a little early for Bach’s 333rd birthday (March 31, 1685) but a smart decision to avoid spring break in the schools and at the UW, and to help recruit the many performers who are also important, if secondary,  Musicians of the Year.

But the center of the event, the force holds it all together, is Marika Fischer Hoyt and all the hard work, done over a long time, that she has invested in making Bach Around the Clock a permanent part of Madison’s classical music schedule and cultural scene.

If you didn’t go last year, try it this year. It is wonderful, inspiring and enjoyable.

Please join The Ear in congratulating Marika Fischer Hoyt for making Bach Around the Clock the success it now is and giving it the future it now has. Leave your comments about her and BATC in the COMMENT section.

To celebrate, here is a YouTube video of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach:


Classical music: Bach Around the Clock 2018 will be March 10. Here is a year-end update with impressive news and important changes

December 28, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Violist Marika Fischer Hoyt, who last March successfully revived Bach Around the Clock after Wisconsin Public Radio dropped it five years ago, has sent the following year-end update that is full of impressive news, including this year’s date and a smart change of hours to 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. instead of noon to midnight:

“Bach Around The Clock,” the annual community celebration of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), exceeded all expectations in 2017.

“Approximately 80 performers were seen by almost 600 audience members. The performers ranged from beginning students (below top is a photo of the Suzuki Strings of Madison) to adult amateurs (below bottom is amateur pianist Tim Adrianson) to seasoned professionals including the Wisconsin Chamber Choir and the Madison Bach Musicians.

“The audience ran from around 300 persons at the church to 267 live-stream viewers, some from as far away as London, England.

“BATC gratefully acknowledges the valuable support received from Early Music America (EMA). In registering as a Partner of Early Music Month (an EMA initiative), BATC joined nearly 270 individual and organization Partners across the country whose events during the month of March were showcased on EMA’s website and social media.

“The enthusiastic Madison community response to BATC 2017 furnished strong supporting materials for an application for EMA’s coveted Outreach Grant. BATC, one of five organizations to win the award, received $500 and national recognition.

“As artistic director, I flew to Boston in June to attend the award ceremony, presided over by EMA Executive Director Ann Felter (below).  The award will help cover the cost of the sound engineers who record and live-stream the 2018 event.

“While in Boston Marika was able to consult extensively with harpsichordist and internationally recognized Bach scholar Raymond Erickson (below), who kindly offered insights and perspective on how to build a successful Bach festival.


“BATC 2018 — to mark Bach’s 333rd birthday — is scheduled for Saturday, March 10, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., again at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below), 1833 Regent Street. Local luminaries will again take shifts as onstage emcees.

“The program will open once again with individuals and ensembles from the St. Andrew’s congregation, and continue with musicians from the Madison community and far beyond.

“In 2017, BATC attracted performers (below) from Milwaukee, Dubuque, Oshkosh and Chicago. For 2018 we’ve already been contacted by a pianist from North Carolina who wants to come perform The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. It’s safe to say that the festival’s impact has expanded!

“New this year is the Ensemble-In-Residence, Sonata à Quattro, which will perform as a featured ensemble, and also play a supporting role for singers wanting to perform an aria, or solo instrumentalists wanting to play a concerto. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the gorgeous slow movement of the Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F minor.)

Led by violinist Kangwon Kim (below), the core ensemble includes strings and harpsichord, and will add obbligato instruments as necessary. Sonata à Quattro will also offer a Fringe Concert during the Madison Early Music Festival at the UW-Madison in July.

“Partner organizations this year will include EMA, as well as the UW Chazen Museum of Art, where BATC ensembles will perform a preview concert on March 4, on the “Sunday Afternoon Live” series.  Radio interviews on WORT-FM 89.9 and Wisconsin Public Radio are also in the works. Details will be announced in the coming weeks.

“St. Andrew’s will again make their beautifully remodeled Parish Hall available as a place for performers and audience members to enjoy refreshments, fellowship, restrooms, comfortable couches, and free wi-fi. Many thanks are due to the church staff and congregation, for providing BATC with a home.

“BATC is also in the process of establishing its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which should help secure donations and funding. Completion of this process is expected in the next week or so, and will be announced on the BATC website and Facebook page.

“In addition, a board of directors is also being assembled, which should help ensure the survival on BATC by sharing the workload and responsibilities.”

Here is a link to the website, which has other links and information:

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra draws its largest crowd yet as it rings in the New Year with Viennese waltzes, ethnic dances and violin showpieces

December 22, 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. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below)  had the last word of the December holiday season with a distinctly non-Christmas program.

To be sure, it was not a typical concert devoted to a tiny handful of major works. Rather, conductor Kyle Knox (below) devised something a cut above simplistic “pops” programming, with a clutch of nearly a dozen short works, each one of charm and substance—more like what Sir Thomas Beecham used to call “lollipops.”

The opener was a group of three selections from Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet Swan Lake. There followed three of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms intermingled with two of the Slavonic Dances by Dvorak, in their orchestral versions.

The first half then closed with the first of two pieces featuring the conductor’s wife, violinist Naha Greenholtz (below), who is also the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. This was a kind of mini-concerto tidbit by Tchaikovsky, his Danse Russe.

The high point of the program’s second half was the second violin solo for Greenholz. Ravel’s Tzigane is a contemplation of Gypsy style. It begins with a wild unaccompanied solo for the violin, to which the orchestra then joins in a colorful set of variations. Here the playing by Greenholz was simply dazzling.

(You can hear Ravel’s virtuosic “Tzigane” — played by superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Otherwise, the second half of the program was a bit of old Vienna, via Johann Strauss II, perhaps hinting at that city’s famous New Year’s Concert.

Setting the scene was the overture to Die Fledermaus. Knox’s direction throughout showed a lot of hard work to bring off all the selections with precision, but I often felt that he strove mainly for exuberance at the cost of subtleties. Notably in this overture, it seemed to me that the strings, especially the violins, sounded a bit coarse, certainly below their best ensemble polish.

But doubts were certainly dispelled with one Strauss miniature, the Persian March, followed by that noblest of the composer’s achievements, the Kaiserwalzer or Emperor Waltz.

All in all, this worked as a responsible seasonal treat. It seemed to me that it drew the largest audience that the Middleton Community Orchestra has yet had, and this audience simply loved everything.

So, if you will, Happy New Year!


Classical music: Here are lists of the Best Classical Recordings of 2017 as named by The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes magazine and Gramophone magazine

December 16, 2017
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Just in time for last-minute holiday shopping and streaming – whether by others or yourself – some major publications and critics have published their lists of the top classical recording of 2017.

Personal preferences and taste matter, to be sure. So opinions inevitably differ.

But in some cases, the verdicts seem close to unanimous.

Take the case of some pianists.

You can, for example, find overlapping agreement on the merits of the 24-year-old Italian pianist and Cliburn Competition silver medal laureate Beatrice Rana playing the famed Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Same for the 33-year-old Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olaffson who gives revelatory readings of works by contemporary American Minimalist composer Philip Glass.

And many critics give raves to acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing neglected piano miniatures by Finnish symphonic titan Jean Sibelius. (See Andsnes discussing Sibelius in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The various lists cover all genres from solo piano music to songs, chamber music to symphonies, oratorios to operas.

You can find lots of neglected repertoire — both early and new — unknown artists and small labels.

But there are also major stars, tried-and-true repertoire and large vintage or heritage labels.

In short, both beginners and experienced classical listeners and players can find plenty to please them.

In addition, some of the lists for the past year include links to lists from previous years. And those lists too still have some excellent choices that hold up.

Here is a link to the 2017 list in The New York Times, which was compiled by several critics:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/13/arts/music/best-classical-music-recordings-2017.html

Here is a list by a critic and columnist for Forbes magazine:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenslaurson/2017/12/13/the-10-best-classical-recordings-of-2017/#60b8fd87ebca

Here is the list from John von Rhein for the Chicago Tribune:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/vonrhein/sc-ent-best-classical-recordings-2017-1206-story.html

And here is a list from the British Gramophone magazine, which often favors artists and groups located in the United Kingdom:

https://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/the-best-new-classical-albums-december-2017

And in case you missed it before, here are lists from other sources that this blog has posted and linked to:

From famed WQXR-FM radio in New York City:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/14/classical-music-here-are-the-top-20-classical-recordings-of-2017-as-chosen-by-famed-radio-station-wqxr/

And here are the classical nominations for the 2018 Grammy awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/classical-music-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-2018-grammy-awards-they-make-a-great-holiday-gift-list-of-gives-and-gets/


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra deliver outstanding performances of great music by Mozart and Brahms

December 12, 2017
2 Comments

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. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The program for the first concert this season by the UW Choral Union (below), mercifully, had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, and just offered great music.

There were only two works, one by Brahms and the other by Mozart. Surefire!

Johannes Brahms composed three relatively short works for chorus, without soloists, and orchestra. Of these, I wish conductors would get busy with two of them in particular. The Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates) and Nänie are simply superb works by one of the greatest of all choral composers.

The third, the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54, I would rate just a bit lower for musical content, but that is the one of the three that is more frequently performed, and that was the one we heard.

That said, there is much quite beautiful music in the piece, which sets a poem of Friedrich Hölderlin that moves from anxiety to desperation. Brahms (below) preceded the choral setting with a serene introduction that—to satisfy his aesthetics if not the poet’s—he repeats at the end to restore order.

Conductor Beverley Taylor (below) employed rather broad tempos, but this enabled her to bring out some of the melodic material with great beauty.

And, with a chorus of some 124 singers, she was able to give the music tremendous sonority, if a bit at the price of German diction. With the very good UW Symphony Orchestra in fine fettle, too, this was an excellent performance that should alert listeners to neglected treasures.

The main work was the unfinished “Great” Mass in C minor, K. 427, by Mozart (below). This is music inspired by the composer’s marriage and by the new (for him) artistic climate of Vienna. Even incomplete – it has a fragmentary “Credo” and is missing an “Agnus Dei”) — it still stands, with his also uncompleted Requiem, as a towering masterpiece of his sacred choral output.

Taylor displayed a fine feeling for both the overall and individual qualities of the work, projecting them with vigor and discipline.

There were four student soloists (below), with promising young voices.

But eventually the standout proved to be soprano Sarah Richardson (below). The operatic-style aria, “Et incarnatus est” from the “Credo” was apparently sung by Mozart’s wife in its preliminary performance, and is often heard as a separate solo number today. This was sung by Richardson (below) with skill and eloquence. (You can hear the aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This chorus was really a bit oversized for a work like this, but Taylor made it the real star of the performance, in singing with both power and precision.

A truly rewarding concert!


Classical music: The Madison Choral Project will feature holiday music and seasonal texts at its concerts this Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A local Lawrence University alumni event follows the Sunday afternoon performance

December 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Choral Project has sent the following announcement to be posted:

PLEASE NOTE: WE’VE CHANGED VENUES!

The fifth annual holiday concert by the Madison Choral Project (below) is called “Old Lessons and New Carols” and features a carefully curated selection of vocal music and readings.

The intent is to lead the listener along a sublime journey of music and text, perfect for this reflective season. (Sorry, The Ear has received no word about specific composers, authors or works on the program.)

Performances are: Friday night, Dec. 15, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 17, at 3 p.m.

Both concerts are located at the CHRIST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, 944 East Gorham Street.

Tickets are $24 for adults and $10 for students, who must show an ID.

For more information, go to: Old Lessons and New Carols

In addition, the Lawrence University Club of Madison will hold a gathering of alumni and prospective students after the concert on Sunday afternoon.

A special Lawrence reception will be held after the performance that will include a Q&A with Lawrence alumna and Madison Choral Project soprano Rachel Edie Warrick ’99 (below top), as well as the choir’s artistic director and conductor, Albert Pinsonneault (below bottom).

General admission is $24 per adult in advance, and $28 at the door. Admission for students, who must show ID, is $10 either in advance or at the door.

For tickets and more information about the Madison Choral Project, go to: http://themcp.org


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