The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: They made chamber music hip. The “forever young” Kronos Quartet turns 40 -– after changing the business model of recording, the repertoire of string quartets, and the public’s taste in chamber music.

April 5, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

They made chamber music hip when it used to be square.

I’m talking about the Kronos String Quartet, which for decades has, in Bob Dylan’s famous lyrics, remained “Forever Young.”

But they aren’t young except in spirit, where it really counts.

In case you missed it, a week ago Friday was the 40th anniversary of the internationally acclaimed and ever-performing, ever-recording, ever-commissioning and ever-morphing Kronos Quartet (below).

Kronos Quartet

The Kronos Quartet, which has a local Wisconsin tie through the original cellist Jean Jeanrenaud (below), who  retired in 1998 from the group and its hectic touring, made history in many ways.

Joan Jeanrenaud

For one, the Kronos changed the notion and model of string quartets and chamber music in general. They were unafraid to go electric when needed. And so they expanded the audience for string quartets and chamber music to younger people.

The Kronos focused on modern and contemporary music and commissioned hundreds of new works from contemporary composers. That is a formidable legacy for the future.

The Kronos focused on crossover music and broke the mold of separate categories. (Below, they are playing outdoors in Warsaw, Poland, in 2006.)

Kronos quartet outdoors in warsaw in 2006

The Kronos focused on ethnic music and Third World composers. (Below, they are playing with celebrated Chinese pipa player Wu Man, who is in the center of the photo.)

kronos quartet with chinese wu man

In the end, they sold millions of recordings and helped change the business model that string quartets and chamber music used to survive and prosper. (Below, they are performing on the BBC Radio in 2012.)

Kronos Quartet plyaing on BBC Radio 2012

Some critics of the Kronos might say they didn’t change it for the better. But what the Kronos did has remained permanent and popular. It changed the scene for many quartets that came after them, including the popular Quartetto Gelato and the Turtle Island String Quartet.

So to catch up with all that the Kronos represents, here are links to some pieces from background history and backstories to concert reviews.

Here is the story that was on NPR:

And here is a link to the NPR blog “Deceptive Cadence” that also offers sounds samples of pioneering work done by the Kronos. (Below, in 2013 in photo by Jay Blakesberg.)

kronos quartet 2013 CR jay blakesberg

Here is a fine, comprehensive profile by The New York Times:

Here is a review of the concert in Carnegie Hall that appeared in the New York Times:

Plus here is a review of the same program done earlier on the West Coast by The Los Angles Times:,0,4644880.story#axzz2xe4TjZSL

The Ear likes a lot of the Kronos’ work. But curiously I prefer some of the ethnic and crossover music -– a version of rock and roll icon Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” (in a popular YouTube video at the bottom) is the famous example — better than much of the contemporary stuff.

Two of my favorite Kronos CDs are “Pieces of Africa,” with its contagious rhythms, and “Winter Was Hard,” with its short but intense miniatures that included both early music and new music.

kronos winter-was hard CD


What is your favorite Kronos Quartet album or even single performance?

And what role did the Kronos Quartet play in your own appreciation of chamber music, especially string quartets, and contemporary classical  music or new music?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Being a professional classical musician takes more than having talent, good stage nerves and the ability to play the right notes.

March 26, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Spring break has begun at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at most public schools in and around Madison.

That means that the active concert life at the UW and other local presenters has taken a short break or intermission.

And that, in turn, means that I can catch up on some things – comments, reviews, non-local stories – that got pushed aside to make way for the ever busier schedule of live classical music events in the Madison area.

One of the things that I meant to blog about earlier is the lesson that I received from a couple of outstanding local events: The lesson that it takes more than talent, good stage nerves and playing the right notes to make a professional career in music.

One similar expression of that came recently from a blog by pianist Stephen Hough (below), who has performed several time sin Madison, from his comments about his life between concerts and from comments by his readers. Here is a link:


And you can Google to find other stories about life behind the scenes for concert musicians. That was one reason the recent movies “A Late Quartet” (below) and “Quartet” were so enjoyable.

A Late Quartet frontal

I also posted about this when the acclaimed pianist Jeremy Denk. (Denk, below) returns to Madison on April 11 to perform Bartok, Liszt, Bach and Beethoven in a Mills Hall recital for the Wisconsin Union Theater series.)

Denk came here and lectured at the UW School of Music, gave a blog panel, and performed a massive recital of Charles Ives and J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations at the Wisconsin Union Theater two seasons ago. He performed this despite having his computer, with many notes for his acclaimed blog (“Think Denk”) and terrific lectures, stolen from backstage.

But Denk gamely went on as of nothing happened and delivered the goods in spades. I don’t know if I could have summoned that kind of concentration after that kind of upsetment. In fact, I am almost certain I could NOT have.

Jeremy Denk playing 2

This semester I can think of two other examples, although I am sure there are more I don’t know about.

On Feb. 9 the acclaimed and unconventional Brooklyn-based freelance chamber orchestra The Knights (below) and pipa virtuoso Wu Man played an outstanding concert (below) marking the Chinese New Year in Mills Hall for the Wisconsin Union Theater, which is closed for renovation.

the knights 1

Yet they arrived only 70 minutes before they went on stage.

They had unexpectedly caught a last-minute flight out of New York, despite a snowstorm (or snow “event” as TV weather forecasters have taken to calling it) and went to Milwaukee, where a chartered bus picked them up and brought them to Madison.

But it all happened so fast and unpredictably. So unsure were things that even the presenters were making contingency plans for cancelling the event.

But they all arrived and went on stage where they stood to play Debussy, Stravinsky and Milhaud as well as a pipa concerto by American composer Lou Harrison and a pipa work composed by Wu Man. Via cell phone, the players en route had asked that cookies and milk be provided after the concert for them (they hadn’t eaten or had a chance to rest) and for the rest of the audience.

That happened, and the music combined with the socializing make for an unforgettable event.

That kind of devotion, of going with flow no matter how discouraging, is what being a professional musician is all about. No excuses were made. The Knights and Wu Man just kept their composure, put the music first and played their hearts out – and the audience, including The Ear, was most grateful and appreciative.

The Knights and Wu Man in Mills Hall Feb. 9 2013

Also in February, the distinguished German cellist Alban Gerhardt performed a terrific and terrifically difficult Prokofiev piece (the “Sinfonia Concertante”) with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain, who himself turned in a terrifically vital performance of Beethoven’s rarely heard Symphony No. 4.

But Gerhardt (below) too faced obstacles that turned out to be a demonstration of his cool professionalism.

alban gerhardt

Normally, he said, it takes about 12 hours to get from his home in Berlin, Germany to Madison. But he was rerouted due to airplane difficulties, and it took him twice as long –- about 24 hours – as normal.

In fact, he was late for his won first rehearsal. But he came directly from the airport and wandered into Overture Hall and picked up where someone else had started on his place. That was on Thursday night. Then came the actual performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday -– and he performed up to the level we all expected and that had been advertised by the symphony.

Alban Gerhardt playing 2

But travel and fatigue weren’t the only problems.

Add in some personal heartbreak. The Transportation Security Authorities at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C broke his $20,000 cello bow (below) in some careless manner while they inspected and then closed his cello case. He later discovered they had also damaged his cello.

The incident even made national and international news. Here are links:!/blogs/wqxr-blog/2013/feb/12/cellists-bow-damaged/

Alban Gerhardt broken cello bow

That kind of  unexpected loss has to hurt, especially when so much of the life of a touring musician is based on routine and things going as planned.

But neither the travel delay nor the broken bow – he borrowed one from a symphony cellist – interfered with his absolutely first-rate performance.

Talk about remaining cool, calm and collected!

Anyway, both concerts were wonderful events that I did not review because space was needed for other previews. (Each would have received a rave.) But I did want to praise not only the performances, but the sheer perseverance of great and thoroughly professional musicians who are anything but temperamental divas.

And then this past week, the up-and-coming New York-based pianist Shai Wosner (below) stepped in a again — the second time in three years — to substitute for Anne-Marie McDermott as a soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. He got the call Tuesday afternoon and by Friday night was in Madison, had rehearsed the scheduled work (Mozart’s great Piano Concerto in C Minor) and delivered a first-rate performance.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

Do you know of similar stories to share with readers and non-musicians or especially amateur musicians who might reassess whether they really ever wished to be professional touring concert artists?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music Q&A: Wu Man talks about the Chinese pipa, which she will play with the prize-winning and critically acclaimed The Knights chamber orchestra for the Wisconsin Union Theater this coming Saturday night.

February 4, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Amid so much local competition, the veteran and venerable Wisconsin Union Theater is trying to adapt to the times and the public’s desires.  One strategy, used by music presenters nationwide, that it is pursuing is to widen the audience appeal to younger people, especially University of Wisconsin students, by broadening the definition of classical music and to blend in world music, which attracts big audiences. (It is also deliberately keeping prices down.)

So what could be more classical and yet, at the same time, more exotic and novel than the ancient Chinese instrument, the pipa (below).


It has been undergoing a revival in the West, largely thanks to the prize-winning and critically acclaimed virtuoso Wu Man (below). She has performed with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. At the bottom, you can hear a YouTube video of a Tiny Desk Concert she performed at the studios of NPR.

Wu Man  horizontal

You can hear the results for yourself this Saturday night, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall (the hall the Wisconsin Union Theater is using while it undergoes renovation).

Wu Man will perform as soloist with the highly acclaimed and prize-winning chamber orchestra from Brooklyn, New York, The Knights (below). The group of young New York musicians, praised for its revelatory and energetic readings of Ives, Copland, Mozart and Schubert and others, has also just released an all-Beethoven CD, with the Triple Concerto and Symphony No. 5, on Sony Classics.

Here is a link to the group’s website:

the knights 1

The program, which the same players will perform this Thursday night in Manhattan, includes some more traditional classics from the Western classical music canon. They include the Neo-classical “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto  by Igor Stravinsky (below, in a photo by Richard Avedon).

igor stravinsky portrait

Then two early 20th-century French works will be performed: the sensuous “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below top) and the jazzy score for “The Ox on the Roof” by Darius Milhaud (below bottom).

claude debussy 2

darius milhaud

Wu Man will solo in the Concerto for Chamber Orchestra and Pipa by 20th-century American composer Lou Harrison (below) and Wu Man’s own composition “Blue and Green.”

Lou Harrison

Tickets run $10 for UW students to $25, with parking available for an extra fee.

Here is a link to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s website about the concert with ticket information, reviews, links to related sites and even a video clip:

Wu Man recently granted an email Q&A to The Ear:

Wu Man 1

What is the pipa and how would you describe its sound and explain the way one plays it?

The pipa is a lute-like (four-stringed) instrument with a 2,000 year-old history. It sounds almost like a combination of guitar, banjo, mandolin, lute and ud, etc. It is plucked with the right hand’s five fingers, and has a rich sound quality and is capable of many different music styles.

In what way is the pipa a “classical” instrument in Asia? Why is it important for Westerners to become acquainted with it?

The pipa was introduced to China 2,000 years ago from Central Asia. The Chinese took thousands of years to make this Central Asian ‘lute.’ It is a part of the world string plucking instrument family. If you like learning about the music and culture from the east part of the globe, then the pipa is the one of the main traditional musical instruments you can study.

To me it really doesn’t matter if you are Westerners or Easterners, we are all living on the same globe. It is important to know each other’s culture. Just like the pipa –- music came from the same roots, and is traveling to other places. If you isolate yourself in your own zone, that would be a pity because you are missing so many wonderful things on the other part of the earth. And perhaps you will be OUT of today’s modern society soon.

Wu Man vertical

How successfully does it blend with Western style classical music?

As I mentioned, music is the human being’s natural language and it can blend in many ways. I am still looking for the different possibilities. So far the pipa has worked perfectly with western chamber ensembles, orchestras, and of course other members of plucked string family as well. Actually the pipa could blend with any musical style and art form such as jazz, electronic, theater, dance, multi-media…on and on…

What has been the reaction of American and European audiences to you and the pipa?

The audiences are always enthusiastic about my music and fascinated about the pipa’s unique style. I have been touring with a variety of projects — solo recitals and as well as chamber ensembles, string quartets, pipa concerto with orchestras, and theater performances. I have collaborated with dancers, singers, and visual artists.

I would like to bring the pipa to different musical genres, to explore the possibilities of this ancient Chinese instrument. And I want to see in the future that the pipa will be available to the world and become a member of the 21st-century musical family.

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