The Well-Tempered Ear

Which classical composer has helped you the most during the Covid-19 pandemic?

January 4, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

The holidays are over and as we close in on marking a year of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, The Ear has a question:

Which composer has helped you the most to weather the pandemic so far?

The Ear wishes he could say Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin or Brahms. And the truth is that they all played a role, some more than others.

But The Ear was surprised by the composer whose works he most listened to and liked — Antonio Vivaldi (below), the Red Priest of Venice who lived from 1678 to 1714 and taught at a Roman Catholic girls school.

Here is more about his biography, which points out that his work was neglected for two centuries and began being rediscovered only in the early 20th-century and still continues being rediscovered to the present day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Vivaldi

The Ear isn’t talking about popular The Four Seasons although that set of 12 solo violin concertos has its charms and originalities.

The Ear especially appreciated the lesser-known concertos for two violins and the cello concertos, although the concertos for bassoon, flute, recorder, oboe, lute, trumpet and mandolin also proved engaging, as did the concerto grosso.

It was the 20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky (below) – the modern pioneer of neo-Classicism — who complained that Vivaldi rewrote the same concerto 500 times. “Vivaldi,” Stravinsky once said, “is greatly overrated – a dull fellow who could compose the same form many times over.”

But then did anyone turn to Stravinsky – who, The Ear suspects, was secretly envious — when they needed music as medicine or therapy during the pandemic? 

Vivaldi was, in fact, a master. See and hear for yourself.  In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, RV 535,  performed by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

Why Vivaldi? You might ask.

Well, it’s nothing highbrow.

The best explanation is that Vivaldi’s music simply seems like caffeine for the ears and sunshine for the eyes. His music isn’t overly introspective or glum, and it isn’t too long or melodramatic.

The melodies and harmonies are always pleasing and energizing, and the tempi are just right, although bets are that the music is much harder to play than it sounds.

In short, Vivaldi’s extroverted music is infectious and appealing because it just keeps humming along — exactly as those of us in lockdown and isolation at home have had to do.

Happily, there are a lot of fine recordings of Vivaldi by period instrument groups from England, Italy and Germany and elsewhere that use historically informed performance practices. But some the most outstanding recordings are by modern instrument groups, which should not be overlooked.

With a few exceptions – notably Wisconsin Public Radio – you don’t get to hear much Vivaldi around here, especially in live performances, even from early music and Baroque ensembles. If you hear Vivaldi here, chances are it is The Four Seasons or the Gloria. Should there be more Vivaldi? Will we hear more Vivaldi when live concerts resume? That is a topic for another time.

In the meantime, The Ear wants to know:

Which composer did you most listen to or find most helpful throughout the pandemic?

Leave your choice in the comment section with, if possible, a YouTube link to a favorite work and an explanation about why you liked that composer and work.

The Ear wants to hear.

Thank you and Happy New Year!

 


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The UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra will provide a welcome break on Election Night

November 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you find yourself needing some relief or a short break from vote counting and the barrage of election news this coming Tuesday night, Nov. 3, the masked and socially distanced UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) fits the bill.

The group’s refreshingly short, one-hour and intermission-free online video premiere begins at 7 p.m. CST on YouTube. There is no fee for watching the event in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the Hamel Music Center, although donations are welcome.

No in-person attendance is allowed.

The program features “Strum” (1981) by Jessie Montgomery (below, in a photo by Jiyang Chen); the famous and familiar Adagietto from the Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler (which you can hear with conductor Claudio Abbado in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the youthful Sinfonia No. 7 in D minor by Felix Mendelssohn, who wrote 13 of the string symphonies between the ages of 12 and 14.

 

Here is a direct link to the UW-Madison music school’s YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/TMNCy9qooCM

Just a personal note of appreciation and encouragement from The Ear: If you are a fan of orchestral music and pay attention to the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Middleton Community Orchestra, for example, then you owe to it yourself to become acquainted with the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra if you don’t already know it.

It is that good, as you can hear for yourself in this virtual concert during the pandemic. You will probably find yourself wanting to hear more.

The programs are outstanding and often feature neglected, modern and contemporary music as well as classic repertoire, and the playing is usually first-rate.

The orchestra sounds exceptionally good, often even professional, under its new conductor Oriol Sans (below), a native of Spain who arrived here last season from a post at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Sans has provided remarkable leadership both in the orchestra’s programs and in accompanying the University Opera productions and the UW Choral Union.

For more information, including the names of the orchestra’s members, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-madison-symphony-orchestra-video-premiere/

If you listen to it, please let us know: What did you think?

Did the performances please or impress you?

Did you like or dislike the scheduling on Election Night?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Did Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony foster racism, exclusion and elitism in the concert hall? The Ear thinks that is PC nonsense. What do you think?

September 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Controversy has struck big among classical music critics and fans — just in time for the Beethoven Year that will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth this December. Plans call for celebrations by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and others. 

At question is what seems yet another fallout and dust-up from the Black Lives Matter movement and the current struggle to foster social justice and racial equality.

In some ways, it all seems inevitable.

Now the history-denying advocates of cancel culture are suggesting that Beethoven (below) and his music – especially the popular Fifth Symphony (you can hear the famous opening in the YouTube schematic video at the bottom)  –  fostered white privilege and the rise of racism, sexism and homophobia in the concert hall.

That seems like quite an accusation for a single composer and a single piece of music that was premiered in 1808.

The assertion is food for thought. But not much.

In the end The Ear finds it a stretch and a totally bogus argument. He thinks that Beethoven attracted far more performers and audiences than he repelled. Others, including famed critic Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc and a critic for the right-wing newspaper The New York Post, agree:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/09/beethovens-5th-is-a-symbol-of-exclusion-and-elitism/

https://nypost.com/2020/09/17/canceling-beethoven-is-the-latest-woke-madness-for-the-classical-music-world/

The Ear also thinks it is political correctness run amok, even for someone who, like himself, advocates strongly for diversity of composers, performers and audiences – but always with quality in mind — in the concert hall.

Just because Beethoven was such a great creative artist is hardly cause to blame him for the inability of other artists to succeed and for non-white audiences taking to classical music. Other forces — social, economic and political — explain that much better.

Yes, Beethoven is a towering and intimidating figure. And yes, his works often dominate programming. But both musicians and audiences return to him again and again because of the originality, power and first-rate quality of his many works.

Beethoven himself was deaf. That would certainly seem to qualify him as inclusive and a member of an important category of diversity.

No matter. The writers are happy to blame Ludwig and his work for exclusion and elitism. They argue that people of color, women and LGBTQ people have all felt alienated from classical music because of Beethoven’s legacy.

Of course, there is elitism in the arts. People may be equal, but creative talent is not.

And clearly, Beethoven was a towering and intimidating figure – more for the quality of his music than for the simple fact that it exists. Such exclusion and elitism have to do with other factors than the composition of the Fifth Symphony.

If The Ear recalls correctly, when he died Beethoven was given the largest state funeral up to that time for a non-royal, non-politician or non-military person.

And how do you explain that Beethoven’s music, so representative of Western culture, appeals deeply to and attracts so many Asians and Asian-Americans, and became both banned and symbolically central to those opposed to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China?

But these days being provocative can become its own reward.

You can read the analysis and decide about its merits for yourself, then let us know what you think in the Comment section.

Here is a link to the opinion piece in Vox Magazine, a free online journal: https://www.vox.com/switched-on-pop/21437085/beethoven-5th-symphony-elitist-classism-switched-on-pop

What do you think about the idea that Beethoven played a large and seminal role in fostering an elitist and exclusive culture in classical music?

Did you ever feel alienated from classical music because of Beethoven or know others who have?

What is your favorite Beethoven composition?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra uses a new website and a new brochure to announce its new Masterworks season plus other innovations

May 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

In many ways, there is much that is familiar or tried-and-true about the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) and its new Masterworks season for 2020-21.

But in other ways it seems as if the WCO is reinventing and rebranding itself – perhaps under the direction of its new CEO Joe Loehnis – as the ensemble starts a double anniversary: its 60th season of existence and its 20th year under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell (below in a photo by Alex Cruz).

As in past years, the WCO programs feature a mix of familiar composers and works with new and neglected ones. It also features both new and returning guest soloists.

Start with what’s new.

The new WCO home website – like the new brochure that has been mailed out — has been redesigned, with more visuals and more information about the 34-member orchestra. The Ear finds both the new brochure and the new home page to be more attractive, better organized and easier to use. Take a look for yourself: https://wcoconcerts.org

There also seems to be a heightened emphasis on donations and raising money, including a new organization called “Friends” that brings special benefits for $30 or even more perks at $8 a month.

And the website seems more customer-friendly. There is a section on the website about “What to Expect,” which includes how to choose seats, how to dress, when to applaud and so forth. There is also a portal for streaming events and concerts.

There is more, much more, including the pre-concert dinners for the Masterworks concerts and the culturally diverse programs for the postponed Concerts on the Square (below), to run this summer on Tuesday nights at 6 p.m. (NOT the usual Wednesdays at 7 p.m.) from July 28 to Sept. 1.

There seems to be more emphasis on Sewell, who this year provides extensive first-person notes about each program and the guest artists. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Sewell discuss the new Masterworks season with Wisconsin Public Radio host and WCO announcer Norman Gilliland.)

This season will see two performances of Handel’s “Messiah”: one on Saturday, Dec. 19, at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton; and another downtown on Sunday, Dec. 20, at the UW-Madison’s Hamel Music Center.

The Masterworks series of concerts – held on Friday nights at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – will begin in late November rather than in late January. The six concerts include five new ones and the postponed appearance of harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, whose appearance this season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, on May 14.

Two of the concerts – on two Saturdays, Feb. 20 and April 10 – will also be performed in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield at the Sharon Lynn Wilson Center for the Arts (below).

You can read more about the community outreach and music education programs, especially the Youth and Education programs. They include the free Family Series and “Side by Side” concerts (below, in a photo by Mike DeVries for The Capital Times, WCO concertmaster Suzanne Beia, right, tutors a WYSO student); the Super Strings educational program; and the Young Artists Concerto Competition for grades 9-12.

Here are the Masterworks series:

NOV. 20Pianist John O’Conor (below) returns in a program of the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” by Beethoven; the Septet by Igor Stravinsky; and the Symphony No. 1 in D Major by Luigi Cherubini.

JAN. 15Cellist Amid Peled (below, in a photo by Lisa Mazzucco) returns in a program of Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitry Kabalevsky and the Andante by Jacques Offenbach; plus the Wind Serenade in D minor by Antonin Dvorak; and the Symphony No. 34 by Mozart.

FEB. 19Violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky (below) in returns in Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires”; plus the Suite for Strings by Leos Janacek.

MARCH 19Grammy-winning Spanish guitarist Mabel Millán (below) making her U.S, debut in an all-Spanish program that features the Concierto del Sur (Concerto of the South) by Manuel Ponce; the Sinfonietta in D major by Ernesto Halffter; and the overture “Los Esclavos Felices” (The Happy Slaves) by Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga.

APRIL 9Pianist Michael Mizrahi (below), who teaches at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wis., on the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven plus the Serenade No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.

MAY 14Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis (below) in the Harp Concerto by Alberto Ginastera; plus the Sinfonietta by Sergei Prokofiev and the Symphony no. 88 by Franz Joseph Haydn.

Single tickets, which go on sale in July, are $15 to $80. Season subscriptions are available now with seat preference through July 1, bring a discounted price with an extra 10 percent off for first-time subscribers.

For more information, go to the website at https://wcoconcerts.org; call 608 257-0638; or mail a subscription form to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Attn: Subscriptions; PO Box171, Madison, WI 53701-0171.

 


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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS – Ernest Bloch’s Nocturne No. 2 for piano trio

August 9, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Suddenly, in August, you sense fall coming.

The Ear has noticed how the sun is setting sooner and rising later.

And it brought to mind a wonderful performance of a memorable and moving work he heard a couple of weeks ago at the last concert by The Willy Street Chamber Players with University of Wisconsin-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below).

In fact, the group says the program – which also included Jessie Montgomery’s “Voodoo Dolls” and the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major by Antonin Dvorak – drew a record-setting audience for the group that marked its fifth anniversary this July.

The piece of music in question is the Nocturne No. 2 – the slow and most quiet one — from Three Nocturnes for Piano Trio by Ernest Bloch (below).

It sounds right and feels right with the right touch of autumnal bittersweetness to the evocation of darkness.

Listen for yourself on YouTube (below) and let The Ear know if you like it and agree:


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