The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: “Dead Man Walking” is morally complex and dramatic, not didactic, work — neither “issue art” nor a “lecture opera” — says librettist and dramatist Terrence McNally. The Madison Opera will perform it this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

April 24, 2014
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Avenue, features “Kassia and Friends” -– music for two sopranos, piano, violin, trumpet and bassoon. The program includes music by George Frideric Handel, Barbara Harbach, Lori Laitman, Alessandro Melani, Thomas Pasatieri and Eric Whitacre.

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By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post, an interview with the award-winning playwright and opera librettist Terrence McNally, is by guest blogger Michael Muckian (below). He is a long-time Wisconsin music journalist who covers everything from grand opera to the Grateful Dead. He writes about theater, art, food, wine and travel, as well as financial services and other business topics. He is currently a freelance writer and independent corporate communications consultant.

This weekend, the Madison Opera will present Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at 8 p.m. this Friday, April 25, and at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday, April 27 in Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison.

The opera will be sung in English with project text in surtitles. Tickets are $18 to $121. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org.

The opera does have a Parental Advisory because it contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language, and is not recommended for anyone under age 18.

PLEASE NOTE: Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie will be in Madison and offer a FREE public discussion TONIGHT at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue. No reservations are needed.

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By Michael Muckian

Terrence McNally rose to fame as a playwright, musical theater writer and eventually, an operatic librettist. His best-known works are “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Corpus Christ,” “Master Class” and the musical adaptation of “Ragtime.” He is the winner of four Tony Awards, an Emmy Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships and numerous other honors. “Dead Man Walking,” written in collaboration with composer Jake Heggie, is one of his first operas.

Terrence McNally

What attracted you to “Dead Man Walking”? How hard was it to adapt Sister Helen Prejean’s work?

I wanted to write an opera based on issues — moral, political, social — that would engage a contemporary audience. I also wanted two strong central characters. Most contemporary operas are chastised for insufficiently compelling or interesting librettos. Sister Helen’s life and struggles for saving the life of condemned people had all the elements I was looking for.

The libretto is based on the idea of her life, not an actual character she dealt with. It is not based on the film, either. Joseph de Rocher and his mother are my creations. The opera is a response to the book and obviously resonates with memories of the film but it is not an adaptation of either one, the way that, say “Ragtime,” is an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

What were the key themes you felt necessary to include in the opera?

The opera is about forgiveness. The issue of the death penalty is for the audience to wrestle with for themselves after they have experienced the opera. That said, it’s not an “issue” piece of art. It’s about love and forgiveness and facing the truth. (Below is a photo by James Gill of Daniela Mack playing Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes playing  Joseph DeRocher in the Madison Opera’s upcoming production.)

Dead Man Walking Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes

Did any of themes or experiences in the opera touch you personally? Did you have any personal experiences you drew on when writing the opera?

I think any intelligent American has a complex response to organized religion, our legal system and our own relationship to the less fortunate members of American life. Sister Helen (below) is proof that you can be a devout member of a religious belief system AND an activist for reform and have a huge and loving heart. She is one of my role models.  It is an honor — and challenge — to emulate and to know her.  Jake (Heggie) and I are very proud that she is proud of the opera we have made of her and her life’s work.

Sister Helen Prejean

Dead Man Walking” is an opera about social justice or, if you will, social injustice. Did writing he opera change or enhance your opinion of capital punishment?

I still wrestle with it. Intellectually and morally, it’s easy to be against it. But some crimes are so heinous my knee-jerk response still surprises me. Writing this libretto set me on a journey that is still unfolding.

How did you interact with Jake Heggie (below)? Was it libretto first, music after or did the two of you work more collaboratively?

We had many long discussions before I sat down alone to write the first draft and then we talked about that.

Jake Heggie

How does “Dead Man Walking” stand as a tale of redemption? Are there any victors in this story, or is everyone a victim?

I have answers to those questions, but I prefer the audience to answer those questions for themselves. This is not a lecture opera. It’s a human drama. We want people to think and feel. I love the ending. The mechanical sounds of the Death Machine followed by an a cappella human voice. I don’t think the orchestra plays for the last several minutes. I’d call that pretty fuckin’ innovative. (You can hear the Prelude and Prologue to “Dead Man Walking” in a YouTube video at the bottom)

What lessons can be learned from the opera?

That unconditional love and the truth shall set you free.

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Classical music Q&A: Shakespeare turns 450 today. Pianist Ryan McCullough talks about Beethoven’ problematic profundity and his Shakespearean sense of pacing and rhetoric. He will perform Beethoven’s titanic last three piano sonatas -– through which he sees a progression — this Saturday night at Farley’s House of Pianos.

April 23, 2014
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NOTE: Today’s in the 450th birthday of playwright William Shakespeare — a fitting date for the blog post below to appear. Do you have a favorite work or composer who stands up to comparison with Shakespeare or whose music or opera best incorporates work by The Bard? Leave a COMMENT.

shakespeare BW

By Jacob Stockinger

At 8 p.m. on this Saturday night, April 26, pianist Ryan McCullough (below top) will play the last three Beethoven piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, on the new Salon Series of concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos (below bottom is Farley’s Steinway‘s 1877 Centennial Concert Grand), located 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side, not far from West Towne.

Ryan McCullough above keyboard

Farley 1877 piano

McCullough has appeared with orchestras including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he performed to acclaim at the Token Creek Festival in Madison in 2010. For more information, visit his website www.rmmpiano.com.

He is comfortable with repertoire ranging from classical works to electro-acoustic improvisation, and serves as Sage Fellow in Contemporary Performance Practice at Cornell University.

For this concert he will play Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 30 in E major, No. 31 in A-flat major and No. 32 in C minor. You can call (608) 271-2626 to reserve your tickets. Tickets are $30 in advance; $35 at the door. A free reception follows the performance and is included.

McCullough graciously answered an email Q&A for The Ear.

Ryan McCullough mug small

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your major accomplishments, and talk about your background including when you started piano lessons and what was your Aha! Moment when you knew you wanted to become a concert pianist?

By my nature, it is hard for me to claim any major “accomplishments” since I attribute any such thing to luck and circumstance (provided I’ve done the work!). But I will say I am very happy and feel very lucky that I’m a concert pianist, and especially that I’m satisfied with the breadth and variety of musical projects I get to work on. I can’t really even take sole credit for that, though, since I’ve had a lot of support from family and teachers all along the way.

My mom started me on piano when I was 5, but at the time I wasn’t really into it–I wanted to be a pilot. Something happened when I was 11, however, and suddenly music became an insatiable fascination for me.

I began composing, I began playing the clarinet, which gives me a lot of respect for the musicians on the “other side of the podium.” I started going to little competitions and I just knew that this was what I was going to do. I never decided, I just found myself.

ryan mccullough informal big

What is it about Beethoven and especially late Beethoven sonatas that appeals to you? Do you have a favorite among the last three sonatas?

There is a lot of cultural baggage that comes with Beethoven’s music, and this is of course nothing new. Composers, performers and music-lovers have racked their brains over his music and especially his late music for close to 200 years, and so I often wonder if it is really possible to unpack what is really Beethoven from what is just the Beethoven mythology.

But trying to think as objectively as possible about these works, I have been thinking recently about how much I love the pacing of his music. It’s very dramatic, in the thespian sense of the word, and revelations and changes to the motion of the music seem to happen at exactly the right moment. It is well-known that Beethoven (below top) loved Shakespeare, and the connections between dramatic rhetoric and music were very deep in the 18th-century, so I imagine this was a very serious consideration for him.

Beethoven big

One of the challenges of playing Beethoven’s late works is grappling with profundity. Ask anyone who knows a little about Beethoven’s music to describe his late music and you’ll get responses like spiritual, profound, transcendental, mystical, otherworldly, and so on. This is just a part of our cultural understanding of Beethoven, which is of course backed up by Beethoven’s own words, such as the indication atop the third movement of op. 109, “mit innigster Empfindung,” or “with deepest feeling.”

Of course, while I do believe Beethoven was a very spiritual man with a deep interest in the philosophical and cultural trends of his time, 200 years of critical hyperbole since his death have made it such that playing this music feels to us as if his notes contain the secrets of the universe, and so as a performer it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to be profound through these works when just letting them be what they are is already profound enough.

ryan mccullough playing 1

Why do you think that the last three sonatas, and the late sonatas in general, have replaced the more “heroic” middle period sonatas like the “Tempest,” the “Appassionata” and the “Waldstein” that used to figure so prominently in piano recitals?

There is probably no accounting for why certain pieces begin to feature more regularly in concerts, especially in the piano circuit, which is so heavily influenced by (or contrary to) competitions. I also think it depends where you’re looking. I have heard many performances of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata recently, especially at top-tier competitions where it seems to be the “no s/he didn’t!” piece of choice these days.

I heard the last three sonatas played by my teacher, John Perry, back in 2004, before I began studying with him, and got it stuck in my head at that point that I would do that one day as well, so I think that’s at least one reason how certain repertoire disseminates.

That being said, I also heard a performance of the complete 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day by one person, and that is not something I would ever want to do.

Do you see any kind of connection or relationship among the last three sonatas? What would you like to point out to readers about each sonata, and about your performance in Madison?

This ties into the notion of profundity I mentioned a moment ago, whether it’s latent in the work or imposed by the observer (which of course includes the performer). Obviously Beethoven made the decision to put them in that particular order (Opp. 109, 110, 111), and opus order is something we know he was conscious of, especially with his late string quartets.

Whether that actually means anything specifically is anyone’s guess, and probably has as much to do with the composer’s business relationships with his publishers as it does with the actual music.

For the purposes of performance as a set, I do perceive a progression through the three.

Op. 109 (a manuscript page is below) feels very domestic, grounded in the realities of everyday living. Emotions ebb and flow, from comfortable simplicity to passionate arguments, but the piece never really wanders very far from home and there’s a certain quiet satisfaction that overrides the whole work, even in its most ecstatic moments.

Beethoven ms Piano Sonata Op.109

Op. 110 (a manuscript page is below) is a much more complicated piece, and for me is the hardest of the three. It seems to begin somewhat where Op. 109 leaves off — comfortable, satisfied, glittering, but there is a certain disquietude in the first movement, evidenced by the fact that Beethoven keeps leaning towards the dark key of F minor but manages just to avoid it or only touches on it briefly. The second movement is a wild romp in, not surprisingly, F minor, so whatever it was Beethoven was trying to avoid in the first movement seems to eventuate in full.

The third movement, which emerges out of the second, is one of the most depressing, emotionally draining pieces of music Beethoven ever penned, so whatever happened in the second movement was evidently quite a test. After a couple of attempts to pull the music out of this stupor, the piece ends up in a wildly ecstatic version of where the sonata began, but with the same harmonic hints at disquietude as the first movement, suggesting a kind of cyclical story-telling that Beethoven was very interested in at that time. It’s this combination of tightly-woven composition and boundless, fantasia-like wandering that makes the piece hard to pull off. The pacing, as I mentioned before, is very important.

beethoven ms piano sonata op 110

Op. 111 (below is the title page form the first edition) is undoubtedly my favorite, certainly conceptually. Its two movements could not be more different from each other. The first movement is very much the stormy Beethoven we all read about, unkempt, his chamber pot full, frantically and obsessively scribbling the same short musical gestures over and over until he’s found just the right version (which was usually the first version, 20 versions ago), the deaf man beating out this wild music at the piano while listening through his earhorn.

Beethoven Title page Sonata Op. 111

The second movement, then, is as if you woke up from that bad dream and found yourself watching some sort of eternal celestial ritual that had no beginning, no terminus, and only seemed to exist for as long as you were there watching it. The way the movement is constructed reminds me somewhat of the great old science film “Powers of 10” (http://vimeo.com/6150677) where the universe is shown proportionally in both its infinite vastness and smallness—the falling motive Beethoven starts with is continually divided in half, somewhat like a single bacteria, and becomes such a cloud of activity that it seems to engulf us until inadvertently we find ourselves back where we started. (You can hear the second movement played in a live performance by the great Rudolf Serkin in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Many see Beethoven’s sense of musical abstraction as a precursor to 20th-century modernity; but the 18th-century was a pretty crazy time conceptually, and artists and philosophers were already considering ideas that modernists in the 20th-century would claim as their own invention. Beethoven just happened to be a very effective bullhorn for these ideas. (Below is a manuscript page of Op. 111.)

Beethoven ms Piano Sonata Op. 111

Is there something else you would like to add or say?

I am dedicating this performance and another that I am giving at Cornell University to a great friend and music-lover Leon Berliner (below), who owned a Classical music recording shop in my hometown of Eureka, California.

Leon Berliner

Leon was born into a Jewish family in Belgium, and Beethoven was one of the first sounds he heard after the liberation of his country from the Nazis. He held an annual Beethoven’s birthday party at his store on December 16, and he died this last year from lung cancer on December 15. That’s as amazing a coincidence as you’re ever likely to get, and I very much hope he’s enjoying his “eternal celestial ritual.”

 

 

 

 

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Classical music Q&A: What music best celebrates Earth Day? Plus, composer Jake Heggie talks about how writing “Dead Man Walking” changed his professional and personal life, and left a mark on his heart with the issue of capital punishment. The Madison Opera will perform the opera this weekend on Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

April 22, 2014
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Reader Survey: Today is Earth Day, founded by former Wisconsin governor and senator Gaylord Nelson. What piece of classical music best expresses the event for you? Tell us what you think by leaving a COMMENT.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s guest post is written by Michael Muckian (below), a long-time and award-winning Madison-based Wisconsin music journalist who covers everything from grand opera to the Grateful Dead. He writes about theater, art, food, wine and travel, as well as financial services and other business topics. He is currently a freelance writer and independent corporate communications consultant.

Michael Muckian color mug

By Michael Muckian

The Madison Opera will present Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at 8 p.m. this Friday, April 25, and at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday, April 27, in Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison.

The opera will be sung in English with projected text in surtitles. Tickets are $18 to $121. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org for more information.

The opera does have a Parental Advisory because it contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language, and is not recommended for anyone under age 18.

PLEASE NOTE: The real Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie will be in Madison and offer a FREE public discussion this Thursday night at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue. No reservations are needed. They will also attend opening night.

Composer Jake Heggie was a composer of art songs written for vocal luminaries such as Renee Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Audra McDonald, Patti Lupone and others when he was approached by author Terrence McNally to compose the music for “Dead Man Walking,” based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean about her work with death-row inmates. In the interview he gave me, he said the experience changed his life, both as a composer and as a human being.

Jake Heggie

As I understand it, “Dead Man Walking” was your first opera. What attracted you to the work?

It felt timely and timeless; very American, but universal; it’s about something that matters deeply; it had instant name recognition; it had the essential elements of a grand opera, plus the conflicts and emotions so large that it not only makes sense for people to sing, but it is the kind of emotion and drama that could fill an opera house. I also felt deeply inspired and moved by the story right away.

How did you approach the music for this opera?

The libretto by Terrence McNally (below) demanded a range of American styles, including jazz, folk, pop, rock and gospel (You can listen to the YouTube video at the bottom for a sample.) The setting is the South, and that has its own musical landscape, too. Those are all styles and sounds familiar to me, and it felt natural to explore and weave them together. I think audiences will feel challenged at times, but also will feel included in this musical journey.

Terrence McNally

What were the themes you felt necessary to include in the opera? What are the key issues surrounding capital punishment, and how did you express them musically?

All of the themes I explore spring from complex human emotions inspired by love, loss, grief, joy, outrage, a quest for vengeance, a search for forgiveness and redemption. It’s all about what people want and yearn for, what they are afraid of, what they have lost. There are so many heightened emotions in this story, and it was important to honor each character and love them for who they are.

Dead Man Walking Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes

Did any themes in the opera touch you personally? In other words, did you have any personal experiences you drew on when writing the opera?

I was hugely challenged by the conflicts in this piece, and the enormity of the grief on all sides. I drew on my own personal experiences, of course, but part of my job as a theater composer is to empathize with each character and write truthfully for them, not to over-sentimentalize or trivialize their journey. For much of this opera, once I tapped into the musical world of the piece, it was a matter of listening to the characters and letting them sing to me, almost like taking dictation.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

This is an opera about social justice or, if you will, social injustice. Did writing “Dead Man Walking” change or enhance your opinion of capital punishment?

Opera literature is replete with stories of social injustice: George Frideric Handel‘s “Semele,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’sThe Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni,” Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” “Rigoletto” and “Otello”, Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Benjamin Britten‘s “Peter Grimes” and Stephen Sondheim‘s “Sweeney Todd” for starters.

Most of the comic operas deal with some form of social injustice, too. That’s one of the reasons I recognized that Terrence McNally had an inspired idea in suggesting “Dead Man Walking” as an opera. It fits into the big trajectory of grand operas.

And, yes, the experience of researching and writing the opera challenged and changed me. I regret to say that I was one of the people who had never really meditated on the death penalty. I’d always thought of it in the abstract. But in dealing with it head on I came to understand that this is a deeply political and racial issue. It takes place in a very flawed and inequitable system of human beings making life-and-death decisions.

The death penalty is also the only punishment where we as a society repeat the very behavior we abhor. Think about it: we don’t rape the rapists, we don’t beat up the assailants, but we murder murderers. And we do this to show that murder is wrong.

Execution chamber

How did you interact with Terrence McNally? Was it libretto first, the music after or did the two of you work more collaboratively?

The story is always first. Before there are words or music, there’s the story, and everything has to be in service to the story. Sister Helen Prejean (below), on whose work the opera is based, made one request of us from the beginning — that the opera remain a story of redemption.

So we talked at length about how we wanted to tell the story – what parts of it moved and inspired us most. Where we were going to begin and where we were ending. Then he started crafting a libretto and I started writing music. There was much back and forth throughout.

Music changes everything, of course, and gives us insight into characters that words alone do not. When writing the music, I would discover that there were many things that we could describe with music alone – no words were needed. It went back and forth until we were finished.

Sister Helen Prejean

Where does “Dead Man Walking” fit within the canon of your other works? Does it mark your evolution from an art songs composer to an opera composer?

It was my first opera and I was 39 years old when it was premiered. I had written a great deal of music before Dead Man Walking, but composing the opera affected my style and sense of writing deeply. That’s when I finally figured out that I’m a theater composer, a storyteller. Everything since “Dead Man Walking” has been different from everything before — it’s a real demarcation point. I couldn’t have composed “Moby-Dick” (below) if I hadn’t composed “Dead Man Walking” 10 years earlier, that’s for certain, even though the styles of those pieces are vastly different.

Please be sure to credit Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

What do you hope audiences will take away from this opera?

I hope audiences will take away emotional perspective, that they will be open to giving themselves over to the drama and reflect on it as it unfolds. I hope they will feel changed in some way. That’s certainly why I go to the opera, to be moved and to feel somehow changed — like a new mark has been made on my heart.

 

 

 

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Classical music Q&A: Co-conductors Beverly Taylor and Adam Kluck explain the appeal of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” and why they are hard to perform and exotic to hear for Western ears. Hear them for yourself when the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union performs this a cappella masterpiece on this Saturday night, April 26.

April 21, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” or “All-Night Vigil.” (Below is St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.)

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There is only one performance of this rarely heard work. One short and beautiful audio clip is at the bottom in a YouTube video, and will give you a sample of the gorgeous a cappella, or unaccompanied, sound.

Admission is $10 for adults and the general public. Senior citizens and students get in for free. Tickets may be purchased for concerts up to one month in advance. 
Remaining tickets will be sold at the door. 
You can call (608) 265-ARTS (2787) for ticket information and reservations.

The Ear asked co-conductors Beverly Taylor (below top) and Adam Kluck (below bottom) to answer a Q&A by email. Below are the answers provided by Beverly Taylor (BT) and Adam Kluck (AK).

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Adam Kluck conducting

Sergei Rachmaninoff is known primarily as a virtuosic piano and orchestral composer. How do his vocal compositions, in particular the “Vespers,” stand up in quality and characteristics of the melodies and harmonies, the rhythm and Russian feel, to his more popular works?

BT: I actually know little of his vocal output beyond the vespers, although I know there are some lovely works for women’s voices. Most of the Vespers are based on existing chant, and although the melodies are not always as expansive as Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, the flow and grace are part of his output, and his use of extreme dynamics from very soft ppp to very loud ff are those of a Romanticist.

AK: It is interesting to note that Rachmaninoff, lauded for his prowess as a “melodist” in his instrumental works, would choose to set the All-Night Vigil service of the Orthodox church (thus limiting himself to a composition that had to be completely a cappella or without accompaniment).

We know that Rachmaninoff grew up near the church in Novgorod (further down is an icon from a Russian Orthodox church in that city) and, although he was not a practicing Orthodox Christian, he certainly was familiar with the practices and — most importantly — the musical and liturgical aspects of the church. Interestingly, Rachmaninoff set another large-scale a cappella work based on another Orthodox church service, “The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Tchaikovsky and several other well-known Russian composers set this as well. Rachmaninoff did not like what he ended up with, and so he decided to set the All-Night Vigil.

Most movements are harmonizations and re-workings of chant melodies dating back to the Byzantines, although Rachmaninoff (below)  does create a few movements based on his own melodic content; and these latter movements are just as effective, if not more so.

The long melodic lines throughout much of the work are characteristic of Rachmaninoff, but even harmonically the compositional language is relatively conservative.

Rachmaninoff

How do the Vespers compare or rank when placed against some of the other great choral music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and other works and composers that the UW Choral Union performs?

BT: They’re simply–different! Most of what we sing in the UW Choral Union (seen below, with the UW Symphony Orchestra) is accompanied by orchestra, and most of the Classical and early Romantic works have more periodic phrasing, so that an overall form emerges. That is much less the case with these beautiful pieces; a few of them have verses and recognizable refrains.  Others are through-composed. They are more meditative, and show off particularly the low and mellow sounds.  The basses (and we have them!) are asked to sing low D’s, C’s and even a low B in the work.

AK: The pacing of the All-Night Vigil is atypical of those other composers. There are often several movements strung together with very similar tempi, and some of the movements are much longer than others.

The absence of any instrumentalists also means no break for the choir and a magnification of any intonation and tuning issues. Additionally, the first soprano and tenor parts sit quite high in the voice for sustained periods of time, compounding the difficulty.

It is certainly one of the most challenging pieces of any size and scope for these reasons, and for the audience it does require a somewhat different mindset as well. There won’t be the rollicking fugues we’ve come to love and expect from a Haydn or Mozart mass, or a Bach cantata. This piece is something else entirely.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Why do you think the Vespers aren’t better known or performed more frequently?

BT: They call for a fair amount of “divisi” — divided parts in all the ranges, but mostly it’s the lack of good low basses, which I think explains why they’re not done more often.

AK: Apart from the unique challenges it presents, I think that in the United States, Russian choral music is still intimidating to us. The language is still the primary barrier, but the choral sound in Eastern Europe and Russia is different to us as well. Rather than attempting to replicate these sonorities as accurately as possible, some directors often choose to program something that is more familiar to audiences and choristers alike. (Below is the interior of a Russian Orthodox Church.)

Russian Orthodox church interior

What specific things would you like to point out for the public to know about the Vespers and your performance of them?

BT: My assistant Adam Kluck loves this work, and so we’re splitting the conducting duties. We’re also doing some minor things involving projections and icons to convey somewhat the world of the senses in which these works would be performed — candles, beautiful art. (Below is an icon from a Russian Orthodox church in the city of Novgorod, where Rachmaninoff grew up.)

AK: In the Russian church tradition, there are many prescriptions for singing as part of a service. We will have one of our choir members, Father Michael, an Orthodox priest, sing the chant before the piece, so that it is permissible to sing the “amen” at the beginning of each of the first two movements.

Rachmaninoff’s setting of each movement illustrates the text very well, and so especially if you are able to follow along with the translations, the piece will really come alive.

Russian icon from Novgorod

Is there something else you would like to say or add?

BT: The concert will be lovely, but more meditative than some concerts.  It won’t always hit you in the face, but it will certainly be well worth listening deeply to.

AK: If your readers enjoy this piece of music, I would encourage them to seek out other choral music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Peter Tchaikovsky, Alexander Gretchaninoff, and any other Russian composers. The sacred and secular music of the Russian-Baltic region just after the turn of the century is wonderfully expressive and unique.

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Classical music: Easter Sunday is a fitting time to think about death, forgiveness and redemption — and about the Madison Opera’s upcoming premiere production of Jake Heggie’s famed opera “Dead Man Walking” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

April 20, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is Easter Sunday — a day when Christians and many others around the world think about the spiritual meaning of death, redemption and forgiveness. That also makes it an appropriate time to think about certain pieces of music — say, the Passions and Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach — and certain operas. 

Take, for example, the Madison Opera’s upcoming production of the contemporary opera “Dead Man Walking.”

Later this week, The Well-Tempered Ear will feature interviews that arts critic Mike Muckian did with “Dead Man Walking” composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. (Below in a photo by James Gill are Daniela Mack as Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes as the convicted killer facing execution Joseph DeRocher.)

PLEASE NOTE: The real Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie will be in Madison and offer a FREE public discussion this Thursday night at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue. No reservations are needed.

Dead Man Walking Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes

But on this special day, to whet your appetite and set the stage, so to speak, with basic facts, here is an official press release:

“The Madison Opera will present Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 25 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 27 in Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts.

Sets and costumes come from the Eugene Opera’s acclaimed production in Oregon.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

The opera will be sung in English with project text in surtitles. Tickets are $18 to $121. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org.

The opera does carry a Parental Advisory because it contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language; it is not recommended for anyone under age 18.

The production is a Madison Opera and Upper Midwestern premiere, and “Dead Man Walking” is cathartic and humanizing, set to a stunning American score that ranges from hymns to zydeco.

With a libretto by Terrence McNally, “Dead Man Walking” is based on the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, which also served as the inspiration for the critically acclaimed 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

The opera tells of a nun’s journey as the spiritual advisor of 
a convicted murderer on Louisiana’s death row. From its shocking beginning to its emotionally searing final scene, this opera changes everyone who encounters it. Its stunning score and intense story combine into a work that the San Francisco Chronicle says, “must be reckoned something of a masterpiece – a gripping, enormously skillful marriage of words and music to tell a story of love, suffering and spiritual redemption.”

At bottom is a YouTube video of the production by the Houston Grand Opera, where Madison Symphony Orchestra music director and Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain worked before coming to Madison 20 years ago) with Joyce Di Donato, Frederica von Stade and Philip Cutlip in the title roles.

Dead Man Walking is, for me, unquestionably one of the greatest operas ever written,” says Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “When I saw it in 2002 at New York City Opera, I was completely blown away by its music, its dramatic power, and the sheer theatrical intensity that seared particular scenes in my mind for a decade. I am thrilled to produce it in Madison with this stunning cast, and particularly honored that Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean are coming to Madison for opening night and to speak with our community the evening before.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

“Dead Man Walking” also has special significance to conductor and Madison Opera Artistic Director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Harper Fritsch), who has a long history with the opera.

“From my very first encounter with “Dead Man Walking” at its 2000 premiere in San Francisco, I knew it was an opera for the ages, and one that I wanted to conduct and present to an ever-widening audience,” recalls DeMain. “I was fortunate to be able to create the second new production of the work, and conduct it in Orange County, Detroit, New York City, and its first international production in Australia.

“In every instance, this new opera connected viscerally with its audience for all the right reasons. It was a powerful, immensely moving drama with lyrical, memorable music, and a fine libretto. The playwright, Terrence McNally, knew exactly how to handle a sad and tragic situation with pathos, great humanity, and a wonderful sense of humor. “

John DeMain casual opera by Harper Fritsch

Maestro DeMain encourages local audiences, whether long-time devotees of opera or completely new to the art form, to experience “Dead Man Walking.”

“It is deeply spiritual, deeply moving, and deeply human with a score steeped in the American vernacular including the blues, which is so appropriate to New Orleans and the protagonist’s world,” he says. “This is a real opera that works the way all operas that we cherish work. Powerful arias, duets, and ensembles, sung by a variety of characters, all of whom we can identify with. I assure our Madison audiences that this is a riveting evening, a great moment in our history, and an occasion not to be missed.”

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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra plus the Festival Choir of Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Madrigal Singers and pianist Stewart Goodyear left you wanting more –- which is exactly what a season-closing concert should do.

April 19, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

As I have noted in other postings earlier this week, I am doing some badly needed catching up. April has been just a hectic and even crazy month for classical music in the Madison area. And previews generally take precedence over reviews.

For example: A week ago last Friday, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) closed out its current Masterworks season with the Festival Choir of Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Madrigal singers and Canadian piano soloist and composer Stewart Goodyear.

WCO lobby

The concert left The Ear impressed with all parties and wanting to hear more, perhaps including a one Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven piano sonata marathons as well as more known and neglected works from the chamber orchestra. And isn’t that exactly what a great season-ending concert should do?

For The Ear,  there were two unqualified masterpieces.

The concert opened with the ‘Ave Verum Corpus” of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a short but sublime late work for chorus and orchestra. And it was performed sublimely by the WCO and the WCO Chorus, which is made up of the Festival Choir of Madison (below) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Madrigal Singers. (A popular YouTube video, with over 2 million hits and featuring conductor Leonard Bernstein, is at the bottom.)

festivalchoir

That was followed by the often neglected “Choral Fantasy,” by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is an interesting and engaging piece, a sketch of the famous final “Ode to Joy” movement of the iconic Ninth Symphony and one that features the kind of piano part that makes you realize what an exciting keyboard improviser the young Beethoven (below, in 1804) must have been.

young beethoven etching in 1804

Is the “Choral” Fantasy a masterpiece? Stewart Goodyear thinks so.

I do not. I think it is a good dramatic work, with its own excitement for orchestra, chorus and especially pianist. But it is a work that simply doesn’t stand up to Beethoven’s greatest symphonies, concertos or even sonatas.

But Goodyear was all business and all Beethoven. After all, he performs all 32 piano sonatas in a single-day 10-hour marathon and has recorded them all.

I know from personal experience that Beethoven is hard to play. He always seems to be challenging or even daring the player. But such difficulties do not faze Goodyear (below), who has the power and the chops. He is an impressive player, without doubt.

stewart goodyear playing sideways

Even in his own piano concerto that followed, Goodyear was impressive in his playing. This concerto, which he revised especially for chamber orchestra, seems to play into his personal and technical strengths, which is right in keeping with the great virtuoso tradition that ran from Johann Sebastian Bach and Mozart through Beethoven and Johannes Brahms to Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev.

But is the concerto by Goodyear a great concerto? Unfortunately, I think not. It reminds me of the 50 or so big and difficult piano concertos in the Hyperion series of recordings of neglected Romantic Piano Concertos by Ignaz Moscheles and Moritz Moszkowski and the like. All of them were impressive showpieces in their day, composed by and performed by the biggest piano virtuoso names of the day.

Here is a link to the Hyperion series:

http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/s.asp?s=S_1

And yet in the end, they only require one to two listenings to get the most out them. You soon realize that they are neglected for good reason. They served their purpose in the day, but then couldn’t stand up to history as first-rate.

I felt the same way about Goodyear. It had its moments, especially in the slow movement. In its use of Caribbean rhythm and harmonies, it reminded me of the jazz-like qualities brought to the concert hall by Maurice Ravel, George Gershwin, Darius Milhaud and Heitor Villa-Lobos, maybe even George Gershwin of the “Cuban” Overture. I am glad I heard it, but am not anxious to have repeated hearings.

The concerto was an interesting, impressive and entertaining oddity, but an oddity nonetheless. Goodyear would be wise to keep his day job -– or, should I say, his night job -—as a concert pianist who masterfully plays Beethoven and other major composers, and not to rely on composing as a living.

Stewart Goodyear2

After intermission came the big treat: Beethoven’s mammoth Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” Now, I love the overwhelming sound of a big, full orchestra. But there is undeniable value to hearing the transparency and clarity of the work in its chamber music version.

The “Eroica” Symphony just never gets old, and easily stands up to the Fifth, Sixth (Pastoral), Seventh and Ninth symphonies as a candidate for Your Favorite Beethoven Symphony.

The balance and tempi were perfect, especially in the moving and complex Funeral March. The horn played flawlessly as far I could tell. The strings were crisp, not gooey. And sections provided great voicing and counterpoint.

Conductor Andrew Sewell (below) seemed in total command and looked completely satisfied as he proved again what incredible progress the WCO has made during his tenure.

andrewsewell

Sewell has an abiding and well realized interest in unearthing interesting music, both new and old, as you can see from the next season, which will features three pianists in works as diverse as rarely heard two piano concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn, the Suite for Strings by Paul Lewis, the Suite for String Orchestra by Frank Bridge as well as another work by Vittorio Giannini.

Here is a link to the new season. Click on “For more information” to see programs:

http://wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks/

And here are links to other reviews so you can compare and draw your own conclusions, especially if you were part of the full house:

Here is a link the review by John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42498

John-Barker

Here is a link to the review by Greg Hettmansberger (below) for Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/April-2014/Wisconsin-Chamber-Orchestra-Goes-Big-Before-Going-Home/

greg hettmansberger mug

 

 

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Classical music: Easter music abounds. The UW Concert Choir and UW Chamber Orchestra convey the strength of Bach’s “St. John Passion,” despite some serious problems. The Madison Bach Musicians perform Bach’s Mass in B Minor tonight and Saturday night. Plus, the UW Madrigal Singers give FREE concert of Orlando di Lasso on Saturday night.

April 18, 2014
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TWO ALERTS

Some perfect music for Easter is on tap this weekend:

Tonight and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., the acclaimed early music and period-instrument group the Madison Bach Musicians, joined by the Madison Choral Project and guests vocal soloists and instrumentalists, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor, first at the First Congregational United Church of Christ and then at the First Unitarian Society of Madison in the new Atrium Auditorium. Both performances feature MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson giving a pre-concert talk at 6:45 p.m. Tickets are selling fast. Here is a link to an earlier post with more details about the performances and the music:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/classical-music-qa-the-mass-in-b-minor-is-perfect-music-for-easter-it-reconciles-catholicism-and-protestantism-and-is-a-distillation-of-bachs-cantatas-and-passions-says-trevor-stephe/ 

On Saturday night at 8 p.m in Mills Hall, the UW Madrigal Singers, under director Bruce Gladstone, will perform the “Lagrime di San Pietro” (Tears of St. Peter) by Orlando di Lasso (below), one of the greatest composers of the late Renaissance. Completed just weeks before di Lasso died, the “Lagrime” consists of 21 pieces for seven voices; 20 spiritual madrigals in Italian and a concluding motet in Latin. The poetry describes the remorse and anguish Peter suffered after he denied Christ, and though the subject matter is sacred, the emotional content – betrayal, disappointment, remorse and forgiveness – are universally human.

Orlando di Lasso

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 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

The Passion According to St. John” occupied the composer Johann Sebastian Bach (below) for over three decades as a work-in-progress, one that he never really completed in definitive form. Yet editors are able to make a workable compromise version of it that allows us to appreciate its dramatic power—very different from the broader, more contemplative character of his “St. Matthew Passion.”

Bach1

Despite the frenzied musical schedule of the weekend of Palm Sunday, this work was an entirely appropriate choice for a performance on last Saturday night by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Concert Choir and the UW Chamber Orchestra (both below), all under the direction of Beverly Taylor.

Concert Choir

UW Chamber Orchestra entire

But there were problems, and they could not be overlooked.

First of all, there was the chorus, 32 singers strong, which made a mighty sound. Nevertheless, choral director and conductor Beverly Taylor (below) followed a doctrine subscribed to by many choral conductors, requiring the breaking up of voice sections and the mixing of the singers. That is supposed to make the singers more self-reliant, and produce a greater overall blend.

But one listener’s “blend” is another listener’s “blob.” For all the sonority, this chorus was an amorphous blob, seriously compromising the part writing over which the composer worked so hard, and undermining sectional definition.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

The orchestra started out a bit roughly, with the winds not precisely in pitch with each other at first, and some coarse string playing. These issues were worked out along the way, but difficulties in balances with the singers were recurrent.

The vocal soloists were mostly young.

Solo soprano Emily Weaver (below top) is only a freshman voice major, but her instrument, still in the making, is bright and full of promise. Joshua Sanders (below middle), who sang a small role and two of the three tenor solos, used his strong voice to bellow a bit. Benjamin Schultz (below bottom), both as Pilate and in one of the three bass solos, was hobbled by pallid tone and not always precise pitch.

Emily Weaver

Joshua Sanders

Benjamin Schultz

Two of the soloists, however, were experienced elders. UW baritone Paul Rowe (below top, in a photo by Michael Anderson), on the UW-Madison School of Music voice faculty, made a dignified and authoritative Jesus, but assigning him two of the bass arias disrupted the portrait he made of Jesus. His wife, soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe (below bottom), was really stretching her lower range to sing the alto solos: in the first one, her weak sound was almost obliterated by the obligatto oboes, though she did recover somewhat for the potent “Es ist vollbracht,” the gamba accompaniment to which was eloquently brought off by Anna Steinoff. (You can hear the aria at the bottom in a YouTube video with Bernarda Fink and conductor John Eliot Gardiner.) 

The Music of Franz Schubert

Cheryl Rowe color 1

Anna Steinhoff

Perhaps the star of the proceedings, though, was tenor Daniel O’Dea, a doctoral student who is already a seasoned professional singer. He has the high, clear voice ideal for the central role of the Evangelist, only briefly succumbing to temptations to shout excitedly towards the end. I am told that this was the first time O’Dea had sung the part of the Evangelist in any Baroque Passion work, but this kind of role could easily become an important specialty for him. As with Rowe, though, it was a wrenching in this performance to have him shift suddenly from narrator to aria soloist at one point.

Daniel O'Dea

It has not been easy for me to rack up all these criticisms. But I take this venture seriously enough to hold it to the generally high level of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music’s performing standards. And I should not want it to be excused as “just a student performance.” The truth is that Taylor understood the dramatic character of the piece and brought it together in a propulsive totality that did ultimately put across the work’s beauty and power.

Above all, it was a kind of performing experience that the student participants deserved to have.

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Classical music Q&A: Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan compares great music-making to great acting, and the concert hall to an exciting museum. He makes his MUST-HEAR Madison debut on this Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall in a solo recital program of works by Schubert, Barber, Franck and Ravel.

April 17, 2014
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Please note that some reviews of productions last weekend are being delayed to make room for previews of the many upcoming concerts and musical events this week.

By Jacob Stockinger

The prize-winning and critically acclaimed young Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan will make his Madison debut this Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall for the Wisconsin Union Theater, which has been closed for two seasons while being renovated.

Inon Barnatan

Barnatan’s MUST-HEAR program is ambitious and appealing; Franz Schubert’ late Sonata in G Major, the one that the young critic Robert Schumann praised so effusively; Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, which was premiered by Vladimir Horowitz; the “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” by the late French Romantic composer Cesar Franck that was a favorite of Arthur Rubinstein; and Maurice Ravel’s dazzling “La Valse” for solo piano.

Tickets are $25 for the general public; $10 for University of Wisconsin-Madison students. For more information about Inon Barnatan and his recital, including reviews, program notes, audio clips and ticket information, visit:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season13-14/Inon-Barnatan.html

You might recall that Inon Barnatan won raves this past winter for his last-minute appearance with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Edo de Waart when he stepped in to substitute for an ailing Radu Lupu and played the titanic Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor by Johannes Brahms.

In 2009, he won a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, and he has been recognized by the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation.

The Ear has been listening to his recordings: from violin works (the last Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven and a Fantasy by Schubert) and his impressive readings of the famous last three sonatas and final impromptus and sonatas by Schubert to his performances of “Darkness Visible” by the contemporary British composer Thomas Ades. They all demonstrate his virtuoso technique but also his abundant musicality, subtle interpretations and full tone. Most impressive is his ability to play softly and lyrically. It leaves no doubt: Inon Barnatan is a major poet of the piano.

Clearly, Inon Baranatan is someone to watch, as his career continues to be extremely promising. You can listen to his interview for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in a YouTube video at the bottom. And here is a link to his own website:

www.inonbarnatan.com

And here is the email Q&A that Inon Barnatan did for The Ear:

Inon Barnatan face

You were just named the first-ever Artist in Association at the New York Philharmonic for the 2014-15 season. What plans do you have for that position? How could it affect your career?

What is so special for me about this position with the New York Philharmonic is that it is stretched over several seasons, so I will be performing with the orchestra both in New York and on the road for three consecutive seasons — which enables me to build a real relationship with this great orchestra as well as the audience.  It removes a little of the pressure of the debut– since I know I will be coming back the following season and the one after that.

Of course there is pressure to live up to the expectations and the faith that the orchestra and Alan Gilbert (both below) have shown in me, but it feels wonderful to know that the organization is behind me from the get-go. This appointment has only recently been announced but has already had significant effect on my career. New York is the center of so many things and when the New York Philharmonic does something, people take notice!  I really couldn’t be more thrilled with it.

New York Philharmonic Alan Gilbert

How would you describe your approach to playing and interpreting music? Are there other musicians, and especially pianists, either historical or current, whom you admire and why?

I feel that we classical performers are like actors — we have a text that we try to internalize and bring to life, but ultimately it is not ourself that is being presented, but the character, or, in our case, the music, that is being communicated. A great actor like Meryl Streep becomes whichever role she is playing, embodying it in such a way that she herself disappears and becomes the role.

That is what I think my job as a performer is.  I don’t want an audience to listen to me playing a piece — I would love for them to feel like the piece is being created at that very moment, the same way I would want to believe an actor IS the person that they are playing, not merely reading the text convincingly.

There are great performers, as well as actors, that are compelling not because they disappear in a role, but because of the very force of their personality. There are phenomenal actors and musicians that don’t change much with different roles or pieces, but bring their particular magnetism and virtuosity to every role.

When the performer is great both types can be very compelling, but I tend to gravitate towards the former. (Below is Inon Barnatan performing at Carnegie Hall in a photo by The New York Times.)

Inon Barnatan playing at Carnegie Hall NY Times

Your terrific and critically acclaimed new recording for the Avie label is an all-Schubert recital. But here you will perform a different big work, the G Major Sonata. What do you want to say about that particular work and its place in Schubert’s overall body of works? Why does Schubert hold particular appeal for you, and will you do more recording of his works, perhaps even a Schubert cycle?

Thank you! Back in 2004 I participated in a Schubert workshop with the great Leon Fleisher (below) at Carnegie Hall, and in some ways that was the start of my love affair with Schubert. I was familiar with his pieces, of course, but delving into the late sonatas as we did, I became intoxicated with the beauty and depth of the music.

Leon Fleisher

The music of Schubert (below), and especially the music he wrote later in his short life, became a staple of my repertoire.  I even curated a project of solo, chamber and vocal music from the miraculous last year — and both the Schubert CDs I’ve recorded so far feature pieces from that year.

That said, the G Major sonata, even though it was not written in the last year but a couple of years before, stands proudly amongst the greatest. It is one of his most lyrical and poetic pieces. It is not played nearly as often as the last three, and I am excited at the prospect of some audience members discovering it for the first time.

As for a possible Schubert cycle, it has been a dream of mine for a long while — perhaps I will keep playing his works one by one until I discover that I have recorded the whole cycle!

Franz Schubert writing

What would you like the public to know about your Madison program, which includes Franck, Barber (below) and Ravel?

This is a very special program to me. The pieces are magical: They manage to be at once very emotional and very intellectual, without compromising one for the other. The pieces all have a sense of nostalgia about them, in different ways.

The composers of the pieces in the first half take Baroque and Classical forms, such as fugues, chorales, sonatas, etc. and imbue them with their own innovation and emotion. The second half has more of a sense of fantasy, a sense of light that by the end of the recital turns to dark. I guess the second half goes from the sublime to the grotesque.

Samuel Barber

How do you think classical music can reach new and young audiences? And what advice would you give to aspiring young musicians and especially pianists?

That’s the million-dollar question. I think there are many things we need to do. It starts with education — putting an instrument in a child’s hand teaches them a lot about communications, listening and a huge variety of other important skills. It also encourages future curiosity about music and culture.

We also need to be more inclusive in some ways, make the concert experience something that would appeal to a young person as well as an older one.  Nowadays, when there are so many ways to consume culture without leaving your home, the concert experience needs to have an energy and excitement to it that is unique to the live experience.

A great museum knows that in order to attract a variety of ages and stay relevant, they need to have not only great art, but great curating.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, is always teeming with people of all ages, newcomers, repeat visitors, young and old, experts and lay people. They have a collection of some of the great, established artists as well as new exciting art and they are always providing new and interesting ways to look at things. People who go there expect to be challenged as well as be entertained. You may come to see Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (below) but it’s the new or unexpected stuff around it that keeps you coming back. It’s that combination of edge and quality that makes it cool.

We can learn a lot from that. As performers we need to strive for the highest possible quality of performance, and at the same time try to present it in a context that is interesting, and sometimes challenging or unexpected.

VanGogh-starry_night_edit

 

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Classical music: Could a new ivory protection law derail the Pro Arte Quartet’s tour to Belgium in May? Don’t miss the Pro Arte’s FREE preview concert of the MUST-HEAR program for its “Back to Belgium” tour on Thursday night at 7:30. Plus, a terrific new one-hour documentary about the Pro Arte airs Thursday night at 9 and other times on Wisconsin Public Television.

April 16, 2014
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Please note that some reviews of productions last weekend are being delayed to make room for previews of the many upcoming concerts and musical events this week.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear hears:

The Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) may well be prevented from taking its long-planned centennial tour to its homeland Belgium next month because of a seemingly small but very significant government regulation designed to curtail the trade in illegal ivory.

Pro Arte Qartet  Overture Rick Langer

Now, who can argue with the intent to protect elephants from being poached for their ivory tusks? But clearly there are unintended consequences that make the humane regulation look absurd and silly, if not mean-spirited, in its requirements for out-of-date documentation.

Take the Pro Arte Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Music since 1940. It turns out that the acclaimed string quartet may not make its long-planned centennial tour to Belgium next month -– depending on what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which, with the help of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), inspects and confiscates or destroys musical instruments it deems in possible violation of the law at U.S. customs.

As for how it applies to the Pro Arte Quartet: It seems that ivory inlay on one old instrument –- a beautiful and full voiced viola -– and the ivory used in the tips of bows for one or more of the old instruments may violate the new ban and regulation.

ivory on bow tip

It that seems an exaggeration consider the following stories about the difficulties that other musicians and other countries have faced in confronting the situation:

Here is a link to an overview story on NPR:

http://www.npr.org/2014/04/07/300267040/musicians-take-note-your-instrument-may-be-contraband

The problem is not so much getting out of the U.S., since other countries are taking a more lenient or understanding view. The problem comes at U.S. Customs when you leave or even, and especially, return.

Here is the story about one Canadian musician is being held hostage from seeking a professional job by the ban. Be sure to view the video:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/u-s-ivory-ban-makes-musician-cancel-winnipeg-audition-1.2609434

Here is the take by famed critic Norman Lebrecht on his classical music blog “Slipped Disc:

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2014/03/new-threat-to-musical-instruments-entering-the-usa.html

As for the Pro Arte: People are reportedly working behind the scenes to secure a solution, which ranges from getting an exemption to using either a substitute instrument or a substitute player, to cancelling the tour. Stay tuned.

ivory on 2 bows

But while you stay tuned you have two chances tonight to hear the Pro Arte:

Thursday night at 9 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television’s main channel is the extremely we’ll done one-hour documentary about the Pro Arte and its Centennial celebration will air. It features great photos and historic footage, but it also features the quartet playing a studio concert of music by Darius Milhaud, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ernest Bloch, Samuel Barber (the famous “Adagio for Strings” that was originally a string quartet movement and that received its world premiere in Rome from the Pro Arte) and contemporary composer John Harbison. (Other airings are also scheduled. Here is a link:

http://www.wptschedule.org/episodes/45015629/The-Pro-Arte-Quartet-A-Century-of-Music/

But you can record that on a DVD or some other device. And here are other times on The Wisconsin Channel (21.2). The airdates are: April 18 at 8 p.m.; April 19 at 2 a.m.; and April 19 at 5 p.m. In addition, WPT will be offering this documentary program via web-streamibng at the same time as the broadcast, so people can see it globally. The link to the program page, on which the streaming link is also housed, is http://wptschedule.org/episodes/45015629/The-Pro-Arte-Quartet-A-Century-of-Music/

 

Here is the real treat: At 7:30 p.m. on this Thursday night in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte Quartet -– playing its own instruments — will perform a FREE MUST-HEAR concert of the same program that was requested by the Belgian hosts for whom they will play. Consider it a warm-up or run-through.

ProArte 2010 3

The program features one the Ear’s top all-time favorite string quartets: the so-called “Dissonant” Quartet, K. 465 (1785) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which was so advanced in its harmonies that early publishers actually changed some of the opening notes that Mozart wrote to make the work conform to the practices of the day. (The opening that gives it its nickname can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The program also includes the Quartet No. 1 (1909) by the pioneering modernist Bela Bartok (below top), and the Quartet in E Minor, Op. 44, No. 2, (1837) by the early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn.

In its blend of the Classical, the Romantic and the Modern repertoire, the program seems quintessentially Pro Arte. And it should be a pure joy to hear.

Members of the current Pro Arte Quartet (below in a photo by Rick Langer and with links to biographies) are:Parry Karp, cello; Suzanne Beia, second violin; 
Sally Chisholm, viola; and 
David Perry, first violin.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

If didn’t already know it, here is a capsule history of the quartet:

The Pro Arte Quartet was founded in 1911-12 by students at the Brussels Conservatory. Violinist Alphonse Onnou was the leader, and the other founding members included Laurent Halleux (violin), Germain Prévost (viola), and Fernand Auguste Lemaire (cello). The quartet made its debut in Brussels in 1913 and soon became known as an exponent of modern music.

The Pro Arte played their American debut in 1926, performing at the inauguration of the Hall of Music in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. They returned for 30 tours to the United States, as well as a tour of Canada, often under the auspices of the noted patron of chamber music, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.

Pro Arte Quartet 1940 Brosa-Halleux-Prevost-Evans 1940

Their first visit to Madison was in 1938, where, two years later, the musicians were stranded by Hitler’s invasion of Belgium and the outbreak of World War II. Following their concert on campus, the University of Wisconsin chancellor offered a permanent home to the quartet.

It was the first such residency ever in a major American university, and became the model on which many other similar arrangements were developed at other institutions.

Onnou died in 1940, but the quartet continued until 1947 as quartet-in-residence at Wisconsin University, led first by Antonio Brosa and from 1944 by Rudolf Kolisch.

The Pro Arte became the faculty string quartet at UW-Madison in the late 1950s, an appointment that continues to the present day -– making the ensemble more than 100 years old, the oldest on-going string quartet ever in history.

 

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Classical music: Opera director David Ronis of CUNY is named to succeed William Farlow. University Opera’s production of Hector Berlioz’ charming “Beatrice et Benedict” is a fine and fitting tribute to the longtime tenure of retiring director William Farlow. The last performance is tonight at 7:30 p.m.

April 15, 2014
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Please note that some reviews of productions last weekend are being delayed to make room for previews of the many upcoming concerts and musical events this week.

NEWS:  David Ronis (below) of Queen’s College and the Aaron Copland School of Music at the City University of New York (CUNY) has just been named as the interim one-year visiting director of University Opera, to succeed William Farlow. Here is a link to the official press release with his impressive resume on the blog Fanfare:

http://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/ronis_press_release/

David Ronis BIG BW USE

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 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

The University Opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a long history of including rarities in its productions, rarities that audiences are not likely to see elsewhere.

For his farewell offering as he retires at the end of this academic year, director William Farlow (below, in a photo by Katherine Esposito) has put on a particularly enterprising novelty. That “Beatrice et Benedict: — is the last and most successful of the three operas by the early French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz.

William Farlow by Kathy Esposito

Berlioz (below) wrote the libretto as well as the music, freely adapting his stripped-down version from the play “Much Ado About Nothing by” Shakespeare — an author whose works he adored. Berlioz cast it in the form of the opéra comique, combining set-piece musical numbers with spoken dialogue. It was the same form used not only by Jacques Offenbach, but also by Georges Bizet for his “Carmen.” Nevertheless, Berlioz infused the form with his own individual wit, imagination, and personality. The score is full of absolutely beautiful music, with a dip into satire as well. (You can hear the opera’s Overture performed by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at Carnegie Hall in You Tube video at the bottom.)

berlioz

The UW Opera presented this opera before, in 1988, in the days of Karlos Moser, in a semi-staged concert performance. This time, Farlow has given it a complete staging, employing mostly exemplars of the gifted vocal talent the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music has been drawing lately.

(The last of three performances is tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall at the foot of Bascom Hill.)

In the performance I attended Sunday night, the feuding lovers, the two title characters, Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick, were sung by the agile soprano Lindsay Metzger and high tenor Daniel López-Matthews. (Below right and left, respectively, in a photo by Max Wendt). The other pair of lovers, Hero and Claudio, were portrayed by the powerfully voiced soprano Anna Whiteway and tenor Jordan Wilson. The local commander, Don Pedro, was taken by bass Erik Larson.

berlioz UW Opera Beatrice et Benedict 2 CR Max Wendt

To these the cast added two veterans. Edgewood College teacher and mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson (below) is a long-standing veteran of UW Opera and Madison music-making, always welcome any time, in anything, including the role here of Ursula, Hero’s friend. And baritone Benjamin Schultz, a returned alumnus, sang the comic role that Berlioz invented, Somarone, as a caricature of the pompous rivals and academics who were the composer’s life-long opposition.

Kathleen Otterson 2

Following a frequent practice when this opera is presented outside of France, the vocal numbers were sung in the original French, while the revised dialogue was given in English. It’s a workable solution to a problem for singers who can sing in French, but really can’t speak it well. Fine as the singing was, it was clear that they were not uniformly comfortable singing French.

Still, many moments were truly gorgeous, notably the Hero-Ursula duet in Act I, and the ladies’ trio in Act II, as well as the offstage wedding chorus.

By and large, Farlow’s stage direction was careful: in the vocal set pieces often relatively static, though, that was certainly preferable to too much action. In the case of Somarone’s Act I scene, Schulz was made to go much too far beyond satire, into exaggerated silliness. And Beatrice’s over-acting in Act I really compromised the character’s self-assured sassiness before her “fall.”

Still, even with so much of the dueling wordplay of Shakespeare’s original removed, Metzger and López-Matthews engaged well as the couple who had to be tricked into discovering that their outward hostility covered a profound attraction.

A particular asset was the pit orchestra that conductor James Smith (below) was able to work up very successfully to Berlioz’s tricky requirements.

Smith_Jim_conduct07_3130

William Farlow departs leaving us with many debts to him, including this demonstration that Berlioz’s gem of a comic opera really deserves more regular presentation.

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