The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison Opera’s production of Philip Glass’ “Galileo Galilei” proved a timely, well told tale of truth-telling during the endless demagoguery of presidential primaries and the growing number of anti-evolution science-deniers.

January 31, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Thank you, Madison Opera. We needed that – especially given today’s Florida Republican primary.

We needed to be reminded of what true intelligence and  truth-telling are.

I am talking about the Madison Opera’s production, with four sold-out performances, of Philip Glass’ chamber opera “Galileo Galilei.”

To be honest, it is not the best work by Glass (below) I have ever heard, even though it dates from 2002 and is mature Glass that has its appeal. But because the opera has never been recorded or put on DVD or film, it is a terrific choice to stage to mark the composer’s 75th birthday, which happens to be today—coincidentally, the same day as the hotly contested Florida Republican primary.

Plus, it is the Madison Opera’s first foray into Glass, or into minimalist opera for that matter – a brave move that deserves to be praised and repeated perhaps with other Glass works or maybe something by John Adams.

But that is just one way in which this production of “Galileo,” which I saw Sunday afternoon, has proved timely.

It also was a success in that it marked four successive years of sold-out mid-winter performances for operas done in smaller venues of the Overture Center like The Playhouse and Promenade Hall. Previously, the Madison Opera staged Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land,”  Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” (below) and Kurt Weill‘s “Threepenny Opera.”

Clearly, there is a market for the smaller, less common works. It would seem these smaller and more experimental winter productions are here to stay, and I applaud that heartily. I can’t wait to see what the next season brings.

Finally, I also found the production timely on another count.

It tells the story of the Renaissance Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (below), who explored the heavens with his telescope and who defended the heliocentric, or Sun-centered, model of the universe at a time when the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church – using the Bible as an inerrant source — insisted on the Earth-centered model of the ancient Greek Ptolemy.

So this was the tale of a genuine, authentic truth-teller; the story of someone who, as the Quakers say, spoke Truth to Power, who championed facts over faith. True, he recanted his revolutionary thoughts under threat of torture and death, and spent the remainder of his life under house arrest and with the guilt of knowing he was right for speaking out and wrong for recanting.

But still, there is something inspiring in the 10 scenes of the opera that trace the trajectory of Galelio’s quiet but inquisitive heroism from youth and middle age to old age with the death of his daughter and the persecution by the Church. There is something I find reassuringly modern and also challenging about using The Scientist — and the Scientific Method — as hero.

That in itself made the production unforgettable for me since these days it is good to be reminded that what is democracy but a form of science, of peer-reviewed government, if you will. Without democracy, science is stifled. Without facts, and based only on faith, democracy degenerates and withers.

But free inquiry does not mean a free license to distort and tell untruths.

Some men and women don’t seem to know the difference between truth and truthiness. Galileo did.

But to listen to news reports right now, and for the rest of this year, is to be barraged with slanders, distortions and outright lies from all the candidates, including Barack Obama, but especially from Mitt Romney (below) and Rick Santorum to say nothing of the defeated Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Politics just isn’t as intellectually honest as science. 

Still, the most odious to me is Newt Gingrich (below). He styles himself a smart man and deep thinker, and he is educated through a doctorate. But he seems smart only in some kind of pompous and smarmy, conniving and self-promoting way. Best I can tell, he is not an intellectual in the way that genuinely deep thinkers and open-minded explorers are. That is the take-away lesson of “Galileo” for me, at least at this particular time and in this particular place.

As for the production itself, there was much to praise — and to justify the standing ovation it received. The set by Barry Steele was quite inventive and effective in using projections of Renaissance gardens and celestial maps, though the blurry soft-focus eventually became more distracting than any sharp focus might have been.

The 13 musicians, most from the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Kelly Kuo (below), performed very well. Glass’ music is much harder to play than it sounds. It isn’t their fault, after all, that too much of Glass sounded the same with a kind of repetitive jackhammer aesthetic that either you take to or you don’t. I’ve heard better scores from Glass. This one could have used a few melodic lines or motives for the individual characters.

Among the singers, many of whom played multiple roles, tenor William Joyner (below right, in  a photo by James Gill) and baritone John Arnold (below left) stood out as the older and younger Galileo, respectively.

Local talents, including Jamie-Rose Guarrine (below, second from right in a photo by James Gill), Allisanne Apple (second from left) and Jennifer DeMain – curiously, all mezzo-sopranos – acquitted themselves well and dependably. (Saira Frank is on the far right.)

I also liked the effective scenes with the Inquisitors, the Cardinals and the Pope, where the singing and acting seemed in balance.

I found the mood-setting costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore a good match to the story and setting. And I liked the engaging staging by A. Scott Parry (below) up until that last five minutes, when the singers doffed their costumes for street clothes and did some silly Matisse-like Zodiac dance around the old but vindicated, if now lame and blind, Galileo before they traipsed off stage, arms waving in the air, and passed by the audience as they sang some monotonous  ta-taaa–ta-ta-taa of the score. It all seemed too much like a bad Be-In from the 1960s. Even the singers seemed uncomfortable and awkward with the finale, as if they were being asked to chant Hare! Hare! Krishna! Krishna!

Galileo, both the man and the opera, fared very well for the most part but deserved a better end. Staying in character and in the Renaissance period seemed much preferable to me.

But there is certainly room to disagree. Here are some other reviews for you to compare mine with:

John Barker’s review for Isthmus, for example, focuses more on the production and less on the context:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=35800

Lindsay Christians’ review for The Capital Times and 77 Square gives you a good sense of the technology that was used:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/opera-review-galileo-maps-the-universe-of-a-scientist-and/article_166e9fba-48e6-11e1-8c9f-001871e3ce6c.html

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and its blog “Classically Speaking”:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/January-2012/Madison-Opera-Reaches-for-the-Heavens-in-Galileo-Galilei/

And here is Bill Wineke’s exceptionally honest and candid review for Channel 3000:

http://www.channel3000.com/entertainment/30315871/detail.html

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Classical music: How do two scientists became award-winning supporters and funders of music education? Meet the Inhorns of Madison.

January 30, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

In December, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras made Stanley and Shirley Inhorn Lifetime Trustees – an honor bestowed on very few people – in recognition of their 40 years of service to WYSO.

Several other things make the award especially timely and newsworthy.

One is that WYSO will hold an open rehearsal this Saturday in Mills Hall starting at 10 a.m. Music students, families, and teachers are invited to come and see what WYSO has to offer. Guests will be able to talk with WYSO staff and parents of current members, and will get a chance to tour WYSO’s four orchestras in rehearsal. After the tour, guests will have an opportunity to speak with current WYSO members in a Q&A session.  For reservations, call Nicole Sparacino at 608-263-3320 ext. 11. 

 

Then at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 10, members of WYSO’s Youth Orchestra, along with the Madison Youth Choirs and other groups and individuals, will perform Wisconsin and Madison premieres of the Holocaust-based oratorio “To Be Certain of the Dawn” by St. Paul composer Stephen Paulus in Overture Hall at the Overture Center. (Tickets are $15 for adults, $7 for students.)

 For information about both events, reservations or tickets, call 608 258-4141 or visit:

http://wyso.music.wisc.edu/WhatsNew.html

In addition, just last week WYSO announced this year’s winners of the Marvin Rabin Awards, named for the man who founded WYSO in 1966. The Madison Ballet’s W. Earle Smith won the award for Artistic Achievement Award by an Individual and the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Education and Community Engagement program won the award for Artistic Achievement by an Organization.

For more details, visit: www.wyso.music.wisc.edu

Since 1966, WYSO has been providing excellence in musical opportunities for more than 5,000 young people in southern Wisconsin. WYSO includes three full orchestras and a string orchestra, a chamber music program, a harp program, a percussion ensemble, and a brass choir program. The orchestras rehearse on Saturday mornings during the academic year, perform three to four public concerts per season, and tour regionally, nationally and internationally. The Youth Orchestra will tour to Prague, Vienna and Budapest in July 2012; and has toured to Canada, Japan, Scotland, Spain, France, Colorado, Iowa and Washington, D.C., in the past.

As they usually do, Stanley and Shirley Inhorn collaborated on answering questions about the involvement with music education and WYSO for The Ear:

Can you give short capsule biographies with the highlights of your personal and professional lives?

Both Shirley and Stan came to Madison in 1953.  A graduate of the University of Iowa, Shirley pursued graduate study in Physiological Chemistry.  Stan, a graduate of Western Reserve University and Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons came to do an internship and residency in pathology at Wisconsin General Hospital (now University Hospitals).

After they married in 1954, Stan was called to the Navy as a shipboard medical officer. When his ship was decommissioned, instead of going to Japan Shirley discontinued her graduate training and joined him in San Diego.

Upon returning to Madison, Stan completed his residency and joined the faculty of the UW, where he became a professor of pathology and preventive medicine and also director of the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene.

What is your reaction to the WYSO honor of being made Lifetime Trustees?

To say that we were surprised is an understatement.  At the beginning of the January board meeting, WYSO President Charlotte Woods made the announcement and presented us with a beautifully inscribed Waterford plate recognizing our 40 years of service.

Our involvement with WYSO for these many years reflects our recognition of the vital role that WYSO plays in sustaining classical music for talented youth in south-central Wisconsin.

What are the various music groups you work with and what do you work with them.

Shirley and Stan have both been involved with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Stan played violin in the MSO in the 1960s and 1970s under the baton of Roland Johnson (below). He later joined the MSO Board and has chaired its marketing and education committees.

Shirley was invited to membership in the Women’s Committee of the MSO, predecessor of the MSO League, and served in numerous roles including editorship of the newsletter and directory, membership recruitment, and education. One of her favorite tasks has been to serve as a docent in the public schools to prepare young students for attendance at the MSO youth concerts (below).

We have been major donors to WYSO, MSO and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. We also currently serve on the Committee for the Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) centennial celebration. Our focus on classical music stems from recognition that current entertainment outlets neglect this important art form. By our example, we hope to energize others to support classical music performance and education.

How and why did you get involved in working with music groups? What kind of role has music played in your lives and careers?

Shirley is a pianist who also played the marimba in high school and college ensembles.  it is not surprising, therefore, that our three children received piano lessons. Stan had played in a string quartet in college, and he transferred his love of this art form to his children.

Our eldest, Lowell, chose to play the violin in grade school and our daughter, Marcia, chose the cello. We encouraged our youngest, Roger, to play the viola. Thus the Inhorn quartet was formed. Shirley was their accompanist when they went to competitions on their individual instruments. It is satisfying to know that Lowell and his wife, along with their two children have formed their own string quartet.

Music has played a major role in our lives.  We have performed as amateur musicians throughout the years.  Music has been significant in our volunteer efforts, our charitable contributions, our leisure activities and in our friendships.

What makes your work with WYSO so important and different from the other commitments?

WYSO affords an opportunity to interact with students, their parents, school and private music teachers, wonderful musicians who serve as conductors and coaches for WYSO, board members, and the public who support the organization.

In its early days, WYSO operated with a very small staff, necessitating substantial volunteer involvement. We firmly belief that the WYSO experience develops qualities of dedication and discipline that will serve the students throughout their lives.

We are always pleased when WYSO members go on to careers as professional musicians. But we also know that the WYSO experience is formative for those who go into other careers, as was the case for our three children.

In addition, we are confident that WYSO is helping to build future audiences for symphonic music.  Lastly, WYSO is an important advocate for the school music programs that are threatened as schools face fiscal crises.

What do you want other people to know about doing such work with community and arts groups?

Our philosophy regarding volunteer activity is to first determine the organizations that meet your primary interests and afford you greatest satisfaction.  Direct your efforts to those that provide the most fulfillment, and stay the course for the duration. Recognize that in every organization there will be issues with which you disagree.  It is important, however, to seek solutions rather than abandoning the ship.


Classical music: Are dying composers and last works more profound and better? Consider Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Chopin and Brahms among others.

January 29, 2012
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

In their later years two of the 20th century’s most famous piano virtuosos – Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz – turned increasingly to the works of Mozart.

Both of these men – whose personalities and performance styles were so very different – agreed on one thing: Age brought them a desire for the beautiful elegance and profound simplicity of Mozart.

Composers facing death — some old and many young — often seem to share certain traits: I think of two piano sonatas: Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111 in C minor, and Schubert’s last piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 (below, played by Alfred Brendel). I think one could also add the late short piano pieces by Brahms and the last piano works of Chopin (below, supposedly photographed posthumously on his deathbed ), including the Sonata No. 3 in B minor, the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, the last mazurkas and the Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major.

A few years ago, the famous pianist Paul Badura-Skoda (below) – once an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — came through Madison and played an acclaimed recital of famous last piano sonatas by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. It is a great idea to add unity or a theme to a recital.

And several string quartets, I believe, have played programs consisting of last quartets by famous composers including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Why not consider symphonies, operas, requiems, songs and chamber music in general?

The composer, biographer and critic Jan Swafford (below) recently took a close and thoughtful look at what several of classical music’s most famous composers share in their last or close-to-last works, and what we should listen for in them and know about them.

The story in Slate led to a fine interview piece on National Public Radio (NPR), where there were some great sound samples.

So first I offer the NPR piece and urge you not only to read the transcript but also to stream and listen to the complete radio broadcast:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPWXZnYbunw&feature=related

And here is the full text of his article on Slate. It covers a lot more and is well worth reading:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/music_box/2011/11/famous_classical_composers_the_last_piece_they_wrote_before_they_died_.single.html

Of course, not all composers fit the mold. Robert Schumann‘s last works seems decidedly inferior to his earlier ones. But then Schumann was severely mentally disturbed and institutionalized toward the end of his life.

Are there composers whose last works — like, say, Schubert’s fabulously beautiful Cello Quintet — seem especially profound to you?

Do you have favorite last works and what are they?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Reviews of pianist Lola Astanova don’t sparkle as brightly as her Tiffany jewels. She played Vladimir Horowitz’s concert grand, but she is no Vladimir Horowitz.

January 28, 2012
12 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

You may recall that last weekend, I posted a preview and early review of the concert that the striking looking, 26-year-old, Uzbekistan-born pianist Lola Astanova (below) gave a week ago Thursday.

It was her Carnegie Hall debut, but took place within the unusual context of a gala fundraiser for the American Cancer Society that featured celebrities Donald Trump and Julie Andrews. (What do you think The Donald and The Julie said to The Lola?)

Well, you can look up some of Astanova’s recording on YouTUBE and decide about her playing for yourself.

But in the meantime, here is a sampling of various reviews of her concert that was reported on prominently because of her penchant for cutting-edge, skin-revealing, S&M-like fashion along with some $850,000 of jewelry by Tiffany. (Think she borrowed any of it from Callista Gingrich? Nah, it’s needed too much on the Florida campaign trail to attract the Republican base.)

An admirer of the great flamboyant virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz, for her “Tribute to Horowitz” Astanova also managed to perform her recital on Horowitz’ vintage and souped up Steinway concert grand that has toured the country several times for promotional purposes. (Many years ago, The Ear even got to play some Chopin, Scarlatti and Scriabin on it when it stopped in Madison.)

Her program was also classic Horowitz (below, in a portrait by Richard Avedon): One big work (Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 “Funeral March” – such an fitting choice for an uplifting cancer event, NOT); one medium piece; (Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor); and several smaller works, by Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin.

But the various reviewers seem to agree on this much: Lola Astanova is no Vladimir Horowitz, who also received his share of negative and disparaging reviews as well as raves. Still, bow ties do seem more tasteful, if less sensational, than leather or vinyl. And his paling was truly distinctive, and one of a kind.

Most of the major critics found her playing mediocre, or at least not especially outstanding – nothing faintly comparable to say the playing of that other fashion maven Yuja Wang or Valentina Lisitsa to Jonathan Biss or Jeremy Denk to pick four other very promising young piano talents.

True, some critics allowed more for the unusual nature and laudable goal of the event than others.

But nothing in any of the reviews sounds like a major label will soon sign Lola Astanova (below, after the recital). And I wouldn’t expect to see her soon of PBS’ “Great Performances” or “Live From Lincoln Center.”

But who can tell? The media can be funny about these things.

Anyway, you can read the reviews and decide for yourself.

Here is the review by freelancer Zachary Woolfe (below) for The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/21/arts/music/lola-astanova-in-horowitz-tribute-at-carnegie-hall-review.html

Here is a more positive review:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Concert-Review-Lola-Astanova-at-Carnegie-Hall-2664527.php

Famed for his crankiness and chummyness with celebrities, Brit critic Norman Lebrecht (below) also weighed in. Be sure to read the comments from readers:

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2012/01/criticising-the-critics-2-how-to-review-a-bling-concert.html

And here is a review that seems to focus on the whole happening as more of a charity event than a musical event:

http://blogcritics.org/music/article/concert-review-lola-astanova-at-carnegie/

So what is your verdict?

Do the reviews makes you sorry you weren’t in the audience to hear Lola Astanova?

Or just as happy that you missed it?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music news: Wisconsin Public Radio will hold the third annual Bach Around the Clock on Saturday, March 17. Start practicing now.

January 27, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

This year, Johann Sebastian Bach (below) – by general consensus the greatest composer who ever lived and who affected all the composers who followed after him – turns 327.

Bach was born on March 21, 1685, he died on July 26, 1750, at age 65.

So why not celebrate?

Why not indeed!

Wisconsin Public Radio has sent out the following press release:

“Calling All Musicians:  Annual Bach Bash is Back”

It reads:

“Wisconsin Public Radio and the Pres House are once again planning a community-wide celebration of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday and you’re invited to participate.

“Join us on Saturday, March 17, from noon until midnight.  We’ll be gathered at Pres House, 731 State St., near the Chazen Museum of Art, on the UW-Madison campus to perform the works of Johann Sebastian Bach for 12 straight hours.

“It’s our Third Annual BACH AROUND THE CLOCK!  We’ll mark the birthday at the stroke of midnight . . . and there may even be cake!

“We’re looking for musicians – amateurs, professionals, students, individuals, ensembles, choirs. If you love Bach, we want you to perform.

“This is NOT a radio broadcast.

“This is NOT a professional showcase.

“It’s a FUN, community event – so don’t be shy.

“Whether you are a performer or just a music lover, we hope you’ll join us!

“For more information and to schedule your performance, contact Cheryl Dring (below), WPR Music Director, at cheryl.dring@wpr.org or call 608-890-2585.”

That’s pretty much it for the basic facts.

In the past, the performances have scheduled and webcast live so people – or your friends and family — in Wisconsin and around the country and the world too, I assume – can listen in. by going to Wisconsin Public Radio’s web site (www.wpr.org).

Two years ago, The Ear played movements of a Partita and the F minor Prelude and Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2 as well as the piano part of a Siciliano movement from a flute sonata. So let me just mention what a lot of fun it is both to perform and to listen to and mingle with the performers.

Bach is performed in all kinds of original scorings and transcriptions on all kinds of instruments ranging from the organ and voice, to piano and strings, to a saxophone version of a solo cello suite.

In the past you could also here period instruments such as baroque violin and harpsichord (below, baroque violinist Edith Hines turns pages for UW keyboard professor John Chappell Stowe) as well as modern instruments. Part of Bach’s genius is how well his music holds up in just about any arrangement.

Free refreshments and snacks are provided.

You can hear wonderful music performed by area church musicians UW faculty and students, young students from various piano and string studios, and much more.

To tease you and interest you, I have included some photos along with a video (at the bottom) of a live performance of the last movement of Bach’s English Suite No, 6 by John Chappell Stowe.

If you haven’t performed in  BATC before, consider doing it this time. (This year the UW spring beak won’t interfere.)

And if you have done it before, help it get better.

This is the beginning of a great local tradition, one hosted by the pleasant-voiced, quick-witted and cheerful Dring (below) – who also hosts WPR’s Morning Classics from 9 to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday — has imported and adapted from her native New Orleans, where I think it lasts for 24 hours and includes music by composers other than Bach, with laudable success.

Thank you, Cheryl.

And thank you, Johann Sebastian.


Classical music review: High school musician and critic Mikko Utevsky praises the new opera “Wired For Love” by UW student Jerry Hui.

January 26, 2012
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium (below) of the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, features oboist Scott Ellington and pianist Ted Reinke, in music by Alex (Alec) Wilder, Gordon Jacob and Srul Irving Glick. For information, call 608 233-9774 or visit www.fusmadison.org.

By Jacob Stockinger

Earlier this week, I posted a a review of the world premiere of UW student Jerry Hui’s chamber opera “Wired For Live” by guest reviewer by John W. Barker, who normally reviews for Isthmus and who is veteran music critic as well as a distinguished retired UW-Madison history professor.

(By the way, “Wired For Love” has been recorded and there will be CDs available of it in the near future. I’ll pass along word when I get it.)

Here, for purposes on comparison is a link to that first review:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/classical-music-review-composer-jerry-huis-new-opera-wired-for-love-is-wired-for-success/

But I also heard from a loyal blog reader and a multi-talented young musician in Madison, Mikko Utevsky.

Mikko (below) is a senior at Madison East High School and a part-time music student at the UW-Madison. He also plays the viola in WYSO (Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra) and the UW Symphony Orchestra and conducts the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO). He has done a Q&A for this blog (link is below) and offered comments on other postings. But this is his first major review and I am pleased to offer a forum to such a discerning young musician. It is vital that we in classical music cultivate and encourage young talent.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/classical-music-qa-high-school-conductor-mikko-utevsky-discusses-the-madison-area-youth-chamber-orchestra-which-makes-its-debut-this-friday-night-in-vivaldi-beethoven-and-borodin/

By Mikko Utevsky

I was very impressed Jerry Hui’s new opera “Wired For Love.” I’ve known Jerry (below) for four or five years, but I’ve never heard much of his music before. It was well worth braving the cold on Friday night, though it is too bad it competed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra concert.

To speak of the opera itself, the synopsis helps a great deal with piecing the story together. The narration can become a tad fragmented, but having read the original emails that’s not terribly surprising.

The set was spare and showcased the action nicely, I thought, although it did bother me when the singers weren’t quite placed opposite each other on a stage so strikingly symmetrical.

The singing was good, particularly from tenor Daniel O’Dea (below right) as Bako Ndiovu. I’m no judge of vocal technique, but with the exception of a few diction issues in the very beginning, a few consonants missing from the rather demanding high writing for Ethel Wormvarnish (played beautifully by Jennifer Sams, below left) whose arresting voice and expressive physicality perfectly matched the role), and a few little discrepancies between the words and the supertitles (which often lagged behind the singers), I thought the vocalists carried their roles very well and brought the story across with wit and intelligence.

Peter Gruett’s countertenor was surprisingly nuanced (Gruett is below on the far right), despite the inherently comic feel of the register and writing. And while the voice of James Held (below, far left)  felt a tad thin at one or two moments, I thought it more a character trait than a technical flaw — it made sense in context. The humorous cracks in “I have a cold” were carried off very well, and made it one of my favorites.

The cast’s unique voices all stood out well in ensemble numbers, so you could catch all the jokes – and there were quite a few (both textual and musical).

It’s certainly a funny opera; the painstaking transcription of the scammer’s poor English is hilarious, as are Ethel’s antics. The opening of the opera feels a little awkward (although the overture is seriously fun), but it soon finds its groove.

Only once did the transitions feel jarring – moving between the sweet “Please Call Me” and Ethel’s vicious aria “Serpent! Viper!” was a tad awkward, and one short passage in the latter (and a few others in other places) might benefit from a slight enlargement of the string sections.

By and large, I liked the soloistic sound, but sometimes the string lines weren’t quite prominent enough (or needed the mass of a section for confidence’s sake; which was generally not a problem regardless).

That aside, the orchestra (below) danced and sparkled through Jerry’s vivacious score, lingering sweetly where needed. Ching-Chun Lai did a marvelous job bringing out the colors of the nine-player ensemble. Bako’s aria “Where the rivers meet” was beautifully tender, showcasing both Jerry’s writing for voice and orchestra and O’Dea’s sweet tenor well.

The final number (“The Moral Lesson”) was my favorite musical joke of the opera, a Renaissance dance with all the wrong counterpoint. That is a nod to Jerry’s work in early music, certainly, and one that drew a few laughs from the audience, which was curiously subdued until Ethel’s first aria, at which point we finally started applauding. The music earlier certainly deserved more than it got, but we were cold.

Perhaps Saturday’s performance will draw a larger crowd once the streets are plowed. Jerry’s work deserves it.

(Editor’s Addendum: Jerry Hui will teach a Continuing Education class on singing Gregorian Chant at the UW.  The class meets every Saturday from 2 to 3:30 p.m., and will begin next Saturday, Feb. 4. Registration is required and can be done online through the website of the UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies: http://www.dcs.wisc.edu/classes/music.htm)


Classical music news: Breakfast fundraiser on Sunday will benefit choral programs at Middleton High School. Madison Opera’s “Galileo” is almost sold-out. Prize-winning UW violist Elias Goldstein returns to “Sunday Live From the Chazen.”

January 25, 2012
1 Comment

ALERTS: The Madison Opera‘s production of Philip Glass‘ “Galileo” has sold out three of the four performances this week. The only remaining seats available are for the performance on THURSDAY night at 8 p.m. in the Overture Center‘s Playhouse. Call (608) 238-8085. ALSO: This week’s “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature prize-winning violist Elias Goldstein in a program of Mozart, Martinu and Spohr from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery Number III at the Chazen Museum of Art. It will be broadcasts live by Wisconsin Public Radio. Goldstein, a former student of UW Professor Sally Chisholm, won second prize at the Primrose International Viola Competition in 2011 and took second prize at the Bashmet International Viola Competition. He was also a top prize winner of the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition in 2010.

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s hard times and they are only getting harder for music education programs in the public schools.

That’s why I am posting this invitation to a local fundraiser this Sunday:

“The 18th Annual Country Breakfast will be held Sunday, January 29 from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Middleton High School Student Center at 2100 Bristol Street in Middleton.

“The highlight of the breakfast will be individual and group performances (below) from students participating in the MHS Concert Choir, Cantus, Cardinal Choir and Chamber Singers throughout the entire day.

“Check out the schedule at www.mhschoralboosters.org to find out when your favorite MHS singer is performing!  All the proceeds go toward increasing musical opportunities for students participating in all four groups.

“Come enjoy all you can eat pancakes plus ham, eggs, fresh oranges and beverages.  Tickets are $9 for adults and $4 for children (10 and under), and will be available at the door.

“A silent auction will feature sports memorabilia, handcrafted items, jewelry, restaurant packages, event tickets and much, much more.

“This is the Choral Music Program’s annual fundraising event sponsored by the MHS Choral Boosters and many local businesses and friends including Tom and MaryBeth  Haunty, Huntington Learning Services,  James Lord, D.D.S., Mays Law Office, L.L.C, Pohlkamp & Associates, Sprechers Restaurant & Pub, SVA Certified Public Accountants, State Bank of Cross Plains,  Willy Street Co-op, Barriques and The Printing Place, Inc.       

“Questions can be directed to mhscountrybreakfast@yahoo.com or Karen Stodola at 836-1105.


Classical music review: Violinist Augustin Hadelich and the Madison Symphony Orchestra triumph in an unforgettable and moving performance of Prokofiev’s Second Concerto.

January 24, 2012
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

I doubt I will hear a better performance of any concerto in this season,or many others, than I heard at the Sunday afternoon concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Several reasons account for that.

One reason is that the concerto was the Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, composed in 1935 by Sergei Prokofiev (below), which – hard to believe but true – has never been performed before by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

It is one of the great concertos, the masterpiece concertos, of the 20th century. It is simply a terrific work that especially in the slow second movement, which opens with a solo aria underpinned by pizzicato plucking, becomes a sublime work, one that brought The Ear to tears with its poignant and breath-taking beauty. (Listen to it at the bottom.)

A second reason is that the young violinist Augustin Hadelich (below), who last played the popular Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber orchestra two years ago, was the soloist. At 28, he is not only a complete violin virtuoso, but also a deep musician who puts the music first, never himself or the violin. He has a great future facing him, and we can hope it is a very long one.

The third reason was that the conductor, MSO music director John DeMain (below) was on exactly the same wavelength as Hadelich and offered him an accompaniment that was precise and soulful at the same time.

Listening to Hadelich is to hear the emergence of a great talent. So I add Hadelich to the short list of great young violin talents the MSO has been booking. Hadelich is right at the top of the list, along with the Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud (below) who has turned in astonishingly musical versions of such warhorses as the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky concertos.

I have long argued that Prokofiev was the Mozart of the Soviet Union while Shostakovich was its Beethoven. I could develop that argument at length. But on Sunday the music made the argument for me.

Prokofiev can be percussive, but more often he has a transparency, an elegant simplicity and a gift for melody that reminds one of Mozart.

As one veteran listener remarked to me, “I’m not familiar with the concerto, but I found I could really understand it and make sense of it on the first hearing.” Is there a better definition of classicism? Unfortunately, there is a lot of modern and contemporary classical music you cannot say that about.

Both DeMain and Hadelich played with such conviction and dedication that they took you inside the piece. From the opening strain of the solo violin to the closing measure of the energetic and march-like perpetual motion, toccata-like rondo that brought a standing ovation, the Prokofiev concerto enthralled the audience.

I am betting it will not be another 80 years or so before we get to hear this work again at an MSO concert. At least I certainly hope not. What Prokofiev’s Third Concerto is to the piano, his Second Concerto is to the violin – a glorious masterpiece of the modern repertoire that is also a sure-fire hit with audiences.

As for Hadelich, he is the real deal – an heir to such violin virtuosos as Jascha HeifetzDavid Oistrakh and Itzhak Perlman. He has tone and power, lyricism and virtuosity. Even the encore he played, the famous Caprice no. 24 by Paganini (below is the opening of the score) with the familiar theme that Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Lutoslawki among others used for variations, sounded more musical than I have ever heard it in live or recorded performances.

In short, Hadelich goes for the music, never the glitz or schmaltz. It is true in his live performances and it is also true of the recordings I have heard. It makes you wonder if the severe burns he suffered in an accident at 15 and took two years to recover from didn’t deepen his maturity and his underlying appreciation of music. But, then again, maybe that is too easy an explanation for his superlative talent.

The other works on the program were extremely well performed, but nonetheless seemed to pale just a little bit in comparison to the superlative and stirring Prokofiev.

Debussy’s “Iberia” was a fine curtain-raiser, especially on an afternoon when we needed a bit of warm and sunny Spain to melt the freezing rain that had begun to fall with its color and rhythms. I often think DeMain is more at home in Ravel, who had a better sense of structure. But he did justice to modernist Debussy in this reading.

The last half of the concert consisted of Tchaikovsky’s early Symphony No. 2 “Little Russian” (or the “Ukrainian,” as Big Russians liked to pejoratively call it) was given a sparking reading by the MSO. That the score is often repetitive to a fault is only to criticize Tchaikovsky’s usual method and to remark that for most listeners, his first three symphonies can’t really compete with the maturity of his last three. Most listeners prefer the Fifth or Sixth (the famous “Pathetique”), while my vote goes for the Fourth.

Still, from the very beginning of his career Tchaikovsky (below) demonstrated a great facility for memorable melodies and appealing, accessible orchestration. (Am I the only  person who thought of Mussorgsky’s popular and dramatic “Great Gate at Kiev” from his “Pictures at an Exhibition” during the opening measures of the last movement of the Tchaikovsky?) Those aspects, present even in this early symphony, made for a solid and stirring performance that wrapped up an outstanding program that will, for me, remain one of the peaks of the current MSO season.

Of course, other critics had other things to say, and it can be fun and illuminating to compare us.

So here are some links to other reviews:

Here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=35764

And here is Lindsay Christians’ review for The Capital Times and 77 Square:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/symphony-explores-with-international-program/article_0981d1e2-443f-11e1-8edb-001871e3ce6c.html

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine’s “Classically Speaking” blog:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/January-2012/Madison-Symphony-Developing-a-Surprising-Tradition/

And here is Bill Wineke’s for WISC-TV’s Channel 3000:

http://www.channel3000.com/news/30268301/detail.html

Play critic yourself.

What did you think of the MSO concert?

Of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2?

Of violinist Augustin Hadelich?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music review: University of Wisconsin-Madison composer Jerry Hui’s new chamber opera “Wired for Love” is hardwired for success.

January 23, 2012
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the official “world premiere” performance of the new comic opera “Wired for Love” by Jerry Hui (below) on Friday night, but I was able to catch the follow-up performance the next evening at Music Hall.

As readers of The Ear have already been informed, it is a one-act chamber opera, running about 70 minutes and is Hui’s dissertation project for his doctoral degree at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.  It calls for four singers, and a pit orchestra of nine players (a string quartet with flutes, oboe/English horn, clarinets, trombone, percussion and piano).

To recap previous information, it has a libretto written jointly by Hui with Lisa Kundrat (below). In rhymed verse, it traces the confrontation made to a Nigerian scammer, who uses a male alias on the Internet, by a British counter-scammer, who uses a female alias. The two electronic “dummies” begin to take on independent characters of their own, fall genuinely in love, betray their creators, and escape to independent existence.

It is, in a sense, a piece of sci-fi satire. But it did remind me just a little of Menotti’s little comic one-act opera, “The Telephone,” which spoofed the intrusion of a modern gadget into real life circumstances. Menotti (below) also captured a lot of American colloquial English, in the way Hui and Kundrat mocked the pseudo-pigeon-English of those Nigerian scam e-mails we all seem to receive.

I was also alert to possible influences on Hui’s musical style. As he promised, he composes in an eclectic mode, reflecting and synthesizing a number of idioms.

There was jazz, and Broadway, but also conventional opera–complete with a witty quotation of the “Tristan chord.” The instrumentation at times reminded me of the “Histoire du Soldat” by Stravinsky (below top) while the overture carried for me some of the episodic writing techniques of Virgil Thomson (below bottom, with his librettist Gertrude Stein).

But Hui is his own man. His handling of the instruments is thoroughly confident, and I even wonder if he might consider fleshing out the score for a fuller orchestra. Above all, while he certainly does not attempt traditional “bel canto” vocalism, he can write genuinely idiomatic vocal lines.

There are several full-scale arias, amid a lot of “parlando” writing. And the most brilliant touch is an ensemble epilogue, a kind of Baroque operatic “coro,” offering moralizing sentiments in an echoing the final ensemble to Mozart‘s “Don Giovanni,” but cast in the form of a kind of post-Renaissance madrigal.

Hui has admitted, after all, that he is very much influenced by early musical styles. And all the music in this work is sustained in a very accomplished contrapuntal texture.

Hui was fortunate in his performers, certainly so with the instrumentalists.

Of his four singers (below, all from the UW School of Music), undergraduate baritone James Held (below, far left) was solid as the British counter-scammer–bringing a fine touch of humor to his acting. The role of the Nigerian scammer was written for a countertenor, of all things, and the very promising  Peter Gruett (below,  far right) invested his part with an appropriately bizarre quality.

Particularly outstanding, however, were the two avatars. Daniel O’Dea as the imaginary Zimbabwean frontman offered a lovely tenor voice and some quite emotionally moving expressiveness. Soprano Jennifer Sams, a familiar singer to Madison audiences, not only brought off her role as the Britisher’s phony American avatar (can you forget a name like “Ethel Wormvarnish”?) with versatility and flair but also contributed the clever stage direction.

A further plaudit goes to to Chelsie Propst for contributing imaginative surtitles, set in different type-faces to fit different characters, notably helpful in duets and ensembles.

In sum, this is a witty and enjoyable stage piece, and the audience of which I was a member just loved it. It is worth experiencing again, I think, so it is good news that Hui plans to record it soon.

Above all, “Wired for Love” is a demonstration of the very impressive dimension of Jerry Hui as a composer, amid all his other enterprises. I have already compared him to the late Steve Jobs for his boundless energy and diversely imaginative productivity.

But dare we wonder if he is perhaps also another Leonard Bernstein in the making? Time will tell. But this production is certainly a tantalizing hint. Watch for future developments …


Classical music news: John Harbison’s Symphony No. 6 gets rave reviews at its world premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

January 22, 2012
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

To many Madison-area residents and local classical music fans, John Harbison may be best known as the co-director of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival each summer during which he gives excellent talks, plays jazz and serves as a violist.

Yet John Harbison (below) is far better known throughout the rest of the world as a composer—and a very fine, respected and yes, frequently performed, composer. Many people forget that he has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and that he remains a favorite of Metropolitan Opera maestro James Levine, who commissioned Harbison’s opera “The Great Gatsby” to kick off the millennium in 2000.

He continues to teach at MIT and concertizes, especially with the music of Bach, but Harbison is busier than ever with composing new commissions.

This last week saw the world premiere of his Symphony No. 6 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which, under Levine’s direction, started last season to hold a complete retrospective of Harbison’s symphonies.

For health reasons, Levine has left the Boston post, as well as the Met post for next season. But the reviews for the performance under conductor David Zinman and with mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy, are in and they are by and large very positive and agree that Harbison is not a composer to rest on his laurels or repeat himself.

Some critics even called the work, which used both an orchestra and a mezzo-soprano, a “masterpiece” and described it as “powerful.” Below is John Harbison coaching during a rehearsal.

You can read some of the reviews for yourself:

http://theclassicalreview.com/2012/01/zinman-leads-boston-symphony-in-powerful-harbison-premiere/

http://berkshirereview.net/2012/01/harbison-symphony-no-6-premiere-bso-david-zinman-weber-strauss-beethoven-andsnes/#.TxnNJ5jH1UQ

http://bostonclassicalreview.com/2012/01/zinman-leads-bso-in-powerful-harbison-premiere/

http://mta.scripts.mit.edu/CES/2012/01/18/harbisons-6th-symphony-reviews/

Here is also a good set-up or background piece with Harbison talking about his own new symphony (below he takes a bow with the conductor and singer who performed the world premiere of his Symphony No. 6):

http://theclassicalreview.com/2012/01/the-shade-of-levine-hovers-over-new-harbison-symphony/

And the world premiere for John Harbison aren’t over by any means. On Saturday, April 21, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, in a FREE and PUBLIC concert, Habison’s 10-movement String Quartet No. 5 will receive its world premiere from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer). The Pro Arte Quartet commissioned the work to celebrate its centennial this season.

For details of that FREE and public performance and other centennial events, visit: www.proartequartet.org


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