The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear gives shout-outs to guest University Opera director David Ronis – who should be hired permanent full-time by the UW-Madison — and longtime Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra conductor Andrew Sewell because they both know how to make Mozart our contemporary. Plus, here are the results of The Final Forte. | March 26, 2015


1) In case you don’t already know them, here are the results of last night’s Final Forte: First Prize went to violinist Julian Rhee; Second Prize went to pianist Vivian Wilhelms; and Honorable Mentions went to harpist Maya Pierick and pianist Isabella Wu.

Here is a link to a complete story about the high school concerto competition:

Final Forte 2015 4 finalists

2) This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, to be held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison at 900 University Bay Drive, will feature soprano Consuelo Sanudo (below) and pianist Jeff Gibbens who will perform music by Henri Duparc, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schubert.

Consuela Sanudo

By Jacob Stockinger

It has really  been a busy past couple of weeks, with so many concerts that The Ear couldn’t even preview all of them. So it’s time to catch up and offer some critical appraisals of what I heard.

Let me begin with some background.

The supremely gifted, articulate and critically acclaimed American pianist Jeremy Denk, who has performed two solo recitals in Madison for the Wisconsin Union Theater, is fond of saying the he strives to make music sound as radical today as it was when it was first composed and first heard.

There is wisdom in that approach, which balances out the other great movement of the 20th-century that opened up our ears to another kind of difference. I am referring to the use of period instruments and historically informed performance practices to recapture how the music originally sounded.

But lately I had two examples that showed me just how exciting such an established “museum” composer as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below)  can be if made to sound and look contemporary and radical to our modern ears without going backwards.

Mozart old 1782

The two examples I have in mind are from recent performances of late works, when Mozart was in full command of his art: The opera “The Magic Flute” as presented by University Opera under the guest stage director David Ronis, who hails from New York City and teaches at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and the City University of New York as well as at Hofstra University; and the well-known penultimate Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, as performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell.


The award-winning David Ronis did several things to The Magic Flute that The Ear  really liked and found effective.

He made some judicious cuts in an otherwise overlong work.

He used surtitles for the German text.

He used spoken contemporary vernacular English for the dialogue. That not only made the opera understandable, but also lent drive to push it along and give it momentum as well as contemporaneity.

Most of all, Ronis also used cinematic Bollywood-like dance gestures and choreography (below, in photos by Michael R. Anderson) – along with the bright fusion of East-West hybrid costumes and sets that added such movement and energy,  color and humor, to the score.

I mean, don’t we see enough of opera singers just standing still, arms outstretched, with only their mouths moving?

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

Of course, some people and critics did not like the changes, and found them downright treasonous and disrespectful or just plain wrong.

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

Silly them. The Ear says the updating worked just fine. Great art is there to experiment with, not just depict. Art lives in time. It is why director Peter Sellars is such a forceful and creative influence in the world of classical music. If only classical music could be less classical and more musical! Entertainment is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, after all, why the performing arts exist.

I also think the changes are one reason why there were four sold-out performances -– not just the usual three -– and why I saw so many young people in the audience. It was, in short, a fun production.

To my eyes and ears, this production — coupled with his production of Benjamin Britten‘s “Albert Herring” in the fall — showed what a smart move it would be to hire David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) full-time to lead the University Opera. He clearly knows how to get the best out of students, has a very personal artistic vision and is willing to shake things up – which both we and The Great Artists such as Mozart can use.

David Ronis color CR  Luke DeLalio


As for the Mozart symphony – the big late one in G minor not the little  early one — it was just part of an outstanding concert turned in by Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the impressive guest cellist Amit Peled (below) and his unbelievably resonant cello that belonged to and was played by Pablo Casals. Together, man and instrument justifiably brought down the house.

Amit Peled playing

But other parts of the program, which included works by Frank Bridge and David Popper, should not be overlooked or underestimated.

Conductor Andrew Sewell (below) has long demonstrated his ability to work with such Classical-era composers as Franz Joseph Haydn and Mozart as well as Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven. And here, in a very familiar work, you could hear why.


While Mozart was one of music’s great melodists, Sewell’s interpretation emphasized tempo, rhythm and repetitive motifs even as he brought out the various voices, counterpoint and melodic lines.

This Mozart had drive and pep. (You can hear the familiar first movement, with an interesting abstract graph profile, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

In fact, the third Minuet movement sounded downright modern – a kind of percussive precursor to minimalism.

This was exciting Mozart, far from the genteel and primly elegant and blandly pleasant Mozart that The Ear refers to as Music-Box Mozart.

Andrew Sewell BW

This playing by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) was precise and dramatic. It made you sit up and take notice. It engaged you.

It also showed why Mozart was such an exception to his age –- why his contemporaries and those who followed him so revered his talent and music. He was a radical in his day but we often overlook how he pushed the boundaries of music closer to modernism.

WCO lobby

So The Ear offers shout-outs and hearty thanks to both David Ronis and Andrew Sewell for helping us to hear Mozart once again as a contemporary — not just a statically beautiful blast from the past.

Both cases proved to be an exciting and unforgettable experience. The Ear hopes we are in for more of them, particularly in Mozart’s symphonies and piano concertos.

Did you hear the opera and/or the symphony?

What did you think of the approaches to Mozart?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. I frequently disagree with Mr. Barker but in this instance absolutely support his position on this issue. Mozart does not need Bollywood to be a success (nor does he need Barnum & Bailey). Yes, there is responsible experimentation by people who are responsible and can justify their changes.

    But why applaud the following: “He (David Ronis) made some judicious cuts in an otherwise overlong work.” How’s that? That “overlong work” has held up astonishingly well over many, many years. And all of it was written by the preeminent genius of music, Mr. Mozart. It doesn’t need cutting by anyone, including Mr. Ronis. And again, Mozart is not Bollywood, no matter how many tickets are sold as a result of Bollywoodization. And both Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder spoke in German and the libretto is written in German, not in English (nothing wrong with English subtitles) but this too is a major, and likely, unnecessary change.

    Comment by fflambeau — March 26, 2015 @ 6:48 pm

  2. Dear Jake,

    Do you really want to call critics with whom you disagree “silly”? You are entitled to enjoy Bollywood-ized travesties yourself, but why sneer at those who react from a knowledgeable perspective on opera?

    If “great art is “there to experiment”, I wonder how you respond to some of your favorite piano music being distorrted beyond reason in the name of “experimenting.” Jazzy fast tempos in serious pieces, tortuously distended pacing of fast pieces? Opera is complicated, but there are questions of responsibility to the libretto and score and style that should not be trampled down in the name of “experimenting” and cheap entertainment. There is responsible “experimentation” and irresponsible “experimentation”, I am sure you must agree.

    Silly old John

    Comment by John W Barker — March 26, 2015 @ 8:52 am

    • Hi John,

      First, I am sorry you take the term so personally. I did not mean to use silly as a pejorative term — just a fun and light-hearted way of writing in a personal manner.

      But no I don’t agree with you that this was irresponsible experimentation.

      In fact I like a lot of music, including piano music, where accepted givens are played with and ignored.

      The great Sviatoslav Richter was a master as revealing new things about the music by ignoring such accepted notions of tempo. And Andras Schiff take liberties with Baroque music, especially Bach.

      This was an alternative Flute, a countercultural Flute if you will. There are a lot of more traditional productions that respect exactly what you want them to respect.

      So in school setting with students, why not be different? To my eyes and ears, it worked wonderfully.

      So we just have to agree to disagree.
      Sometimes too much knowledge can interfere with, rather than enhance, enjoyment of what is meant to be entertaining and not really deep.
      It is refreshing to see something that is … well, fresh.

      All my best wishes along with my respect for you,
      Silly Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 26, 2015 @ 9:30 am

  3. This is apropos your WYSO ‘Art of Note’ post, but I feel sure you would like to see it — from a WYSO alum (I had sent him yours):

    Comment by slfiore — March 26, 2015 @ 8:11 am

  4. Thanks Jake for your enthusiastic comments on Interim Opera Director David Ronis’ production of The Magic Flute. I saw this a total of 4 times, twice with each of the two talented casts, and enjoyed each performance immensely, each time along with a sold-out house.

    Certainly Director Ronis fits in well here at UW-Madison and you can include me as a fan, but it is the faculty of the School of Music (along with an L&S committee subject to many pressures, including arcane financial questions) that will make the final decision next year.

    Encouragingly, there have been lots of smiles at Ronis’ work among the Vocal faculty of the SoM. We can hope that Prof. Ronis returns next year for more looks at his ideas and success at communicating those to his students.

    In the meantime, I recommend April 21’s Opera Workshop for a look at what those students will be doing with repertoire chosen from 7 operas including the near-rarities Semiramide (Rossini), Giulio Cesare (Handel), Werther (Massenet), The Merry Wives of Windsor (Nicolai), and Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy).

    Comment by DAN SHEA — March 26, 2015 @ 12:52 am

  5. While I applaud your position personally, how do you reconcile the “original instruments/follow the wishes of the composer” approach with it? By that, I mean, it seems to me the people who espouse the “original instruments/follow the wishes of the composer” approach also emphasize the need to completely reproduce the sound and effects of the time of the composer. Isn’t this contradictory if many elements of the original opera are changed?

    I thought of this watching a “YouTube” performance of The Magic Flute with John Eliot Gardiner conducting. Gardiner, of course, has been one of the leaders in the to me slightly ridiculous “period instruments” movement. The performance, which I do NOT recommend, included much trapeze/acrobatic artistry from the singers which of course was not in the original. So how do you reconcile the approaches and does Mozart really need Bollywood or Barnum and Bailey? And to me what Gardiner took part in was in unforgettably bad taste. I’m not slamming in any way the Madison performances you cited and think it is worthwhile (now and then and if done in good taste) to “mix things up.”For instance, I think Orson Welles updating “Julius Caesar” to a then contemporary fascist society and also updating Macbeth were brilliant moves; but Welles was a genius in his own right.

    But are not the two positions in conflict?

    Comment by fflambeau — March 26, 2015 @ 12:44 am

    • Thanks for reading and replying, then offering your own thoughts.
      You are right — the two approaches are in conflict, but in a productive way.
      Each approach reveals new things about the music.
      So I see them as complementary — rather than contradictory — to the way we often heard a lot of Baroque, Classical and early Romantic music for many years.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 26, 2015 @ 7:54 am

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