By Jacob Stockinger
The critics’ judgments are in and they seem unanimous: iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and other similar streaming services do a grave injustice to classical music. In the end, CDs and vinyl LPs are far better than streaming for a quality listening experience.
The difficulties apparently have to do with engineering and the limits of technology, specifically of the digital compression of sound.
Here are three good and convincing critiques to read:
From The Atlantic magazine:
Here is an analysis from the prolific and always interesting reporter Anastasia Tsioulcas (below), who writes for National Public Radio (NPR) and its outstanding classical music blog Deceptive Cadence. She tackles other streaming services including Pandora and Spotify. She focuses on the organization and the difficulty of finding the music you want to listen to:
By Jacob Stockinger
The new group The Willy Street Chamber Players (below) — certainly the biggest and most successful music news story of this summer — will end its first summer season with a MUST-HEAR concert on Bach and Mendelssohn this Friday night at 6 p.m.
The concert is at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, which has both a performance space with fine acoustics hall and plenty of free parking.
Admission is $12 for adults; $8 for students and seniors.
You could hardly ask for a better program, which features two undisputed masterpieces.
The first is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). It is scored without violins but for lower strings and it is irresistible for its melodies and harmonies and especially for its driving energy and rhythm.
The second work is the astonishing Octet -– really a double string quartet –- by Felix Mendelssohn (below) who composed it when he was only 16. It may well be Mendelsohn’s best work. It too is irresistible is its energy and melodies. It is thrilling and one of the quintessential chamber music works of all time! (You can hear the impetuous opening in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Ear is going and so should you.
By all accounts, the inaugural season of the Willy Street Chamber Players -– which included everything from classic Handel, Mozart, Brahms and Dvorak to new music by contemporary composers and a noon concert for families – has been a great success.
Here is a link to a review The Ear did of the first concert:
It’s enough to make one hopeful about a second season for the group and to make one impatient to see the programs.
The Ear bets both are already in the works!
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear’s friends at the critically acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble write:
When conductor Scott MacPherson convened some of Madison’s top singers in 2002, he had no way of knowing that the newly formed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) would begin one of Madison’s most anticipated summer musical traditions.
Known as “Madison’s most temporary choir,” the ensemble – a semi-professional choir of approximately 60 singers – brings new life to over 500 years of choral music within a brief two-week rehearsal period.
This intense spirit of camaraderie produces a singular remarkable experience, year after year. (You can hear the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sing the “Abendlied” (Evening Song) by Josef Rheinberger in 2012 in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
This summer, Madison-area audiences have two opportunities to hear the 2015 program.
The traditional Friday night concert takes place on at 7:30 p.m. on this Friday, July 31, at Christ Presbyterian Church (below), located at 944 East Gorham Street in downtown Madison.
The program will be repeated at 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 2, at Lutheran Church of the Living Christ (below), located at 110 North Gammon Road, on Madison’s far west side.
General admission tickets are available online at isthmusvocalensemble.org or at the door. Admission is $15 for adults; $10 for students and seniors.
The program, “Unconventional Images” is a tapestry of unexpected beauty, including works spanning from the 1500s up to brand new compositions, featuring a world premiere from composer Corey Rubin (below) entitled “The Snow Man.”
Director Scott MacPherson writes: “For these concerts, prepare your ears and mind to be led down an unconventional path, where you will ponder such images as the nativity, snow in the summer, sensual beauty, the desert, glory, mortality and divine renewal.”
Other featured works include “Three Nativity Carols” by the late Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus (below top); “Beati quorum via” and “Coelos ascendit hodie” by Charles Villiers Stanford; “Du bist aller Dinge schön” and “Fahet uns die Füchse” by Melchoir Franck; “Schaffe in mir Gott” by Johannes Brahms; the Gloria by Dominick Argento; and several newly composed pieces, including “Desert Rose” by Frank Wiley, as well as “I Sing to Use the Waiting” and “An Irish Blessing” by University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus, Andrew Rindfleisch (below bottom).
The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble is led by Scott MacPherson (below), director of choral activities at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Its members include professional singers, choral directors, professors, lawyers, students and passionate advocates for the arts. The choir has performed by invitation at the North Central Conference of the American Choral Directors Association, commissioned several world premieres and released two professional CDs.
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 for 12 years hosted 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.
By John W. Barker
For its 53rd annual summer production, Madison Savoyards Ltd. offered its eighth presentation of the brilliant Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado. It was certainly the most problematical of those eight.
Badgered by threats of protest against the “stereotyping” of Japanese culture in this work, the Savoyards decided to slither away from “traditional” presentations, abandoning the creators’ very respectful use of Japanese setting and imagery as a mask for satirizing English life.
The group has this time engaged as stage director Melanie Cain, whose ventures with Fresco Opera Theatre here have shown her commitment to presenting works of the lyric stage in anything but their original character.
But changes should be made to add something; hers detracted and distracted. The result, visible in a two-week run at Old Music Hall on the UW campus, was pretty anarchic in visual terms.
Working on a set that was a simplified Japanese stereotype in itself, the cast was decked out in a wild disarray of ditsy costumes and crazy wigs to create a new stereotype of pop absurdity — all in the name of supposedly following current Japanese “anime” or animation graphics.
Only the elaborate costumes for the Mikado himself and for Katisha, his “daughter-in-law-elect,” in their wildness, catch something of their characters, while that for Pooh-Bah, the pompous power-grabber and egomaniac, conversely suggests British spoofing.
The staging had wide ups and downs. The individual movements and the ensemble action displayed good ideas, even if they were not always executed smartly, while the chorus was given sloppy direction with inadequate drilling.
The cast, likewise, was uneven, with only one or two soloists sub-par. Michael Ward’s Pish-Tush proved inept in both singing and movement, while Dennis Gotkowski as the romantic hero, Nanki-Poo (below left), was vocally weak and visually ridiculous — looking like a pirate.
As his beloved Yum-Yum, Angela Sheppard (below right) was visually disappointing but vocally strong. To her sidekick Pitti-Sing, Angela Z. Sheppard brought some good comic potential but her diction was uneven. Matt Marsland was too straightforward to be a successfully comic Ko-Ko.
Best were Anthony Ashley, who was excellent in both singing and acting as Pooh-Bah; Bill Rosholt as a majestic Mikado; and, despite some moments of blurred diction, Meghan Hilker as the dragon-lady Katisha (below center).
The chorus of eight or 10 women and only six men was pretty scrawny. The pit orchestra, on the other hand, was excellent under music director Blake Walter (below, in a photo by John Maniaci) of Edgewood College.
Alas, the needless use of projections during the overture (heard at bottom in a YouTube video) quite distracted the audience from listening to their fine playing of it.
Given the wackiness and color, the audience seemed generally entertained. But that is hardly the only proof of the pudding, when responsible fidelity to the character of the work is sacrificed for cheap effects.
As someone with my own long years of devoted involvement with Madison Savoyards, I find it painful to have to write so negatively. But let’s be frank: This was not one of the productions that, as so often otherwise, adds renewed honor to this proud company.
Will its production of The Gondoliers next summer be perverted by protests from Italian-Americans about stereotyping Venetians?
By Jacob Stockinger
It happened again.
There I was, writing in the early morning.
But this particular morning host Stephanie Elkins played a piece that I had never heard. It stopped me in my tracks.
It is so beautiful and poignant, and it moves so slowly and movingly that The Ear thought you should also hear it.
It is the Interlude by the Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar from his cantata “The Song.” If his other music is as good, Stenhammar (below) might well deserve a rediscovery. He was a prolific composer with several symphonies and piano concertos to his credit.
The Ear hopes you enjoy this rarely performed work as much as he did.
Perhaps my memory is faulty. But I don’t recall hearing it performance live in Madison.
Yet it might make a nice curtain raiser or encore for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra or the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.
By Jacob Stockinger
Proposals range from making tickets cheaper and concerts shorter, stressing music education and community outreach, moving to informal concert venues like bars and coffeehouses, and programming more new music.
It is a good question to revisit today, when the 14th annual family-friendly Opera in the Park, put on by the Madison Opera at 8 p.m. in Garner Park on the far west side, takes place and will draw up to 15,000. Here is a link to a posting about the event with more details:
But such a discussion about audiences usually runs the risk of almost always underestimating and even insulting the contribution of older audiences. (The Sunday afternoon crowd at the Madison Symphony Orchestra comes immediately to mind.)
Not that we should ever stop looking for ways to attract young people. But isn’t it maybe a little like asking: How can we attract more blue hairs to young punk band or rap concerts? Maybe we just need different music at different stages of our life.
In any case, let us not forget to praise the immense contribution of older people or to be grateful for them.
That is the welcome and long overdue message of British pianist-composer-painter and polymath MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner Stephen Hough (below), who has performed in Madison several times, in his blog for The Guardian.
Here is a link to his posting. Read it and see if you agree and leave a message in the COMMENT section:
What do you think?
The Ear wants to hear.
ALERT: A reminder that tonight at 6 p.m. in the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, the newly formed group the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) — whose members also play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and other groups — will present a concert of works for strings and piano by living composers, including Paul Schoenfield (you can hear the first movement of his “Cafe Music,” which is on the program, in a YouTube video at the bottom) and UW-Madison School of Music students. Admission is $12, $8 for students and seniors. For more information, here is a link to the group’s website:
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear’s friends at the Rural Musicians Forum write:
The University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s faculty brass ensemble, Ensemble Nouveau, takes the stage at Hillside Theater in Spring Green, at famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound Taliesin, as part of the Rural Musicians Forum summer concert series, on this coming Monday night, July 27 at 7:30 p.m.
The Hillside Theater (below) is located at 6604 Highway 23 in Spring Green.
The concert is not ticketed and is open to the public. A free-will offering will be taken to support the concert series. For additional information and driving directions see www.ruralmusiciansforum.org.
The ensemble’s performance will be held in the fashion of the quickly growing trend called “Classical Revolution,” where audiences hear classical music in a setting that is different and more accessible than typical concert venues and settings. Since the ensemble formed in 2009, it has performed at community centers, schools and radio stations in northern Illinois, Chicago, northeast Iowa and all across Wisconsin.
“The novelty of the group is that each member plays at least four different instruments when we perform,” said David Cooper, associate professor of trumpet and chair of the Department of Performing and Visual Arts. “Another unique feature of the group is that we arrange all of our own music because no musical arrangements exist with parts written for our unique combination of instruments.”
The group began as a quartet of four UW-Platteville faculty members and held its first concert in 2009. The group soon attracted the attention of Wisconsin Public Radio because of the quality of the members’ musicianship.
Today, the group has grown to a sextet: Cooper, who plays B-flat, C, E-flat, flugel horn and piccolo trumpet; Matthew Gregg, associate director of bands, who plays French horn, mellophone, flugel and trumpet; Allen Cordingley, lecturer of saxophone and jazz studies, who plays soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophone; percussion instructor Keith Lienert, who plays an assortment of instruments including the drum set, marimba and steel pan; Corey Mackey, lecturer of clarinet, guitar, chamber music and music appreciation, who plays all members of the clarinet family; and David Earll, lecturer of music technology, chamber music and music appreciation, who plays different tubas and euphonium.
In the photo below, members of the Ensemble Nouveau are, from left to right, David Earll, Matthew Gregg, Keith Lienert, Corey Mackey, David Cooper, Allen Cordingley.
Ensemble Nouveau now represents almost every musical member of a typical high school band program, and its program is widely varied.
“I’ve never played with a group like this before – where the literature varies so much, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Stevie Wonder to Astor Piazzola,” said Gregg. “We can play a multitude of styles: jazz, classical, funk, Latin – you name it, we play it.”
“I enjoy the challenge that comes from the uniqueness of the group,” said Cordingley. “This group is a small version of a concert band, involving all types of instruments and all types of music. During Renaissance times, consorts of musicians played in diverse locations. It almost feels like we’re old-time consorts playing contemporary music in our own diverse locations.”
In an important way, Ensemble Nouveau is also an attractive representation of what the UW-Platteville Department of Visual and Performing Arts has to offer.
As Cooper says: “We are part of this ensemble because we want to be. This group has a sincere camaraderie that reflects our passion for music and our appreciation for the opportunities we have at UW-Platteville.
“We want students at area high schools to know that they will have access to world-class players, musicians and singers at UW-Platteville. It’s important to keep music alive. Ensemble Nouveau is going to do everything in its power to do that.”
Ensemble Nouveau promises an evening of exuberant all-brass music. It will not be “all crashing cymbals and honking tubas,” Gregg insists.
For openers, two talented student flutists from the Wisconsin River Valley, Brenna Ledesma and Carly Stanek, will be featured. Each will play a solo selection followed by a duet.
By Jacob Stockinger
The annual FREE concert of opera and Broadway favorites closes the company’s extraordinary 2014-15 season and provides an appetizing preview of the 2015-16 season that celebrates writers and their inspirations.
Typically, Opera in the Park attracts over 14,000 people every year.
This year, Opera in the Park stars soprano Eleni Calenos, contralto Meredith Arwady, tenor Harold Meers and local bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, and features former Madison Opera Studio Artist Anna Laurenzo.
Here is a link to Kyle Ketelsen’s Q&A with The Ear:
Artistic Director John DeMain conducts the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra. The evening will be hosted by Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith and by WKOW TV’s 27 News “Wake-Up Wisconsin” anchor Brandon Taylor.
“I love Opera in the Park,” says Smith, in a prepared statement. “It is by far the most important performance Madison Opera gives. The magic combination of thousands of people sitting under the summer night sky and our singers and orchestra performing beautiful music on stage creates something truly inspiring. It is a testament to Madison’s love of music – and love of being outdoors – that we have the highest per capita attendance of any such concert in the country.”
The program for Opera in the Park 2015 includes arias and ensembles from Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” which opens the 2015-16 season in November; Mark Adamo’s “Little Women,” which will be performed in February; and Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” which will be performed in April.
The concert will also offer arias and ensembles from such classic operas as Antonin Dvorak‘s “Rusalka,” Charles Gounod’s “Faust,” Arrigo Boito‘s “Mefistofele” and Georg Frideric Handel‘s “Semele.” Broadway hits from “The Music Man,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Wonderful Town” will round out the evening of music, which always includes one number conducted by the audience with light sticks.
Garner Park is located at 333 South Rosa Road, at the intersection of Mineral Point Road, west of Whitney Way. Parking is available in the CUNA Mutual Group and University Research Park lots. Attendees are encouraged to bring picnics, blankets and chairs. Alcohol is permitted, but not sold in the park.
On the day of the concert, Garner Park will open at 7 a.m. Audience members are not allowed to leave items in the park prior to this time. The rain date for Opera in the Park is Sunday, July 26, at 8 p.m.
Here are two links to help you find information about Opera in the Park.
For general information, go to:
And for more information about the cast, go to:
For information about the next season, go to:
On the eve of the outdoor event, Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) – who is the general director of the Madison Opera – agreed to revisit the past season and talk about the upcoming season with The Ear.
What kind of artistic and financial shape did the Madison Opera emerge from for the past season?
Our fiscal year doesn’t end until the end of August, but overall it has been a great year on all fronts. From the triumphant music of our first staged Fidelio (below, the prisoners’ chorus in a photo by James Gill) to the sold-out Sweeney Todd and the joyous The Barber of Seville, it was an immensely satisfying season.
Audience and critical response to each opera was strong, and often included some surprise that the individual enjoyed that particular show more than he or she had expected. It feels like we have proved in the past few seasons that we can produce consistently great opera across the spectrum. I am also encouraged by the new audiences we attract and the diversity of age range I see in our lobbies.
Can you rank each show in terms of popularity? Did you learn anything special from the season?
It’s difficult to rank this season’s shows, because we know they drew very different audiences. For example, the audience at Sweeney Todd was definitely younger than the audience at Fidelio — the non-subscription performance in particular seemed to have an average age of 30 — and a number of people brought their young children to The Barber of Seville for their first opera.
In absolute numbers, the order would be Barber (below, in a photo by James Gill), Sweeney Todd and Fidelio, but there was not a wide gap between them.
The main thing I’ve learned with each successive season is that we are doing the right thing by having such a mix of operas. Some of our patrons love Beethoven, some only like comedy, and some were only interested (or very much un-interested) in Sweeney Todd.
By doing such a range, we serve a much wider audience than if we focused on only one segment of our audience. Hopefully this adds to the growing understanding that opera is not a monolithic art form.
How and why did you choose the operas for next season? Why Puccini’s “La Boheme”? Why Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”? Does “Little Women” represent something of a departure for Madison Opera? Is there an umbrella concept or unifying theme to the season?
Choosing a season’s operas is a question of balancing the classic, the rare and the new; picking a range of composers and languages; and in general coming up with the “mix” that defines us.
We have not performed La Bohème in eight years, so it was time to bring back the greatest love story in opera. While some long-time opera-goers may have seen it many times, we also have many in our audience who have only come to opera recently, so this will be their first Bohème.
Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is a brilliant piece that is both scarily large and immensely exciting to produce, packed with beautiful music and special effects. It happens to be a personal favorite opera not only for me, but also for John DeMain and Kristine McIntyre, our stage director. We look forward to sharing this literally fantastic work on the Overture Hall stage, as we have not performed it in 20 years.
Little Women came out of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, to some extent. After the success of Dead Man Walking, many people — particularly those who were surprised by how much they enjoyed a 21st-century opera — asked me what we were doing next. I did not want another nine years to go by before we did another major American opera, but I also wanted a completely different story, so that it would not be a literal comparison.
Mark Adamo’s Little Women has been one of the most-performed American operas since its 1998 premiere; its basis in a story that has been beloved for generations makes it the perfect way to keep growing our American repertoire.
As is often the case, the season theme emerges after I’ve picked the operas. Next season turned out to be a season of writers: Rodolfo is a poet; so is Hoffmann. Jo March writes stories for magazines and is in fact the only writer we see succeeding in her craft during the opera.
That said, the unifying theme is the same one I strive for every season: Great operas that tell wonderful stories with enthralling music.
What role did the new Madison Opera Center play in the past season’s productions? Has it lived up to expectations?
Over the past two years, the Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center (below) has played a major role in defining who we are. On a basic level, it is where we rehearse, fit costumes and have our offices. It is also where the singers hang out, give press interviews, do their laundry, cook the occasional meal, work on music for their next gig and bump into our trustees in the common areas.
Having our own space has enabled us to add programs like the free Opera Novice series and hold more workshops with our high school apprentices.
On a financial level, revenue from the parking ramp in particular is an increasingly important part of our budget, as it is not dependent on donors or ticket sales. On a community level, having our rehearsal hall regularly used by groups such as CTM, Theatre Lila, and Capital City Theatre shows that we truly are part of the larger artistic fabric of Madison. The Center was designed to be a home on many levels, and we are well on the way to achieving that dream.
What else would you like to say or add about the past season, the next season and perhaps also the Opera in the Park?
I am always grateful for the enormous number of people who make Madison Opera possible. Opera has never been cost-effective, and our patrons, volunteers, artists, production teams, and staff are all committed to sharing this glorious art form with everyone from the 2,000 teenagers at our student matinees to the 15,000 people at Opera in the Park.
Our season ends with this summer’s Opera in the Park this Saturday, which is always the perfect way to finish the year. This summer is the concert’s 14th year – which means that 2016 will be the 15th year, a milestone that was perhaps unthinkable when we started in Garner Park in 2002.
We have the highest per capita attendance for such an event in the U.S., which is a strong testament to the greater Madison community’s love for what we do. I won’t reveal the repertoire for this summer’s concert yet, but we have four amazing soloists and plenty of light sticks (below), so I hope everyone has the date on their calendars.
By Jacob Stockinger
Last Saturday night, in Mills Hall, The Ear saw and heard the All-Festival Concert by the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF).
But this year’s event proved one of the best ever, right at the top of the list.
The topic this year was “Slavic Discoveries: Early Music from Eastern Europe.”
To be honest, the music itself was not one of my all-time favorites of MEMF, although it had many beautiful moments.
What proved most impressive to my ears and eyes was the incredible variety that the various performers managed to instill into a concert that otherwise could have been pretty monotonous.
But this concert was anything but monotonous. The performances were well-rehearsed and quite polished.
There was, as usual, a lot of vocal music by some of the biggest orchestral and choral forces I recall seeing.
And the forces used the entire hall, even putting brass at the top of the back balcony at one point.
Plus, early music expert and retired UW-Madison professor Medieval history John W. Barker served as the narrator in an engaging piece about the slain Polish trumpeter whose battle call is still played today in Krakow in his honor.
The singers sang in large groups and small groups — solo, duets (below) and quartets — and all permutations performed superbly. The voices were strong and clear, and the diction always seemed excellent.
Conducting duties – split between guest main conductor Kristina Boerger (below top) and assistant conductor Jerry Hui (below bottom) – were exemplary.
It can be easy to lose a sense of balance and control with such large forces. But the range of dynamics from soft to loud, from slow to fast, never felt awkward or wrong. Not here. The blending and flow were superb.
So The Ear offers a hearty Thank You! to all the participants of this year’s Madison Early Music Festival who made this final concert so satisfying.
And to listeners, I say: If you can only make one concert during the Madison Early Music Festival each summer, the All-Festival Concert is a good bet — and a great place to start if early music is new to you.
Judging from this latest installment, you won’t be disappointed.
And you just might catch The Bug!