The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Tucson celebrates the Leonard Bernstein centennial. Why not Madison?

February 17, 2018
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Editor’s note: Larry Wells, better known as The Opera Guy who writes for this blog, recently spent time in Tucson, Arizona, where he attended many events celebrating the Leonard Bernstein centennial.

Tucson isn’t alone. This fall has seen many similar celebrations, including those in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee. But curiously there has been little in Madison.

Perhaps that will change next season. At least this week will see a FREE concert by the UW-Madison Wind Ensemble this Wednesday night, Feb. 21, in Mills Hall. The mixed program with other composers features “Profanation” from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1.

Here is a link with more information and the program:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wind-ensemble-2/

And here are observations about the Tucson celebration:

By Larry Wells

I recently spent a few weeks in Tucson. Part of that time happily coincided with the annual Tucson Desert Song Festival which this year commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell).

I was able to attend 13 of the performances and was struck by the consistently intelligent programming, large audiences, and high performance standards.

Many of the events were held at the Fred Fox School of Music at the University of Arizona. Some of these involved talented student and faculty singers performing Bernstein’s Broadway songs as well as his more serious vocal works. The venue also hosted outstanding recitals by Metropolitan Opera veterans Jennifer Johnson Cano (below top) and Lisette Oropesa (below bottom).

One of the highlights was a recital by dual pianists Steven Bleier (below top, on right) and Michael Barrett (below top, on left), founders of the New York Festival of Song. Their program included Bernstein’s final song cycle “Arias and Barcarolles” featuring the very talented Joshua Jeremiah (below middle) and Rebecca Jo Loeb (below bottom).

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra (below), under the direction of its new conductor José Luis Gomez,  filled the cavernous Tucson Music Hall for two performances of Bernstein’s underperformed Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish.” Joined by the symphony’s outstanding chorus, the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, and soprano Kelley Nassief this monumental work was electrifying. The many percussionists were given a good aerobic workout, and the audience seemed hypnotized.

The only flaw was the narration rewritten and delivered by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie. The original narration by the composer is a monologue between a man and his god. Ms. Bernstein’s narration changed the tone to that of a daughter speaking about her father.

For someone familiar with the work, I felt somewhat cheated that I was not hearing the work as it had been composed. Still it was a total delight to hear a live performance of a work that should be heard far more often than it is.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra offered a second program which featured a sparkling performance of Bernstein’s opera “Trouble in Tahiti” with the widely-praised, and rightly so, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (below in a photo by Dario Acosta).

Ballet Tucson offered a somewhat strange program featuring Bernstein songs beautifully performed by Cadie Jordan (below top) and David Margulis (below bottom, in a photo by Kristin Hoebermann). Sometimes they were accompanied by dancers and sometimes not.

Then, after a number of these songs, a recording came on of portions of the suite from Bernstein’s score for the film “On the Waterfront” with dancers performing a sort of “Romeo and Juliet” narrative. It didn’t seem to make any cohesive sense, but it was fun to watch and the quality of the music never faltered.

Two other large events were the Arizona Opera’s “Candide” and Tucson’s resident chorus True Concord’s MASS.

I attended the premiere of “Candide” (below) which was also performed in the vast Tucson Music Hall. I had only seen it performed once before, and that was the charming, witty, and intimate Harold Prince version. The Tucson version was one of the overlong operatic versions that featured additional musical numbers, which was a good thing, but wordy spoken dialogue that was unfortunately under-amplified. Therefore, unless someone was very familiar with the work, the production was a long string of seemingly unrelated musical numbers linked by incomprehensible spoken dialogue.

The dialogues themselves are very witty, but since they were not accompanied by supertitles as was the singing, the performance was seriously flawed. Still the singing was excellent, with special praise for Katrina Galka’s Cunegonde, and the staging was colorful and often amusing. Hopefully the sound issues were rectified for the following four performances. (You can hear the famous Overture to “Candide”– conducted by the composer —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

MASS (poster with scenes is below) was performed in what is termed as the ‘Chamber Version.’ I was apprehensive that somehow the musical content would be diminished, but my worries turned out to be unfounded and the performance was uniformly dynamic and engaging. True Concord is an outstanding choral group, and its leader Eric Holtan led a thoroughly engaging and moving performance of this monumental work. I was so taken by the first performance that I attended the second as well. Both performances filled the huge Centennial Hall.

Besides the orchestra and chorus the work features a celebrant, in this case the appropriately named Jubilant Sykes, an ensemble of vocal soloists, a boys chorus and dancers. The choreographers decided to add an additional layer of complexity to an already complex work by having some of the dancers portray Rose, Jacqueline and Caroline Kennedy as well as what I think was supposed to be the spirit of JFK. This was not part of the original work, and I felt it was superfluous to an already multifaceted work. But the audience loved it all, and it turns out that Madison is not the only city that seems to give everything a standing ovation.

The takeaway moment of the festival occurred during a discussion involving composer Dan Asia, the festival director and conductor George Hanson, and Jamie Bernstein. When asked how younger audiences can be lured into concert halls, all three of them immediately concurred that the answer is to program 20th-century music. They claim that any time 20th-century music is programmed, ticket sales increase. My experience at this festival was that large venues were consistently filled with audiences of all ages.

This is something for Madison to think about.

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Classical music: Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra program more 20th-century music?

April 14, 2017
21 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

A friend and reviewer for this blog – his specialty is opera but he also is very experienced with the symphonic repertoire — sent in the following opinion piece.

It is being posted in the wake of the announcement by the Madison Symphony Orchestra of its 2017-18 season.

For reference, here is a link to the lineup of the next season’s concerts that was posted yesterday:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/classical-music-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-announces-its-2017-2018-season-of-nine-concerts-of-favorites-combined-with-firsts/

By Larry Wells

I received my subscription renewal package for the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Greg Anderson) a couple of weeks ago, and I was struck then by how conservative and prosaic most of the offerings are.

I’ve mentioned my feelings to acquaintances, and one of the prevailing arguments is that they have to fill the seats.

The assumption seems to be that the patrons will only tolerate music written before 1850.

I’m 70 and I grew up with Stravinsky. I can recall the world premieres of Shostakovich’s final three symphonies. I once eagerly awaited recordings of Britten’s latest works. And I heard the first performances of several works by John Adams (below) while living in San Francisco in the 1980s.

If the assumption is that most reliable patrons are in their 70s and 80s, this seems like a dead-end (pardon the pun). There will be no audience in 20 years.

I believe that audiences can tolerate music of the 20th century — look at the glowing reviews of and enthusiastic ovations for last week’s performances of Witold Lutoslawski’s “Concerto for Orchestra’’ — and attracting younger patrons with bolder musical choices seems an economic necessity.

How can the MSO not be commemorating the centenary of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell)? The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is performing several of his pieces in its upcoming season.

Why do we have to endure another Brahms symphony when we could hear Dmitri Shostakovich’s 11th or 15th or Jean Sibelius’ Fourth or Fifth or even Anton Bruckner’s 8th?

On a positive note, I was heartened to see that Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem” is scheduled next season since that has been on my wish list for years. Likewise, Leos Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass” is a nice surprise.

However, when will we hear Britten’s “War Requiem,” Bernstein’s “Mass” or “‘Songfest,” a symphony by Walter Piston (below top) or William Schuman (below middle) or Alan Hovhannes (below bottom)?

I’m really tired of going to concerts where only one of the works is of interest to me and the others are historic artifacts. I’d like to see a reversal wherein Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven are brought out occasionally, but the bulk of the music performed comes from the rich source of the 20th century.

What do you think?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.


Classical music: This afternoon is your last chance to hear twin-sister pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton play Mozart with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Here are three reviews. There will also be poetry inspired by the Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich, which is also on the program. Plus, a FREE concert of choral music takes place tonight at the UW-Madison

November 13, 2016
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ALERT: Tonight at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall is a FREE concert of choral music by the UW-Madison group Chorale under its director Bruce Gladstone. Sorry, no word on the program.

By Jacob Stockinger

This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear twin-sister, Madison-born pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton (below top) perform a Mozart concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below bottom). Works by Claude Debussy and Dmitri Shostakovich are also on the program conducted by MSO music director John DeMain.

christina-and-michelle-naughton-2016

The program has received fine reviews from the critics:

Here is a review written by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/familial-spirit/

Here is the review by Greg Hettmansberger for his blog “What Greg Says”:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2016/11/12/a-perfectly-timed-homecoming/

And here is a review written by Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/music/concert-review-mso-delivers-heart-wrenching-performance-of-shostakovich-s/article_e3fc410e-3e15-543b-b323-fee9ac6ec552.html

For more information about the concert and program, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/11/08/classical-music-twin-sister-pianists-the-naughtons-return-to-their-hometown-this-weekend-to-perform-a-mozart-concerto-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-the-famous-symphony-no-5-by-shostakovich-i/

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

NEW MSO POETRY PROGRAM “COUNTERRPOINTS” DEBUTS TODAY

In addition, as a part of its 2016-17 season offerings, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) will today launch The Counterpoint Readings, a special event series where poets will respond to a selected symphonic piece, culminating in a reading in Overture Center’s Promenade Lounge the weekend the piece is performed. It is scheduled to start after the performance, at around 4:30 p.m. today.

NOTE: There is a $10 admission charge to the poetry reading, which includes a wine and cheese reception. But because notice was given late, the original deadline of Nov. 10 for reservations will be overlooked.

The first reading focuses on Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 by Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (below), performed by the MSO as part of its “Paired to Perfection” concerts this weekend. (You can hear the famous finale of the Shostakovich symphony performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

dmitri shostakovich

The Counterpoint Readings debut will happen following today’s performance, beginning at approximately 4:30 p.m. Eight poets will perform original works— world premieres for each artist.

Coordinated by MSO violist and poet Katrin Talbot (below, writing poetry in a photo by Isabel Karp), the series seeks to expand the audience’s musical experience and bring Madison’s poetry into a new light. Another such music-based poetry reading, to take place in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, is scheduled for March, according to Talbot.

Katrin Talbot shares her vision of the how the power of words can respond to this significant historical composition, “Stalin is trumpeting out Soviet dominance. Yet somehow, he (Shostakovich) overcame it to generate art. Deception to get his voice heard.”

katrin-talbot-writing-poems-cr-isabel-karp

Among the poets slated to appear include MSO bassist August Jirovec, former Wisconsin Poet Laureate Marilyn Taylor, former Madison Poet Laureate Sarah Busse, Richard Merelman, Eve Robillard, Timothy Walsh, Marilyn Annucci and Rita Mae Reese.

Here is a preview: August Jirovec’s inspiration leading up to the reading:

“If there be meaning in this world askew,

let toils and rhyming gripes slide—disappear

your cross of blood drawn in the dirt austere

and lavish canvases of nascent hue

with brilliant visions! Let your whimsy brew

brash, crazen potions inspired by this tier

of music hefted from chests, as time’s spear

pierces the heart that must love art—through you.”

And here is a link to a long interview with Talbot by Lindsay Christians for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/people-turn-to-the-poets-writers-respond-to-a-symphony/article_d6010935-abc3-556c-96db-3a9eea4619d9.html

For more information go to:

The Counterpoint Readings, direct link: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/counterpointreadings

Paired to Perfection concerts: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/naughtons


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