The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 2018
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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 once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.

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Classical music: Here are the winners of Friday night’s sixth annual Handel Aria Competition

June 11, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The sixth annual Handel Aria Competition took place Friday night in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus at the Mead Witter School of Music.

It was, as usual, much fun.

Such serious fun deserved a bigger audience. But The Ear suspects that the opening night of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society at the Overture Center and the aria competition cut into each other’s audience. Maybe that scheduling conflict can be avoided in the future.

Everyone seems to agree that every year, as word of the competition continues to spread far and wide, the singers get better. This year, the seven finalists – five sopranos and three mezzo-sopranos chosen from 113 international applicants — were all terrific.

Special thanks should also go to the Madison Bach Musicians, who in a short amount of rehearsal time turned in outstanding accompaniment in music that can be hard to follow because or ornaments and embellishments as well as subjective interpretations and the Baroque singing style.

The wide repertoire included recitatives and arias from “Semele,” “Giulio Cesare,” “Rodelinda,” “Theodora,” “Hercules,” “Ariodante,” “Judas Maccabeus” and “Ricardo Primo, re d’Inghilterra” (Richard the First, King of England).

The biggest disappointment – in truth not very big — was that the competition had no male voices. There were no tenors, countertenor, baritones or basses to add to the variety. (You can hear the 2017 Audience Favorite, tenor Gene Stenger, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But that is how judging on merit works, so who can argue?

Once again, The Ear and many of his voice-savvy friends disagreed with the three professional judges. That seems to happen every year. But there will be more about that, as well as some other observations, another time.

In the meantime, let us celebrate the results.

Here, from left to right in a photo by David Peterson, are this year’s winners: soprano Sarah Hayashi, Second Prize; soprano Suzanne Karpov, First Prize; mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, Audience Favorite; and mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit, Third Prize.

All of the performances will be posted on YouTube at a later date, which The Ear will announce when it happens.

For more information about the seven finalists and the three professional judges, as well as updated news and how you can support the ever-expanding competition, go to:

https://handelariacompetition.com

https://handelariacompetition.com/2018-competition/


Classical music: Con Vivo closes its chamber music season with satisfying performances of string duos, violin romances and a clarinet quintet in a new, more intimate space

June 4, 2018
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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 once a month on Sunday morning on WORT 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The season’s closing concert by the Con Vivo! chamber ensemble (below) took on an extra degree of novelty.

Usually the group has performed in the main sanctuary of the First Congregational United Church of Christ. But the acoustics there are variable and not always ideal for small ensembles.

This time, the performers moved to the chapel, a much smaller room in the building complex. With a high ceiling but modest space, this venue has a much more appropriate quality for chamber music. It’s a trifle hard, but not reverberant — a good place for intimacy and directness of sound. This should become one base of choice for the ensemble now.

The program was split interestingly between two different musical realms.

The first half consisted of duos. At the core was a set of six brief pieces drawn from the 44 Duos by Bela Bartok, published as his Op. 104. Written for two violins, but adaptable to other string instruments, they were delivered here by violist Janse Vincent and cellist Maggie Darby Townsend (below), in charming fashion.

Framing them were two violin romances, each written with orchestral accompaniment that was rendered on the piano by Dan Lyons. One was the Romance No. 2 in F Major, Op. 50, by Ludwig van Beethoven played by Kathryn Taylor (below).

The other — which in fact originally began life as a movement of a string quartet — was the Romance in F minor, Op. 11, by Antonin Dvorak. This was played by Olga Pomolova (below). It is no disrespect to the other players to note that her performance was outstanding for rich tone and strong feeling. (You can hear Dvorak’s lovely Romance in its orchestral version in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A different world was drawn upon after the intermission, one for larger-scale chamber writing. This was the wonderful Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, for Clarinet and Strings. In this work, clarinetist Robert Taylor joined the four string players.

This is a mellow late work from Brahms, full of his artful denseness of textures, yet finely sensitive to balances. It is remarkable how the clarinet is constantly shifted between blending with the strings and standing apart from them. The performance was worthy of the challenges, full of spirit yet carefully controlled at all times — a performance that allowed the listener to ponder, and savor.

The sum total was a very satisfying concert, and one that suggested experiences with this chapel chamber should continue to be explored.


Classical music: Prize-winning violinist Ilya Kaler returns to perform Paganini with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this Friday night

April 18, 2018
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features bassoonist Juliana Mesa-Jaramillo, clarinetist Jose Garcia-Taborda and pianist Satoko Hayami in music by Mikhail Glinka, Max Bruch and Carlos Guastavino. The concert takes place from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

If you were in the audience two years ago when violinist Ilya Kaler (below) made his Madison debut with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, it is unlikely that you have forgotten it.

Kaler proved himself a complete virtuoso when he performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major. The audience went wild and so did the critics, including The Ear.

Backed up with a first-rate accompaniment by music director and conductor Andrew Sewell and the WCO, Kaler showed a perfect mix of dramatic virtuosity, songful lyricism, lush tone and sonic clarity that you rarely hear.

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center Kaler returns to perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), again under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell.

The vehicle this time is the Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor, Op. 7, by perhaps the most famous violin virtuoso of all time, Niccolo Paganini (below, playing for astonished listeners).

The concerto is famous for the “La Campanella” (The Bell) theme of the last movement that inspired the show-off etude of the same name by the great pianist Franz Liszt, who sought to emulate and transfer Paganini’s fiendish violin virtuosity on the piano. (You can hear that last movement in YouTube video at the bottom.)

Also on the program are: The Mozart-like and operatic String Sonata No. 2 by a 12-year-old Goiachino Rossini; and the Symphony No. 81 in G Major by Franz Joseph Haydn, a composer who is one of the interpretative strengths of Sewell (below).

Tickets are $15-$80. For ticket information and purchases, got to: http://www.overture.org/events/ilya-kaler

Born in Russia and trained at the famed Moscow Conservatory, Kaler now teaches at DePaul University in Chicago. He also won major gold medals in the 1980s at three major international competitions: the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow; the Paganini Competition in Genoa; and the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki.

He also records frequently for Naxos Records. To find out more about the impressive Kaler, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilya_Kaler


Classical music: University Opera stages a compelling and fully engaging cabaret of Kurt Weill songs

October 29, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend and colleague, The Opera Guy, has filed the following review.

By Larry Wells

I attended a nearly full-house opening of University Opera’s “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” Friday night in Music Hall on Bascom Hill.

The 90-minute show was comprised of about 20 numbers from the body of works by Weill (below, in a photo from the German Federal Archive. The ensembles, solos and duets were arranged into three sections with a loose narrative structure linking the pieces.

Throughout the evening I was unaware of the passage of time, which is one of my acid tests for a good performance. Likewise, I felt fully engaged.

Many of the numbers will be familiar to Weill’s fans. The well-known “Whiskey Bar/Alabama Song” was the opening solo for Sarah Kendall, who performed it more as a Puccini aria than as the world-weary, boozy Jenny. It was a novel and strangely compelling interpretation.

(Kendall performing “Whiskey Bar” with the company, is below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson, who took all the performance photographs)

More convincingly conveyed was “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” performed by the sprightly and clear-voiced Emily Weaver. “My Ship” sung by Miranda Kettlewell (below right, singing the Ice Cream Sextet with Alec Brown) was perfectly enunciated and movingly sung.

Since there were no supertitles, clear enunciation was a problem in a couple of the performances.

Likewise, mention should be made of Emily Vandenberg’s haunting rendition of “Surabaya Johnny.” (You can hear the legendary Weill interpreter Lotte Lenya sing “Surabaya Johnny” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

My favorite performances of the evening included “‘Youkali” by Talia Engstrom. My notes simply said “Perfection.” And my perennial favorite Courtney Kayser (below) did not disappoint with “J’attends un navire” and “Denn wie man sich bettet.” She is an excellent actress, possesses outstanding musicianship, and commands a clearly focused voice.

The women singers seriously overshadowed the men’s solo performances. I was wondering why that might have been. One possibility is that the men, who are trained operatically, find that they need to scale back their vocal projection for lighter vocal fare and in doing so sound constrained.

(Below, from back to front and left to right, are: Alec Brown, Jeff Larson, Jake Elfner, Sarah Kendall, Talia Engstrom, Matt Chastain in the “Benares Song.”)

Having said that, I thought Matt Chastain’s “Oh the Rio Grande” from the not well-known “Johnny Johnson” was both well sung and amusing to watch.

My companion admired the voice and acting of Alec Brown, and we both believed that Tim Emery is a dead ringer for a young Jimmy Stewart.

Some of the most compelling moments were the ensembles from Weill’s heavier works. “The Benares Song” highlighted Weill’s gravitas as a composer as did “Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen” from “Das Berliner Requiem.”

The cast members’ acting and vocal skills came to the forefront in these ensembles. (Below is “Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen” with Matt Chastain, Miranda Kettlewell, Alec Brown, Tim Emery, Emily Weaver, Eliav Goldman and Jeffrey Larson in the foreground).

Daniel Fung (below top) heroically provided the piano accompaniment without slacking for even a moment. Kudos to him. He was joined by a string bass and drum all conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below bottom) with unflaggingly appropriate tempi and dynamics.

This was the seventh production by David Ronis (below in a photo by Luke Delallio) for University Opera at the UW-Madison, and his consistently novel approach to the productions has made each one a joy. His commitment to quality and novelty is admirable.

I am eager to see what Ronis has in store for us this coming spring with “La Bohème” to be staged at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

I highly recommend attending “A Kurt Weill Cabaret,” which will be repeated this afternoon at 3 p.m. and Tuesday evening (Halloween night) at 7:30 p.m. Admission for the general public is $25; $20 for seniors; and $10 for UW students.

For more background and information about getting tickets, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/10/23/classical-music-the-university-opera-performs-a-unusual-and-original-kurt-weill-cabaret-this-coming-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-and-next-tuesday-night/

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/09/27/university-opera-presents-a-kurt-weill-cabaret/


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players complete their cycle of Beethoven sonatas for strings with impressive beauty and sensitivity

October 10, 2017
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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 once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

In another distressingly overcrowded weekend, hard choices had to be made about which event to attend. I picked the performance by the Mosaic Chamber Players last Saturday night at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

For the past four years, this group has pursued a “complete” survey of Beethoven’s sonatas for strings and piano. Since he composed 10 for violin and piano plus five for cello and piano, it was easy to organize them into five concerts, each with two violin sonatas and one for cello. In addition, it was possible in many programs to draw on all three periods of Beethoven’s output.

This year’s concert was thus the fifth and the last in the series, climaxing a really impressive achievement for artistic director and guiding spirit Jess Salek and his colleagues.

As pianist in all three of the works presented, Salek (below) provided more than accompaniment, since the role of the piano was generally put on terms of equal partnership, sometimes even of relative superiority. He played bravely, justly showing palpable pride in the total achievement.

Laura Burns (below), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet, was the violinist in the early Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 12, No. 2.

This happens to be the first of these Beethoven sonatas that I came to know and love in my youth, via an old Jascha Heifetz recording, so it had particular reverberations for me. To its wit and sprightliness Burns brought an added warmth of sound and spirit.

The Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2, was the last one Beethoven composed for this medium, and one of two that dates from the composer’s late period. A great deal of very serious thinking went into it, with a slow movement particularly notable for its spiritual depth. Cellist Kyle Price (below) delivered it with genuine feeling and with great strength of tone.

Also Beethoven’s last work for its medium, the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, comes from late in the composer’s so-called middle period. It is a work of almost kaleidoscopic variety, with frequent changes of mood and character.

Its core is another slow movement of amazingly personal eloquence and breath-taking beauty. And the theme-and-variations movement finale seems to have everything (almost) in it but the kitchen sink. (You can hear Wes Luke and Jess Salek performing another theme-and-variations movement from a different Beethoven violin sonata in the cycle, Op. 30, No. 1, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was clear that violinist Wes Luke (below), who is also the first violinist of the Ancora String Quartet, was having a whale of a good time playing it, relishing almost every note.

Luke’s printed program notes were particularly excellent, and included notice that the group’s spring concert will juxtapose piano trios of Beethoven and Brahms.

The Mosaic Chamber Players do not receive a great deal of publicity, but their concerts offer some of the most lovely and thought-provoking chamber music repertoire to be found, even in a town so full of wonderful music-making as ours.


Classical music survey: What was the first piece of chamber music that you loved? And what is your favorite piece of chamber music now?

January 28, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The weekend always seems like a good time for a reader survey or poll.

So this week, here is what The Ear wants to know:

What was the first piece of chamber music that you loved and that really hooked you on chamber music?

And what is your favorite piece of chamber music now? (Below is the UW-Madison‘s Pro Arte Quartet.)

ProArte 2010 1

There are so many pieces to choose from in such a rich repertoire that covers all instruments and the human voice as well.

There are sonatas and duos for violin and cello with piano, for example, and songs for voice and piano or other accompaniment, There are piano trios and string trios. There are string quartets and piano quartets. There are wind quintets, string quintets and brass quintets as well as piano quintets. And there are even wonderful sextets, septets and octets. (Below are UW faculty members pianist Christopher Taylor and violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino.)

soh-hyun-park-altino-and-christopher-taylor

So what pieces or performers or qualities hooked you on chamber music?

And what pieces or performers or qualities keep you listening?

The “Trout” Quintet or the string quartets or the piano trios by Franz Schubert? For The Ear it was a magical and entrancing performance of the beautiful Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major by Schubert, performed outdoors. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Was it the Baroque trio sonatas  by Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel? Or various Classical-era sonatas and string quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Ludwig van Beethoven? Maybe more Romantic string quartets by Antonin Dvorak and Johannes Brahms. Or more modern ones by Sergei Prokofiev or Dmitri Shostakovich? Perhaps even contemporary string quartets by Philip Glass? (Below are the Willy Street Chamber Players, who regularly program new music.)

Willy Street Chamber Players 2016 outdoors

Leave word in the COMMENT section with link to a YouTube performance if possible.

Maybe your choices will even help win over new converts to chamber music.

And be sure to tell us what appeals to you about chamber music versus other music genres such as operas and orchestral works.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: University Opera’s updated Hollywood production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” proves a triumph on all counts. Plus, FREE Opera Scenes concert is Tuesday night

November 20, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest review by The Opera Guy of Giuseppe’s Verdi’s “Falstaff” as staged by the University Opera. Performance photos are by Michael Anderson.

By Larry Wells

In the past few years I’ve seen Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” set in the Spanish Civil War, Wagner’s Ring cycle re-imagined as the history of cinema, and Puccini’s “Turandot” presented as a performance by a traveling circus.

Thus, Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ set in 1930’s Hollywood seemed a reasonable reinterpretation, and so it proved at its final performance Tuesday evening by University Opera.

“Falstaff,” drawn from three plays by Shakespeare, is Verdi’s final opera and a rare comedy. More importantly, gone are his familiar forms of a recitative followed by an aria with lots of oom-pa-pa orchestral accompaniment, now replaced with a conversational style that to me shows Wagner’s influence. It just doesn’t sound like Verdi, but it certainly sounds good.

I felt that the whole evening was a triumph.

The sets were beautifully dressed, the costumes were excellent and the lighting was effective.

uw-falstaff-set-and-cast-michael-anderson

The UW Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Smith, played wonderfully, although from where I sat the sound was occasionally muffled.

Thank goodness a new music building is being built, and I trust that there will be a theater within it that will accommodate operatic performances. The current Music Hall has its limitations, one being that much of the orchestra was playing underneath the stage and another being that for some reason the theater’s temperature cannot be controlled. It was stiflingly hot during the performance.

As for the singing and acting, the cast I saw was uniformly strong. Falstaff, performed by UW-Madison faculty member Paul Rowe (below), was very robust and was particularly affecting during his act III soliloquy. The Ear mentioned to me his Oliver Hardy mannerisms, and once I noticed that I was constantly amused.

uw-falstaff-paul-rowe

Yanzelmalee Rivera as Alice was hilarious in her seduction scene and really came alive in Act III. Courtney Kayser as Meg was a compelling comic actress. Rebecca Buechel’s Mistress Quickly was an equally adept comic actress and had an excellent voice. Emily Weaver as Nannetta was a beautiful singer who shone in her third act moments as Queen of the Fairies. These four women had some outstanding ensemble moments, and I was constantly diverted by their antics as they outwitted the men.

Among the hapless male characters, Brian Schneider was a standout as Ford and the deep voice of Benjamin Schultz (below left, with Paul Rowe and Jiabao Zhang) made the minor character Pistola noticeable whenever he was on stage.

uw-falstaff-benjamin-schultz-left-paul-rowe-and-jiabao-zhang

But the voice of the evening belonged to tenor José Daniel Muñiz (below right) as Fenton. He excelled not only in his solo moments but blended extremely well with his paramour Nannetta (Claire Powling, below left).

uw-falstaff-jose-muniz-and-claire-powling

The outstanding ensemble work exhibited throughout the opera culminated in the grand fugue at the end of the opera, and the nearly full-house audience was blown away by those final moments. (You can hear the fugal finale, conducted by Sir George Solti, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The 1930’s Hollywood concept worked well. It seemed completely fitting and was undoubtedly more amusing than it would have been had the opera been set in the time of Henry IV.

“Well done” to the University Opera’s new full-time director David Ronis (below center) for his imagination and direction. I look forward to his production of Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” in early March.

uw-falstaff-david-ronis

And since this University Opera production and other events are being presented to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the exhibition of a First Folio at the Chazen Museum of Art, I want to put in a plug for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love” which has almost exactly the same plot as “Falstaff” and is woefully underperformed.

I also want to draw your attention the FREE Opera Scenes concert by University Opera that will be presented this Tuesday night, Nov. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall. Featured are singers, with piano accompaniment, in scenes from: Charles Gounod’s “Faust”; Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea“; Giacomo Puccini‘s “La Rondine”; Leonard Bernstein‘s “Trouble in Tahiti”; Gioacchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”;  Dominick Argento’s “Postcard From Morocco”; and Marc Blitzstein’s”Regina.” 


Classical music: This year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival celebrates local ecological restoration with “water music”

August 22, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an overview of the upcoming 27th Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, which starts this Saturday, Aug. 27, and runs through Sunday, Sept. 4.

TOKEN CREEK, WIS. – Years in the planning, summer 2016 marks the completion of a major ecological restoration project on the Token Creek Festival property in the northeast corner of Dane County, part of the watersheds vital to the hydrology of Madison and southeastern Wisconsin.

TokenCreekentrance

TokenCreekbarn interior

During the 1930s, one of the most important feeder streams in the area, and its only cold-water trout stream, was ruined when it was widened to support short-lived commercial interests and development. Now, decades later, in a monumental effort, that stream has at long last been relocated, restored and rescued.

Festival-goers will be able to experience the project firsthand on the opening weekend, when each concert is preceded by an optional stroll along the new stream, with conversation guided by restoration ecologists and project managers.

Celebrating this monumental ecological project, the season theme of this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival is: Water Music. Virtually all of the works programmed evoke brooks and streams and rivers and water in its many forms, with its ritual meanings, associations, allusions, and as metaphor.

In keeping with the theme, the Festival has adopted Franz Schubert (below) as the summer’s featured composer. His poetic, melancholic, ultimately organic and inevitable relationship to the natural world was expressed in composition after composition, wedded to his intense involvement with the poetry of his era, itself so infatuated with birds, fields, clouds and streams.

Franz Schubert big

The second program emphasis continues the festival’s most persistent theme: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach1

Three strands of Bach’s music previously explored at Token Creek will be taken up again. We will present our third complete cantata performance, O heiliges Geist und Wasserbad, a mysterious and poetic piece from early in the composer’s career, with soloists from the Madison Choral Project (below).

Madison Choral Project color

We will conclude our survey of the three Bach violin concertos, this year the E major, co-artistic director Rose Mary Harbison (below top) again as soloist. And we take up our sequence of fugues from The Art of Fugue, co-artistic director and composer John Harbison (below bottom), who has won the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius grant,” adding three more to his personal odyssey with this work, due to conclude in 2030.

RosemaryHarbison

JohnHarbisonatpiano

NEW ARTISTS

Token Creek is pleased to introduce several new artists this season, including Grammy Award-nominated mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore, who has been praised for her “glorious instrument” and dubbed an “undisputed star…who has it all – looks, intelligence, musicianship, personality, technique, and a voice of bewitching amber color.”

Ms. Lattimore will offer works of Franz Schubert and John Harbison on the Festival’s opening concerts, By the Brook (August 27 and 28), where she will be joined by pianist Molly Morkoski.

www.margaretlattimore.net

Margaret Lattimore

Ms. Morkoski (below), who last appeared at Token Creek in 2013, consistently garners praise for her refined virtuosity and “the bold confidence and interactive grace one wants in a devoted chamber music maker.” In addition to the opening program, Morkoski will also be heard on the season finale in Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet (Sept. 2 and 4).

http://www.mollymorkoski.com/

molly morkoski

On that same concert, tenor William Hite and pianist Kayo Iwama join forces in Schubert’s devastating and tragic song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter), in which a brook functions prominently as the protagonist’s confidante. (You can hear the legendary baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing “The Miller and the Brook” from the flowing song cycle in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini has called Hite (below) a “breathtaking communicator of spoken nuance” for his ability to reveal the meaning and emotion embodied in the text and the music, solidifying his reputation as an engaging and expressive artist.

http://www.williamhitetenor.com/

william hite

Kayo Iwama (below) is associate director of the Bard College Conservatory of Music graduate vocal arts program, the master’s degree program for classical singers, and she also coordinates the vocal studies program at the Tanglewood Music Center. Her frequent concert partners include Dawn Upshaw and Lucy Shelton.

http://www.bard.edu/academics/faculty/details/?action=details&id=1838

Kayo Iwama

VIOLS AND WILLIAM WARTMANN

Finally, the “technically faultless and consistently sensitive and expressive,” consort of viols, Second City Musick (below), based in Chicago, will offer a guest recital on Tuesday, Aug. 30, anchored by John Harbison’s The Cross of Snow.

Craig Trompeter, Russell Wagner, Anna Steinhoff at the Planetarium, Chicago, May 30, 2013

Craig Trompeter, Russell Wagner, Anna Steinhoff at the Planetarium, Chicago, May 30, 2013

Commissioned by local businessman and philanthropist William John Wartmann (below) in memory of his wife, mezzo-soprano Joyce Wartmann, this evocative new piece, on texts of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, blends the ethereal lushness of violas da gamba with the haunting clarity of the countertenor voice, here Nathan Medley (below bottom), to explore the emotions of grief, loss and love.

wiiliam wartmann

Nathan Medley

At its first performance in Chicago last May, a local critic praised both the work and the musicians: “The Chicago-based ensemble was ideally suited to premiere this profoundly affecting work, and the shared sensibility between composer and performers was noticeable.”

Tuesday’s program will also include works of Henry Purcell, William Byrd, John Jenkins and Johann Sebastian Bach.

www.secondcitymusick.org

Other festival artists this season include vocalists Rachel Warricke, Sarah Leuwerke, Daniel O’Dea, and Nathan Krueger; violinists Rose Mary Harbison, Laura Burns, and Isabella Lippi; Jen Paulson, viola; Karl Lavine, cello; Ross Gilliland, bass; Linda Kimball, horn; and John Harbison, piano.

HERE ARE FESTIVAL PROGRAMS AT A GLANCE:

Program 1: By the Brook – Schubert, Bach and Harbison

Saturday, Aug. 27: 6:45 p.m. – optional guided stream stroll*; 8 p.m. – concert

Sunday, Aug. 28:  2:45 p.m. – optional guided stream stroll*; 4 p.m. – concert

*(The stream stroll is free, but reservations are recommended)

Program 2: Music for Viols, Then & Now

Tuesday, Aug. 30, at 7:30 p.m.

Program 3: Water Colors = Two Schubert Masterworks

Friday, Sept. 2 at 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 4 at 4 p.m.

Concert tickets are $32 (students $12). The preview stream stroll on opening weekend is free to concertgoers, but advance reservations are recommended.

Reservations can be made in several ways:

  • Online:    https://www.eventbrite.com/e/token-creek-chamber-music-festival-2016-tickets-26070692142
  • Website (printable order form): www.tokencreekfestival.org
  • Phone: 608-241-2525 (voicemail only, please leave a message)
  • Email: info@tokencreekfestival.org
  • U.S. mail: P.O. Box 5201, Madison WI, 53705

Performances take place at the Festival Barn, on Highway 19 near the hamlet of Token Creek (10 minutes north of Madison) with ample parking available. The venue, indoors and air-conditioned, is invitingly small—early reservations are recommended.

Token Creek 2011 Mozart Trio, Levin, Harbison, Ryder

More information about the Token Creek Festival and all events and artists can be found at the website, www.tokencreekfestival.org or by calling 608 241-2525.


Classical music: The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble will mark its 15th anniversary this Friday night and Sunday afternoon with the “German Requiem” by Brahms and the world premiere of a new work commissioned from Andrew Rindfleisch

August 2, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) will mark its 15th anniversary with two performances this coming weekend of the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms and the world premiere of a work by the contemporary American composer Andrew Rindfleisch.

These performances mark the first time the vocal group will be joined by an orchestra.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble 2015

Performances are in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus this Friday, Aug. 5 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 7 at 3 p.m.

Soloists are soprano Sarah Brailey (below top) and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe (below bottom).

Sarah Brailey headshot

Paul Rowe headshot

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 with a student ID. Children under 6 under should not attend. More information can be found at www.isthmusvocalensemble.org

The Ear asked Scott P MacPherson (below), formerly of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and now the director of choral activities at Kent State University in Ohio, to talk about the anniversary and concert. MacPherson is the founder and artistic director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble.

Scott MacPherson headshot BW 2016

MacPherson writes:

“We are excited to announce that the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble is celebrating it’s 15th Anniversary with two performances of Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) with soloists and professional musicians for the 45-piece orchestra.

“Additionally, IVE marks this significant milestone by presenting the world premiere of the Song of Jubilation, by Andrew Rindfliesch, the native Wisconsin composer’s first choral-orchestral piece.

“Started in 2002, the critically acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble is Madison’s “temporary” choir—it gathers some of the region’s finest singers every summer for two intensive weeks of rehearsal (below) culminating in two performances on the first weekend of August.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble rehearsing 2016

“IVE started up as a summer group of dedicated singers who wanted to perform great choral music together. Many charter members sang under the direction of Robert Fountain in the Concert Choir or with me and the UW Madrigal Singers or Chamber Singers when I was on the UW faculty in the 1980s and 1990s.

“The group has grown from about 35 in its first year to averaging over 60 singers each year. This summer, I have expanded the choir to 115 singers in order to meet the musical and vocal demands of the Brahms German Requiem. (You can hear one of the most popular movements, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place,” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

“From the beginning, IVE has served the Madison choral community with excellent performances of a varied and demanding repertoire, from Renaissance and Baroque motets to part songs and motets of the 19th century to choral works either unaccompanied or with piano or organ accompaniment in the 20th century to music by living composers of our time.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble and Scott MacPherson rehearsing

“A few years ago, I suggested to the IVE board that we commemorate our 15th anniversary in 2016 by performing a completely different repertoire than our usual fare.

“The Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem immediately came to mind—there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that this would be the right piece to commemorate this milestone. A favorite for the singers and audiences alike, the music of Brahms has frequently been highlighted on IVE’s programs over the years.

“Also, IVE has never before collaborated with an orchestra for an entire concert, although in 2008 we prepared Coronation Anthem No. 2 by George Frideric Handel for Concerts on the Square with Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra). Performing the German Requiem, arguably Brahms’s finest work, symbolizes the “pinnacle achievement” for many choirs.

I also approached my dear friend composer Andrew Rindflebisch (below), a UW-Madison alumnus who now serves as professor of music and heads the composition program at Cleveland State University, about sharing in our celebration by writing a choral-orchestral piece especially for IVE.

I asked Andy for a brief piece to serve as an opener for the Brahms. Song of Jubilation is a fanfare, a short celebratory anthem of power and beauty. Since it specifically introduces the Brahms, Rindfleisch uses nearly the same instrumentation and even selected one of the texts from the Requiem for his new composition. We are honored and privileged to present the world premiere of this fine work.

Andrew Rindfleisch portrait

Brahms (below) was likely inspired to write his Requiem by the death of his mother in 1865 and possibly also by losing his dear friend Robert Schumann a decade earlier.

In contrast to the Roman Catholic Requiem or Mass for the Dead, which places a great deal of emphasis on the hoped-for salvation of the deceased, Brahms chose a path unheard of in his time: he selected biblical texts in his native German language mostly with themes of consoling the living, comfort in the time of loss, hope, and even a sense of joy for the bereaved for his Requiem.

brahms3

The resulting 7-movement work quickly became an enduring statement of universal consolation, a “Human” Requiem as Brahms once called it. We hope that not only our dedicated audience members over the years will come and be moved by this incredible music, but that many more new audience members will be there as well.


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