The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will sing a program of “Live, Laugh and Love” this Sunday afternoon. Music by Brahms, Puccini, Bizet, Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda and others is featured

February 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Sunday afternoon, Feb. 16, at 3 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Landmark Auditorium, 900 University Bay Drive, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform a varied program of vocal music.

The “Live, Laugh and Love” program includes Johannes Brahms’ Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes (New Love Song Waltzes) along with a wide variety of solos, duets and ensembles encompassing music by Giacomo Puccini, Georges Bizet, Clara Schumann, John Dowland, Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The singers will accompanied by duo-pianists Mark Brampton Smith and Sherri Hansen.

Brahms (below) completed his second group of “Love Song Waltzes” in 1874, setting poems that are alternately passionate, brooding, fiery and contemplative. (You can hear some excerpts in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Building on the success of his first installment of Liebeslieder from five years earlier, Brahms’ music for the later set is more deeply emotional, mirroring the composer’s own complex romantic entanglements. Out of all Brahms’ female friends, he seems to have maintained the deepest affection for Clara Schumann (below), whose music appears on the first half of our program.

Classic arias and duets from the operas La Bohème, and The Pearl Fishers, and contemporary selections by Stephen Sondheim and Hamilton composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, round out the program to be performed in the intimate setting of the historic auditorium designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A wine-and-cheese reception will follow the concert.

Advance tickets are available online for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org or Brown Paper Tickets, or from a member of the choir. The ticket price at the door is $20.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Handel, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres.

Artistic director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) – who heads the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

 


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Classical music: University Opera succeeded brilliantly by setting Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the 1960s at Andy Warhol’s The Factory

November 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells — the Opera Guy for this blog – took in two performances last weekend of the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which played to three sold-out houses at Music Hall. He filed this review. Performance photos are by Benjamin Hopkins and Michael Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was set in Andy Warhol’s Factory of the 1960s with countertenor Thomas Alaan (below) as a Warhol-like Oberon presiding over the antics.

The opera by Britten (below) follows Shakespeare’s play fairly closely. The magical transformations and herbs of the original were translated to a hallucinogen-filled milieu of go-go dancing fairies, master-slave relationships and same-sex liaisons.

And for me it worked. That is to say, this production contained the same strangeness and wonder as the traditional productions I have seen. The play itself is very strange and wonderful.

Alaan is a fine singer and played a manipulative and somewhat slimy Warhol/Oberon whose flat affect seemed to be reflected in the relative lack of expressivity in the voice. Pitted against Oberon were Amanda Lauricella and Kelsey Wang alternating as Tytania.

Although the program stated that the portrayal of Tytania was loosely based on Edie Sedgwick in this production, without the platinum hair I missed the references. Both portrayals were much more assertive than Edie ever was, and both singers’ ardent coloratura voices tended to overshadow Oberon’s, which may have been intentional. Wang (below, far right) was an intense actress who put sparks into her portrayal, while Lauricella really has a superb voice.

(Below, from left, are Michael Kelley as Puck; Thomas Alaan as Oberon; Tanner Zocher as a young man; and Kelsey Wang as Tytania.)

The four lovers (below left) seemed to be employees at The Factory. Tenor Benjamin Liupaogo portrayed Lysander. The vocal part has an uncomfortable upper range, but Liupaogo’s singing in the second act particularly was up to the challenge.

His rival Demetrius was portrayed by baritone Kevin Green. Their contending affections for Hermia and Demetrius’ initial scorn for Helena were oddly lacking in ardor.

Hermia was double cast with Julia Urbank, a promising soprano, and Chloe Agostino, who was also a very good singer. Poor Helena, first ignored and then pursued by both men, was also double cast with a terrific Rachel Love and an equally gifted Jing Liu.

(The four lovers, below from left, were: Benjamin Liupaogo as Lysander; Chloe Agostino as Hermia; Jing Liu as Helena;, Kevin Green as Demetrius; and Paul Rowe as Theseus with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyte.)

As I have noted before, the female singers in the opera program often seem to be very solid performers. (You can hear the lovers’ quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And then there were the “Rustics” (below), the workers who have come together to put on the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the upcoming wedding of the local duke, or in this case a rich art patron.

(The six rustics, below from left, were: James Harrington as Bottom; Jacob Elfner as Quince; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; Jack Innes as Starveling; Thore Dosdall as Flute; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; with Kevin Green as Demetrius, seated.)

The six men were each talented comic actors and provided many of the performance’s laughs. Foremost was James Harrington’s Bottom. Not only a very funny actor, he produced in my opinion the finest singing among the many talented students.

Mention must be made of the very amusing Flute, hysterically portrayed by Thore Dosdall, and the promising bass Benjamin Galvin as the slow learner Snug.

These men not only sang well together and separately, but also provided many guffaws whenever they appeared. (Below are: Jacob Elfner as Quince; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; James Harrington as Bottom; Jack Innes – back row up on box – as Starveling; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; and Thore Dosdall as Flute.)

Additionally we had the fairies — all female voices in this production — who sounded wonderful together and got to demonstrate their incongruous ‘60s dance moves to Britten’s score.

Professor Paul Rowe (below left, with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyta) made an appearance as Theseus, the duke. His singing was that of a mature artist, a quality to which the students are clearly aspiring.

As the opera drew to a close with a beautifully harmonious chorus, one felt the transformation from dissonance to harmony in the opera and conflict to resolution embodied in the original play.

Many mentions of woods and forest are made in the libretto.  Director David Ronis had the walls of the factory cleverly hung with changing arrays of Warhol-like multiple images of flowers and animals. With the amount of weed being smoked and who knows what being ingested onstage, it was easy to believe that the characters might think they were in a forest despite being in a Manhattan warehouse (below).

(The cast, below from left, included Amanda Lauricella and Thomas Alaan in the foreground as Tytania and Oberon. Others were: Julia Urbank on the floor; Benjamin Liupaogo, on the floor; Chloe Flesch; Maria Steigerwald; Amanda Lauricella; Maria Marsland; Angela Fraioli; Thomas Aláan; and James Harrington lying on the couch.)

Presiding over all of this were members of the UW Symphony Orchestra led by new conductor Oriol Sans (below). I have heard maestro Sans conduct the students several times this fall, and I feel he is an outstanding addition to the music school. His control over the forces was amazing, and the subtlety he drew from the players was remarkable.

Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) has tried original twists in several of his previous productions, but I think this has been the most outlandish. And I have to say that I really loved it. So carry on, please.

He has a penchant for Britten, one of my favorite composers. His previous productions included “Albert Herring” and “Turn of the Screw.” I wonder if readers have suggestions for another Britten opera he could conceivably produce here. I have my own wish list.

 


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Classical music: The 29th Token Creek Festival closes with the world premiere of a song cycle by John Harbison and dramatic, affecting Schumann

September 6, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. 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 third and final program of this summer’s 29th Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, held in a refurbished barn (below) was given on last Saturday afternoon, when I caught it, and then was repeated the following day.

There were adjustments down to the wire, as co-director John Harbison noted in his opening comments. The originally planned opening piece, Mozart’s Sonata in G Major, K. 301, for Violin and Piano, was cancelled, and the program actually began with Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E Major (H. XVI:22).

Harbison (below) played this himself, having observed that, if not noteworthy, it was representative of its kind. In fact, it is a worthy work, its third and final movement is a little set of delightful variations on a minuet tune. Harbison obviously loves this whole Haydn literature, and he played the piece with affection.

Then it was vocal music, sung by tenor Frank Kelley — who has worked with Harbison in the Emmanuel Music activities in Boston — with pianist Janice Weber.

Their first offering was the world premiere of a cycle-in-progress by Harbison, titled In Early Evening, to texts by poet Louise Glück (below): specifically, of its first three songs. The texts are dreamy and nostalgic, and the composer has attempted to capture their multi-layered implications.

The two performers (below) then completed the concert’s first half with a presentation of the complete 16 songs of the cycle Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) by Robert Schumann. This sets the reflections on failed love, written by the great German poet Heinrich Heine.

Kelley is not an ingratiating singer. His voice sounds raw and worn. Nevertheless, he has splendid diction, in both English and German. He sounded much more confident and secure in the magnificent Schumann cycle, which he sang without a score. In this music he conveyed the varying moods and emotions with genuine engagement and expression.

But pianist Janice Weber (below) proved a real discovery. In his program notes, Harbison rightly pointed out that Schumann’s piano writing was not so much accompaniment as individualized piano writing with its own character and even independence. Indeed, the final song of the Heine cycle ends, after the voice is finished, with a substantial little epilogue of reflection for the piano alone.

Weber projected that very strong piano dimension wonderfully, and she repeated the feat when, for the program’s second half, she was joined in Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63, by violinist and Festival co-founder Rose Mary Harbison and cellist Karl Lavine.

This is a lively and quintessentially Schumanesque work that the audience loved. (You can hear the energetic first movement, played by the Beaux Arts Trio, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I found the ensemble not well balanced. Lavine was surprisingly mild, deferential and understated in his playing. But Weber provided the sturdy backbone of the performance. We should hear more of this splendid artist.


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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, with guest singer Emily Birsan, closes its 27th annual summer chamber music season on the highest note

June 28, 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. Performance photos are by Dick Ainsworth for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

By John W. Barker

Last Saturday night, I was able to attend the second program on the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s third and final weekend this season.

The opening work was American Haiku, a duo for viola and cello, by the American Paul Wiancko. Obviously inspired by Japanese musical traditions, it is a longish piece, notably lacking in the brevity of its poetic model. It was diligently played by two of the budding young musicians the society has been fostering, violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below left) and cellist Trace Johnson (below right).

Further on in the first half came the Flute Concerto in D minor (H. 484:1), by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, dated to 1747, three years before papa Johann Sebastian died. It presents the composer as a transitional figure, anchored in the Late Baroque but tugging toward the Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity of feeling or expression) of the Early Classical period.

As the reduced orchestra, we had local violinists Leanne Kelso League and Suzanne Beia, with Kienbaum and Johnson, and, on the harpsichord continuo there was the deferential pianist Satoko Hayami.

The flute soloist (below) was, of course, BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt, who played her role with obvious relish but with splendid precision, and (notably in the lively finale) real panache. The other players joined in with fine spirit.

For me, one of the two prime features of this program, however, was the participation of soprano Emily Birsan (below), a past product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and now an international star. Every time she returns to Madison is welcome, and provides us with a progress report on herself and her career. Her voice has continued to fill out with strength and beauty.

Accompanied by pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below), she sang in the first half of the program a set of four songs, Op. 27 (once again, the number of the BDDS’s anniversary) by Richard Strauss. This set includes some particular gems by the composer, ending with the sublime Morgen! (In the Morning!). Birsan magically made each song a contrasting vignette of character and mood.

Birsan was back after the intermission, again with Sykes.

They performed Samuel Barber’s set of 10 Hermit Songs, using marginal manuscript scribblings by Medieval monks as texts. With the strong support of Sykes, Birsan was superlative in conveying the simple irony and naivety of these affectionately lyrical miniatures. This performance leaves a surely enduring memory.

The other high point, for me, was the Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 for piano and strings by Robert Schumann. This is a fundamental work in the chamber music literature, a piece to wonder at.

I had forgotten how much rich prominence is given to the viola, within ensemble context, in the greatly varied second movement. Kienbaum projected it with eloquent strength, and the other players heard in the C.P.E. Bach work were utterly involved. (You can hear and see the prominent role of the viola in the opening movement of the quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is the kind of first-class chamber playing that we have come to expect from the BDDS, and why we cherish it so.


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Classical music: Irish pianist John O’Conor charms and excels in solo works by Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and John Field. Ancora String Quartet plays Nielsen and Debussy Friday night. 

May 14, 2018
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ALERT: The Ancora String Quartet will close out its 17th season with a performance this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street. The program features the String Quartet No. 4 in F Major, Op. 44, by Danish composer Carl Nielsen and the String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, by Claude Debussy. Tickets are available at the door and are $15, $12 for seniors, $5 for children. A reception follows the concert. For more information, go to: https://www.ancoraquartet.com

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 Isthmusand 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.

By John W. Barker

Lovers of piano music were given a special treat this past weekend — a double-header, allowing access to two different dimensions of one of the important pianists of our time.

John O’Conor (below), the Irish pianist, appeared on Friday evening with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), presenting a stimulating performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Then, the following evening, at the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, O’Conor gave a solo recital that showed the more personalized aspects of his art.

O’Conor concentrates particularly on the early Romantics in both his performing and recording activities, and from such concentrations was the recital program derived.

He began it with a reach back to an early favorite, Franz Joseph Haydn, in the Sonata No. 32 in B minor. In this work from 1776 O’Conor could find hints of the Romantic spirit to come — in a composer usually more identified with High Classicism.

The pianist was more fully in his own comfort zone, however, with the four Impromptus that make up the Op. 90 (D. 899) by Franz Schubert.

Dating from 1827, the composer’s last year, these are simply marvelous gems, and they made me realize that part of their delightfulness is what differentiates them from Schubert’s larger-scale piano works (sonatas,a fantasy, etc.).

The latter correspond to his efforts at music of grand scope and structure, as in the string quartets and symphonies, whereas the shorter piano pieces correspond to Schubert’s Lieder, or art songs, in their greater directness and intimacy. O’Conor played them with conviction and affection.

After the intermission came music by two composers with whom O’Conor has his most-established affinity. He has been the outstanding and crucial champion in the revival of interest in the piano music — both concertos and the pace-setting nocturnes — by John Field (1782-1837, below), the Irish pianist and composer who is recognized now as an important forerunner to Chopin.

Three of Field’s nocturnes (Nos. 5, 6, and 18) were presented, the last a kind of picture of party life in old Russia — where Field spent his later years — ending at the tolling of midday chimes. (You can hear John O’Conor play the lyrical and lullaby-like Nocturne No. 6 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Beethoven’s music is O’Conor’s other speciality. He has recorded all of the sonatas and the concertos, among other things. For this program, he performed the Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor (1801), a work nowadays cursed by the nickname given its first movement, “Moonlight.” He reminded us that the other two movements are the more fascinating and important ones.

As an encore, he suggested the John Field connection with one of Chopin’s own nocturnes.

Before each half of the program, the pianist gave his own comments, on both personal and analytical matters, and laced with his delightful Irish charm.

O’Conor performed on the amazing 1906 Chickering concert grand piano that Tim Farley has so lovingly restored. The post-recital conversation I had with O’Conor suggested that he had had too little time to adjust to the very remarkable individualities of the instrument. We may hope that he will return to Madison to fill out that acquaintance.

And we hope for more examples of the fruitful cooperation between the WCO and Farley’s in jointly bringing so fine a performer as this to the Madison scene.


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