The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” is a second-rate opera that got a first-rate production from the Madison Opera

February 12, 2016
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Rankin Utevsky. The young violist, baritone and conductor is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and conductor James Smith, plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra, and sings with the University Opera.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO – www.MAYCO.org), which will perform its sixth season this summer. He also directs a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of this past weekend’s performance of Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” by the Madison Opera.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Also, his latest venture was the successful recent launch of the Impresario Student Opera at the UW-Madison.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below) with production photos by James Gill for the Madison Opera:

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

By Mikko Rankin Utevsky

A great opera can be memorable in many ways. You might remember how you felt at the climaxes of the music, or walk out humming the Big Tune from the showstopper aria, or leave with an image fixed in your mind’s eye of the most dramatic moment in the first-act finale.

In an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Giuseppe Verdi or Giacomo Puccini, you might remember all of these. But in American composer Mark Adamo’s debut opera, “Little Women,” there’s nothing to remember — no great moving moments, no thrilling stage pictures, no hummable tunes.

There are motifs, certainly, and recurring lines. But “Things change, Jo” (song by acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the YouTube video at the bottom) can hardly hold a candle to “O soave fanciulla” in Puccini’s “La Bohème,” the first-act Trio in Mozart’s “Figaro,” the parents’ sextet in Jake Heggie‘s “Dead Man Walking,” or the quartet from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

It’s all technically correct, but it’s not great opera — neither great storytelling nor great music.

I left the Sunday performance by Madison Opera with the unshakeable feeling that Adamo’s score had been performed far better than it deserved.

Part of the problem is that Mark Adamo (below) is too clever for his own good. The libretto, from the classic 19th-century American novel by Louisa May Alcott, is stronger than the music — never quite moving, but full of evocative and witty phrases.

The music displays a clear command of naturalistic settings of the text, rising to peaks when it should and creating compelling atmosphere. But it always seems to pull back just when a lyrical melody might break forth, or when an emotional climax draws near.

Mark Adamo

Several times he uses the gambit of two conversations on stage at the same time, talking about the same things. But the pacing is never quite right, and the unison lines are predictable and trite rather than powerful. He lacks the confidence to let people talk over one another unless we’ve already heard half of the lines. (Whether the lack of trust is in the audience or stems from his own compositional skill is a matter of conjecture.)

The dramatic and musical tricks are all “correct” — Adamo knows his business — but none of them make an emotional impact, a point driven home by their success in last season’s “Dead Man Walking,” which employs all the same devices to far greater effect. When the opening scene came back at the end of the show, I was ready to walk out. Enough already!

It is a sad fact that the most moving part of the whole affair was only half Adamo’s — a setting of Goethe’s “Kennst du das Land” (Do You Know the Land) thrown into the second act that almost approached melody, and tugged at the heartstrings in a way no other scene of the opera managed to do.

Beth’s death scene – below top with Chelsea Morris Shephard as Beth (left) and Heather Johnson as Jo — was a close second, admittedly.

Little Women 143 Beth dies GILL

And the lovely wedding vow — below bottom with, from left, Alexander Elliott as John Brooke; Courtney Miller as Meg; Rick Henslin as Gideon March; Elizabeth Hagedorn as Alma March — was marred only by Rick Henslin’s intonation.

LIttle Women 101 wedding GILL

The minimal set cheated the opera out of the lush visual setting it deserved. If the realism of the story had been played up, with painted walls and structures, the human elements of the story might have been more believable in a setting that doesn’t feel as though a strong wind might knock it all down.

Little Women 58 GILL

Instead, a few flown-in flats with cheap-looking projections stood in for the occasional wall, and some rather cool shifting images on the scrim in front of the orchestra highlighted the apparent supernatural elements of the story — not that I thought there were supposed to be any in “Little Women.”

Little Women Jo 40 GILL

This is not to say the visuals were all misses — costumes, wigs, and makeup (Karen Brown-Larimore and Jan Ross) were excellent, particularly in establishing distinctive characterizations for the four sisters, who could easily have been hard to tell apart in a less careful production.

The ghostly vocal quartet that opens the opera — and haunts various scenes in the middle, although I’m told they were intended to be offstage — felt like nothing so much as discount Eric Whitacre: cascading clusters and whole-tone scales with no particular narrative purpose, illuminating nothing about the plot. I did find myself wondering if we were supposed to think Jo had gone insane, between that and the drifting projections on the set, but I’m sure that wasn’t the intended effect.

Despite all this, the voices themselves were superb, and married to strong acting skills to boot. Time and again Madison Opera has shown a knack for finding up-and-coming young singers with tremendous talent, and this cast was no exception.

The four Little Women themselves (below, from left, with Eric Neuville as Laurie; Courtney Miller as Meg, Heather Johnson as Jo; Chelsea Morris Shephard as Beth; Jeni Houser as Amy), aided by sure-handed direction from Candace Evans, mustered warm, credible camaraderie and sisterly love.

They, and their paramours, baritone Alexander Elliot and tenor Eric Neuville, all displayed rich and even vocalism, with clear and precise English diction rendering the supertitles mostly superfluous.

Litlle Women 22 GILL

As the aloof Aunt March and the mother Alma, Brenda Harris and UW-Madison guest professor Elizabeth Hagedorn were secure and confident in their roles as well.

As the German teacher Friedrich Bhaer (below left, with Heather Johnson as Jo), Craig Verm’s accent faded in and out, but his aria, the aforementioned setting of Goethe’s famous “Kennst du das Land,” was the highlight of the show despite this.

Little Women 130 GILL

Guest conductor Kyle Knox (below), a graduate student at the UW-Madison, led musicians of the Madison Symphony Orchestra capably through a score mired in complexity and made the result sound natural — not an easy feat.

Kyle Knox 2

I admire general director Katherine Smith (below) and the Madison Opera for taking a chance on contemporary American opera, and I dearly hope they do so again next season, and the season after that.

In a tremendously conservative industry, it takes guts to put on something by a living composer when everyone else is picking the safe options to sell out the house. And I’d rather see a contemporary opera and hate it than sit through a mediocre “Bohème” (though this fall’s “Bohème” by the Madison Opera was quite excellent).

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Modern opera is a gamble, both for the box office and for the musicians. Sometimes you find “Dead Man Walking.” And sometimes you don’t. I hope the next contemporary piece to grace the Capitol Theater stage is one for the ages, even if this one, well, wasn’t.

NOTE: For purposes of comparison, here are links to two other reviews of the Madison Opera’s production of “Little Women”:

This is the review John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/arts/stage/madison-opera-little-women/

And this is the review by Greg Hettmansberger, who writes for Madison Magazine and now has his own blog WhatGregSays as well as monthly appearances on WISC-TV:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/madison-opera-stands-tall-for-little-women/

And here is a  link to an interview with Mark Adamo:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/classical-music-it-always-starts-from-the-singing-line-composer-and-librettist-mark-adamo-talks-about-creating-his-popular-opera-little-women-which-will-be-perfo/


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra, under conductor Kyle Knox, turns in its most impressive performance so far. The brass proves especially noteworthy.

February 28, 2015
5 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 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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The concert by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) on last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, at Middleton High School, drew an audience little deterred by snow and slow traffic, and greatly rewarded by the results.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

The orchestra appeared this time under a guest conductor, Kyle Knox, who has prior and future connections with it and who is currently both pursuing graduate studies and conducting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Knox (below) is a musician of very distinct talents: a knowing perspective on the works he conducts, a propensity for well-thought phrasing, and an ability to achieve definite rapport with his players.

Regular MCO conductor Steve Kerr was wise to give Knox an opportunity to hone the podium talents of this very promising conductor, and as a stimulus to this steadily maturing ensemble. (Kerr himself eventually turned up working the bass drum.)

Kyle Knox 2

The MCO delights in taking on compositions that are both challenging and quite familiar. In testing themselves thus, the orchestra invites its listeners to measure its progress against the orchestras that have set extremely high performing standards in concerts and recordings. So it is proper that we do just that, especially in the beloved music from the score for the Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Felix Mendelssohn.

The conventional five movements were played. In the fabled Overture, the strings had some struggles with their extremely demanding parts, but generally Knox achieved a well-integrated balancing of the elfin and the eerie.

Perhaps to avoid straining the players too much, Knox set a slightly slow tempo in the fairyland Scherzo, which sagged just a bit, but the Intermezzo was beautifully shaped.

Best was the evocative Nocturne, in which the French horn section demonstrated greatly improved tone and ensemble over recent showings, in a truly beautiful rendition. (You can hear the Nocturne in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Wedding March was also marked by a bit of ragged playing, but Knox paced it nicely and integrated it successfully. Overall, they get good marks for showing distinct progress in some very satisfying Mendelssohn.

Kyle Knox conducts MCO

The novelty of the program was the rarely played Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings by the 20th-century American composer Samuel Barber (below). This was a late work, the only completed movement of what was to be a full-length oboe concerto, and was published posthumously.

barber 1

It displays the familiar qualities of Barber as the pre-eminent American neo-Romantic, in music that is gentle, gracious and lyrically flowing. But it also highlights another feature of Barber: the composer’s identification with the human voice. A fine singer himself (he was a baritone), Barber was a master of song and vocal music, and the solo oboe part is, to a considerable degree, a kind of song — as the title says, a “canzonetta” or small song.

The oboe soloist, Andy Olson (below), with his own long affiliations with the MCO, clearly recognized this characteristic, and realized it in his beautiful playing.

Andy Olson plays at MCO

Andy Olson oboe

For the finale, the other super-familiar score, was the dazzling — and very tricky — orchestration by Maurice Ravel of the solo piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (below).

Modeste Mussorgsky color

At the very outset, in the opening “Promenade,” the brass section displayed a new level of power and ensemble. The saxophone solo in “The Old Castle” was truly compelling. The heavy cartwheels of “Byddlo” were inexorable, and “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” or “Baba-Yaga” (a sorceress) was truly ferocious.

The triumphant final movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev” was stunning. One feature of old Russian city portals was the inclusion of working chapels. I have never heard the hymn-like quality of the whole piece, with its interludes of liturgical chanting and tolling bells, so successfully evoked.

Overall, this performance was magnificent, and I have never heard this orchestra play so well.

It was a performance full of head and heart, with open-throttle devotion from the players. Knox obviously deserves much credit for this, but the players themselves made it clear that they owed no apologies for the results they could produce. (Below, conductor Kyle Knox singles out the brass for recognition by the audience.)

Kyle Knox applauds MCO brass

The MCO has proven itself to be, more than ever, a really extraordinary factor in the Madison area’s musical life. It is a non-, or semi-, or extra-professional ensemble whose music-making is truly inspirational. Its concerts should be supported and enjoyed by all our cultural community.


Classical music Q&A: Maestro John DeMain discusses this weekend’s opening concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 89th season. Music by Richard Strauss, Frank Martin and Camille Saint-Saens will be played with MSO principal players spotlighted.

September 15, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend will bring the opening of the 89th season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below), which was founded in 1925 and how has 91 players.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

By design, there will be no special guest soloist and no standard masterpiece –- say, a symphony or concerto by Haydn or Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms.

The works, chosen to highlight to Overture Concert Organ, will feature German composer Richard Strauss’ late Romantic tone poem “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” best known for its opening which served as the fanfare for Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Also featured are Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Winds, which was last performed by the MSO about 30 years ago); and French composer Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 “Organ.”

Wisconsin Public Radio host Anders Yocom (below) will provide a free 30-minutes prelude discussion that starts one hour before the performance.

anders yocom studio  head shot cr Jim Gill

Season tickets are still on sale with a 50 percent discount for new subscribers. And single tickets are now on sale, while rush tickets will also be available.

Tickets price run $16-$84.

Here is a link to the MSO site about the opening concert, with links to other information and ticket reservations:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/orchestra

You can also call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or visit www.overturecenter.com

Here is a link to program notes by MSO trombonist J. Michael Allsen (below), who also teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater:

http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenj/MSO/NOTES/1415/1.Sep14.html

J. Michael Allsen Katrin Talbot

The performances, under the baton of longtime music director and conductor John DeMain, will take place in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

The Juilliard School-trained John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), who came to Madison from heading the Houston Grand Opera and is starting his 21st season in Madison, recently granted an interview about the opening concert to The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

What makes this season and especially this first concert special to you?

This 2014-15 season is especially important because it marks the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 10th anniversary in Overture Hall. Being able to perform in this specially designed hall has been a game changer for the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

I can never adequately thank Jerry Frautschi for his incredible gift of the Overture Center for the Arts, and his spouse, Pleasant Rowland, for her additional endowment support and the gift of the Overture Concert Organ.

I have purposefully chosen a program for our first concert, on Sept. 19, 20 and 21, that is designed to explore the sonic power, as well as the subtlety, of Overture Hall (below).

Overture Hall

What would you like to say about the pieces on the program?

I purposefully do not have a guest artist on this first concert program because I like to focus attention on our wonderful orchestra and its principal players.

In Richard Strauss’ magnificent tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra (used as the iconic music of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey), special focus will go to the violin solos by our Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below), who never fails to move us with her gorgeous playing. (You can hear the irresistible opening fanfare by Richard Strauss at bottom in a popular YouTube video that has almost 3 million hits.)

Naha Greenholtz [playing

Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments will shine a spotlight on soloists, many of whom have also taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music:  Stephanie Jutt, flute; Marc Fink, oboe; Joseph Morris, clarinet; Cynthia Cameron-Fix, bassoon; Linda Kimball, horn; John Aley, trumpet; and Joyce Messer, trombone.

And last but certainly not least on the program is Camille Saint-Saëns’ magnificent Symphony No. 3, the “Organ Symphony”. Personally, I will never forget the first time we played it at Overture Center’s opening weekend, and we had to encore that incredible last movement! The Overture Concert Organ and its curator and organist, Samuel Hutchison (below, in a photo by Joe DeMaio), have earned a special place in the musical life of our community.

Sam Hutchison with organ (c) JoeDeMaio

Have you decided on any short-term or long-term plans for your next decade in Madison with the Madison Symphony Orchestra?

Long-term, I hope to revisit the symphonies by Gustav Mahler (below) and continue to expand the overall repertoire of the orchestra and continue to present the best of our living American composers to our audiences.

Gustav Mahler big

Working together with the wonderful MSO staff and particularly our violinist and Education Director Michelle Kaebisch (below), I’m hoping we can grow our very unique and broad-based outreach programs to the community.

Michelle Kaebisch WYSO cr Katrin Talbot

I’d also love to see us expand the Beyond the Score initiative. That January 2014 multi-media concert of Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony (below) with actors and videos, and the Symphony met with great success.

Bottom line: I always want, and can envision, the Madison Symphony Orchestra becoming an even more vital presence for ALL the citizens of Madison and the surrounding region as we contribute to our city and the arts.

MSO Dvorak

What out-of-town guest stints will you do this season? Other major plans?

In October 2014, I’m opening the Long Beach (California) Symphony Orchestra season, and then conducting a concert of American composers with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Feb 2015. In the 2015-16 season, I’ll return to the Kennedy Center.

 

 

 


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