The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This summer’s Handel Aria Competition is postponed again — until next summer. But a Virtual Gala with new performances will be held online on Sept. 10

May 20, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 8th Annual Handel Aria Competition (below) has been postponed for a second time — until 2021 — for the safety of our singers, musicians and audience members.

The upper age limit for the competition will be extended when the competition resumes, so that all singers eligible this year can still participate.

We are introducing a new initiative to support the finalists from the past seasons of the competition – all of whom have had their opportunities to perform severely curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Your assistance in spreading the word would be much appreciated!

Originating in Madison, the Handel Aria Competition Virtual Gala will take place online and worldwide on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 7:30 p.m.

While the gala will not actually be live, since it requires editing together many separate elements of video, it will be shared via Facebook Live and also be available on YouTube and our website (see below).

It is our plan to feature professionally recorded Baroque arias specially performed for the occasion by past finalists and winners, as well as some of the videos recorded during the competition itself. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear bass-baritone Jonathan Woody singing an aria from the oratorio “Belshazzar” in 2019.)

We are also going to ask the finalists to record short video quotes about how the Handel Aria Competition has helped their careers, and why they love singing Handel.

Our host will be the Handel Aria Competition’s artistic director — and first prize-winner in 2015 — Sarah Brailey (below), who is also pursuing her doctorate at the UW-Madison.

Thanks to individual donations and foundation grants, all of the funds raised during the gala will be shared among the participating singers.

We hope you will join us in showing that we value their talent, and want to help them get through this difficult time.

For news updates and details, go to: https://handelariacompetition.com

 


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Classical music: What will the fall concert season will look like? And what will the post-pandemic concert world be like?

May 18, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week, The Ear listened to and read a lot of news about COVID-19 and the arts.

And it got him thinking: What will happen this fall with the new concert season? And even later, what will a post-pandemic concert world look like? (Below is the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a photo by Peter Rodgers.)

As you may have heard, the Tanglewood Festival, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has been canceled this year. So too has the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Locally, American Players Theatre in Spring Green also just canceled its summer season.

So far, the summer season seems to be one big cancellation for the performing arts.

True, there are some exceptions.

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has yet to announce its plans for August.

One also has to wonder if crowds of up to 20,000 will feel safe enough to attend the Concerts on the Square (below), now postponed until late July and August, by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra?

Will people still want to attend the postponed Handel Aria Competition on Aug. 21 in Collins Recital Hall at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center, assuming the hall is open?

Fall events seem increasingly in question.

Last night on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that sports events and concerts will be among the last mass gatherings to take place safely, probably not until next spring or summer or even later, depending on when a vaccine becomes available.

Some public health experts also offer dire predictions about how easing up lockdown restrictions too soon might lead to an even worse second wave of the coronavirus virus pandemic this autumn and winter, despite all the happy talk and blame-shifting by Team Trump.

So, what do you think will happen beyond summer?

The Ear wonders what the fallout will be from so many music groups and opera companies turning to free online performances by solo artists, symphony orchestras and chamber music ensembles.

Will season-opening concerts be canceled or postponed? What should they be? Will you go if they are held?

Will at-home listening and viewing become more popular than before?

Will the advances that were made in using streaming and online technology (below) during the lockdown be incorporated by local groups — the UW-Madison especially comes to mind — or expected by audiences?

In short, what will concert life be like post-pandemic and especially until a vaccine is widely available and a large part of the population feels safe, especially the older at-risk audiences that attend classical music events?

Will larger groups such as symphony orchestras follow the example of the downsized Berlin Philharmonic (below, in a photo from a review by The New York Times) and play to an empty hall with a much smaller group of players, and then stream it?

Will some free streaming sites move to requiring payment as they become more popular?

Live concerts will always remain special. But will subscriptions sales decline because audiences have become more used to free online performances at home?

Will most fall concerts be canceled? Both on stage and in the audience, it seems pretty hard to maintain social distancing (below is a full concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra). Does that mean the health of both performers – especially orchestras and choral groups – and audiences will be put in jeopardy? Will the threat of illness keep audiences away?

Even when it becomes safe to attend mass gatherings, will ticket prices fall to lure back listeners?

Will programs feature more familiar and reassuring repertoire to potential audiences who have gone for months without attending live concerts?

Will expenses be kept down and budgets cut so that less money is lost in case of cancellation? Will chamber music be more popular? (Below is the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet during its suspended Beethoven cycle.)

Will fewer players be used to hold down labor costs?

Will imported and expensive guest artists be booked less frequently so that cancellations are less complicated to do? 

Will many guest artists, like much of the public, refrain from flying until it is safer and more flights are available? Will they back out of concerts?

Will all these changes leave more concert programs to be canceled or at least changed?

There are so many possibilities.

Maybe you can think of more.

And maybe you have answers, preferences or at least intuitions about some the questions asked above?

What do you think will happen during the fall and after the pandemic?

What do you intend to do?

Please leave word, with any pertinent music or news link, in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Trevor Stephenson announces the new season of the Madison Bach Musicians on YouTube. It features smaller concerts and familiar comfort music

May 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

At a time when so many concerts are being canceled, it is especially welcome when a local ensemble announces plans for the 2020-21 season.

To announce the 17th season of the Madison Bach Musicians — a period-instrument group that uses historically informed performance practices — the founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below), who also plays the harpsichord, fortepiano and piano, has made and posted a 13-1/2 minute YouTube video.

The season will also be posted on the MBM website in early June, and will also be announced with more details about times and ticket prices via email and postal mailings.

In the video, Stephenson plays the harpsichord. He opens the video with the familiar Aria from the “Goldberg” Variations and closes with two contrasting Gavottes from the English Suite in G minor.

As usual, Stephenson offers insights in the programs that feature some very well-known and appealing works that are sure to attract audiences anxious to once again experience the comfort of hearing familiar music performed live.

One thing Stephenson does not say is that there seems to be fewer ambitious programs and fewer imported guest artists. It’s only a guess, but The Ear suspects that that is because it is less expensive to stage smaller concerts and it also allows for easier cancellation, should that be required by a continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

If the speculation proves true, such an adaptive move is smart and makes great sense artistically, financially and socially given the coronavirus public health crisis.

After all, this past spring the MBM had to cancel a much anticipated, expensive and very ambitious production, with many out-of-town guests artists, of the “Vespers of 1610” by Claudio Monteverdi. Nonetheless, MBM tried to pay as much as it could afford to the musicians, who are unsalaried “gig” workers who usually don’t qualify for unemployment payments.

“Hope and Joy” is a timely, welcome and much-needed theme of the new season.

The new season starts on Saturday night, Oct. 3, at Grace Episcopal Church downtown on the Capitol Square, and then Sunday afternoon, Oct. 4, at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton.

The program is Haydn and Mozart: songs composed in English and German by Haydn plus songs by Mozart; the great violin sonata in E minor by Mozart; and two keyboard trios, one in C major by Haydn and one in G major by Mozart.

Only four players will be required. They include: Stephenson on the fortepiano; concertmaster Kangwon Kim on baroque violin; James Waldo on a Classical-era cello; and soprano Morgan Balfour (below), who won the 2019 Handel Aria Competition in Madison.

On Saturday night, Dec. 12, in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, near Camp Randall Stadium, MBM will perform its 10th annual holiday concert of seasonal music.

The program includes several selections from the “Christmas Oratorio” by Johann Sebastian Bach; a Vivaldi concerto for bassoon with UW-Madison professor Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) as soloist; and the popular “Christmas Concerto” by Arcangelo Corelli.

On Saturday night, April 24, at Grace Episcopal Church and Sunday afternoon, April 25, at Holy Wisdom Monastery, the MBM will perform a concert of German Baroque masterworks with the internationally renowned baroque violinist Marc Destrubé (below).

The program features Handel and Bach but also composers who are not often played today but who were well known to and respected by Bach and his contemporaries.

Specifically, there will be a suite by Christoph Graupner (below top) and a work by Carl Heinrich Graun (below bottom).

There will also be a concerto grosso by George Frideric Handel and two very well-known concertos by Bach – the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and the Concerto for Two Violins.

Here is the complete video:

What do you think of the Madison Bach Musicians’ new season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Acclaimed local soprano Sarah Brailey explains why performing artists and presenters need help during the COVID-19 pandemic

March 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Sarah Brailey (below) is worried.

And with good reason.

Chances are good that you have seen the local soprano or heard her sing.

She is the artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition, which she herself won in 2015. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Brailey sing the aria “Will the Sun Forget to Streak” from Handel’s oratorio “Solomon,”  with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra under conductor Julian Wachner, in the St. Paul Chapel in New York City.)

Brailey is a co-founder of and participant in the monthly free Just Bach concerts here. In addition, while pursuing graduate studies at the UW-Madison, she is a concert artist with a budding international career. For more about her, including a rave review from The New York Times and sample videos, go to: https://sarahbrailey.com

But right now the Wisconsin native is especially concerned about the lasting impact that the Coronavirus pandemic will have on her own career as well as on the careers of others like her and on the well-being of arts presenters.

Brailey (below, in photo by Miranda Loud) sent The Ear the following essay:

By Sarah Brailey

This is a scary time for everyone, but particularly for anyone who works as an independent contractor.

I am a freelance classical soprano based in Madison. I maintain a very active performing career, traveling all over the globe, and I am also a doctoral student at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

When COVID-19 hit the United States, presenting organizations on the east and west coasts started canceling concerts to comply with social distancing recommendations.

I initially thought I was lucky to be living in the middle of the country where our lesser population density might save us. Plus, I am a Teaching Assistant at the UW right now, so I will still be getting my stipend — although teaching virtual voice lessons will be its own special challenge!

But many of my colleagues are not so lucky and are facing bankruptcy. If the government doesn’t include independent contractors in its relief packages, a lot of people are going to be insolvent.

And I myself am not immune. As the seriousness of the situation became clear, all my concerts in the next two months soon disappeared one by one.

While not being able to perform is emotionally devastating, these cancellations are also financially devastating.

There exists a clause in every standard performance contract called “force majeure” (superior force), which is idiomatically referred to as, “an act of God.” This clause excuses a party from not honoring its contractual obligations that becomes impossible or impracticable, due to an event or effect that the parties could not have anticipated or controlled.

This can come in handy for a presenter if there is, say, a blizzard that necessitates the cancellation of a concert. (This happened to me a few seasons ago with the Boston Symphony.) If the presenter will not make any money on ticket sales, they are not then further injured by having to pay the musicians for the canceled concert. (Below, Brailey sings Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with the Colorado Symphony.)

The ramifications of this pandemic are unprecedented. Every freelance musician I know is suddenly out of work. The current conventions put all of the upfront financial burden on the artists. We are paid in one lump sum at the end of a project. We do not get a fee for the countless hours of preparation.

We often book travel and lodging on our own dime, and are not reimbursed until the end of the gig. We pay for our own health insurance, and we cannot file for unemployment because our work is paid via IRS Form 1099 and not W2s. The abrupt work stoppage caused by this pandemic means insolvency – or even bankruptcy — for many artists. (Below, Brailey sings Handel’s “Messiah” at the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City.)

Many institutions — and, unfortunately, many of the bigger players like The Metropolitan Opera — are invoking force majeure without much regard for how their artists are struggling.

My colleague, tenor Zach Finkelstein, is covering this in great detail on his blog The Middle Class Artist, as is Alex Ross, the prize-winning music critic for The New Yorker. Read his piece on force majeure here.

However, there are also thankfully some good stories to tell. The Bach Society of Minnesota reimbursed all my travel expenses and is paying 75 percent of my fee, as is the Lyra Baroque Orchestra.

I am helping Zach keep track of the organizations that are helping their artists in this time of need. (Read about them here. Madison Opera is on the list.)

The arts are not just cultural enrichment; they are an essential part of our economy. In 2017, the industry contributed $877.8 billion, or 4.5 percent, to U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employed over 5 million workers. We cannot afford to let this industry disappear. I fear that many individual artists and arts organizations will not recover from this. (Below, Brailey sings Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Magnificat” at the Bucknell Bach Festival.)

While we wait out this storm, I implore you to donate to a Madison arts organization. Here is a short list of recommendations along with some national relief funds for artists.

Local Arts Organizations

Madison Bach Musicians

Handel Aria Competition

Madison Early Music Festival

Madison Opera

Madison Youth Choirs

List of National Relief Funds


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Classical music: Four Madison Opera singers will collaborate with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) to perform Winterfest Concerts this Friday night and Saturday afternoon

March 10, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Each year, over a weekend, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) perform the Diane Ballweg Winterfest Concerts.

But this year a new collaboration will take place.

On this Friday night, March 13, at 7 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue, the senior WYSO Youth Orchestra (below) will accompany four singers from the Madison Opera’s Studio Artist program in which they transition to a professional career by singing minor roles and being understudies for leading roles.

Tickets are $10 for adults, and $5 for youth under 19, and are available in advance through the Campus Ticket Office, and at the venue 30 minutes before the concert.

WYSO says the Friday night concert is close to selling out.

Here are some details: “Now in its eighth year, the Studio Artist Program is an important part of Madison Opera’s artistic and educational mission. The 2019-20 Studio Artists are four singers (below) in the transition between their education and their professional careers.

They are (from left, clockwise): baritone Stephen Hobe; mezzo-soprano Kirsten Larson; tenor Benjamin Hopkins; and soprano Emily Secor. They will sing duets, trios and quartets. There will also be an orchestral overture and a prelude.

WYSO music director Kyle Knox, who is also the associate music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct both singers and instrumentalists. (You can hear WYSO members talking about playing and performing in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Says Knox (below): “Young instrumentalists rarely get to accompany soloists and singers. Playing opera in particular is something that tends to come much later in their careers, and for many of them, never at all.”

The program includes excerpts from favorite operas, including: arias by “Nabucco” and “Rigoletto” by Verdi; “La Clemenza di Tito” by Mozart; “The Barber of Seville” and “William Tell” by Rossini; “Lohengrin” by Wagner; “The Elixir of Love” by Donizetti; “Carmen” by Bizet; and “La Boheme” by Puccini. For a complete program with specific titles plus ticket information, go to:

https://www.wysomusic.org/diane-ballweg-winterfest-concerts/

For more detailed information about the Madison Opera Studio Atrists program and its WYSO collaboration, go to:

https://www.wysomusic.org/in-collaboration-with-madison-operas-studio-artists/

SATURDAY

On this Saturday, March 14, in Mills Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 North Park Street, the following groups will perform. No programs have been posted.

11:30 a.m. — Opus One and Sinfonietta (below)

1:30 p.m. — Harp Ensemble (below) and Concert Orchestra

4:00 p.m. — Percussion Ensemble (below) and Philharmonia Orchestra

The WYSO Winterfest Concert series is funded by: Diane Ballweg, with additional funding from the Wisconsin Arts Board; Dane Arts; Madison Arts Commission; American Girl’s Fund for Children; Eric D. Batterman Memorial Fund; and the Coe and Paul Williams Fund for New Musicians.

The performance in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall was made possible by an additional gift from Martha and Charles Casey. The appearance of the Studio Artists in this program has been underwritten by the Charles and Mary Anderson Charitable Fund, Charles and Martha Casey, and David Flanders and Susan Ecroyd.

 


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Classical music: University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” is a musical treat despite its outdated story. Performances remain this afternoon and Tuesday night

March 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for this blog – took in the University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” Friday night at Music Hall on Bascom Hill and filed this review. (Performance photos are by Michael R. Anderson.)

By Larry Wells

I attended the opening night of University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” (So Do They All or Such Are Women).

Considered a musical masterpiece, the opera features a cast of six singers who participate in a comedy about love and fidelity. (Below, from left, are Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi, Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando, James Harrington as Don Alfonso, Kelsey Wang as Despina, Kevin Green as Guglielmo and Chloe Agostino as Dorabella.)

In director David Ronis’ attempt to make the story more timely, the action took place in a vaguely early 20th-century setting – the Roaring Twenties, to be precise — suggested by the women’s costumes and the art deco set.

Two of the men, who are called off to war, brandished swords, which I believe were not widely used in World War I. (Below, from left, are Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando, James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Kevin Green as Guglielmo in the opening scene from Act I.)

In any event, an attempt to make an historic artifact with its incumbent unenlightened views of women relevant to the 21st century may be fruitless, and I believe that audiences today recognize the archaic attitudes expressed therein as comic and dated.

That sexist manipulation needs to be discussed today, as suggested in the director’s notes, and that women’s “agency” — to quote an overused academic term — remains an issue today is the tragedy. This comedy goes only a small distance in helping us realize that some things have not changed, even though many have.

But on to the performance.

The three female characters (below) included the vocally stunning Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi. Her “Come scoglio” was a showstopper. (Below, from left, are Chloe Agostino as Dorabella and Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi in their Act I duet.)

Chloe Agostino’s sweet soprano perfectly reflected her Dorabella, and Anja Pustaver’s comic turn as Despina revealed an interesting voice that reminded me of Reri Grist’s Oscar in the Erich Leinsdorf recording of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” – which is a compliment, albeit possibly obscure.

Kevin Green as Guglielmo grew on me as the evening progressed and as he became more confident. But the standout was James Harrington as Don Alfonso. I feel that he is a major talent in our midst. (Below in the foreground are Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi and Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando; in the background are James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Kevin Green as Guglielmo.)

Green and his partner, Benjamin Hopkins’ Ferrando, had to don disguises in order to tempt each other’s intended. In the libretto they disguise themselves as Albanians.

In what I can only hope was a nod to political correctness in order to spare the feelings of our Albanian brothers, they disguised themselves in this production as lumberjacks clad in flannel shirts and denim jeans — which was incongruously absurd but amusing at the same time. (Below,Kelsey Wang, left, as Despina examines Benjamin Hopkins as the Albanian Ferrando in a fake medical examination during the finale of Act I.)

The vocalists shone most in their many ensembles – duets, trios, quartets and sextets. The blendings of the various voices were always harmonious. The trio “Soave sia il vento” (Gentle Be the Breeze) — featuring Rosché, Agostino and Harrington (below) — was sublime and worth the price of admission on its own. (Below, from left, are Chloe Agostino as Dorabella, James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Cayla Rosché  as Fiordiligi in the famous Act I trio “Soave sia il vento,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The UW Symphony Orchestra was ably and nobly led by new conductor Oriol Sans (below) whose hiring proved to be a major coup for the university. Everything I’ve heard him conduct so far has been excellent, and this performance was no exception.

The harpsichord continuo by Thomas Kasdorf (below) was captivating in its nuance and effortlessness – very impressive.

I enjoyed the abstract unit set designed by Joseph Varga and complemented by the effective lighting designed by Zak Stowe.

In all, it was an evening primarily in which to close one’s eyes and listen.

Repeat performances, with alternating cast members, take place this afternoon – Sunday, March 1 – at 2 p.m. and again on Tuesday night, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. Running time is about 3 hours with one intermission. The opera is sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors and $10 for students. For more information about the opera, the cast and the production, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2020/02/10/cosi-fan-tutte/

 


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Classical music: This Saturday, you can hear and see UW-Madison grad Brenda Rae make her Metropolitan Opera debut in Handel’s “Agrippina.” Read a local interview with her. Plus, the Avanti Piano Trio gives a free concert on Saturday afternoon.

February 28, 2020
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ALERT: The Avanti Piano Trio will perform a FREE concert this Saturday, Feb. 29, at 3 p.m. at Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 East Gorham St. in Madison. The Madison-based trio is pianist Joseph Ross, violinist Wes Luke and cellist Hannah Wolkstein.

The program includes the Piano Trio No. 1 by Claude Debussy, Three Nocturnes by Ernest Bloch and the Tango Trio of Miguel del Aguila.

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, Feb. 29, soprano Brenda Rae (below, in a photo by Harrison Parrott) – an Appleton native and a graduate of the UW-Madison School of Music – makes her worldwide debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Rae appears in the role of the temptress Poppea – below left, in a photo by Marty Sohl, with acclaimed soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title role on the right — in a new production of “Agrippina” by Baroque composer George Frideric Handel. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Rae sing an excerpt of an Act I aria by Poppea.)

Starting at noon, you can hear it live on Wisconsin Public Radio or see and hear it in “Live in HD From the Met” (below is the poster) in the Point Cinema (608 833-3980) on Madison’s far west side and the Palace Cinema (608 242-2100) in Sun Prairie.

The live broadcast will be seen in 2,200 theaters in 70 countries worldwide. Encore performances on Wednesday are at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. at the Point Cinema only.

Admission is $24 with $22 for seniors and $18 for children 3 to 11. Encore tickets are $18 for everyone. The tickets no longer include sales tax.

The opera will be sung in Italian with surtitles in English, Italian, German and Spanish.

The running time is 3 hours and 35 minutes with one 25-minute intermission.

Here is a link to the Met’s website about the production with photos of cast members and some videos of the the opera: https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/2019-20-season/agrippina-live-in-hd/

Here is a link to a list of cast members and production staff: https://www.metopera.org/globalassets/season/in-cinemas/hd-cast-sheets/agrippina_feb20_global.pdf

Here is a synopsis of the plot that takes place in ancient Rome and involves the Emperor Nero (Nerone): https://www.metopera.org/discover/synopses/agrippina/

Finally, here is an email Q&A with Brenda Rae done by Norman Gilliland (below), host of The Midday program on Wisconsin Public Radio: https://www.wpr.org/shows/soprano-brenda-rae-appleton-native-and-uw-alumna-performing-metropolitan-opera

 


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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: This Saturday night, the Con Vivo woodwind quintet makes its debut. Plus, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble performs a variety of chamber music

February 11, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Valentine’s Day weekend is turning out to be a popular time for concerts. Here are two more performances on this coming Saturday night:

CON VIVO

Con Vivo!, or “Music With Life,” continues its 18th season of chamber music concerts with the inaugural performance of CVQ, the Con Vivo woodwind quintet (below).

The concert will take place this Saturday night, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., across from Camp Randall Stadium.

Tickets can be purchased at the door for $20 for adults and $15 for seniors and students.

Convenient free parking is only 2 blocks west at the University Foundation, 1848 University Ave.

The debut concert will include music — no specific titles have been named — by Aaron Copland, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Gyorgy Ligeti and Ludwig van Beethoven. The woodwind quintet comprises flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn.

Says Con Vivo’s artistic director Robert Taylor: “We continue our season with our newest members joining forces to perform pieces for the woodwind quintet genre, providing new sounds for our audiences. We are excited to add these fabulous musicians to our group. This concert will be a great way to shake off those winter blues!”

Con Vivo (below) is a professional chamber music ensemble comprised of Madison area musicians assembled from the ranks of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and various other performing groups familiar to Madison audiences.

For more information, go to: convivomusicwithlife.org

WISCONSIN BAROQUE ENSEMBLE

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below) will perform a concert of baroque chamber music this Saturday night, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street.

Players include: Eric Miller, viola da gamba; Sigrun Paust, recorder; Chelsie Propst, soprano; Charlie Rasmussen, baroque cello and viola da gamba; Daniel Sullivan, harpsichord; and Anton TenWolde, baroque cello and viola da gamba.

Tickets at the door only are: $20, $10 for students.

The program includes:

François Couperin – Pieces for viol, Suite No. 1 (You can hear the Prelude, played by Jordi Savall, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre  – Cantata “Jacob and Rachel”

Pietro Castrucci – Sonata No. 3 for recorder and basso continuo

Jean-Baptiste Barriere – Adagio from Sonata No. 2 for cello and basso continuo, Book 1

Marin Marais – Chaconne 83 from Pieces for Viol, Book 5

Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana – “Veni dulcissime Domine” (Come, Sweet Lord)

Girolamo Frescobaldi  – Toccata No. 8, Partita on the Aria of Monicha (1637)

Unico van Wassenaer – Sonata No. 2 for recorder and basso continuo

Johann Michael Nicolai –Sonata for Three Viola da Gambas in D major

For more information, go to: www.wisconsinbaroque.org

 


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