The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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Classical music: This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra celebrates Valentine’s Day with violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth in the Romantic “Double Concerto” by Brahms

February 10, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of John DeMain, will celebrate Valentine’s Day.

The program “Romantic Encounter” examines the brashness of French composer Hector Berlioz’s Le Corsaire” Overture, as well as the thundering seriousness of American composer Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3.

The husband-and-wife duo (below) of violinist Pinchas Zukerman, and cellist Amanda Forsyth make their return to Madison to reprise their performance of German composer Johannes Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor. (You can hear the passionate slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday, Feb. 14, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 15, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $19 to $95. See below for details.

Says maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) about the world-renowned duo: “The married team of Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth return to recreate their exciting interpretation of the Brahms Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra.

“One of Berlioz’s finest overtures, the exhilarating Le Corsaire opens the concert. And Aaron Copland’s majestic, powerful and lyrical Third Symphony — which is one of Copland’s great masterpieces and includes his Fanfare for the Common Man — is heard on the second half of the program.”

Eight minutes long, Berlioz’s swashbuckling Le Corsaire” was composed in Nice, France, after the final break-up of his marriage. The composer resided in a tower above the sea, which explains the ruined fortification’s depiction in his overture. “Corsaire” translates to “a ship used for piracy,” but this meaning is not related to the work.

 The Double Concerto was Brahms’ final work for orchestra. He composed the concerto for his old but estranged friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, as well as for cellist Robert Hausmann. With few recent precedents, the closest comparison to this work would be the Baroque concerto grosso, in which a soloist or small group is contrasted with an entire ensemble.

Copland’s monumental Symphony No. 3 was commissioned by conductor Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The work perfectly reflects the spirit of post-war America and impressively holds the title of “Greatest American Symphony.” In writing this piece, Copland (below) borrowed from himself by incorporating his triumphant Fanfare for the Common Man.

ABOUT PINCHAS ZUKERMAN

With a celebrated career encompassing five decades, Pinchas Zukerman reigns as one of today’s most sought-after and versatile musicians — violin and viola soloist, conductor and chamber musician. He is renowned as a virtuoso, admired for the expressive lyricism of his playing, singular beauty of tone, and impeccable musicianship, which can be heard throughout his discography of over 100 albums.

Born in Tel Aviv, Zukerman came to the United States where he studied at the Juilliard School with Ivan Galamian as a recipient of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan and is a recipient of the Isaac Stern Award for Artistic Excellence in Classical Music.

ABOUT AMANDA FORSYTH

The Canadian and Juno Award-winning Amanda Forsyth is considered one of North America’s most dynamic cellists. She has achieved her international reputation as soloist, chamber musician and was principal cello of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra from 1999 to 2015. Her intense richness of tone, remarkable technique and exceptional musicality combine to enthrall audiences and critics alike.

PROGRAM NOTES, TICKETS AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion that takes place one hour before each concert.

Program notes are available at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1920/5.Feb20.html

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.  

Major funding for the February concert has been provided by NBC 15; The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club; Marvin J. Levy; Fred and Mary Mohs; Nancy Mohs; and David and Kato Perlman.

Additional funding has been provided by Robert Benjamin and John Fields; Boardman and Clark LLP; Forte; Barbara Melchert and Gale Meyer; and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

 


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Classical music: The UW Schubertiade last Sunday afternoon explored the influence of Beethoven on Schubert with insight and beauty

February 2, 2020
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ALERT: In early editions of my last post, I mistakenly said that the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform the Verdi Requiem on May 25 and 26. The correct dates are APRIL 25 and 26. The Ear regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most informative and enjoyable events of the Beethoven Year – 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – came early.

It took place last Sunday afternoon in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison.

It was the seventh annual Schubertiade, and its theme was “Schubert and Beethoven: Influences and Homages.” A classic contrast-and-compare examination of two musical giants who lived and worked in Vienna in the early 19th century, the concert took place for almost three hours before a packed house. (Schubert is below top, Beethoven below middle, and the sold-out audience below bottom)

The annual event is organized by co-founders and co-directors UW piano professor Martha Fisher and her pianist husband Bill Lutes (below, greeting the crowd), who also perform frequently, especially as outstandingly sensitive and subtle accompanists.

They make the event, with audience members sitting onstage, look easy and informal. But it takes a lot of hard work.

The two sure know how to choose talent. As usual, all the singers and instrumentalists – UW alumni and faculty members (below) — proved very capable. The concert cohered with consistency.

Nonetheless, The Ear heard highlights worth singling out.

Baritone Michael Roemer (below) sang exceptionally in “An die ferne Geliebte” (To the Distant Beloved) by Beethoven (1770-1827). His voice brought to mind the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the inviting tone and direct delivery of the first song cycle ever composed. It was also the one that inspired the younger Schubert (1797-1828) to compose his own song cycles, and you could hear why.

Soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below right), accompanied by Bill Lutes and cellist Karl Knapp (below center), brought warmth, ease and confidence to the lyrical beauty of “Auf dem Strom” (On the River).

Tenor Daniel O’Dea (below) showed how Schubert’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” – the same Romantic poem made famous in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” – ended up much more lighthearted than the more familiar, serious and intense symphonic version.

Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes, who also sang as well as narrated and accompanied, showed complete blending and tightness in Schubert’s first published composition: “Eight Variations on a French Song.” It was for piano, four-hands – a sociable genre that Schubert favored and wrote a lot of.

Soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below) sang Schubert’s song “Elysium” in which it is unclear whether it is a pastiche or a parody of Beethoven, who remained a mentor until Schubert died at 31. Could that ambiguity point to Schubert’s maturing sense of himself and his own art as compared to Beethoven’s?

One year after Beethoven’s death – Schubert was a pallbearer — Schubert put on his only formal public concert of his own work. That was when he premiered his Piano Trio No. 2, the bravura last movement of which was played by Bill Lutes with cellist Parry Karp and first violinist David Perry (below), of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

Then all four members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) – with violist Sally Chisholm and second violinist Suzanne Beia – played the last two movements of Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, the work that Schubert requested to hear performed as he lay on his death bed in his brother’s Vienna apartment.

Of course there were other moments that pleased and instructed. There was a set of four songs – one coupling sung by mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple (below) — in which the same texts were set to music by both Beethoven and Schubert.

We got to hear Beethoven’s final song, “Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” (Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament).

Then there was the heart-wrenching “Nachthymne” (Hymn to the Night) by Schubert, again beautifully performed by Jamie Rose Guarrine. (You can hear “Hymn to the Night,” sung by Elly Ameling, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So in the end, what were the big lessons, the takeaways from this year’s Schubertiade?

One lesson is that for all his more familiar symphonies and concertos, his string quartets and piano trios, his piano sonatas and his sonatas for cello and violin, Beethoven was also a much more accomplished song composer than the public generally knows.

But for The Ear, the biggest lesson of all is that despite Beethoven’s deep influence, Schubert retained his own special voice, a voice full of unforgettable melodies and harmonies, of lyricism and empathy.

And using a mentor to find, refine and retain one’s own identity is the highest homage any student can pay to a teacher.

 


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Classical music: Background discussions, lectures and documentaries lead up to Madison Opera’s production of the LGBTQ-themed, McCarthy-era opera “Fellow Travelers” on Feb. 7 and 9

January 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera continues its foray into 21st-century operas with Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers on Friday night, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 9, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

(Production photos below are by Dan Norman of the Minnesota Opera production, which is being encored in Madison. You can see and hear a preview of the Minnesota Opera production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The acclaimed 2016 opera is set in 1950s Washington, D.C. The “Lavender Scare,” in which suspected homosexuals saw their livelihoods and lives destroyed, has enveloped the U.S. government. (Below are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.) 

Against this backdrop, Timothy Laughlin, a recent college graduate and an ardent supporter of Wisconsin’s anti-Communist Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, meets Hawkins Fuller, a State Department official.

The two men (below, Acosta on the right) embark on a relationship, tangled in a web of fear and necessary deceit. Their friends and colleagues fill out a story of individuals grappling with their beliefs and emotions.

With a libretto by Greg Pierce that is based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers was praised as “a near-perfect example of fast-flowing musical drama” by The New York Times and tells of the very human consequences of prejudice and fear, with compassion, nuance and incredible beauty.

The opera will be sung in English with projected text.

The performance will last approximately 2 hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

For more information, go to: www.madisonopera.org/FellowTravelers

Tickets are $26 to $118 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to the Overture Center box office at 201 State Street or call it at (608) 258-4141 or go online to www.MadisonOpera.org/Tickets

“When I saw Fellow Travelers, I knew before it was over that I would be producing it in Madison,” says Madison’s Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with the haunting music and the well-drawn characters, and the emotional impact at the end was even more powerful than I had anticipated. I am truly looking forward to sharing this modern masterpiece with our community.”

Peter Rothstein (below) directs this production in his Madison Opera debut. Rothstein, who received his MFA from the UW-Madison, directed Fellow Travelers for Minnesota Opera in 2018.

The Twin City Arts Reader called his production “equal parts sweeping love affair and tragic circumstance. To some, the events will feel comfortably distant for this doomed period romance. For others, they will seem all too real and possible in this day and age. It’s a powerful combination.”

Making his Madison Opera debut as Timothy Laughlin is Andres Acosta (below), who performed this role to acclaim at the Minnesota Opera.

Ben Edquist (below), who debuted at Opera in the Park this past summer, sings Hawkins Fuller.

Adriana Zabala (below, of Florencia en el Amazonas) returns as Mary Johnson, who works with Hawkins and is a friend and voice of conscience for him and Timothy.

Returning to Madison Opera are Sidney Outlaw (below top, of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet) as Tommy McIntyre, a political insider, and Alan Dunbar (below bottom, in a photo by Roy Hellman, of Mozart’s The Magic Flute) in multiple roles, including Senator Joseph McCarthy and a government interrogator who puts Hawkins through a lie detector test.

Andrew Wilkowske (below) debuts in several roles, including Senator Potter and General Arlie.

Filling out the cast is Madison Opera Studio Artist Emily Secor (below top) as Miss Lightfoot, who works in Hawkins’ office; soprano Cassandra Vasta (below bottom) as Lucy, whomHawkins marries; and Madison Opera Studio Artist Stephen Hobe in five different roles.

John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) conducts, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” is sponsored by: Fran Klos; Sally and Mike Miley; David Flanders and Susan Ecroyd; John Lemke and Pamela Oliver; Sharyn and Carl Stumpf; and Dane Arts. Community events are sponsored by The Capital Times.

RELATED EVENTS

In addition to the two performances, Madison Opera offers several events to allow deeper exploration of the opera and its historical background.

They include a free discussion of the “Wisconsin Dimension” of this period in history at the Madison Central Library and a free showing of The Lavender Scare documentary at PBS Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin Public Television).

OPERA NOVICE: WELCOME TO THE 21st CENTURY

This Friday, Jan. 17, 6-7 p.m. FREE and open to the public at the Madison Opera Center (below), 335 West Mifflin Street

New to opera? Not sure how you feel about modern opera? Come to the Madison Opera Center for a short, fun and informative evening, led by General Director Kathryn Smith.

Learn about some of the new American operas that are shaping the operatic landscape in the 21st century, including Fellow Travelers. Studio Artist Stephen Hobe (below) will sing an aria from Fellow Travelers, and there will be plenty of time for questions. It’s the perfect jump-start for the opera-curious.

FELLOW TRAVELERS: THE WISCONSIN DIMENSION

This Sunday, Jan. 19, 3–4:30 p.m.; FREE and open to the public at the Madison Central Library, 201 West Mifflin Street

 Join us for a discussion of how the Lavender Scare and its fallout was felt in Wisconsin, led by R. Richard Wagner (below top), activist and author of We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History (below middle), and Susan Zaeske (below bottom), a UW-Madison campus leader in the arts and humanities who has taught an experiential-learning course on LGBTQ history.

THE LAVENDER SCARE– Documentary Screening

Friday, Jan. 24, 7 p.m.; FREE and open to the public at PBS Wisconsin, 821 University Avenue

PBS Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin Public Television) presents a screening of The Lavender Scare, the first documentary film to tell the little-known story of an unrelenting campaign by the federal government to identify and fire all employees suspected of being homosexual.

Narrated by Glenn Close, the film was praised as “a gripping, nimbly assembled documentary… vivid, disturbing and rousing” by the Los Angeles Times. The screening will be followed by a discussion.

OPERA UP CLOSE: FELLOW TRAVELERS

Sunday, Feb. 2, 1-3 p.m.; FREE for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers; and $20 for non-subscribers; at the Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street

Join the Madison Opera for a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Fellow Travelers. General Director Kathryn Smith will discuss many aspects of the opera, including the historical events that provide the story’s backdrop, the novel on which it is based, and how this 2016 opera swiftly spread across the country.

Principal artists, stage director Peter Rothstein, and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this acclaimed 2016 work.

PRE-OPERA TALKS

Friday, February 7, 2020, 7 p.m. and Sunday, February 9, 2020, 1:30 p.m. FREE to ticket holders at the Wisconsin Studio in the Overture Center

Join General Director Kathryn Smith one hour prior to performances for an entertaining and informative talk about Fellow Travelers.

 


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Classical music: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge sings a varied program with organ accompaniment this Wednesday night in Overture Hall

September 9, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The new season of the popular Overture Concert Organ series, sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and curated by MSO organist Greg Zelek, begins this Wednesday night, Sept. 11, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall.

All single tickets are $20. (A subscription to all four organ concerts is $63.)

The opening program features the world-famous Choir of Trinity College Cambridge (below), on tour from its home in the United Kingdom.

Adds Zelek:

“Our season opens with the amazing Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, named by Gramophone Magazine as one of the best choirs in the world.

“Conducted by the choir’s music director Stephen Layton (below top) and accompanied on the mighty Klais concert organ (below bottom), this 25-voice choir will present a program of music spanning many centuries that will display its beauty of tone and depth of feeling. These rich voices will make this varied program soar through Overture Hall and leave everyone in the audience breathless.”


Here are some sample reviews:

Virtuoso is the right word. I, for one, can’t immediately think of any more appropriate way of describing singing of such staggering accomplishment.  – BBC Music Magazine

Sitting front and center at a recent Trinity Choir of Cambridge concert at Grace Cathedral was, sonically speaking, a heavenly experience.                    -The New York Times

Here is Wednesday night’s eclectic program:

William Byrd | Sing joyfully
William Byrd | O Lord, make thy servant, Elizabeth
Thomas Tallis | Salvator mundi
Henry Purcell | Thou knowest, Lord
Arvo Part | Bogoroditse Djévo
John Tavener | Mother of God, here I stand
Vasily Kalinnikov | Bogoroditse Djevo
Robert Parsons | Ave Maria
Eriks Esenvalds | The Heavens’ Flock (You can hear a different Esenvalds work, “Only in Sleep,” sung by the Trinity College Choir, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Morten Lauridsen | O magnum mysterium
Jaakko Mantyjarvi | Stuttgarter Psalmen
Herbert Howells | Take him, earth, for cherishing
Herbert Howells | Trinity St. Paul’s

For more information about the Overture Organ Series, detailed background about the Trinity College Choir and how to purchase tickets, call (608) 258-4141 or go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/overture-concert-organ-performances/ or https://madisonsymphony.org/event/organ-trinity-choir/ 


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Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: Meet UW-Madison bassoonist Marc Vallon who performs with the Willy Street Chamber Players on Friday night

July 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Who is Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill)?

This week, he is the bassoonist who will perform Franz Danzi’s Quartet for Bassoon and Strings in D minor, Op. 40, No. 2 (ca. 1820), this coming Friday night, July 19, with the acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players (below), who will also be joined by pianist Jason Kutz and violist Sharon Tenhundfeld..

(The concert is at 6 p.m. in Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street. The program includes: the Allegretto for Piano Trio by Ludwig van Beethoven (1812); “Dark Wood” by American composer Jennifer Higdon (2001); and the rarely heard String Quartet No. 1  (1948) by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera. Admission is $15.)

A native of France, Vallon is one of the busiest musicians in Madison. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where he also performs individually, with faculty and student colleagues, and as a member of the Wingra Wind Quintet. He also frequently performs and conducts Baroque music with the Madison Bach Musicians.

Vallon attended the Paris Conservatory, where he won first prizes in bassoon and chamber music, and also earned a philosopher degree at the Sorbonne or University of Paris.

A versatile musician, Vallon played with famed avant-garde French composer Pierre Boulez and for more than 20 years was the principal bassoon of the well-known Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. He has also performed with major modern orchestras and conductors as well as with many period-instrument groups.

He gives master classes worldwide and also composes.

For a more extended and detailed biography, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/marc-vallon/

Vallon recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:

What drew you to the bassoon (below) over, say, the piano or singing, over strings, brass or other woodwinds?

I played the piano as young kid but was not very interested in the mechanics of it, even if I had a strong passion for music. It was the day that my piano teacher brought to my lesson a friend of his to do a bassoon demo that I found the right medium for my passion.

I started practicing like a maniac and knew by the age of 14 that I was going to be a professional bassoonist.

What would you like the public to know about the bassoon, perhaps about the challenges of playing it and about the repertoire for it?

The bassoon does not offer more challenges than other wind instruments, but it is safe to say that an absolute perfectionist person should probably not play it.

It is an instrument capable of true beauties, yet it has its own character. You don’t conquer it, you work with it like you would work with a wonderful but temperamental colleague.

Bassoonists sometimes complain that our solo repertoire is not as rich in masterpieces as the clarinet’s or the flute’s. True, but in its 350 years of existence, the bassoon has amassed enough wonderful music to keep us busy for several lifetimes.

What would you like to tell the public about the specific Bassoon Quartet by Franz Danzi that you will perform, and about Danzi and his music in general?

The bassoon and strings quartet became popular in the last decades of the 18th century, a trend that lasted well into the Romantic era.

Sadly, many of these quartets are basically show-off pieces for the bassoonist while the strings players have to suffer through some often very dull accompaniment parts.

I like this one by Danzi (below) because it features the strings on the same musical level as the bassoon, creating an enjoyable musical conversation rather than a cocky bassoon monologue. (You can hear that musical conversation in the opening movement of the Bassoon Quartet by Danzi in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

As a performer and conductor, you are well–known for championing baroque music as well as modern and contemporary music. Do you have a preference? Do they feed each other in your experience?

What I always have enjoyed about playing contemporary music is the possibility to work with living composers because I often realized how flexible they are with their own music and how much they like the performer’s input. They’re often ready to compromise and veer away from the strict notation.

The approach when playing composers from the past is actually very similar in the sense that we have to remember how approximate music notation is. Baroque composers are not here anymore obviously, but the 17th and 18th centuries sources tell us clearly how much flexibility we, modern performers, have in our approach to their music.

When it comes to music pre-1800, we basically have a sketch on our music stands. I always want to remember this. (Below is a manuscript page of a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Do you have big projects coming up next season?

Always! I am putting together a contemporary program on March 27 in our new concert hall on campus. It is called ”Opening Statements” and will feature early works from major 20th-century composers.

On period instruments, I have Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” and more Bach on my calendar.

Is there something else you would like to say?

A big Thank You to you, Jake, for being such a relentless and informed advocate of the Madison musical scene!


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Classical music: Sonata à Quattro does justice to the spiritual piety and beautiful music in Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ”

April 28, 2019
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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

Marika Fischer Hoyt’s newest ensemble is called Sonata à Quattro (below), using the Italian Baroque expression for instrumental works scored for three upper parts and basso continuo. That idiom was the background to the more integrated balance of the string quartet.

It was Franz Joseph Haydn (below) who really consolidated that transformation, and so it was appropriate that the new group should at this early point in its development pay a major tribute to that composer.

Responding to a commission from a Spanish prelate, in 1786-87 Haydn composed a set of seven orchestral adagios  — plus opening and closing pieces — to be played in a Good Friday ceremony celebrating the seven final statements by Christ from the cross (below, in a painting by Diego Velazquez) that are cumulatively reported by the Gospel writers.

At the same time, Haydn made a reduction of those orchestral movements into the string quartet format. That version he published outside his regular sets of string quartets, which had opus numbers.

Especially in the quartet form, this music achieved wide circulation, so much so that several attempts were made by others to create an oratorio out of this music, prompting Haydn himself to make his own oratorio version in 1795-96. Along the way, someone else made a keyboard transcription of the music that Haydn sanctioned.

It was, of course, the string quartet version — The Seven Last Words of Christ — that the Sonata à Quattro performed. It did so, first as part of a Good Friday church service in Milwaukee on April 19, and then as an independent one-hour free and public concert at the Oakwood Village West auditorium last Thursday night.

Fischer Hoyt (below), the group’s founder and violist, gave an introductory talk about the group’s name and about its decisions as to instrumentation.  (It usually plays on period instruments, but chose this time to use modern ones with period bows.) Cellist Charlie Rasmussen added some comments about the music and its history. Violinists  Kangwon Kim and Nathan Giglierano were happy just to play.

Haydn’s music was written in the deepest piety and sincerity, and that comes through in the individual components, which cost him much effort. (You can hear the second half of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The seven Sonatas are framed by a solemn Introduction and a furious evocation of the “earthquake” that we are told followed the death of Jesus. Each successive Sonata is cast in very tight and concentrated sonata form. Haydn makes the Latin form of each statement or “word” the theme of each sonata. In all, the cycle makes the most deeply absorbing combination of spirituality and ingenuity.

The players brought out both those dimensions in a performance of rapt beauty. This score has quite a few recordings, but it is not heard in concert all that often, so it was a treasure to be given this wonderful presentation.

And now we know that Sonata à Quattro has great possibilities to develop.


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Classical music: The Madison Opera stages its first-ever production of Dvorak’s fairy tale opera “Rusalka” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A preview roundtable is this Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage its production of Antonin Dvorak’s luxurious masterpiece Rusalka on Friday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Running time is 3 hours with two intermissions, and will feature projected supertitles with English translations of the original Czech that will be sung.

Tickets are $18-$131 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

Inspired by the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story travels from a mythical forest to a palace and back again. Its lush score includes the famous “Song to the Moon.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing”Song to the Moon” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in a mythical realm, Rusalka is about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. She tells her father Vodnik that she wishes to become human and live with the Prince on land. Horrified, Vodnik tells her that humans are full of sin, but reluctantly suggests she enlist the help of Jezibaba, a witch. Jezibaba agrees to make her human, but cautions that Rusalka will lose her power of speech. Further, if the Prince betrays her, she will be cursed forever.

The Prince falls in love with Rusalka and plans to marry her, but her silence unnerves him, and a Foreign Princess interrupts the wedding festivities with evil intent. Rusalka returns to the lake as a spirit that lures men to their death – and the Prince follows her.

Rusalka is one of the most gorgeous operas in the repertoire,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with it when I first saw it over 20 years ago, and listening to the score is a pure pleasure. I am so delighted to share this opera with Madison, so that everyone can learn how brilliant an operatic composer Dvorak was, and experience an opera that is justifiably popular around the world.”

Rusalka’s story was inspired by multiple sources, including Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben, Hans Christian Andersen, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

The opera premiered on March 31, 1901 in Prague and quickly became a massive success, hailed as Dvorak’s masterpiece.

But it was not initially widely performed outside of Czech territories; the first U.S. performance was in 1975. But in recent decades, the opera by Dvorak (below) has become a regular part of the opera repertoire, due to its beautiful music and lovely story.

This production is not only a Madison Opera premiere, but also the company’s first-ever opera in Czech.

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Soprano Emily Birsan (below) returns to Madison Opera in the title role, following successes here as Gounod’s Juliet and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Last month, she sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has praised her singing for her “amazing clarity of diction, accuracy of intonation and fineness of expression.”

Tenor John Lindsey (below) returns to Madison Opera as The Prince, after singing in last summer’s Opera in the Park.

Making their debuts with Madison Opera are soprano Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess, contralto Lindsay Amman as the witch Jezibaba and bass William Meinert as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik. Emily SecorSaira Frank and Kirsten Larson play the three wood sprites; Benjamin Liupaogo sings the Hunter.

The Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra round out the musical forces, all under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director.

Keturah Stickann (below) directs her first opera for Madison Opera; she has directed both traditional and contemporary repertoire across all of the U.S., most recently for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera.

This production originated at Minnesota Opera and features projections (below) by Wendall K. Harrington, who has been described as “the godmother of modern projection design.”

In reviewing the Minnesota production, theTwin Cities Arts Reader praised “the stunning visuals on display, which only serve to enhance and elaborate on the action and the music.”

Madison Opera’s production of “Rusalka” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kay & Martin Barrett, Millie & Marshall Osborn, Sally & Mike Miley, Kato Perlman, Charles & Martha Casey, John Lemke & Pam Oliver, and The Ann Stanke Fund.

RELATED EVENTS

You can learn more about “Rusalka” at the events leading up to the performances.

Opera Up Close will take place this Sunday, April 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center (below) 335 West Mifflin Street, $20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers.

This event features a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Rusalka. General director Kathryn Smith will discuss Antonin Dvorak and the history of his fairy-tale opera. Principal artists, stage director Keturah Stickann and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this masterpiece.

Pre-Show Talks by Kathryn Smith take place on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

Post-Opera Q&A’s are on Friday, April 26, and Sunday, April 28, immediately following the opera in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

More information — including cast biographies and a blog with Q&A interviews with some cast members — is available at https://www.madisonopera.org and https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/rusalka/.


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