The Well-Tempered Ear

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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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players will play music by Russian, British, Canadian and American composers this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

March 1, 2019
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ALERT: If you attend the concert by the Cuarteto Casals tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, you night want to read local writer and amateur cellist Paul Baker’s interview with the Chicago-born violist who analyzes the interpretation of each piece on the program. Here is a link to Baker’s blog “Only Strings” where you can find the interview: https://onlystringswsum.wordpress.com/author/pbaker/  

For more information about the group and the concert, go to yesterday’s post:  https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/02/28/classical-music-this-friday-night-the-wisconsin-union-theater-presents-a-world-class-spanish-string-quartet-and-will-also-announce-the-special-programs-for-its-centennial-anniversary-next-season/

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their season theme of Vignettes with compositions that depict concepts and stories.

The program includes dances from Panama, a string quartet from Russia and interpretation of the natural world woven into a composition by an American composer.

Performances will take place Saturday night, March 2, at 7 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, March 3, at 2 p.m. Both concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side not far from West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors, and $5 for students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com or call (608) 230-4316 for more information.

Five Novelettes for string quartet by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov (below) showcase the composer’s imagination and romantic writing. From the opening elegance in the Spanish style to the spirited Hungarian character in the finale, each of the five contrasting movements is graceful and captivating.

Red Hills Black Birds was composed by American composer Libby Larsen (below) for clarinet, viola and piano after she viewed contrasting paintings of New Mexico by Georgia O’Keeffe. Many of O’Keeffe’s works embody a sense of perspective, color and horizon. Larsen’s music uses her impressions of O’Keeffe’s art as her compositional focus. She reimagines six paintings of the southwest and shapes her composition to concepts of breadth and timelessness.

Dash for flute, clarinet and piano by American composer Jennifer Higdon (below) is a riotous musical chase. The composer chose these three instruments specifically for their capability of velocity. The unrelenting pulse creates a breath-taking technical sprint for the players.

O Albion by British composer Thomas Adès (below) is excerpted from his string quartet Arcadiana. The music has an ethereal quality and mesmerizes with its slow beauty and simplicity. (You can hear “O Albion” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon is an upbeat piece written by Canadian composer, bassoonist and jazz pianist Bill Douglas. His writing brings together both classical and jazz influences.

The concert concludes with Danzas de Panama by William Grant Still (below) for string quintet and flute. A noted 20th century African-American composer, Still based this piece on Panamanian folk tunes collected in the 1920s. He used the lushness of the songs and compelling rhythms with great success. He was a talented orchestrator and it is hard to resist the panache and charm of the four movements: Taborita, Mejorana, Punto and Cumbia y Conga.

Oakwood Chamber Players members are Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Nancy Mackenzie, clarinet; Amanda Szyczs, bassoon; and Maggie Townsend, cello. They will be joined by guest artists Elspeth Stalter-Clouse, violin; Ariel Garcia, viola; Brad Townsend, bass; and Satoko Hayami, piano.

This is the fourth of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2018-2019 season series entitled Vignettes. Remaining concerts will take place on May 18 and 19.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years. They have also played in other local groups, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Oakwood Chamber Players is a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


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Classical music: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.


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Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/


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Classical music: This weekend pianist Emanuel Ax helps conductor John DeMain celebrate his 25th anniversary season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra

September 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will open its season by celebrating the 25th anniversary of its music director and conductor John DeMain, who will collaborate with renowned pianist Emanuel Ax (below bottom, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco).

The program opens with the “Fanfare Ritmico” by Jennifer Higdon, the contemporary American composer and Pulitzer Prize winner. Then comes a special suite of favorite movements, cobbled together by DeMain, from the ballet score for “Romeo and Juliet” by Sergei Prokofiev. The grand finale is the monumental Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday night, Sept. 28, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Sept. 30, at 2:30 p.m.

Jennifer Higdon’s “Fanfare Ritmico” celebrates the rhythm and speed of life. Written on the eve of the new millennium, the work reflects on the quickening pace of life as time progresses.

Higdon (below) herself notes, “Our lives now move at speeds much greater than what I believe anyone would have imagined in years past. As we move along day-to-day, rhythm plays an integral part of our lives — from the individual heartbeat to the lightning speed of our computers. This fanfare celebrates that rhythmic motion, of man and machine, and the energy which permeates every moment of our being in the new century.”

Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (below) originally wrote the Romeo and Juliet Suite in 1935 for the titular ballet produced by the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theatre. In addition to the somewhat standard instrumentation, the ballet orchestration also requires the use of tenor saxophone, a voice that adds a unique sound and contributes to the sense of drama prevalent in Shakespeare’s original tragedy.

For this performance, John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) has hand-picked the best excerpts from across the work to create one orchestra piece.

The epic Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83, is separated by 22 years from Johannes Brahms’ first piano concerto and is dedicated to Brahms’ teacher Eduard Marxsen. It was premiered in 1881 in Budapest, Hungary, with Brahms (below) playing the piano solo.

The work was an immediate success and demonstrates Brahms’ ability to blend beauty with fire, tenderness with drama. (You can hear the unusual and fiery Scherzo movement, played by Krystian Zimmerman and Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Emanuel Ax (below) is considered one of the best-known concert pianists of the 21st century. As the Seattle Times reports, “[Ax’s] touch is amazing. The keys are not so much struck as sighed upon — moved as if by breath. There is no sense of fingers or hammers or material mechanisms…[it] simply materializes and floats in the air.”

Ax captured public attention in 1974 when he won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. In 1975 he won the Michaels Award of Young Concert Artists, followed by the coveted Avery Fisher Prize four years later. In 1975, he made his Madison solo recital debut at the Wisconsin Union Theater and he has frequently performed here since then.

Ax is a particular supporter of contemporary composers and new music, and he has given three world premieres in the last few seasons: “Century Rolls” by John Adams; “Seeing” by Christopher Rouse; and “Red Silk Dance” by Bright Sheng. He has also received Grammy awards for the second and third volumes of his cycle of Haydn’s piano sonatas and has made a series of Grammy-winning recordings with cellist Yo-Yo Ma of the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas for cello and piano.

Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) is currently a faculty member of the Juilliard School of Music, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of Yale University’s Sanford Medal.

One hour before each performance, MSO retired trombonist and longtime program annotator J. Michael Allsen will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticketholders.

Allsen’s program notes for the concerts are available online at this address: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1819/1.Sep18.html

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.

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert.

Tickets can be purchased in the following ways:

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/axthrough the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Subscribers to 5 or more symphony subscription concerts can save up to 50% off single ticket prices. More information is available about the season at: https://madisonsymphony.org/18-19
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

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

The Madison Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 93rd season in 2018–2019 and its 25th season under the leadership of Music Director John DeMain. Find more information about the rest of the MSO season at madisonsymphony.org

The Presenting Sponsors for the September concerts are: Joel and Kathryn Belaire. Major funding is provided by: The Wisconsin State Journal and Madison.com; the Irving and Dorothy Levy Family Foundation, Inc.; the Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, Inc.; Rosemarie and Fred Blancke; and David and Kato Perlman. Additional funding is provided by Jeffrey and Angela Bartell, Martin L. Conney 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 Oakwood Chamber Players open their new “Vignettes” season with concerts on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

September 14, 2018
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A CORRECTION: The Ear wants to apologize for and correct an error he made in yesterday’s blog post. The correct time and address for the all-Schubert concert by the Mosaic Chamber Players is on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the chapel of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) will begin their 2018-2019 season series “Vignettes” with concerts on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 16, at 2 p.m.

The concerts will both be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors 62 and over; and $5 students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com or call (608) 230-4316 for more information for individual and season tickets.

Once again, the group will explore largely new or unknown composers and neglected music.

Each program of the 2018-19 series will focus on how composers create specific themes to tell stories, and represent emotions, places or characteristics to enhance the listening experience.

Central to the program is poetry and narration paired with music that will feature Boston-based guest soprano Mary Mackenzie (below). She has been described by The New York Times as “a soprano of extraordinary agility and concentration,” and the Boston Globe as “sensational.”

Mackenzie is a passionate performer of contemporary vocal music, and has appeared with the Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston, Collage New Music, the Da Capo Chamber Players, Fulcrum Point New Music Project, and The Knights.

American composer Byron Adams (below) was commissioned by renowned American clarinetist Yehuda Weiner to set Nightingales, a poem by British Victorian poet Robert Bridges, as a memorial to his brother. The composer chose a quartet of soprano, clarinet, cello and piano to evoke the breathtaking beauty of the natural world that is overlaid with a sense of loss and longing.

By contrast, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Jennifer Higdon (below, in a photo by Candace DiCarlo) set four poems that have titles that reference roses by James Whitcomb Riley for the combination of flute, soprano and piano.

Bentley Roses was written as a surprise tribute for the retirement of her former music teacher, Judith Bentley. The settings are sunny and accessible, the music weaves around the words with swirling energy, coy interactions, and graceful interplay.

The yearning Vocalise by conductor, composer and pianist Andre Previn conveys emotion using the voice without words as a chamber instrument. The combination of soprano, cello and piano carries the shifting harmonies and sinuous melodic line through a series of subtle yet powerful transformations. (You can hear Previn’s beautiful “Vocalise,” with soprano Barbara Bonney and the the composer at the piano, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A second piece by Previn (below) piece puts the cello and soprano in conversation with his setting of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison’s poem Stones.

American film composer and bassoonist Charles Fernandez (below) wrote Quatuor Parisienne (Parisian Quartet) for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. It consists of three movements: a tongue-in-cheek march; a gracefully flowing reflection: and a farcical musical conversation with a dash of merriment.

Budapest-based clarinetist and composer Endre Szervanszky (below) wrote his Quintet No. 1 in 1953. Audiences will hear some characteristics similar to the writing of Kodaly and Bartok. It is a pleasing four-movement work that shows his strong understanding of each of the instruments, demanding both melodic expressiveness and technical panache.

The program concludes with poetry by British writer Roald Dahl, known for his darkly humorous children’s stories. Composer Martin Butler (below, in a photo by Katie Vandyck) incorporated The Pig, The Tummy Beast, and The Crocodile into his piece Dirty Beasts for narrator, piano and woodwind quintet. Butler mirrors the acerbic wit of the text with clever effects, closing out the program with some unexpected twists and turns.

Guest performers are soprano Mary Mackenzie, pianist Joseph Ross (below top) and oboist Laura Medisky (below bottom).

They join Oakwood Chamber Players members Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Nancy Mackenzie, clarinet; Amanda Szczys, bassoon; Anne Aley, horn; and Maggie Darby Townsend, cello.

This is the first of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2018-19 season series entitled Vignettes. Remaining concerts will take place on Nov. 24 and 25; Jan. 12 and 13; March 2 and 3; and May 18 and 19. For more information about the Oakwood Chamber Players and their new season, go to: https://www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


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Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players perform an all-Schubert concert on Saturday night. On Sunday afternoon, Opera Props presents singers in a benefit concert to support the opera program at the UW-Madison

September 13, 2018
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ALERT: On this Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., in the Madison Christian Community Church at 7118 Old Sauk Road on Madison’s far west side, Opera Props will present a benefit concert to raise money for the UW-Madison’s opera program and University Opera.

Student singers and piano accompanist Daniel Fung will perform arias and songs. But the spotlight will shine on University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna soprano Julia Rottmayer, who is a new faculty member at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. (Sorry, no specific program is given and no names of composers and works are mentioned.)

Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door with student tickets costing $10. Tickets include a reception with local Gail Ambrosius chocolate, fruit, cheese and wine. For more information, go to: https://www.uwoperaprops.org

By Jacob Stockinger

Why is The Ear increasingly drawn to the music of Franz Schubert (below) over, say, the music of his contemporary and idol Ludwig van Beethoven? It seems to be more than its sheer beauty and lyricism.  It also seems to possess a certain warmth or human quality that he finds irresistible, poignant and restorative, especially if it is true, as the Buddha said, life is suffering.

In any case, The Ear is not alone.

The Madison-based Mosaic Chamber Players (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) will open their new and ambitious season this coming Saturday night with a concert of music by Franz Schubert.

The all-Schubert concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the  chapel of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium — NOT at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, as was incorrectly stated earlier in this blog post.

The program includes two Sonatinas for Violin and Piano in D Major, D. 384, and A minor, D. 385; the famous “Arpeggione” Sonata, D. 821, performed on the cello with piano; and the lovely and songful Adagio or “Notturno” (Nocturne) for Piano Trio, D. 897, which you can hear with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Daniil Trifonov, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Tickets cost $15 for adults; $10 for seniors; and $5 for students. Cash and checks only will be accepted; no credit cards.

Members of the Mosaic Chamber Players are: founder and pianist Jess Salek (below top); violinist Wes Luke (below second), who plays with the Ancora String Quartet and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; violinist Laura Burns (below third), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet; and cellist Kyle Price (below bottom), who founded the Caroga Lake Music Festival in New York State and is pursuing his doctoral degree at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music with distinction and who was a member of the graduate student Hunt Quartet while he studied for his master’s.

A reception will follow the concert.

For more information about the Mosaic Chamber Players and about their new season, which includes some very varied composers but no specific titles of works, go to: http://www.mosaicchamberplayers.com

What do you find so appealing and so special about the music of Schubert?

What is your favorite Schubert work?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section with a link, if possible, to a YouTube video performance.

The Ear wants to hear.


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