The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Seraglio” stood out for its singing and staging, its local sets and costumes, and provided a crowd-pleasing comic romp in trying times. Plus, Friday brings FREE piano and viola da gamba concerts

February 15, 2018
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FRDAY ALERTS: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Eric Miller playing the viola da gamba in a recital of early baroque music by Marais, Forquery, Sainte-Colombe, Abel, Hume and Ortiz. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

Then on Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the critically acclaimed guest pianist Marina Lomazov will perform a FREE recital of all-Russian music that includes “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky. Lomazov’s recital is part of a larger event, “Keyboard Day,” that has a French focus and takes place all day Saturday at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. See tomorrow’s post for more information about Saturday. For more about Lomazov, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/guest-artist-marina-lomazov-piano/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy filed this review of last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera:

By Larry Wells

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the second and final performance of Madison Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

This comic romp utilized a beautiful set and wonderful costumes designed and constructed in-house. (Below, Matt Bueller as Osmin peers out the door of the palace, or seraglio, at David Walton as Belmont.)

The orchestra, drawn from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and ably led by maestro John DeMain, was situated backstage. This was an effective novelty, although the sound was somewhat muffled, at least from where I sat in mid-orchestra.

The dialogue was in English while the singing was in German with English supertitles. I looked over the lengthy original libretto and was thankful that it had been heavily abridged for this two-hour production.

It had also been updated to be both hip and politically correct about Islamic culture and Turkey, where the story takes place. But it made me idly wonder what the reaction would be if the music had been likewise updated to be more in tune with the times.

The production was all about the singing.

David Walton’s Belmonte (below right, with Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze) was beautifully sung, particularly in the second act. He has a Benjamin Britten tenor voice with remarkable breath control.

Eric Neuville’s Pedrillo was also admirably sung. Neuville is an accomplished comic actor, as well.

Ashly Neumann’s singing as Blonde (below center, with women of the Madison Opera Chorus) was clean, clear and bell-like.

Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze (below right with Brian Belz as Pasha Selim)  was virtuosic. She displayed vocal fireworks several times and was especially effective in her lament toward the end of the first act.

This quartet’s ensemble work in the second act was a vocal high point. (You can hear the quartet from a different production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But to me the most impressive singing and comic acting belonged to Matt Boehler as Osmin. His bass was simply majestic. (Below, from left, are Brian Belz as Pasha Selim; David Walton as Belmonte; Matt Boehler as Osmin; Eric Neuville as Pedrillo; Ashly Neumann as Blonde; and Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze.)

The well-prepared chorus appeared briefly in each act, adding some color and motion to the production.

Musically and visually the production was a success. The audience responded with 19 ovations during the performance – yes, I counted. Every time the orchestra reached a cadence and paused, the audience members applauded as if they were at a musical. With the incessant coughing throughout the performance, I felt like I was at a performance of “South Pacific” in a tuberculosis ward.

The audience leapt to its feet at the end, and this made me wonder what it was that they found so praiseworthy. The story itself is inconsequential and has little relevance to life today.

The singing was very good, but this is not La Scala.

The music itself, with the exception of a couple of sublime moments, does little more than foreshadow the mature Mozart of “The Magic Flute.”

I concluded that the opera is unalarming, unthreatening, and simple. This is perhaps what people long for in these trying times.

I do look forward to the Madison Opera’s production of Daniel Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” this spring. Based on repeated hearings of the recording, I guarantee that Madison will be in for a treat. And there is nothing threatening or alarming or complex about the music, despite it being a work of the late 20th century.


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Classical music: A solo marimba concert this Friday night features Bach transcriptions and holiday favorites

December 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Marimbist Matthew Coley (below), who plays in the Madison-based percussion group Clocks in Motion, will give a solo recital this Friday night at 7 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program features transcriptions of Preludes and Fugue Nos. 1-6 of Book II of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” by Johann Sebastian Bach. Coley plans on eventually performing all of Book II.

Holiday music on the concert will include “Sleigh Ride,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Frosty the Snowman” and more.

Admission is free with a suggested donation of $15.

For more information about Matthew Coley, go to the website: www.hearMatthewColey.com

Coley regularly tours the nation and abroad, offering solo concerts and master classes. He has performed in more than 35 states in the U.S. and in 10 countries. (You can hear Coley performing his own composition “Circularity” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

He is the founding executive director of Heartland Marimba with five affiliate initiatives under the organization: the Heartland Marimba Quartet, HMFestival, HMEnsemble, HMPublications, and SoundWAYS.

This year’s holiday tour will also take Matthew to Chicago; Cedar Falls, Iowa; Mount Pleasant, Iowa; Quincy, Ill.; St Paul, Minn.; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.


Classical music education: Superstar violinist Joshua Bell talks about the importance of music education and reaching people in unusual places — like subways. Plus, his terrific new all-Bach CD merits your attention.

October 4, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

The perennially boyish Joshua Bell, now a veteran of the concert stage and recording studio for more than 25 years, is in his third season as the artistic director of the famed British chamber orchestra Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

joshua Bell

Sony Classical has just released his new recording – which has a program that is all by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). It features two violin concertos plus three arrangements, including the famous Chaconne from the Solo Partita No. 2, for violin and orchestra. (His previous release as conductor and concertmaster of the ASMF players was a fine reading of Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7 by Ludwig van Beethoven.)

And despite his Pretty Boy status, Bell — who has performed recitals here at the Wisconsin Union Theater and concertos with the Madison Symphony Orchestra — once again shows himself to be a gifted and serious musician. The Ear finds that he makes sense of notes that often get passed over by other violinists. Bells finds patterns in scales of climbing notes that help give the music momentum and melodic appeal. When he wants, Bell can be absolutely revelatory.

The Ear is not alone in his admiration for Bell at his best. Read the review by New York Times critic Steve Smith when Bell performed the glorious Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at this past summer’s “Mostly Mozart” Festival.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/22/arts/music/joshua-bell-plays-mostly-mozart.html?_r=0

Joshua Bell Bach CD cover

But perhaps the achievement these days it that Bell has become an adamant advocate of music education.

Joshua Bell with students

In that capacity he recently was featured in a 30-minute HBO special program about master classes with 9 students.

The Ear recently heard and saw him defend music education as a means not just to raise musicians but to give student more self-esteem and self-confidence. Playing music also brings other benefits, he adds, from better grades and a better sense of teamwork to a lower likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse.

But it is best to let Joshua Bell speak for himself.

Here is a link to an interview his did with NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/09/29/352494911/three-quick-lessons-from-the-violin-wunderkind-who-became-a-master

And here is a link to a television interview Bell did with reporter Jeffrey Brown of PBS’ The NewsHour as well as to the second, and final, subway appearance. (You may recall how his first anonymous appearance, at the bottom in a popular YouTube video with more than 5 million hits, made such a splash and even won the reporter a Pulitzer Prize.)

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/violinist-joshua-bell-turns-train-station-concert-hall-encourage-arts-education/

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/grammy-winning-violinist-joshua-bell-takes-another-turn-at-a-subway-concert/

Here is a 10-question video interview Bell did with Time magazine, in which he also discusses his love of gambling, his $5-million violin and possible alternative career choices:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9grpRj-KvtU

And here is the original “anonymous” “Stop and Hear the Music” subway busking “concert” with more than 5 million hits:

Do you have any thoughts about Joshua Bell?

The Ear wants to hear. 


Classical music: American violinist Joshua Bell is the new concertmaster, conductor and music director of The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra. And his first release for Sony Classical features outstanding readings of two Beethoven symphonies.

June 1, 2013
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It is time to play some more catch-up.

This past season was so busy with local events that I often had to overlook other important or interesting news in the world of classical music.

One of them us that the photogenic American violinist Joshua Bell (below) – himself a heart-throb superstar who always sells out the house – started his tenure as the new music director, concertmaster and conductor of the British chamber music orchestra The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

joshua Bell

Bell took his first chair and took up his baton last September with an initial contract of three years. He succeeds the American pianist Murray Perahia, who resides in London and led the group from 2000 to 2010.

Bell is the latest conductor to take over the ASMF group (below) from others director including Iona Brown, Kenneth Sillito and the famous founder Sir Neville Mariner, who made more than 500 recordings with the ASMF.

Marriner, by the way, is now 89 but is still the Life Director of ASMF, which gave its inaugural concert in 1959 with 12 players, all male.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Anyway, The Ear finds the first release by Bell and ASMF extremely satisfying.

Contrary to what you might expect, the new recording does NOT feature a violin concerto as a chance for Bell to show case his talents.

Instead it offers two Beethoven symphonies: the famous one is No. 7, said to be the favorite of many Beethoven-philes, including The Ear. (The famous second movement, done by Bell and the ASMF, is in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The release couples that famous work with the Symphony No. 4, which is underappreciated and under-performed, coming in between the famous Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” and the most famous No. 5.

joshua bell ASMF beethoven cd cover

In both cases, Bell turns in exacting, if  mainstream rather than revolutionary, performances full of balance, energy, sharp attacks and releases and precise rhythms as well as great singing lyricism – all the qualities one expects from great violin or string playing. Plus, I like the chamber scale and the emphasis on counterpoint and dialogue.

And from what my ears tell me, Bell favors brisk rhythms that keep you engaged, but they are not rushed.

All in all, I find it a very listenable album, one I have returned to again and again – and expect you will too.

Are these definitive performances? Well, The Ear long ago gave up on the idea of a definitive performance, which is and should be an impossibility in music and in art in general. Definitiveness would kill off the very qualities of originality and liveliness we most value in art.

But suffice it to say that these performance by Joshua Bell and The Academy strike me as among the most appealing you will find.

You have fine but never fussy interpretations of a well-picked program in which Beethoven (below) seems allowed to speak for himself in the both extroverted and introspective moods represented by these two contrasting symphonies And the sound engineering is terrific in providing transparency and scale.

Beethoven big

All in all, I would not be surprised to see this recording nominated for a Grammy or other international awards.

And I also suspect The Academy made a very smart and populist choice in bringing such a high-profile but versatile and seemingly unpretentious player as Joshua Bell – who wrote his own liner notes about the music and these performances as well as his new role as the leader of ASMF. He may well attract younger audiences and inexperienced audiences — which all classical music groups are now trying to do.

Here is a link to the group’s website: http://www.asmf.org

And here is a link to an essay a by Joshua Bell on why classical music should not be stuffy. It is a fine read:

http://bigthink.com/ideas/49319

And here is an interview with Joshua Bell did NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog about his new role (below):

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/02/18/172113935/from-bow-to-baton-violinist-joshua-bell-conducts-beethoven

Joshua Bell with ASMF

Do you have an opinion about Joshua Bell?

Do you have a favorite Beethoven symphony and Beethoven interpreter?

And do you have a favorite recording by ASMF (I still treasure the now out-of-print recording of Dvorak’s lovely Serenade for Strings coupled with Grieg’s charming suite “In Holberg’s Time.”)

The Ear wants to hear.


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