The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: As superstar Itzhak Perlman turns 75, a critic assesses his virtues and shortcomings in playing both the violin and his audiences

September 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Monday, Aug. 31, superstar violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman (below, in a photo by Yael Malka of The New York Times) turned 75.

To celebrate, Sony Classical released a boxed set of 18 CDs (below) with many performances by Perlman – solo, chamber music and concertos – recorded over many years.

On the occasion of Perlman’s birthday, critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim of The New York Times wrote a retrospective review of Perlman’s long career. (You can hear his most popular performance ever — with more than 6 million hits — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear finds the opinion piece both brave and truthful, pointing out Perlman’s mastery of the Romantic repertory but also criticizing his stodgy treatment of Vivaldi and other Baroque music that has benefitted from the period-instrument movement and historically informed performance practices

Yet the essay, which also touches on ups and down of Perlman’s career, always remains respectful and appreciative even when discussing Perlman’s shortcomings.

Offering many historical details and photos as well as sample videos, the critical assessment of Perlman seems perfectly timed.

The Ear hopes you enjoy it as much as he did. Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/arts/music/itzhak-perlman-violin.html

If you have heard Itzhak Perlman either on recordings or live – at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the old Civic Center or Overture Hall — let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The UW Choral Union, UW Symphony Orchestra and guest soloists took the audience on a memorable musical voyage in Ralph Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony”

January 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It took a postponement of almost two months before the UW Choral Union (below) finally got to perform last Saturday night in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center.

But the wait was worth it.

The combined forces – conducted by the retiring choral director Beverly Taylor – proved convincing and accomplished in the challenging score of “A Sea Symphony” by the early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The performers did justice to the score’s vivid sound painting. You could hear the sea wind whistling through the rigging; you could feel the ship plowing through the swells and waves.

The American poet Walt Whitman (below) – whose epic-like poetry provided the text for this ambitious nautical and musical journey – would have been proud of the performance.

After all, like Whitman’s poetry, Vaughn Williams’ music — his first symphony — can be forceful and spacious at many moments, tender and reflective or even intimate at other times. The music matches the text, and the performers matched both.

The forces were precise under Taylor’s baton, with sharp attacks and no ragged stopping. True, there were a few moments when the balance seemed a bit off, when the UW Symphony Orchestra overpowered the large campus and community chorus, especially in the very brassy and thickly scored first movement. You just wanted to hear the words better and felt frustrated not to.

But for the most part, though, the student orchestra proved impressive. They were tight and crisp, accurate and transparent, allowing listeners to hear the inner part playing and even certain modernist harmonies of the generally conservative Vaughan Williams (below).

Moreover, the symphony, the chorus and the soloists blended especially well and movingly in the symphony’s quieter moments.

Those moments included the second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone”; and the quiet, understated ending where the idea of voyage and exploration becomes personal and metaphorical or spiritual as well as literal: “Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me … O my brave soul! O farther, farther sail!”

(You can hear a sample in the hymn-like opening of the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition, the outstanding acoustics of the new hall – where the chorus sits above and behind the orchestra – brought the performance to life even more convincingly.

There were two soloists (below): soprano Chelsie Propst and baritone James Harrington.

Harrington possessed a pleasing tone, but he seemed to be holding back for some reason. He could have projected more confidence and been more energetic or assertive in his delivery. After all, neither Whitman nor Vaughan Williams is shy in this large-scale work.

Curiously, it was the woman soloist, Propst, who roared like the sea, whose big voice easily soared over the orchestra and chorus. Her singing was thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly engaging.

Unfortunately, the very successful concert was not sold out, but the audience proved attentive and very enthusiastic.

This debut performance in the new hall made one look forward all the more to another big piece and big performance by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra, one that will wrap up the season and end Taylor’s long tenure at the UW-Madison: the dramatic and operatic Requiem by Verdi on Saturday and Sunday, April 25 and 26.


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Classical music: Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” meets “The Sopranos” when an all-female mob gets even in Fresco Opera Theatre’s new show this Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights

March 19, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information about what promised to be another unusual take, perfect for the age of the MeToo movement, on the standard opera repertoire from Fresco Opera Theatre.

The show takes place on this coming Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in Promenade Hall of the Overture Center. Dinner table seats are $50 and other seats are $35.

We are doing a production called the “The Sopranos: Don Giovanni’s Demise,” which is our re-imagining of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

We feature an all female-mob, who put a hit on “The Don.” And who can blame them? “The Sopranos” is the story of a score settled, and a scoundrel silenced. Don Giovanni is a rat, who has pushed the family too far. And the family has put out a hit on him.

“This is a fun production, which retains the music of “Giovanni,” but with a slightly different take using 20th-century Mafia imagery. (You can hear the dark and ominous Overture to the “Don  Giovanni” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“We have a strong cast, featuring Ryan White as Don Giovanni, Erin Sura as Donna Elvira, Katie Anderson as Donna Anna, Ashley McHugh as Zerlina and Diana Eiler as Leporello. We are excited to have Vincent Fuh as our piano accompanist, and Melanie Cain will be directing.

“We will have limited seating on stage, which will be tables on which meals will be served, adding to the ambiance. Fresco is very excited to present our interpretation of this classic tale, including the timeless music.”

Adds director Melanie Cain:

“I’ve always been intrigued with the way Mozart portrayed female characters in his operas. They are daring, courageous and bold. He also was not afraid to give the women who were from the non-privileged classes, such as his spunky maids, the task of fixing all their bosses messes and oftentimes saving the day.

“Don Giovanni” resonates so well in today’s social landscape. The idea of women uniting to take down the males who take advantage, suffocate and demoralize the female gender runs through the core of this opera.

“What better way to portray a bunch of strong women than to have them run the male dominant world of the mob? As I was thinking about the look of this show, I came across the art of Tamara de Lempicka, a painter of the Art Deco era, best known for her portraits of powerful women. She was a brave, strong-willed openly bisexual artist who wasn’t afraid to be herself at a time that wasn’t accepted.

“Not only will you hear some vivacious female singers, you will see many of Lempicka’s works displayed throughout the production, which really resonates not only with this show, but in the way I like to create opera: “I live life in the margins of society and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe.””

For tickets and a plot summary, here is the link to Overture Center:

https://www.overture.org/events/sopranos?fbclid=IwAR280iCL1zZLagO31ke0AUXYrYtrDHlr2cMyRaPzksrg8HaL4cK3FEg-mQ8

And for more information about Fresco Opera Theatre, here is link to its home page:

http://www.frescooperatheatre.com/?fbclid=IwAR0_Oq62sQ2I41z79HMYlnm7XDmMFqZKKiButDW5OmWa4kUX5oOH02SJ6Ws


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and UW-Madison horn player Dafydd Bevil excel in a concerto by Richard Strauss and a theater suite by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Plus, the UW’s Perlman Trio performs Saturday afternoon

April 13, 2018
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ALERT: On SATURDAY – (not today as first mistakenly listed) –at 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, the annual FREE concert by the UW’s Perlman Trio — named after benefactor Kato Perlman — will perform piano trios by Franz Joseph Haydn and Robert Schumann, and a piano quartet by Johannes Brahms. A reception will follow For more information about the student performers and the full program, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/the-perlman-trio/

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 FM 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. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below), under conductor Kyle Knox, brought off a splendid concert on last Wednesday evening.

The opening item was the Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47, for string quartet and string orchestra by Edward Elgar.  This is a broad work of great Romantic sweep, featuring the lush textures pitting a large ensemble against a miniature one.

The largely amateur Middleton orchestra fields a very large string section. It has not yet completely fused into a suave entity, but the 30-odd players did a brave job of capturing the music’s rhetorical richness.

The soloist for the evening was Dafydd Bevil (below), a French horn player who is very active in a number of orchestras and ensembles in the Madison area while currently engaged in doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Bevil boldly chose as his vehicle the second of Richard Strauss’ two horn concertos. Neither is heard in concert very much, though the Concerto No. 1 is a little more familiar from recordings. That is a bravura piece, composed in 1882, when Strauss (below) was 18, and was written for his father, Germany’s foremost horn virtuoso.

The Concerto No. 2 dates from the other end of Strauss’s career, in 1942, the first of some wind concertos undertaken during and after World War II.  Intended to recapture his earlier instrumental style, it is a much more studied piece than its predecessor.

Bevil, clearly a player of exceptional skill and musicality, powerfully met Strauss’ showy and florid solo writing.  This is a virtuoso musician with a promising future.

The remainder of the concert was devoted to the first of what would be a number of scores Ralph Vaughan Williams (below) prepared to fit Classical Greek plays.  (RVW was himself a very accomplished master of ancient Greek.)

In 1912, inspired by the translations of Gilbert Murray, he produced music to set Murray’s English texts for three of the plays by Euripides: The Bacchae, Electra, and Iphigenia in Tauris.

Before that, however, in 1909, still early in his career, Vaughan Williams composed incidental music to a production (in Greek) of the comedy by Aristophanes, The Wasps.

From that Aristophanic score, the composer put together an orchestral concert suite of an overture and five incidental numbers. The overture itself has enjoyed some frequency of concert performances, but the full suite is little known to the public over here.

It was a clever stroke of programming that Kyle Knox (below) led the orchestra in the full suite.   This is delightful music, full of typical Vaughan Williams whimsy, inventiveness, and cleverness.  Sounding simple, it creates balances and details not easy to manage, but Knox and the orchestra performed it with dazzling flair. (You can hear the rarely performed full suite in the YouTube video at the bottom)

This is exactly the kind of enterprise that makes the Madison area’s musical life so stimulating and joyous.


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Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players complete their cycle of Beethoven sonatas for strings with impressive beauty and sensitivity

October 10, 2017
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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-FM 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. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

In another distressingly overcrowded weekend, hard choices had to be made about which event to attend. I picked the performance by the Mosaic Chamber Players last Saturday night at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

For the past four years, this group has pursued a “complete” survey of Beethoven’s sonatas for strings and piano. Since he composed 10 for violin and piano plus five for cello and piano, it was easy to organize them into five concerts, each with two violin sonatas and one for cello. In addition, it was possible in many programs to draw on all three periods of Beethoven’s output.

This year’s concert was thus the fifth and the last in the series, climaxing a really impressive achievement for artistic director and guiding spirit Jess Salek and his colleagues.

As pianist in all three of the works presented, Salek (below) provided more than accompaniment, since the role of the piano was generally put on terms of equal partnership, sometimes even of relative superiority. He played bravely, justly showing palpable pride in the total achievement.

Laura Burns (below), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet, was the violinist in the early Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 12, No. 2.

This happens to be the first of these Beethoven sonatas that I came to know and love in my youth, via an old Jascha Heifetz recording, so it had particular reverberations for me. To its wit and sprightliness Burns brought an added warmth of sound and spirit.

The Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2, was the last one Beethoven composed for this medium, and one of two that dates from the composer’s late period. A great deal of very serious thinking went into it, with a slow movement particularly notable for its spiritual depth. Cellist Kyle Price (below) delivered it with genuine feeling and with great strength of tone.

Also Beethoven’s last work for its medium, the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, comes from late in the composer’s so-called middle period. It is a work of almost kaleidoscopic variety, with frequent changes of mood and character.

Its core is another slow movement of amazingly personal eloquence and breath-taking beauty. And the theme-and-variations movement finale seems to have everything (almost) in it but the kitchen sink. (You can hear Wes Luke and Jess Salek performing another theme-and-variations movement from a different Beethoven violin sonata in the cycle, Op. 30, No. 1, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was clear that violinist Wes Luke (below), who is also the first violinist of the Ancora String Quartet, was having a whale of a good time playing it, relishing almost every note.

Luke’s printed program notes were particularly excellent, and included notice that the group’s spring concert will juxtapose piano trios of Beethoven and Brahms.

The Mosaic Chamber Players do not receive a great deal of publicity, but their concerts offer some of the most lovely and thought-provoking chamber music repertoire to be found, even in a town so full of wonderful music-making as ours.


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