The Well-Tempered Ear

The Madison Bach Musicians will open its new season with a virtual online concert of Haydn and Mozart this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

October 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement, about a promising contrast-and-compare concert, from the Madison Bach Musicians:

The Madison Bach Musicians (MBM) will start its 17th season this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Oct. 3 and 4, with a virtual chamber music concert and livestream event featuring the irrepressibly joyous, witty and poised music of Classical-era masters Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

The performances features period instruments and historically informed performance practices.

See details near the bottom about the schedules and how to buy tickets.

Performers are violinist Kangwon Kim and cellist James Waldo (on gut-strung period instruments), fortepianist Trevor Stephenson, and soprano soloist Morgan Balfour — winner of the 2019 Handel Aria Competition. (Below top is Kangwon Kim; below middle is James Waldo; and below bottom is Morgan Balfour.)

The broadcast will begin with a 30-minute pre-concert lecture by MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer) illuminating the program’s repertoire, the lives of Haydn and Mozart, and the aesthetic aims of the period instruments.

While most of the pieces on the program are buoyant and full of celebration, the concert will begin with a pensive and melancholy work commensurate with our current pandemic times.

Mozart composed the Sonata in E minor for violin and fortepiano in 1778 at the age of 22 while on tour in Paris. His mother, who was with him on the tour, became suddenly ill and died unexpectedly. This sonata is the only piece of instrumental music Mozart ever composed in the key of E minor, and its blend of gravitas, sparseness and tenderness is heartbreakingly poignant.

Mozart’s Piano Trio in G major, composed in 1788, shows him at his sunniest and most affable, with one brilliant and catchy tune after another suspended effortlessly — at least in Mozart’s hands! ― within the balance of Classical form.

The program’s first half ends with five of Mozart’s songs. Mozart truly loved the soprano voice, and he lavished some of his greatest writing upon it. The set includes perhaps his best-known song, Das Veilchen (The Violet)―which is also, oddly enough, Mozart’s only setting of a text by the German poet Goethe.

The second half of the concert is devoted to the music of Mozart’s near contemporary, Joseph Haydn, who was just 24 years older than Mozart.

Though the two composers came from very different musical and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Haydn (below) was lower working class, rural, and musical but not professionally trained.

Mozart (below) was urban, solid middle class, musically trained, sophisticated, and ambitious.

Both managed to carve out successful careers in the fertile musical culture of Vienna and its environs. They certainly knew each other and even made music together on occasion, playing in string quartets — with Haydn on violin and Mozart on viola.

Haydn composed two sets of English Canzonettas (songs) during his visits to England during the early 1790s.

The Mermaid, with its flirtatious beckoning, stretches the confines of the parlor setting (where this music was most likely performed) and suggests a cabaret environment. Fidelity, on the other hand, stays within the parlor style, emphasizing how the bond of devotion can overcome physical separation. Haydn brilliantly interweaves stormy, naturalistic episodes with declarations of unbending loyalty.

The concert will close with Haydn’s mercurial Piano Trio No. 27 in C major. Also composed during his London visits in the 1790s, this trio is the first of a set of three dedicated to the London-based virtuoso pianist Therese Bartolozzi. The Presto finale―with its unbridled high spirits―is a supreme example of Classical Era cheeky, theatrically conceived wit. (You can hear the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

SCHEDULE AND TICKETS

As a result of public health guidelines in response to Covid-19 that do not allow for an in-person audience, we will livestream our concert from Grace Episcopal Church, downtown on Capitol Square, on Saturday evening for at-home viewing. (Below are Trevor Stephenson and Kangwon Kim rehearsing in masks at Stephenson’s home.)

The event will begin with a pre-concert talk by Trevor Stephenson at 7:30 p.m., and after the 8 p.m. concert, the musicians will remain on stage to answer questions submitted by our audience.

On Sunday, starting at 3 p.m. we will rebroadcast the Saturday evening recording and follow that with a live question-and-answer session with our musicians from their homes.

After purchasing tickets for $15 per household, you will be sent a link to access the performance. The recorded lecture and video will be available for up to 72 hours after they take place.

To purchase tickets, go to: https://madisonbachmusicians.org/oct-3-4-haydn-mozart/ or to: https://madison-bach-musicians.square.site/product/haydn-mozart-oct-3-4-livestream/54?cs=true

For information about the Madison Bach Musicians’ full season, go to: https://madisonbachmusicians.org/season-overview/

 


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and violinist Naha Greenholtz perform this Wednesday night in the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison. At noon, the FREE Just Bach concert celebrates Christmas

December 17, 2019
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ALERT 1: This Wednesday, Dec. 18, at noon in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, Just Bach wraps up its FREE one-hour period-instrument concerts for this semester. The program features “joyous selections” from the Christmas Oratorio, the Magnificat, and the Advent Cantata 36. For more information about the program and the performers, go to: https://justbach.org

ALERT 2: The Madison Symphony Orchestra, which just gave three sold-out performances of its Christmas concert, is holding its annual holiday ticket sale. It started Monday and runs through Dec. 31. You can save up to 50 percent on tickets to the remaining concerts of the season. For more information and to order, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/holidaysale/

By Jacob Stockinger

Looking for a break from holiday music?

This Wednesday night, Dec. 18, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will perform in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison – NOT at its usual venue, the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School.

The appealing program under guest conductor Kyle Knox starts at 7:30 p.m. It features the dramatic Overture to “Die Meistersinger” (The Master Singers) by Richard Wagner (you can hear the Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom); the popular and virtuosic Symphonie Espagnole (Spanish Symphony) by French composer Edouard Lalo, with violin soloist Naha Greenholtz; and the lovely Suite from the opera “Der Rosenkavalier” by Richard Strauss.

There will be a post-concert reception in the lobby.

Admission is $15; free for students. Tickets are available at the door – student tickets are available at the door only — and at the Willy Street Coop West. The hall is at 740 University Avenue with parking in the nearby Lake Street Ramp. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and doors to the hall open at 7 p.m.

The Ear asked the co-founders and co-directors of the group – Mindy Taranto and Larry Bevic — why they chose to play in the Hamel Music Center this time. He recieved the following reply:

“We decided to rent the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall (below top, in photo by Bryce Richter for University Communications) in the Hamel Music Center (below bottom) for several reasons.

“This is our 10th anniversary season and we wanted to give our musicians a really special experience. Many of us are curious about the new hall and are really excited to be playing there.

“Also, Kyle Knox (below) – a UW-Madison graduate and the music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras — is a phenomenal conductor and this program is exceptionally difficult and beautiful.

“It is an honor to get to perform at the UW-Madison with Kyle conducting such a beautiful program. He has brought this orchestra along so far, and for that we are incredibly grateful. He is a brilliant musician and our work with him has improved the orchestra so remarkably over the eight years he has been regularly working with us.

“We also thought that so many of our patrons enjoy our concerts when violinist Naha Greenholtz (below, in a photo by Chris Hynes) – the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — is our soloist, and with the MSO connection, holding the concert at Hamel will hopefully boost attendance at the concert.

Naha sounds amazing and if you could see how much our musicians enjoy her annual appearance with MCO, you’d know why we want to play with her every year.

“As we conclude the first half of our 10th season, we are grateful to the musicians in MCO and to the community that supports us.

“We are probably one of the few organizations on the Madison arts scene that puts literally every dollar into music. As the two co-founders, we run the organization on a volunteer basis and we don’t spend any money on advertising.

“All of our resources go to hiring astonishing local musicians, renting performance space, and buying music to provide meaningful musical experiences for our musicians and our patrons.”

For information about how to join the orchestra, how to support it and what its remaining concerts are this season, go online to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org or call 608-212-8690.

 


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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians will perform its ninth annual Baroque Holiday Concert this coming Saturday night

December 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

On this coming Saturday night, Dec. 7, the Madison Bach Musicians will present its ninth annual Baroque Holiday Concert (below, in  2014, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer).

The concert, using period instruments and historically informed performance practices, is again at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., near Camp Randall Stadium. A pre-concert lecture by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson is at 7:15 p.m. followed by the concert at 8 p.m.

Advance-sale tickets are $35 at Orange Tree Imports and the Willy St. Co-op (East and West). Online advance-sale tickets are available at https://madisonbachmusicians.org. Tickets at the door at $38 for general admission and $35 for seniors. Student Rush tickets are $10 at the door and go on sale 30 minutes before the lecture.

The program features masterworks by Bach, Handel, Purcell and Torelli which, in their appealing Baroque way, explore the fusion of celebration, reflection and ultimate renewal often felt as the year’s end approaches.

MBM welcomes baroque trumpet virtuoso Kathryn Adduci (below), who will show how wonderfully vintage brass resounds in the magnificent Old World acoustics of the church.

Other performers are: Ariadne Lih, soprano (below); Lindsey Meekhof, alto; Ryan Townsend Strand, tenor; Michael Hawes, bass; Christine Hauptly Annin and Nathan Giglierano, violins; Micah Behr, viola; James Waldo, cello; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord.

Here are a couple of fun facts, provided by Stephenson, about each piece on the program.

Sound the Trumpet, by Henry Purcell (1659−1695, below)
1. This piece was composed in 1694, the year before Purcell died at the age of just 36. It is part of a birthday ode — Come Ye Sons of Art, Away! — for Queen Mary II of England, wife of King James II.
2. There is no trumpet in it at all, but the two voices implore the trumpet to play and they emulate trumpet-style writing with long, swelling notes mixed in with brilliant decorative flourishes.


Trumpet Concert in D major 
by Giuseppe Torelli (1658−1709, below)
1. Torelli was one of the most prolific trumpet composers of all time.
2. The baroque trumpet has no valves and is designed to play in one tonality at a time. Favorite baroque keys were D major and C major.

Comfort Ye and Every Valley from Messiah, by George Frideric Handel (1685−1759, below)
1. After the instrumental Overture to Messiah, this Recitative and Aria are the work’s first sung pieces.
2. Handel was 56 years old when he composed Messiah in 1741 in London; the work was premiered, however, in Dublin in 1742, much to the chagrin of Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens.

Cantata BWV 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Exult in God in Every Land), by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685−1750, below)
1. Composed around 1730, this is one of the very few Bach cantatas requiring only one singer.
2. In Bach’s Leipzig church, where the work was probably first heard, the soloist would have been either a male falsettist (or castrato) or an exceptionally skilled boy soprano.

Contrapunctus XIX and Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before Thy throne I stand), from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, by J.S. Bach
1. According to Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel (CPE), this fugue is the last piece his father wrote — though scholars hotly contest this claim.
2. In measure 195, Bach’s own name appears suddenly as a musical motive: B (B-flat in the German scale) – A – C – H (B natural) and the fugue has no ending but simply trails off in measure 239.

Grosser Herr, o starker König (Great Lord, O Powerful King) from Christmas Oratorio,BWV 248, by J.S. Bach
1. It features dance-like melodic figures in dialogue between trumpet and solo bass voice. (Heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
2. Text celebrates the birth of the savior, which makes the powers of the Earth irrelevant.

Cantata BWV 196, Der Herr denket an uns (The Lord thinks of us),by J.S. Bach
1. With its textual focus on blessings (from Psalm 115), the work is likely a wedding cantata.
2. Written probably when Bach was only 22 years old, the work is absolutely perfect in its structure and easy concision; its high-energy but quiet final cadence has a curiously modern, neo-Classical charm that might have made Stravinsky smile.

Chorale: Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe (What joy for me that I have Jesus),from Cantata, BWV 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life)by J.S. Bach
1. The famous opening figure in the strings is really just Bach’s ingenious obligato lead-in to a chorale tune that parishioners in his church would have instantly recognized.
2. This work has enjoyed tremendous popularity as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” since it was arranged for one and then two pianos in 1926 and 1934 respectively by English pianist Myra Hess. It has since been arranged for myriad combinations of instruments and voices.


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Classical music: This weekend, prize-winning pianist Joyce Yang solos in Prokofiev’s most popular piano concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Works by Schumann and Aaron Jay Kernis round out the program

November 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, prize-winning pianist Joyce Yang (below) will return to Madison to join the Madison Symphony Orchestra in her local concerto debut and perform Prokofiev’s brilliant, bravura and tuneful Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26.

The concert opens with Kernis’ Newly Drawn Sky and concludes with Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday night, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday night, Nov. 9, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 10, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $19-$95 with discounts available. See below for details.

Speaking about the program, music director and maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) says: “November brings us another Madison Symphony debut, that of the amazing pianist Joyce Yang. She will perform the Prokofiev’s dazzling Piano Concerto No. 3, one of the great and most popular concertos, and certainly a favorite of mine.”

Adds DeMain: “I can’t wait for audiences to experience the hauntingly beautiful Newly Drawn Sky by Aaron Jay Kernis. And of the four symphonies by Robert Schumann, many regard his second as the greatest of them all.”

According to Aaron Jay Kernis (below), who has won the Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award and who teaches at the Yale School of Music, Newly Drawn Sky” is “a lyrical, reflective piece for orchestra, a reminiscence of the first summer night by the ocean spent with my young twins, and of the summer sky at dusk.”

The chromatically shifting three-note chords that begin in the strings and transfer to the winds are a central element in the creation of this work. The works last approximately 17 minutes and was premiered at the Ravinia Festival in 2005 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

To read more about Kernis and his successful career, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Jay_Kernis

Sergei Prokofiev (below) himself played the solo part at the world premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 3 on Dec. 16, 1921 in Chicago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Although he started work on the composition as early as 1913, the majority of it was completed in 1921 and the piece didn’t gain popularity until 1922 when it was confirmed in the 20th-century canon. (You can hear Prokofiev play the first movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.) The Ear thinks that the work has much Russian Romanticism in it and if you like Rachmaninoff, you will probably like this Prokofiev.

Originally a composer for keyboard, Robert Schumann (below with wife Clara) began writing symphonies around the time of his marriage to his virtuoso pianist and composer wife Clara Wieck, who encouraged his compositional expansions.

The uplifting Symphony in C major was created while the composer was troubled with depression and hearing loss; a Beethovenian triumph over pessimism and despair, the creation of this symphony served as a healing process for Schumann.

ABOUT JOYCE YANG 

Blessed with “poetic and sensitive pianism” (The Washington Post) and a “wondrous sense of color” (San Francisco Classical Voice), Grammy-nominated pianist Joyce Yang, who years ago played a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, captivates audiences with her virtuosity, lyricism and interpretive sensitivity.

Yang first came to international attention in 2005 when she won the silver medal at the 12th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The youngest contestant at 19 years old, she took home two additional awards: Best Performance of Chamber Music (with the Takacs Quartet), and Best Performance of a New Work.

In 2006 Yang (below) made her celebrated New York Philharmonic debut alongside conductor Lorin Maazel at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center along with the orchestra’s tour of Asia, making a triumphant return to her hometown of Seoul, South Korea.

CONCERT, TICKET AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert.

One hour before each performance, Wisconsin Public Radio host Anders Yocom (below, in a photo by James Gill )will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends 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.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/msonov19programnotes.

  • Single Tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/joyce-yang-plays-prokofiev/through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • 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.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 8-10 vouchers for 2019-20 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex
  • Subscriptions for the 2019–2020 season are available now. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/19-20

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

Major funding for this concert is provided by Madison Magazine, Stephen D. Morton, National Guardian Life Insurance Company, Scott and Janet Cabot, and Peggy and Tom Pyle. Additional funding provided by Foley & Lardner LLP, Howard Kidd and Margaret Murphy, 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 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: 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: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” this Friday night in Madison and Sunday afternoon in Whitewater

December 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about performances this coming weekend by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) and the professional orchestra Sinfonia Sacra of what is, unfortunately and undeservedly, often considered, when compared to Handel’s “Messiah,”  “The Other Oratorio” for the holiday season:

There will be two performances of four parts of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” (1734). On Friday night, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m. at the Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave., in Madison; and on Sunday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater, 930 Main Street, in Whitewater.

Advance tickets for the Friday night performance at Luther Memorial Church in Madison are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports (Madison) and Willy Street Coop (all three locations in Madison and Middleton).

Advance tickets for the Sunday afternoon performance at Young Auditorium in Whitewater are available from www.uww.edu/youngauditorium/tickets

Of the six cantatas that make up the “Christmas Oratorio,” Part, 1, 2, 3 and 5 will be performed. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the brisk and energetic opening, performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir.)

Parts 1 to 3 tell the Christmas story: Mary and Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the shepherds and the angels. Part 5 introduces the magi from the East, traditionally known as the Three Kings.

The music offers a sampling of every style of music in the repertoire of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) as a composer.

Massive, concerto-like movements crowned by brilliant trumpet fanfares, booming timpani and virtuosic fugues highlight the full chorus.

Solo arias, duets and trios and even one instrumental movement provide a contemplative contrast with constantly changing instrumental colors—from lush strings to playful flutes and the pastoral sounds of oboes and bassoons.

Featured vocal soloists include mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below top) and tenor J. Adam Shelton (below middle), both on the faculty of UW-Whitewater. Highly accomplished members of the choir, including baritone Bill Rosholt (below bottom, and a Madison Savoyards regular), will share the solo parts with these professionals.

The members of Sinfonia Sacra, under concertmaster Leanne League (below), are drawn from the rosters of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and the music faculties of UW-Madison, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.

Trumpet virtuoso John Aley (below top) and oboist Marc Fink (below bottom) will also perform.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios, a cappella choral works from various centuries, and world premieres.

Bach’s music has always occupied a special place in the choir’s repertory, with performances of the Christmas Oratorio (2002 and 2003), the Mass in B minor (2005), the St. John Passion (2010) and the Magnificat (2017).

Artistic Director Robert Gehrenbeck (below) has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.


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Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 2018
6 Comments

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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


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Classical music: The inventive and unpredictable Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society wraps up its 26th season with an impressive display of virtuosic vocal and piano music as well as hip-hop dancing

June 27, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson, who also took the performance photos. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season is in the books.

This weekend’s Friday performance at the Overture Center’s Playhouse Theater was repeated in Spring Green on Sunday afternoon and was entitled “Cs the Day,” which continued the series’ Alphabet Soup theme. It was a full-bodied program that left the audience in full anticipation for what the BDDS will bring next summer.

Bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below) — whom the Madison Symphony Orchestra featured last month in its performance of Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem — has a wonderfully rich, dynamic voice.

In the collection of songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) and Roger Quilter (1877-1953) — all of which were aptly named “Carpe Diem” songs in the program booklet — Jones showcased the sensitivity of his higher notes and the power of his mid-low register, all the while showing a bit of charm and theatricality. I felt at times that the rich sonorities from the piano covered up Jones’ diction, so texts of the English poems came in handy.

A surprise performance came after the art songs. The night’s entire cast of musicians — Stephanie Jutt on flute, Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Hye-Jin Kim on violins, Ara Gregorian on viola, Madeleine Kabat on cello, and Jeffrey Sykes and Randall Hodgkinson on piano — began playing an arrangement of music from Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville.

They were quickly joined by Blake Washington (below, in a  file photo), a hip-hop dancer who studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He performed a rendition – in movement – while the ensemble played. Judging from the audience’s approval, it’s safe to assume that similar collaborations would be welcome in the future.

One annual program event is a chamber music arrangement of a complete piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

This year, Jeffrey Sykes was keen on presenting the Piano Concerto in D Major, K. 537 (1788), called ”Coronation.” Sykes (below) labeled the work a “miracle piece” in brief remarks before the musicians listed above, minus Hodgkinson, began.

As a pianist, I sympathize with anyone who takes on such a Mozart work, since the smallest of mistakes – uneven passage work, unclear ornamentation or misplayed notes – are magnified. Nonetheless, it’s a treat to hear such an expansive work in an up-close, intimate setting like the Playhouse Theater at the Overture Center.

Judging by the audience’s reaction alone, Carl Czerny’s Grand Sonata Brillante in C minor for piano four-hands, Op. 10 (1822), proved the highlight of the program.

Not only does the work live up to its “grand” and “brilliant” title, but Sykes’ and Hodgkinson’s dexterity and acrobatics throughout were displayed – literally – for all to see.

A camera was suspended over the keyboard, and that eagle’s-eye view (below) was projected onto the large, white backdrops at the rear of the stage. Czerny’s four-hand sonata was the perfect piece to utilize this multimedia aspect, as well as show off two virtuosic pianists. (You can see and hear the first movement of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Last on the program was Cool Fire (2001) by American composer Paul Moravec (b. 1957). All of the performers on stage — the same cast from the Rossini on the first half of the program minus Sykes — were completely committed to the demanding and energetic score.

There were moments of athleticism in everyone’s part, and several times, the hands of Hodgkinson (below) — and his body — had to jump the length of the keyboard in an instant. His playing, in general, has always been vigorous and brawny – similar to Madison’s own Christopher Taylor. Fittingly, the two pianists studied with the same teacher, Russell Sherman.

This season of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society was exceptionally consistent. Every concert featured interesting music, skilled musicians and engaging surprises.

In the first week, attendees were treated to sandwiches served by the Earl of Sandwich and the Queen of Sheba. In Week Two, Madison’s City-Wide Spelling Bee Champion proved his expertise in musical lingo. Lastly,  Week Three provided dance moves of fellow Wisconsinite Blake Washington.

It was nice to encounter many works I had never heard. In future years, I hope the BDDS’s repertoire list can be widened more to be inclusive of non-Western and female composers. Through continued diversity of programming, the BDDS should not only retain its most loyal of patrons, it might also broaden its audience base even further.


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