The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will give two concerts this week as part of the centennial season of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater

March 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Think of it as one anniversary celebrating another anniversary.

This week, four members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City will be giving two concerts as part of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater (below).

The Chamber Music Society is marking its 50th anniversary and is in town this week to help the WUT’s Concert Series celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Here is a link with more background about the special programming for the anniversary season: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/03/30/classical-music-personal-experience-artistic-excellence-and-historical-importance-drew-pianist-wu-han-and-cellist-david-finckel-into-planning-next-years-centennial-season-at-the-wisconsin-u/

The first concert is tomorrow — Thursday night, March 5 — at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Memorial Union. The program features two piano quartets and a violin sonatina.

The Ear has seen the Society players before in Madison and has never heard them give anything short of a first-rate performance. 

The piano quartets are the Piano Quartet in A Minor, Op. 1, by Czech composer Josef Suk; the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, by Johannes Brahms; and the Violin Sonatina in G Major, Op. 100, by Antonin Dvorak. (You can hear Chopin Competition winner and South Korean pianist Song-Jin Cho, play the Gypsy Rondo finale from the Brahms piano quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Personal ties link all three works. Brahms greatly admired Dvorak and helped launch his career. And Dvorak was both the teacher and father-in-law of Suk.

The performers (below, from left) are violinist Arnaud Sussmann, pianist Wu Han, violist Paul Neubauer; and cellist David Finckel.

The wife-and-husband team of Wu Han and David Finckel are the co-music directors of the Chamber Music Society and also the artistic advisors who helped the Wisconsin Union Theater put together its centennial season.

Says Han: Chamber music is a form of music that has the ability to provide comfort in difficult times, escape and inspiration for all. The Musical America’s Musician of the Year award winner adds that it’s those very things that drive her to continue to make music.

The performance is part of the new David and Kato Perlman Chamber Music Series. More information about the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center can be found on their website.

There will also be a pre-concert performance by students of the Suzuki method in Sonora Strings (below) beginning in Shannon Hall at 7 p.m.

For more background as well as how to purchase tickets ($10-$50), go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chamber-music-society-of-lincoln-center/

SATURDAY NIGHT

On Saturday night, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., pianist Wu Han (below top) will perform with the UW Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its director and conductor Oriol Sans (below bottom).

The program is the Suite No. 1 from the chamber opera “Powder Her Face” by the contemporary British composer Thomas Adès; the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37, by Beethoven; and the Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73, by Brahms.

Tickets are $30 for the public, $25 for Union members and UW faculty and staff; and $10 for UW students. For more information about Wu Han and to purchase tickets, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/wu-han-with-uw-symphony/

“Wu Han brings to the Wisconsin Union Theater not only a passion for music, but also authentic excitement about inspiring a love of music in others,” said Amanda Venske, Concert Series coordinator of the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) Performing Arts Committee.

The students of the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, with the UW Choral Union in the background) will have the opportunity to learn from Han as they prepare for the Saturday performance.

Patrons can purchase tickets online or at the Memorial Union Box Office. The Wisconsin Union Theater team offers discounted tickets for University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty, staff and students as well as Wisconsin Union members.

Other upcoming Concert Series performances are by violinist Gil Shaham with Akira Eguchi on March 28, and superstar soprano Renée Fleming on May 2. The Concert Series is the longest running classical music series in the Midwest.

 


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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 Oakwood Chamber Players perform a mini-opera version of “A Christmas Carol” this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

December 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Over several deuces, the Oakwood Chamber Players have built a solid reputation for their top-notch performances of unusual and neglected repertoire.

So it comes as no surprise that the group will offer one of the newer, more unusual and promising takes on the holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

Twice this weekend, the Madison-based, widely experienced musical theater actor and baritone Robert A. Goderich reprises his tour-de-force performance, last done in 2016, of Charles Dickens’ characters for the Oakwood Chamber Players’ presentation of the mini-opera “The Passion of Scrooge” by New York composer Jon Deak.

A dozen musicians, including ensemble members with special guest artists, provide the platform for Goderich’s characterizations on this coming Saturday night, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m., and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 8, at 2 p.m.

The concerts take place at Oakwood Village University Woods Auditorium at 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets are available at the door and are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors, and $5 for students. Go to https://www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

Members of the ensemble for this program are: Marilyn Chohaney (flute), Nancy Mackenzie (clarinet), Anne Aley (horn), Elspeth Stalter Clouse (violin) and Maggie Darby Townsend (cello), and guest musicians Hillary Hempel (violin), Emma Cifrino (viola), Brad Townsend (bass), Mike Koszewski (percussion), and Margaret Mackenzie (harp).

Over the past two decades, New York Philharmonic bassist and composer Jon Deak (below) has created a variety of “concert dramas” that tell stories through words and sound. 

Performed annually at the Smithsonian, this two-act musical setting re-imagines Ebenezer Scrooge’s struggle to transform his past, present and future from a life of avarice to warmth and humanity.

As singer and narrator, Goderich, who plays all the parts, is the focal point; but the composer has given the instrumentalists an integral part in the story line, too. Conductor Kyle Knox (below) leads the ensemble through many facets of this humorous work filled with dramatic effects.

Deak requires the musicians to be nimble performers, juggling melodic lines while interjecting entertaining sounds into Dickens’ traditional tale. You can hear the opening introduction by the Storyteller in the YouTube video at the bottom.

One of the score’s important aspects is the varied use of percussion, which provides a broad range of instruments and sound effects. Audiences can enjoy both the aural and visual artistry of chains rattling, doors creaking and footsteps echoing in this holiday classic.

Additionally, the Oakwood Chamber Players will perform a suite of British reels and carols, including songs mentioned in the text of Dickens’ original story.

For example, when the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of his first employer Fezziwig, a fiddler plays the tune “Sir Roger De Coverley.” This Scottish-English country dance, arranged by composer Frank Bridge in 1922, is one of the tunes providing an engaging introduction to “The Passion of Scrooge.”

 


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