The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Beethoven Year in Madison will include complete cycles of string quartets and piano trios as well as many other early, middle and late pieces. Here is a partial preview

September 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, 2020 is a Beethoven Year. It will mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. (He lived from mid-December of 1770 to March 26, 1827.  Dec. 17 is sometimes given as his birthday but it is really the date of his baptism. No one knows for sure the actual date of his birth.)

Beethoven, who this year overtook Mozart as the most popular composer in a British radio poll, clearly speaks to people — as you can see at the bottom in the YouTube video of a flash mob performance of the “Ode to Joy.” It has had more than 16 million views.

Locally, not all Beethoven events have been announced yet. But some that promise to be memorable are already taking shape. Many programs include early, middle and late works. And you can be sure that, although nothing formal has been announced yet, there will be special programs on Wisconsin Public Television and especially Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here is a partial round-up:

The UW’s famed Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), for example, will perform a FREE and complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in six concerts. It will start later this fall.

This is not the first time that the Pro Arte has done a Beethoven cycle. But it is especially fitting since that is the same Beethoven cycle that the Pro Arte was performing in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater in May of 1940 when World War II broke out and the quartet was stranded on tour in the U.S. after its homeland of Belgium was invaded and occupied by the Nazis.

That is when the ensemble was invited to become musical artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and accepted – thereby establishing the first such association in the world that became a model for many other string quartets.

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society with the San Francisco Trio (below) plans on performing a cycle of piano trios next summer. No specific dates or programs have been announced yet.

The 20th anniversary of the Ancora String Quartet (below, in a photo by Barry Lewis) will coincide with the Beethoven Year. That is when the Ancorans will complete the cycle of 16 string quartets that they have been gradually programming over the years. Three quartets remain to be performed: Op. 59, No. 2 “Rasumovsky”, Op. 130 and Op. 131.

Adds violist Marika Fischer Hoyt: “We’ll perform Op. 130 in February (with the original final movement, NOT the “Grosse Fuge”), and we plan to do the remaining two quartets in the summer and fall of 2020.”

Here are some other Beethoven dates to keep in mind:

On Nov. 2 in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and as part of the WUT’s centennial celebration of its Concert Series, pianist Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), who since 1974 has played many solo recitals, chamber music recitals and piano concertos in Madison, will play Beethoven’s first three solo piano sonatas, Op. 2.

On Dec. 6 at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Piano Trio will perform the famous “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97. Also on the program are works by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann.

On Feb. 1, UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, who has performed all 32 piano sonatas in Madison, will continue his cycle of Beethoven symphonies as transcribed for solo piano by Franz Liszt. He will perform Symphony No. 1 and the famed Symphony No. 9, the ground-breaking “Choral” Symphony with its “Ode to Joy.” No chorus will be involved, but there will be four solo singers. Taylor said he will then complete the cycle with Symphony No. 2 at some future time.

The Mosaic Chamber Players (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) will perform two all-Beethoven programs: on Feb. 21, a FREE program offers two sonatas for violin and piano (Op. 12, No. 3 and Op. 30, No. 2, and one sonata for cello and piano (Op. 5, No. 1); on June 13, a ticketed program features three piano trios (Op. 1, No. 1; Op. 70, No. 2; and Op. 121a “Kakadu” Variations).

On May 8, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom, in a photo by Alex Cruz), will perform the popular Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” – a pioneering piece of program music — to commemorate the Beethoven Year.

There is one very conspicuous absence.

You will notice that there is nothing by Beethoven programmed for the new season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers).

But The Ear hears rumors that music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is planning something special for the following season that might involve both symphonies and concertos, both original Beethoven works and perhaps “reimagined” ones.

(For example, pianist Jonathan Biss, who has just completed recording the piano sonata cycle and who performed with the MSO several years ago, has commissioned and will premiere five piano concertos related to or inspired by Beethoven’s five piano concertos.) Sorry, but as of now only rumors and not details are available for the MSO. Stay tuned!

The Ear would like to hear complete cycles of the violin sonatas and cello sonatas performed, and a couple of the piano concertos as well as the early symphonies and the famed Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy” finale. He fondly remembers when DeMain and the MSO performed Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9 on the same program. Talk about bookending a career!

What Beethoven would you like to hear live?

What are your most favorite or least favorite Beethoven works?

Do you know of other Beethoven programs during the Beethoven Year? If so, please leave word in the Comment section.

And, of course, there is the inevitable question: Can you have too much Beethoven?


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Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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Music education: The Madison Youth Choirs explore the theme of “Legacy” in three concerts this Saturday and Sunday in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center

May 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post from the Madison Youth Choirs about their upcoming concerts this weekend:

This spring, Madison Youth Choirs singers are exploring the meaning of “Legacy,” studying works that have endured throughout history, folk traditions that have been passed on, and musical connections that we maintain with those who have come before us. Along the way, we’re discovering how our own choices and examples are leaving a lasting impact on future generations.

In our upcoming concert series in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on this Saturday, May 11, and Sunday, May 12, we’ll present a variety of works. They  include Benjamin Britten’s “The Golden Vanity,” Palestrina’s beloved “Sicut Cervus,” Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Wanting Memories,” the final chorus of Handel’s oratorio Samson, American and Scottish folk songs, and Zoe Mulford’s powerful modern folk piece, “The President Sang Amazing Grace.”

The concert will also pay tribute to our alumni, with selections featured on the very first Madison Boychoir album, and past Cantabile singers invited to join us on stage for “Sisters, Now Our Meeting is Over.”

At the Saturday concert, MYC will present the 2019 Carrel Pray Music Educator of the Year award to Diana Popowycz (below), co-founder of Suzuki Strings of Madison.

DETAILS ABOUT “LEGACY” MYC’S SPRING CONCERT SERIES

Saturday
7:30 p.m. Purcell, Britten, Holst and Ragazzi (boychoirs)

Sunday
3:30 p.m. Choraliers, Con Gioia, Capriccio, Cantilena and Cantabile (girlchoirs)

7:30 p.m. Cantilena, Cantabile and Ragazzi (high school ensembles)

THREE WAYS TO PURCHASE TICKETS:

  1. In person at the Overture Center Box Office (lowest cost)
  2. Online (https://www.overture.org/events/legacy)
  3. By phone (608-258-4141)

Tickets are $15 for adults and $7.50 for students. Children under 7 are free, but a ticket is still required and can be requested at the Overture Center Box Office. Seating is General Admission.

This concert is supported by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank, the Green Bay Packers Foundation, the Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation and Dane Arts with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, The Evjue Foundation, charitable arm of The Capital Times, and the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation. This project is also made possible by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with additional funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

ABOUT MADISON YOUTH CHOIRS (MYC):

Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community. Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self-confidence, responsibility, and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond.

REPERTOIRE

SATURDAY

For the 7:30 p.m. Concert (featuring MYC Boychoirs)

Britten

“The Golden Vanity,” by Benjamin Britten (to our knowledge, this will be the first time the work has ever been performed in Madison)

Purcell

“Simple Gifts” by Joseph Brackett, arr. Aaron Copland

“Tallis Canon” by Thomas Tallis

“Sound the Trumpet” from Come Ye Sons of Art by Henry Purcell

Britten   

“Ich jauchze, ich lache” by Johann Sebastian Bach

Holst

“Hallelujah, Amen” from Judas Maccabeus by George Frideric Handel

“Sed diabolus” by Hildegard von Bingen

“Bar’bry Allen” Traditional ballad, arr. Joshua Shank

“Ella’s Song” by Bernice Johnson Reagon

Ragazzi

“Let Your Voice Be Heard” by Abraham Adzenyah

“Sicut Cervus” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

“Agincourt Carol,” Anonymous, ca. 15th century

Ragazzi & Holst

“The President Sang Amazing Grace” by Zoe Mulford, arr. Randal Swiggum

Holst

“Shosholoza,” Traditional song from Zimbabwe

Combined Boychoirs

“Will Ye No Come Back Again?” Traditional Scottish, arr. Randal Swiggum

Legacy Choirs

“Day is Done” by Peter Yarrow, arr. Randal Swiggum

SUNDAY

For the 3:30 p.m. Concert (featuring MYC Girlchoirs)

Choraliers

“Music Alone Shall Live,” Traditional German canon

“Ut Queant Laxis,” Plainsong chant, text attributed to Paolo Diacono

“This Little Light of Mine” by Harry Dixon Loes, arr. Ken Berg

“A Great Big Sea,” Newfoundland folk song, arr. Lori-Anne Dolloff

Con Gioia

“Seligkeit” by Franz Schubert

“Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin, arr. Roger Emerson

“When I am Laid in Earth” from Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell

“Pokare Kare Ana” by Paraire Tomoana

“Ah, comme c’est chose belle” Anonymous, 14th century

“Hope” by Marjan Helms, poem by Emily Dickinson

Capriccio

“Non Nobis Domine,” attributed to William Byrd

“Ich Folge Dir Gleichfalls” from St. John Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach

“Dirait-on” by Morten Lauridsen

Cantilena

“Aure Volanti” by Francesca Caccini

“Ella’s Song” by Bernice Johnson Reagon

Cantabile

“Come All You Fair and Pretty Ladies” Traditional Ozark song, adapted by Mike Ross

“Wanting Memories” by Ysaye M. Barnwell

Legacy Choir

“Music in My Mother’s House” by Stuart Stotts

For the 7:30 p.m. concert (featuring High School Ensembles)

Cantilena

“Aure Volanti” by Francesca Caccini

“Una Sañosa Porfía by Juan del Encina

“Ella’s Song” by Bernice Johnson Reagon

“O Virtus Sapientiae” by Hildegard von Bingen

Ragazzi

“Sicut Cervus” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

“Agincourt Carol,” Anonymous, ca. 15th century

“Let Your Voice Be Heard” by Abraham Adzenyah

“The President Sang Amazing Grace” by Zoe Mulford, arr. Randal Swiggum

Cantabile

“In a Neighborhood in Los Angeles” by Roger Bourland

“Sed Diabolus” by Hildegard von Bingen

“Come All You Fair and Pretty Ladies” Traditional Ozark song, adapted by Mike Ross

“Wanting Memories” by Ysaye M. Barnwell

Combined Choirs

“Let Their Celestial Concerts All Unite” by George Frideric Handel

 Cantabile and Alumnae

“Sisters, Now Our Meeting is Over,” Traditional Quaker meeting song


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Classical music: This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and other individuals and groups join forces to celebrate John DeMain’s 25th season with Mahler’s monumental “Symphony of a Thousand”

April 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

By any standard, it is epic music.

The stage in Overture Hall will have more than 500 participants on it this coming weekend when the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) partners with the Madison Symphony Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs, the UW–Madison Choral Union and eight critically acclaimed vocal soloists to bring a performance of Gustav Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 — or “Symphony of a Thousand.”

For the first time since 2005, MSO music director and conductor John DeMain will conduct one of the largest undertakings in the classical music repertoire as the final concert marking his Silver Anniversary Season.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday night, May 3, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, May 4, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, May 5, at 2:30 p.m.

Information about tickets ($18-$93) is below.

Says DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson): “I have spent 25 years with this orchestra and chorus. In that time, our collaboration on Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 8 in 2005 stands out as perhaps the most memorable. I feel a magnetic affinity with Mahler, and began my career 25 years ago with his first symphony. I am honored and moved to conduct this work and feel it is the perfect conclusion to my 25th season.”

Composed in December 1906, Symphony No. 8 is the last work by Mahler (below) to be premiered in his lifetime. It is one of the largest-scale choral works in the classical concert repertoire, and because it requires huge instrumental and vocal forces, it is frequently called the “Symphony of a Thousand.” (Below is a photo of the final rehearsal for the world premiere performance in Munich in 1910.)

The structure of the work is unconventional; instead of the normal framework of several movements, the piece is in two parts.

Part I is based on the Latin text of a 9th-century Christian hymn for Pentecost, and Part II is a setting of the words from the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust.

The two parts are unified by a common idea: redemption through the power of love, a unity conveyed through shared musical themes.

Symphony No. 8 is revered as one of the greatest achievements of classical concert repertoire and expresses the composer’s confidence in the eternal human spirit. (You can hear Sir Simon Rattle conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in the famous finale of the Symphony No. 8 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

ABOUT THE PERFORMERS

The distinguished solo singers are: soprano Alexandra LoBianco; soprano Emily Birsan (below), who just last weekend sang the title role in the Madison Opera’s production of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka”; soprano Emily Pogorelc; mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic; mezzo-soprano Julie Miller; tenor Clay Hilley; baritone Michael Redding; and bass-baritone Morris Robinson.

For photos and impressive biographical information about the soloists, go to:

https://madisonsymphony.org/event/symphony-of-a-thousand/

The Madison Symphony Chorus (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson) gave its first public performance on Feb. 23, 1928 and has performed regularly with the Madison Symphony Orchestra ever since.

The chorus is comprised of more than 150 volunteer musicians who come from all walks of life and enjoy combining their artistic talent under the direction of Beverly Taylor (below bottom), who is the director of Choral Activities at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Inclusive of members of all skill levels, the Madison Youth Choirs (below), Michael Ross director, incorporate singers from ages 7-18 into their orchestration.

The choirs aim to introduce youths interested in musical performance to collaborative forms of self-confidence and responsibility in the atmosphere of musical training. Randal Swiggum is conducting rehearsals preparing members of the choir for the MSO’s May Symphony of a Thousand concerts.

With 150 members, the UW-Madison Choral Union (below) fuses university and non-university members. Under the direction of Beverly Taylor, former associate conductor of the MSO who also teaches at the UW-Madison, the Choral Union is another testament to the musical outreach in the Madison arts.

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 Symphony recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/msomay19programnotes

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/symphony-of-a-thousandthrough 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 10 vouchers for 19-20 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 provided by NBC15, Larry and Jan Phelps, Diane Ballweg, Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Johnson Financial Group, and University Research Park. Additional funding provided by DeWitt LLP, Kennedy Gilchrist and Heidi Wilde, Thomas E. Terry, Fred A. Wileman, Helen L. Wineke, 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: This Wednesday brings a FREE Just Bach concert and the FREE Final Forte concerto competition of the  Madison Symphony Orchestra on Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television

March 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday, March 13, brings two noteworthy and FREE events: this month’s midday Just Bach concert; and, at night, the annual Final Forte teenage concerto competition of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Here are details about both events:

JUST BACH

This month’s FREE hour-long performance by Just Bach (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) will take place at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, starting at 1 p.m. Food and drink are permitted and free-will donations are accepted.

The program this Wednesday is: the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor “Dorian” for organ, BWV 538, by Johann Sebastian Bach; the cantata “Herr, Ich Warte auf dein Heil” (Lord, I Wait for Your Salvation) by Johann Michael Bach, a cousin of Johann Sebastian; and the famous cantata “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death”), BWV 4, by Johann Sebastian Bach. (You can hear the opening Sinfonia and Chorus to the latter in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a list of upcoming performances and programs for the second semester:

https://justbach.org/concerts/

And here is a link to the home page and website with links to information about the performers and more.

https://justbach.org

FINAL FORTE

Then on Wednesday night, starting at 6:45 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, the four finalists in the annual Final Forte teenage concerto competition, held by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will compete accompanied by the MSO and conductor John DeMain.

The public is invited to attend the FREE event, but tickets but must be reserved in advance.

The performances will also be broadcast live starting at 7 p.m. by both Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) and Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR).

The four finalists, from dozens of statewide applicants who took part in the two preliminary rounds, are (below, from left): violinist Monona Suzuki of Fitchburg playing Ravel; cellist Grace Kim of Waunakee playing Saint-Saens; flutist Holly Venkitaswaren of Lisbon playing Pierce; and pianist Antonio Wu of Madison playing Rachmaninoff.

For more information about the performers, what they will perform and how to obtain tickets, as well as background on the competition, including impressive radio and television ratings, go to:

https://madisonsymphony.org/education-community/education-programs/young-artist-competitions/the-final-forte/


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


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Classical music: Starting this Thursday, Madison Opera offers FREE preview events leading up to its staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” on Feb. 8 and 10

January 16, 2019
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson, artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, will play selections by Johann Sebastian Bach for solo harpsichord. He will be joined by baroque flutist Kristen Davies for Bach’s Sonata in C major for Flute and Harpsichord. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Madison Opera will present Stephen Sondheim’s classic A Little Night Music on Friday, Feb. 8, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 10, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State Street.

One of the most popular stage pieces of the 20th century, this modern operetta waltzes through a story of the complications of love across generations, spiced with sparkling wit and rueful self-awareness.

Set in Sweden in the early 1900s, A Little Night Music tells of multiple couples with mixed ideas of love. During a weekend in the country, marriages are made and unmade and the summer nights smile on the young and old alike. Through delicious humor and a ravishing score, human folly eventually gives way to happily-ever-after.

A Little Night Music is an absolutely delicious piece,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “I think of it as a grown-up operetta, with some of the best dialogue and lyrics ever written, all to Sondheim’s brilliant score. It’s a delightful way to spend a winter evening, and I’m so thrilled with our cast and production team, who are creating a new production for the Capitol Theater.”

“A Little Night Music” opened on Broadway in 1973 to rave reviews. The New York Times wrote: “At last, a new operetta!  A Little Night Music is heady, civilized, sophisticated, and enchanting.”

It has since been performed by both theater and opera companies all over the world and was revived on Broadway in 2009. Sondheim composed the score entirely in variations of waltz time, and it includes several now-classic songs, such as “Send in the Clowns,” “A Weekend in the Country,” and “The Miller’s Son.” (You can hear Dame Judi Dench singing a restrained but deeply moving rendition of “Send in the Clowns” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Can you imagine? An entire musical composed in some form of waltz time,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director. “I love this score, which feels like Johann Strauss meets the harmonies of Ravel. It’s an incredible verbal and musical achievement that gets better every time I hear it. Madison Opera’s cast should prove to be sensational as we bring this Sondheim masterpiece to life. I so look forward to conducting it.”

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Emily Pulley (below top) returns to Madison Opera as Desirée Armfeldt, a famous actress searching for “a coherent existence after so many years of muddle.” Daniel Belcher returns as Fredrik, Desirée’s ex-lover, who is currently married to the 18-year-old Anne, played by Wisconsin native Jeni Houser (below bottom), who recently made her debut at the Vienna State Opera.

Sarah Day (below), a member of the core acting company of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, makes her debut as Madame Armfeldt, the elegant ex-courtesan who is Desirée’s mother. Charles Eaton returns as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Desirée’s current lover; his wife Charlotte is played by Katherine Pracht in her Madison Opera debut.

Rounding out the cast are Quinn Bernegger as Henrik, son of Fredrik; Emily Glick as the maid Petra; and Maddie Uphoff as Fredrika, Desirée’s 13-year-old daughter.

The Liebeslieders, who function as a waltz-prone Greek chorus throughout the show, are portrayed by Emily Secor, Cassandra Vasta, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, and Stephen Hobe.

Doug Schulz-Carlson (below) returns to direct. The artistic director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, his most recent Madison Opera production was Romeo and Juliet in 2016.

The original set is designed by R. Eric Stone (below top) and is being built in the Madison Opera Scene Shop. The costumes are designed by Karen Brown-Larimore (below bottom), who most recently designed costumes for Madison Opera’s production of Florencia en el Amazonas.

Members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra accompany Sondheim’s gorgeous score.

PREVIEW EVENTS

Events leading up to the performances can help the community learn more about A Little Night Music.

A FREE community preview will be held this Thursday, Jan. 17, from 7 to 8 p.m. at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street.

Opera Novice, also FREEtakes place this Friday, Jan. 18, from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Madison Opera Center (below), 335 West Mifflin Street, and offers a free, entertaining look at the works of Stephen Sondheim including A Little Night Music.

Opera Up Close — which is free to season subscribers and costs $20 for others — provides an in-depth discussion of the production, including a cast roundtable, and takes place on Feb. 3 from 1-3 p.m. at the Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street.

Pre-Opera Talks will take place at the Overture Center one hour prior to each performance.

For more information, including interviews with cast members and the production team, and to get tickets ($25-$115), go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/a-little-night-music/

Madison Opera’s production of “A Little Night Music” is sponsored by Thompson Investment Management, Inc., Fran Klos, David Flanders and Susan Ecroyd, and Charles Snowdon and Ann Lindsey.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
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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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Messiah” marks 10 years with another sold-out performance and two new soloists this Friday night. Then starting Saturday, it’s on to “The Nutcracker”

December 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

There is no more iconic piece of classical music for the holiday season than the oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel. (You can hear the famous “Hallelujah” Chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For 10 years, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the WCO Chorus, the Festival Choir and four guest soloists (all forces from a previous performance are in the photo below) have been bringing the masterwork to Madison. And it usually plays to a full house.

This year’s performance once again takes place at 7 p.m. this Friday night, Dec. 7, at the Blackhawk Church, 8629 Brader Way in Middleton. And once again, all 800 seats are sold out.

For more information, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah-1/

“It is very successful and has become a real tradition,” says WCO’s Chief Operating Officer Sue Ellen McGuire. “We have people and families who come year after year.”

But that does not mean each year’s performance, both acclaimed by critics and popular with the public, is a repetition of the previous year’s.

True, some things carry over, such as the longtime soprano soloist Sarah Lawrence and bass soloist Peter Van de Graaff (below), who is also the overnight resonant voice of classical music on Wisconsin Public Radio via The Beethoven Satellite Network.

“It is such a great masterpiece that I feel I can play around with it somewhat and make each year’s performance distinctive and different,” says WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below). Some years, he says, he cuts out or adds certain choruses; or changes the intermission break; or alters the makeup of the instruments or choruses; or uses different soloists, or continues to adapt to and adopt early music practices.

Take this year. For the first time, the performance will include two singers who competed in the annual Handel Aria Competition held in Madison: mezzo-soprano Johanna Bronk (a finalist in 2017), and tenor Gene Stenger (bottom left, the second prize winner and audience favorite in 2017).

“It’s a no-brainer and a natural fit to use the world-class talent that takes part in a local event,” says Sewell, who is also the music director of the symphony orchestra in San Luis Obispo in California.

And for those of you who wonder what the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra does after Concerts on the Square end in the summer and before its Masterworks series starts in January, the answer is marking the holidays.

In addition to “Messiah,” the WCO will accompany the Madison Ballet’s performances of Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” that take place between Dec. 8 and Dec. 26 in the Overture Center. For details and tickets, go to: https://www.madisonballet.org/nutcracker/


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Classical music: Madison Opera gives completely satisfying and nearly perfect performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” Here are four reviews

November 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with performance photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I attended performances of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” presented by the Madison Opera at Overture Hall last Sunday afternoon.

Each of the operas is an hour and a quarter long. At least for “Cavalleria” (below), the time flew by while I was captivated by the good singing, excellent playing and charming staging. The opera is tightly constructed and the production flowed effortlessly to its dramatic conclusion.

The feckless mama’s boy Turridu was ably portrayed by tenor Scott Piper (below top) who sang beautifully throughout. His nemesis, Alfio, was sung by baritone Michael Mayes (below bottom). Mayes has an excellent voice and terrific musicianship, but he tended to overact.

The star of the show was soprano Michelle Johnson (below) as Santuzza.  Her big aria “Voi lo sapete” and her duets with Piper were rapturously dramatic. Her supple and nuanced performance had me uncharacteristically leaping to my feet and shouting “Brava!” as she took her curtain call. Hers is a voice I hope to hear again soon.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra shone throughout the performance, ably led by guest conductor Joseph Mechavich (below). I cannot recall hearing before such subtle control of its orchestral voices, and the ensemble glimmered in the well-known intermezzo. (You can hear that famous and beautiful Intermezzo, used in the film “The Godfather” and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

The set and costumes, the bravura singing by the chorus, and the lighting were all above expectations. It was a completely satisfying experience.

“Pagliacci” is a more troublesome work for me. It has moments of lyrical genius but also what to me seems like filler – the chorus going on too long about getting to vespers, for example.

Mayes (below) portrayed the villainous Tonio in this opera.  Although his prologue was beautifully sung, his creepy overacting was a bit too much. For example, when Nedda spat at him in contempt, he wiped the spittle from his face and then licked his hand. His final utterance “La commedia e finita” was overly dramatic and lacking irony.

Piper sang the clown Canio (below), and by the time he got to the showpiece aria “Vesti la giubba” I was nervous that he would not be able to hit all the high notes. He did hit the notes, but it will take a couple more years for this role to fit his voice comfortably.

Nedda was portrayed by sensational Talise Trevigne (below bottom). Her big aria “Stridono lassù” was sung beautifully, and the orchestra shimmered in its accompaniment. Her duet with her lover Silvio, ably sung by baritone Benjamin Taylor (below top), was another highlight of the production.

Once again, the orchestral interlude was beautifully played.

Altogether, this was almost a perfect afternoon at Madison Opera. There appeared to be a gratifyingly large number of younger people attending, which I took as a good sign for the future. (Below is the tragic final scene of “Pagliacci” with Robert Goodrich, Michael Mayes and Scott Piper.)

I look forward to the next production: Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” on Feb. 8 and 10. I saw it recently at Des Moines Metropolitan Opera, so I am interested to see how it will compare.

When all is said and done, I enjoyed “Pagliacci” but feel it is inferior to “Cavalleria.” Although both operas are frequently performed together, I have attended other pairings for “Cavalleria” including one with Puccini’s comic short opera “Gianni Schicchi.” That combination worked well. I wonder: Do readers have other suggestions for pairings?

Editor’s note: Everyone has an opinion. How did you and other critics find the Madison Opera productions? Leave your opinion in the COMMENTS section. And here are links to some other reviews:

Here is the review John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/music/satisfying-double-bill/

Here is the review, with a historical bent, that Greg Hettmansberger wrote for his blog “What Greg Says”: https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/11/06/madison-opera-goes-old-school/

 And here is what Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times newspaper: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/love-revenge-passion-violence-open-the-season-at-madison-opera/article_1c27e195-cc2f-5826-9502-00544b88fae6.html


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