The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Wisconsin Public Radio will air the Madison Opera’s productions of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Magic Flute” this Saturday afternoon and next Saturday afternoon

May 18, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Saturday live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera ended for the season last weekend.

But opera on the radio continues.

The Madison Opera is partnering with Wisconsin Public Radio to present recorded broadcasts of Charles Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet on Saturday, May 20, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute (below) on Saturday, May 27. (Photo are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

Both broadcasts begin at 1 p.m. Listeners can tune into their local WPR station or stream online at www.wpr.org/listen-live.

Each spring, two operas from Madison Opera’s season are presented by Wisconsin Public Radio to let listeners re-live the season.  These broadcasts cap off the end of the season of live radio broadcasts from The Metropolitan Opera that run from December through May on WPR’s News and Classical Music Network.

“We are committed to showcasing some of the best music and arts performances in Wisconsin. Our broadcast partnership with the Madison Opera, and organizations and musicians throughout the state, help to ensure everyone has access to live and local concerts no matter where they live,” said Peter Bryant (below), director of WPR’s News and Classical Music.

Charles Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet opens the broadcast series on Saturday, May 20, at 1 p.m.  In 14th-century Verona, Romeo meets Juliet in a crowded ballroom, setting in motion a chain of events that will change both their families. With soaring arias, impassioned scenes and plenty of sword fights, Gounod’s gorgeous opera brings Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers to vivid life.

Madison Opera’s cast features UW-Madison graduate and Lyric Opera of Chicago alumna Emily Birsan (below right) as Juliet, John Irvin (below left) as Romeo, Sidney Outlaw as Mercutio, Stephanie Lauricella as Stephano, Liam Moran as Friar Lawrence, Allisanne Apple as Gertrude, Chris Carr as Tybalt, Philip Skinner as Lord Capulet, Benjamin Sieverding as the Duke of Verona, Nathanial Hill as Gregorio, James Held as Paris, and Andrew F. Turner as Benvolio.

John DeMain conducts, featuring the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra. The broadcast includes an intermission feature with Birsan, Irvin and DeMain, interviewed by WPR’s Lori Skelton.

On Saturday, May 27, at 1 p.m., the broadcasts conclude with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute. A prince, a princess, a bird-catcher and a host of other fascinating characters invite you into a fantastical world of charmed musical instruments, mystical rituals, and a quest for enlightenment and wisdom.

Written in the last year of his life, Mozart’s sublime opera is part fairy tale, part adventure story, and all enchantment.

Madison Opera’s cast features Amanda Woodbury as Pamina, Andrew Bidlack as Tamino, Alan Dunbar as Papageno, Caitlin Cisler as The Queen of the Night, Nathan Stark as Sarastro, Scott Brunscheen as Monostatos, Amanda Kingston as the First Lady, Kelsey Park as the Second Lady, Anna Parks as the Third Lady, Anna Polum as Papagena, Matthew Scollin as the Speaker, Robert A. Goderich as the First Priest/Armored Man, and James Held as the Second Priest/Armored Man.

Julliard professor Gary Thor Wedow conducts, featuring the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The broadcast includes an intermission feature with Woodbury, Bidlack, Dunbar and Wedow, interviewed by WPR’s Lori Skelton.

Madison Opera is a non-profit professional opera company based in Madison, Wisconsin.  Founded in 1961, the company grew from a local workshop presenting community singers in English-language productions to a nationally recognized organization producing diverse repertoire and presenting leading American opera singers alongside emerging talent.  A resident organization of the Overture Center for the Arts, Madison Opera presents three productions annually in addition to the free summer concert Opera in the Park and a host of educational programming.


Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra closes its season with the German Requiem by Brahms and the American premiere of Charles Villiers Stanford’s 1921 Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra

May 1, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger 

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), led by music director John DeMain, will close out its current season this coming weekend.

For the season-closing concert, soprano Devon Guthrie and bass-baritone Timothy Jones will make their MSO debuts when they join the orchestra for Brahms’ A German Requiem.

The concert will open with the American premiere of Charles Villier Stanford’s Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra featuring Nathan Laube (below top), who is returning to the MSO.

The finishing touch to the 2016-17 season happens in the second half of the concert, when more than 100 members of the Madison Symphony Chorus (below) take the stage with the orchestra and organ to perform Johannes BrahmsA German Requiem.

Featured vocal soloists in the Brahms German Requiem are soprano Devon Guthrie (below top) and bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below bottom), who is familiar from multiple appearances with the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

The concerts in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., are on this Friday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m.; this Saturday, May 6, at 8 p.m.; and this Sunday, May 7, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16-$87. For more information, go to: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/brahms

Charles Villiers Stanford’s Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra was completed on April 15, 1921. Stanford (below) is one of the leading figures in what is sometimes called the “Second English Musical Renaissance” — which was a movement in the late 19th century, led by British composers.

Stanford (below) believed in more conservative English contemporary music, rather than the music of Wagner, for example. He composed in all genres but had a great commitment to the organ.

His Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra was never performed or published during his lifetime. This is the piece’s debut performance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and the American premiere of the work.

Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem was completed between 1857 and 1868. The word “Requiem” is Latin for “rest” or “repose” and in the Catholic faith the Requiem is the funeral Mass or Mass of the Dead. (You can hear the opening movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

While usually filled with “terrifying visions of the Last Judgment and pleas for intercession on behalf of the souls of the dead and the living,” Brahms however puts death in a different light. He took sections of the Bible that are religious, but not necessarily Christian, and tells a story of salvation for all.

Although upon its completion, Brahms (below) called this piece, “Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der Heiligen Schrift” (which translates to; “A German Requiem, from Words of the Holy Scripture”), he was quoted saying that his piece should really be called “A ‘Human’ Requiem.” It is believed to be dedicated to Brahms’ mother, and his musical father and mentor, Robert Schumann.

One hour before each performance, Beverly Taylor (below), MSO assistant conductor and chorus director, as well as director of choral activities at the UW-Madison, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, visit the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below) at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/8.May17.html

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, 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 $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

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

Find more information at madisonsymphony.org

Major funding for the May concerts is provided by: Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, Inc., Larry and Jan Phelps, University Research Park, and BMO Wealth Management. Additional funding is provided by: WPS Health Solutions, Carla and Fernando Alvarado, and Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: The UW Concert Choir, Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra will perform world premieres, local premieres and new music in three concerts this weekend

April 26, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following messages from UW composer Laura Schwendinger and from Beverly Taylor, the director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music who is also the assistant conductor and chorus director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

Writes conductor Beverly Taylor: This is a busy and musically fascinating weekend for me coming up.

On Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, there is a special concert by the Concert Choir (below) on the subject of Art Born of Tragedy, with the acclaimed guest cellist Matt Haimovitz.

Tickets are $15, $5 for students. For more information about tickets as well as the performers and the program, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-choir-4-matt-haimovitz/

Then in Mills Hall at 8 p.m. on Saturday night and at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday night, there are two performances of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed by the 20th-century composer Paul Hindemith by the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra (below). It is a work that to my knowledge has never been performed in Madison.

Tickets are $15, $8 for students. For more information about obtaining tickets and about the concert, visit:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union-uw-symphony-orchestra/

Here is more information about the events:

CONCERT CHOIR

The Concert Choir performance explores in music of several centuries the theme of “Art Born of Tragedy” — how outside events can be the spark that causes the creation of works of substance that range from the gentle and comforting to rage and despair.

We will sing music from the Renaissance: part of the Thomas Tallis’ “Lamentations of Jeremiah (on the ancient destruction of Jerusalem),” and a John Wilbye madrigal “Draw on Sweet Night for a Broken Heart.”

We will present three works from modern composers: one is a world premiere by the prize-winning composer Laura Schwendinger (below top), my colleague at the UW-Madison, for viola — played by Sally Chisholm (below bottom) of the UW Pro Arte Quartet — and wordless chorus. It is called “For Paris” in memory of those killed in the Paris terrorist bombings of 2015.

(Adds composer Laura Schwendinger: “The viola starts this short work by referencing only for a moment the merest idea of a ‘musette song,’ one that might be heard on an evening in a Paris cafe. The choir enters with a simple refrain that repeats again and again, each time with a little more material, as an unanswered question of sorts. Each time the viola reenters the texture, the music becomes more pressing in a poignant manner, until it arrives in its highest register, only to resolve with the choir as it quietly acquiesces in the knowledge that the answer may not be known.”)

We will present a short “O vos omnes” (O you who pass by) written by Pennsylvania composer Joseph Gregorio (below), composed in memory of a Chinese girl hit by a car and left to die.

The third piece is a reprise of “Après moi, le deluge” by Luna Pearl Woolf (below top), which we premiered and recorded 11 years ago. We are lucky to have back the wonderful internationally known cellist Matt Haimovitz (below bottom), who premiered this work with it. The text, written by poet Eleanor Wilner, mixes the Noah story with the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

The term “Après moi, le deluge” is a term attributed to Louis XV or his mistress Madame Pompadour, and means “after me the flood” — referring either to the chaos after his reign, or that what happens afterword bears no importance for him.

The work has four different moods like a symphony — with strong themes at the start and cries for help, followed by the slow movement despair, a scherzo-like depiction of havoc, and a final movement that is like a New Orleans funeral, upbeat and Dixieland.

Throughout the program we also present spirituals that depict loneliness or salvation from trouble.

UW CHORAL UNION

In certain ways, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed resembles the Concert Choir concert in that it contains a number of moods and styles as well, under a dark title. The subtitle of the work is “a Requiem for Those We Love.”

It was commissioned by the great choral and orchestral conductor Robert Shaw as a tribute to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his death and the train ride that carried him from Warm Springs, Georgia, to Washington, D.C.

The text that Paul Hindemith (below top) chose is by Walt Whitman (below bottom), who wrote his poem on the death of Abraham Lincoln, and the funeral train from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois.

Whitman’s grief is combined with pride and joy in the countryside that the train traverses, and his feelings find an outlet in the thrush that sings out its song. His sense of a sustaining universe is a contrast to his depiction of the despair and ravages of the Civil War.

Hindemith’s calling the work a “Requiem for Those We Love,” puts it, like the Brahms’ “German” Requiem, into a class of non-liturgical requiems — that is, the texts are not those that are part of the Catholic Mass for the Dead, but are other selected texts of joy or remembrance.

Hindemith’s style can loosely be described as tonal that veers away into dissonance and returns again to the home key. The Prelude and opening movement are dark; the solo songs of baritone (James Held, below top) and mezzo-soprano (Jennifer D’Agostino, below bottom) are marvelous; the fugue on the glories of America is glorious and other sections are soft and tender. (NOTE: You can hear the orchestral prelude of the work, with composer Paul Hindemith conducting the New York Philharmonic, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The work is hard for both chorus and orchestra, but well worth the effort. The piece is about 80 minutes long and will be performed without interruption. It’s a work I’ve always wanted to do, having heard it performed at Tanglewood many years ago. I’m delighted to have the chance now.


Classical music: Two weeks of choral music and world premieres start this week at the UW-Madison

April 17, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The last two weeks of April look to be a busy time, with several world premieres of new music taking place – one in chamber music this week, then next week one in choral music and one by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in orchestral and piano music.

It is also a busy time for choral music, especially with back-to-back performances next week by the Concert Choir and the community-campus UW Choral Union.

All UW-Madison concerts scheduled for this week are FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

Here — with an unfortunate lack of details about programs — is the UW-Madison lineup for this week:

TUESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall, the University Opera presents its spring program of “Opera Scenes” done by the UW-Madison Opera Workshop. Sorry, no word about specific operas, scenes or singers. Staging is minimal and accompaniment is done by a piano.

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Pro Arte Quartet (below top) will give the world premiere of “The Cross of Snow,” written by John Harbison (below middle) and commissioned by local businessman William Wartmann in memory of his late wife.

The new work, scored for string quartet and voice, features guest mezzo-soprano Jazmina Macneil (below bottom).

Also on the program are: String Quartet in E Major, Op. 54, No. 3 (1788), by Franz Joseph Haydn; and the String Quartet in A Minor Op. 16 (1874) by Antonin Dvorak.

For more information about the new work, including the text of the poem “The Cross of Snow” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-7/

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, Chorale and the Madrigal Singers (below) team up for a joint concert under director Bruce Gladstone. Sorry, no word about composers or works.

SATURDAY

At 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the All-University Strings – an amateur group of non-music majors — will perform its annual spring concert. Sorry, no word on the program.

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Women’s Chorus (below), Masters Singers and University Chorus will give a joint concert. Sorry, no word on the program.

SUNDAY

From 2 to 5 p.m. in Mills Hall, University Bands will perform under directors Darin Olson, Nathan Froebe and Justin Lingre will perform. Sorry, no word on specific programs.

This week, The Ear also counts 10 different student degree recitals on tap, from piano and violin to percussion and voice. Some listings mention programs, but others do not. For more information, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/


Classical music: Meet J’Nai Bridges who went from the dream of playing professional basketball to the reality of singing professional opera

January 13, 2017
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Baseball season is done.

Football season is almost over.

Basketball season is here.

So it seems an appropriate time for The Ear to share a great story about sports and classical music that he recently saw on the PBS NewsHour.

It is also a good story about good luck to run today, on Friday the 13th, a date that is traditionally synonymous with bad luck.

The story concerns J’Nai Bridges (below) who started out wanting to be a professional basketball player.

jnai-bridges

That dream fell apart dramatically and suddenly — though she doesn’t reveal if it was an injury or some other cause.

But then good luck unexpectedly stepped in.

During her senior year in high school, she signed up for choir as an elective and her teacher immediately recognized her gift.

She started late, but she had the right attitude to stay open to new discoveries and new possibilities.

Turns out she possesses a world-class mezzo-soprano voice. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Bridges singing an aria from “Carmen” by Georges Bizet .)

And now she has gone on to a career in opera and is a rising star singing major roles in major opera houses around the world.

The Ear thinks that Bridges’ words reflect wisdom that others should share in.

For one, her moving story also highlights the importance of a liberal arts education, where you can try out many different subjects you have no idea about and see what you like and how you do. That gives students a chance to explore their untapped interests and potential.

It also runs contrary to some of the current politicians who want to reform secondary and higher education into a kind of trade school or vocational training ground for work and careers.

It also is a fine summary of the role that music plays both for the performer and for the audience.

Here is a link to the moving and informative story:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/sports-gave-way-singing-rising-star/


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs a varied holiday concert of all-classical music this Saturday night

December 15, 2016
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following notice to post:

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will perform “O Wondrous Mystery” this coming Saturday night, Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in the Bethel Lutheran Church, 312 Wisconsin Ave., in Madison.

Tickets are $15 (for students, $10) in advance; $20 ($12) at the door. Advance tickets are available from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (East, West and North locations).

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Magnificats 1

Explore the magic and mystery of the holiday season with the Wisconsin Chamber Choir, whose program highlights the beloved Latin chant ”O magnum mysterium” in musical settings by Tomas Luís de Victoria and Francis Poulenc. (You can hear Poulenc’s setting, conducted by the legendary Robert Shaw, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Rounding out the performance are the remainder of Poulenc’s Four Christmas Motets along with seasonal works spanning five centuries by William Byrd, Heinrich Schütz, Johannes Brahms, Herbert Howells and Bob Chilcott, plus the world premiere of “Methinks I See a Heavenly Host” by Peter Bloesch (below).

Peter Bloesch

The 50-voice choir will be joined by organist Mark Brampton Smith (below top) of Grace Episcopal Church, and Madison Symphony Orchestra trombonist and program annotator J. Michael Allsen (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), who will accompany the Schütz selections on the sackbut, the Renaissance ancestor of the trombone.

Mark Brampton Smith

J. Michael Allsen Katrin Talbot

Founded in 1998, the Madison-based Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart, and Brahms; a cappella masterworks from six centuries; and world premieres.

Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who heads the choral program at the UW-Whitewater, is the Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s artistic director.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra will hold its FREE Community Christmas Hymn and Carol Sing-Along this coming Tuesday night

November 25, 2016
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) invites the entire community to celebrate the holiday season and sing together with the Overture Concert Organ at a free Christmas Carol Sing-Along in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, Tuesday, Nov. 29, at 7 p.m.

Overture Organ close up CRE ZaneWilliams

All ages are welcome to the FREE event and no registration or tickets are required.

The Christmas Carol Sing’Along will feature holiday favorites including George Frideric Handel‘s Joy to the World, Angels We Have Heard on High, Away in a Manger and The First Noel, along with some lesser known works such as the arrangement of In the Bleak Midwinter by Gustav Holst (below). NOTE: You can hear Holst’s arrangement in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Gustav Holst

MSO Principal Organist and Curator Samuel Hutchison (below) will lead the carol singing, which will last approximately one hour.

Sam Hutchison close up

For more holiday singing, come 45 minutes early to A Madison Symphony Christmas concerts to hear the Madison Symphony Chorus sing Christmas carols in the festively lit lobby of the Overture Center.

Concerts will be presented in Overture Hall on Friday, Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 3 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 4 at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets for those concerts can be purchased at madisonsymphony.org/christmas, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) commissioned the Overture Concert Organ, which is the stunning backdrop of all MSO concerts.

Overture Concert Organ overview

For more Overture Concert Organ information, visit madisonsymphony.org/organ


Classical music: Two FREE concerts of wind and choral music take place Sunday at the UW-Madison. Plus Wisconsin Public Radio will air a live broadcast by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

November 19, 2016
Leave a Comment

ALERT: Tomorrow, on Sunday afternoon from 2:30 to 4 p.m., Wisconsin Public Radio will broadcast a live performance by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under its outgoing music director Edo de Waart.

The program features works by Igor Stravinsky, the Symphony No. 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven and the Concerto for Two Pianos by Francis Poulenc, with the Madison-born twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton as soloists.

By Jacob Stockinger

With less than a month left in the first semester’s concert schedule, the performances are really starting to pile up.

Tomorrow, on Sunday, Nov. 20, five groups will perform two FREE concerts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music:

  • Tomorrow at 2 p.m. in Mills Hall is a joint concert by the Women’s Chorus (below), the Master Singers and the University Chorus.

The program includes music by Giuseppe Verdi, Arvo Part, Gustav Holst, Leonard Bernstein, George Frideric Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

For more information and the complete program, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/joint-concert-womens-chorus-masters-singers-university-chorus/

uw women's choir

  • Tomorrow at 5 p.m. in Mills Hall there is a joint concert by the UW Wind Ensemble (below) and the Winds of Wisconsin.

The program includes “Grand Pianola Music” (982) by the contemporary American composer John Adams. (You can hear the first part of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information and the full program, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-wind-ensemble-wow-joint-concert/

UW Wind Ensemble


Classical music: Madison Opera’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” excelled in singing, orchestral playing, drama and other aspects that redeemed a largely unmemorable work. Plus, what is good music for Veterans Day?

November 11, 2016
Leave a Comment

ALERT: Today is Veterans Day. What piece of classical music should be played to mark the event? The Ear suggests the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Leave your choice in the COMMENT section.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post features a guest review of Madison Opera’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Larry Wells. Wells has been enjoying opera since he was a youngster. He subscribed to the San Francisco Opera for nearly 20 years, where he last saw “Romeo and Juliet,” sung by Alfredo Kraus and Ruth Ann Swenson

More recently he lived in Tokyo and attended many memorable performances there over nearly 20 years. These included Richard Strauss rarities such as “Die Ägyptische Helena” and “Die Liebe der Danae” as well as the world’s strangest Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner and a space-age production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” featuring Alessandra Marc singing “In questa reggia” while encased in an inverted cone.

By Larry Wells

Last Sunday’s matinee performance of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Madison Opera at the Overture Center was a feast for the eyes. The costumes, sets, lighting and staging were consistently arresting. (Performance photos are by James Gill.)

But we go to the opera for music and drama.

The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is well known. Gounod’s opera substitutes the tragedy with melodrama, and therein lies one of the work’s flaws. Despite sword fights, posturings and threats as well as one of opera’s lengthiest death scenes, one leaves the theater thinking that a vast amount of theatrical resources have been squandered on something insubstantial.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sword-fight

However, despite its dramatic flaws, the opera’s music has somehow endured. And Sunday’s performance milked the most out of the music that could have been expected.

The star of the show was the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the expert direction of Maestro John DeMain (below). He knows how to pace a performance, how to build an exciting climax and how to highlight a solo instrument.

He is an incredibly intelligent conductor, and we are fortunate to have him in Madison. I want to make special mention of the beautiful harp playing, which, according to the program, was accomplished by Jenny DeRoche.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The second star on the stage was the Madison Opera Chorus (below). The chorus plays a significant part in many of the opera’s scenes, and the singing was stirring when it needed to be and tender when it was called for.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-chrous-and-set

As for the soloists, highest praise must go to UW-Madison alumna soprano Emily Birsan (below right) for her portrayal of Juliet. Her solo arias, particularly her big number in the first act as well as her subsequent lament, were stunning.

Her Romeo, tenor John Irvin (below left), sounded a little forced during his forte moments, but he sang magnificently in his quiet farewell to Juliet after their balcony scene. (You can hear the famous balcony scene, sung by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-john-irvin-and-emily-birsan

Their voices blended beautifully in the opera’s multiple duets. And the wedding quartet, where they were joined by Allisanne Apple’s nurse (below, rear right) and Liam Moran’s Friar Lawrence (below, middle center), was a highlight of the performance.

madison-opera-romoeo-and-juliet-friar-and-nurse

The opera abounds with minor characters, all of which were ably portrayed. Special mention should be made of Stephanie Lauricella (below, far right) for her fantastic moments as Romeo’s page; Madison’s Allisanne Apple for her amusing portrayal of Juliet’s nurse Gertrude; Sidney Outlaw (below, second from left) as a robust Mercutio; and Philip Skinner as a powerful Lord Capulet.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sidnay-outlaw-left-and-page-right

I have wondered why this opera is still performed. Its music is lovely but unmemorable, and its dramatic impact is tenuous.

I left the performance thinking that it had been a good afternoon at the theater – certainly more interesting than the Packers’ game – but wishing that one of a couple dozen more meaty operas had been performed in its place.

Since we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, how much more interesting would have been Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”? 


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with superb playing, hypnotizing space photos by NASA and close to three full houses

September 28, 2016
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Several years ago, artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) decided to use the season-opening concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra to spotlight the symphony and its first-chair players as soloists.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

No big-name imported guest soloists were to be booked.

In addition, this year Maestro DeMain chose to open the season with a multimedia show that combined Jumbotron-like space images from NASA (below is Jupiter) with Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” 

nasa-jupiter2

Such multimedia events increasingly seem to work as a way to build audiences and boost attendance by new people and young people. After all, a music director has to sell tickets and fill seats as well as wave a baton.

And it seems that, on both counts, DeMain’s strategy proved  spectacularly successful.

All sections of the orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) — strings, brass, winds, percussion — played with energy, precision and subtlety. The MSO proved a very tight ensemble. Each year, you can hear how the MSO improves and grows increasingly impressive after 23 years of DeMain’s direction.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The public seemed to agree. It came very close to filling the 2,200-seat Overture Hall for all three performances with more than 6,100 audience members, according to Peter Rodgers, the new marketing director for the MSO. Especially noteworthy, he said, was the number of children, students and young people who attended.

In fact, so many students showed up for student rush tickets on Friday night that the performance was delayed by around 10 minutes – because of long lines at the box office, NOT because of the new security measures at the Overture Center, which Rodgers said worked smoothly and quickly.

But not everything was ideal, at least not for The Ear.

On the first half, the playing largely outweighed the music.

True,  the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 by a very young George Enescu (below) received a sizzling and infectious performance. With its catchy folk tunes, dance rhythms and Gypsy harmonies, the fun work proved an irresistible opener – much like a starting with an encore, which is rather like eating a rich and tasty dessert before tackling the more nutritious but less snazzy main course.

The music itself is captivating and frequently played – although this was its surprising premiere performance by the MSO. Little wonder the Enescu got a rousing standing ovation. Still, it is hardly great music.

george enescu

Then came the Chaconne for violin and orchestra by the American composer John Corigliano (below), who based the work on his Oscar-winning film score for “The Red Violin.”

John Corigliano

Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) impressed The Ear and most others with her mastery of what appeared to be a very difficult score. The ovation was for her, not for the music.

Naha Greenholtz playing CR Greg Anderson

That music also has some fine moments. But overall it seems a dull and tedious work, an exercise in virtuosity with some of the same flaws you find in certain overblown piano etudes by Franz Liszt. Once again the playing trumped the music.

Then came The Big Event: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” coupled with clear, high-definition photos of the planets taken by NASA that were projected on a huge screen above the orchestra. Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s and Venus’ clouds and Mars’ landscape (below) have never looked so impressive.

nasa-mars2

The orchestra again struck one with its exotic and “spacey” sound effects and with what must have been the difficulty of timing simultaneously the music and the images.

Yet ultimately Holst’s work became a sound track — music accompanying images rather than images accompanying the music. The Ear heard several listeners compare the admittedly impressive result to the movies “Fantasia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That says something.

At some moments the sound and images really matched and reinforced each other, especially in the dramatic opening section, “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Holst’s score also succeeds nicely with “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” and to a lesser degree with “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.”

But overall “The Planets” reminds The Ear of colorful and dramatic  programmatic showpieces such as Ottorino Respighi‘s “The Pines of Rome” and “The Fountains of Rome.” (Earth, curiously, is not included in “The Planets.” Makes you wonder: What would Earth bring?) Enjoyable music, to be sure, but not profound fare.

The Ear’s extensive library of CDs has none of the three works on the program. And it will probably remain that way.

While Holst’s work does have great moments, it grows long, repetitive and finally uninteresting as it ends not with a bang but with an underwhelming whimper – which was beautifully enhanced by the atmospheric singing of the MSO Women’s Chorus. There are just too many planets!

Listen to the YouTube video at the bottom, played by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you will see: Mars rules!

nasa-mars

Add it all up and despite three standing ovations, in the end The Ear found the concert less than fully satisfying. The music, however likable and appealing, was not, for the most part,  great music. Moreover, it was mostly trumped first by the performances and then by the visuals.

So on a personal note, here is The Ear’s request to the MSO, which scored an undeniably brilliant success with this program: Keep the same all-orchestra and first-chair format for season-openers and use multimedia shows whenever appropriate. But please also include at least one really first-rate piece of music with more substance.

Is that asking for too much?

Is The Ear alone and unfair in his assessment? 

Other critics had their own takes and some strongly disagree with The Ear.

Here is a link to three other reviews:

By John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/beautiful-music-distracting-backdrop/

John-Barker

By Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/music/concert-review-mso-takes-audience-on-a-stunning-trip-to/article_6dd45c4d-c11b-5c77-ae54-35a3e731b1cb.html

And by Greg Hettmansberger (below), who writes for WISC-TV Channel 3 and his Classically Speaking blog for Madison Magazine, and on his own blog, What Greg Says:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/tag/john-corigliano/

greg hettmansberger mug

What did you think of the music, the performances and the visual show?

How well did they mix?

What did you like most and least?

The Ear wants to hear.


Next Page »

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,090 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 1,698,892 hits
%d bloggers like this: