The Well-Tempered Ear

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

January 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

But the wait was worth it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classical music: What concerts or performances in 2019 did you most like, and do you most remember and want to praise?

January 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The concert season’s winter intermission will soon draw to a close.

So this is a good time to recall favorite concerts and performances of last year.

But let’s be clear.

This is a not a request to name “The Best Concerts of 2019.”

Calling them the most memorable concerts doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best.

Perfection or “the best” sounds so objective, but can really be quite personal and subjective. So much can depend not only on the music and the performers, but also on your own mood and your taste or preferences.

So please share the concerts or performances that you most liked and enjoyed, the one that most still linger in your mind. And, if you can pin it down, tell us why you liked them so much and why they linger for you.

There are so many excellent groups and concerts, so much fine classical music, in the Madison area that there should be lots of candidates.

Here are several performances or complete concerts that The Ear remembers with special fondness.

The MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) held a season-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as its music director and conductor. The big event came at the end: Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” – that brought together the MSO and the MSO Chorus as well as the Madison Youth Choirs and the UW-Madison Choral Union.

It proved an impressive, overwhelming and moving display of coordination and musicianship, a testament to how far DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) has brought the orchestra.

(Also memorable on the MSO season were pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin in Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in the Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony during the MSO tribute to Bernstein, with whom DeMain worked closely.)

The WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under its veteran music director Andrew Sewell, continues to test its own limits and surpass them. Particularly impressive was the last concert of the winter season with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 featuring two outstanding soloists: soprano Mary Mackenzie and bass Timothy Jones.

The playing of the difficult score was precise but moving, and the singing blended beautifully. It made one understand why during this season – when the orchestra marks 60 years and maestro Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz) marks his 20th season — the WCO has deservingly graduated to two performances of each Masterwork concert (one here on Friday nights followed by one in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield on Saturday night).

Also memorable was an impressive concert by the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA. The Ear likes amateur musicians, and for their 10th anniversary concert they really delivered the goods in Dvorak’s famous Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and, with fabulous guest soloist J.J. Koh (below — principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — in Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto.

But it wasn’t only large-scale works that The Ear remembers.

Three chamber music concerts continue to stand out.

During the summer, the WILLY STREET CHAMBER PLAYERS and guest UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (both below) delivered a performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major that would be hard for any group to match, let alone surpass, for its tightness and energy, its lyricism and drama.

The same goes for the veteran PRO ARTE QUARTET at the UW-Madison, which this fall started its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in the new Hamel Music Center to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020 when we mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The quartet played early, middle and late quartets with complete mastery and subtlety. Treat yourself. Don’t miss the remaining five concerts, which resume in February and take place over the next year at the Hamel center and also at the Chazen Museum of Art, from where they will also be live-streamed.

Finally, The Ear will always remember the wholly unexpected and thoroughly captivating virtuoso accordion playing he heard last summer by Milwaukeean Stas Venglevski (below) at a concert by the BACH DANCING AND DYNAMITE SOCIETY. Venglevski performed music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla in a new and enthralling way.

Unfortunately, for various reasons The Ear missed many other concerts – by the Madison Opera and the University Opera among others – that promised to be memorable performances.

But perhaps you can fill him in as we start 2020 concerts next weekend.

What concerts in 2019 did you like most and do you most remember and praise? Why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir sings a holiday program of Bach, Vivaldi and other composers this coming Saturday night

December 10, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below top) will perform a holiday program this coming Saturday night, Dec. 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Atrium Auditorium (below bottom, in a photo by Zane Williams), 900 University Bay Drive.

The program features Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria” paired with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Advent cantata, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (Now Come, Savior of the Nations, BWV 61), performed with the professional orchestra Sinfonia Sacra.

(You can hear the familiar and energetic opening of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” — performed by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Complementing the Vivaldi and Bach works are additional selections, including a unique collection of O Antiphons — Latin prayers for the season of Advent.

For more information about the musical form, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Antiphons

Strikingly modern compositions by John Tavener (below top, in a photo by Steve Forrest), Vytautas Miskinis and Pavel Lukaszewski alternate with French Baroque settings by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (below bottom).

Seasonal carols round out the program in arrangements by three of the WCC’s favorite composers: Peter Blotch; the late American composer from Minneapolis Stephen Paulus (below); and Giles Swayne.

Advance tickets are available for online for $20 ($10 for students) from http://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org/tickets or Brown Paper Tickets; or in person at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop, or from a member of the choir.

The ticket price at the door is $25.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Handel, Mozart and Brahms as well as a cappella works from various centuries and world premieres.

WCC artistic director Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who heads the choral program at the UW-Whitewater, has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

Since 2002, the WCC has presented cantatas and oratorios with full orchestra, annually or biennially, including last season’s Christmas Oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The players assembled for these performances, known collectively as Sinfonia Sacra, are members of the best regional orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Bach Musicians, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and Sonata à Quattro.

For more information about the Wisconsin Chamber Choir, including how to join it as well as its future concerts, reviews, biographies, history and recordings, go to: https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org

 


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Classical music: This weekend brings annual holiday concerts at the UW-Madison and Edgewood College

December 3, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

As the semester comes to a close and the holidays approach, vocal and choral music is always the order of the day – or week – at both the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music and Edgewood College.

UW-MADISON WINTER CONCERTS

On this coming Sunday afternoon, Dec. 8, at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., the remaining six choirs from the UW-Madison choral program will present their annual winter concerts at Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue, in Madison.

The one-hour concert features individual pieces from Chorale and the Madrigal Singers (Bruce Gladstone conductor); the University Chorus (Andrew Voth, conductor); Women’s Chorus (below, Michael Johnson, conductor); Masters Singers (Andrew Voth and Michael Johnson co-conductors); and the Concert Choir (Beverly Taylor conductor).

There are two pieces in which all choirs sing.

Plus, the audience is invited to join in some seasonal carols.

The concerts are FREE and no tickets are required.

A free-will offering is accepted at the end of the program with proceeds after expenses donated to “The Road Home,” an organization that provides housing and food to homeless families.

Says Beverly Taylor, the director of choral activities at the UW-Madison who will retire this spring: “The program is designed as a concert and not a service. Seats go fast!”

For more information, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/choral-concerts-at-luther-memorial-church/2019-12-08/

EDGEWOOD COLLEGE CHRISTMAS CONCERT

This Saturday night, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m., Edgewood College will present its 92nd annual Christmas Concert.

The concert will take place in the college’s new McKinley Performing Arts Center (below and at bottom), 2219 Monroe Street., in  Madison.

This yearly tradition features the Edgewood College choirs and Concert Band, along with audience sing-alongs, the Guitar Ensemble, and a post-concert reception featuring the Jazz Ensemble.

Tickets are $10, and seating is limited for this very popular annual event. Please purchase tickets online in advance.

All proceeds from this performance benefit students at Edgewood College through the Edward Walters Music Scholarship Fund. 

Tickets are available online until noon on Thursday, Dec. 5, or until the performance sells out.


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Classical music: Here are the classical music nominees for the 2020 Grammy Awards. They make a useful holiday gift guide and highlight the trend toward more diversity

November 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Black Friday followed by Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday — all with special deals and sales.

With that in mind, here is a list of the recently announced nominees in classical music for the 2020 Grammy Awards.

Although it is a self-serving list for a competition sponsored by The Industry, it can also be good way to find holiday gifts to give to others or to receive for yourself.

The list can be useful for spotting trends and finding new releases you may not have heard of.

For example, this year seems especially good for new music or recent works and contemporary composers. You won’t find any Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky or Mahler although you will find Berlioz, Schumann, Wagner, Bruckner, Berg, Rachmaninoff and Copland.

Another favorite seems to be the rediscovery of older composers such as Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996, below) whose centennial has become an occasion for bringing his neglected works to the forefront.

You can also see that like the Oscars, the Grammys seem to be paying more attention to women composers and conductors, artists of color and crossovers or mixed and hybrid genres.

For complete lists of all 84 categories, go to this site and click on the categories that interest you: https://www.grammy.com/grammys/news/2020-grammy-awards-complete-nominees-list

The 62nd annual Grammy Awards will be presented on Sunday, Jan. 26, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and will be broadcast live on CBS television.

  1. Best Engineered Album, Classical
    An Engineer’s Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.)
  • AEQUA – ANNA THORVALDSDÓTTIR
    Daniel Shores, engineer; Daniel Shores, mastering engineer (International Contemporary Ensemble)
  • BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 9
    Mark Donahue, engineer; Mark Donahue, mastering engineer (Manfred Honeck and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
  • RACHMANINOFF – HERMITAGE PIANO TRIO
    Keith O. Johnson & Sean Royce Martin, engineers; Keith O. Johnson, mastering engineer (Hermitage Piano Trio)
  • RILEY: SUN RINGS
    Leslie Ann Jones, engineer; Robert C. Ludwig, mastering engineer (Kronos Quartet)
  • WOLFE: FIRE IN MY MOUTH
    Bob Hanlon & Lawrence Rock, engineers; Ian Good & Lawrence Rock, mastering engineers (Jaap Van Zweden, Francisco J. Núñez, Donald Nally, The Crossing, Young People’s Chorus Of NY City & New York Philharmonic)

  1. Producer Of The Year, Classical
    A Producer’s Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.)
  • BLANTON ALSPAUGH
  • Artifacts – The Music Of Michael McGlynn (Charles Bruffy & Kansas City Chorale)
    • Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Fantaisie Sur La Tempête De Shakespeare (Andrew Davis & Toronto Symphony Orchestra)
    • Copland: Billy The Kid; Grohg (Leonard Slatkin & Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
    • Duruflé: Complete Choral Works (Robert Simpson & Houston Chamber Choir)
    • Glass: Symphony No. 5 (Julian Wachner, The Choir Of Trinity Wall Street, Trinity Youth Chorus, Downtown Voices & Novus NY)
    • Sander: The Divine Liturgy Of St. John Chrysostom (Peter Jermihov & PaTRAM Institute Singers)
    • Smith, K.: Canticle (Craig Hella Johnson & Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble)
    • Visions Take Flight (Mei-Ann Chen & ROCO)
  • JAMES GINSBURG (below)
  • Project W – Works By Diverse Women Composers (Mei-Ann Chen and Chicago Sinfonietta)
    • Silenced Voices (Black Oak Ensemble)
    • 20th Century Harpsichord Concertos (Jory Vinikour, Scott Speck and Chicago Philharmonic)
    • Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas (Alex Klein and Phillip Bush)
    • Winged Creatures & Other Works For Flute, Clarinet, And Orchestra (Anthony McGill, Demarre McGill, Allen Tinkham and Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra)
  • MARINA A. LEDIN, VICTOR LEDIN
  • Bates: Children Of Adam; Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem (Steven Smith, Erin R. Freeman, Richmond Symphony & Chorus)
    • The Orchestral Organ (Jan Kraybill)
    • The Poetry Of Places (Nadia Shpachenko)
    • Rachmaninoff – Hermitage Piano Trio (Hermitage Piano Trio)
  • MORTEN LINDBERG
  • Himmelborgen (Elisabeth Holte, Kare Nordstoga & Uranienborg Vokalensemble)
    • Kleiberg: Do You Believe In Heather? (Various Artists)
    • Ljos (Fauna Vokalkvintett)
    • LUX (Anita Brevik, Trondheimsolistene & Nidarosdomens Jentekor)
    • Trachea (Tone Bianca Sparre Dahl & Schola Cantorum)
    • Veneliti (Hakon Daniel Nystedt & Oslo Kammerkor)
  • DIRK SOBOTKA
  • Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 (Manfred Honeck & Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

 75. Best Orchestral Performance Award to the Conductor and to the Orchestra.

  • BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 9
    Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
  • COPLAND: BILLY THE KID; GROHG
    Leonard Slatkin, conductor (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
  • NORMAN: SUSTAIN
    Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Los Angeles Philharmonic)
  • TRANSATLANTIC
    Louis Langrée, conductor (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)
  • WEINBERG: SYMPHONIES NOS. 2 and 21
    Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor (City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Kremerata Baltica)

  1. Best Opera Recording
    Award to the Conductor, Album Producer(s) and Principal Soloists.
  • BENJAMIN: LESSONS IN LOVE & VIOLENCE
    George Benjamin, conductor; Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Peter Hoare & Gyula Orendt; James Whitbourn, producer (Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House)
  • BERG: WOZZECK
    Marc Albrecht, conductor; Christopher Maltman & Eva-Maria Westbroek; François Roussillon, producer (Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Chorus Of Dutch National Opera)
  • CHARPENTIER: LES ARTS FLORISSANTS; LES PLAISIRS DE VERSAILLES
    Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, conductors; Jesse Blumberg, Teresa Wakim & Virginia Warnken; Renate Wolter-Seevers, producer (Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble; Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble)
  • PICKER: FANTASTIC MR. FOX
    Gil Rose, conductor; John Brancy, Andrew Craig Brown, Gabriel Preisser, Krista River & Edwin Vega; Gil Rose, producer (Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Boston Children’s Chorus)
  • WAGNER: LOHENGRIN
    Christian Thielemann, conductor; Piotr Beczała, Anja Harteros, Tomasz Konieczny, Waltraud Meier & Georg Zeppenfeld; Eckhard Glauche, producer (Festspielorchester Bayreuth; Festspielchor Bayreuth)

  1. Best Choral Performance
    Award to the Conductor, and to the Choral Director and/or Chorus Master where applicable and to the Choral Organization/Ensemble.
  • BOYLE: VOYAGES
    Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)
  • DURUFLÉ: COMPLETE CHORAL WORKS
    Robert Simpson, conductor (Ken Cowan; Houston Chamber Choir)
  • THE HOPE OF LOVING
    Craig Hella Johnson, conductor (Conspirare)
  • SANDER: THE DIVINE LITURGY OF ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM
    Peter Jermihov, conductor (Evan Bravos, Vadim Gan, Kevin Keys, Glenn Miller & Daniel Shirley; PaTRAM Institute Singers)
  • SMITH, K.: THE ARC IN THE SKY
    Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)

  1. Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance
    For new recordings of works with chamber or small ensemble (twenty-four or fewer members, not including the conductor). One Award to the ensemble and one Award to the conductor, if applicable.
  • CERRONE: THE PIECES THAT FALL TO EARTH
    Christopher Rountree and Wild Up
  • FREEDOM & FAITH
    PUBLIQuartet
  • PERPETULUM
    Third Coast Percussion
  • RACHMANINOFF – HERMITAGE PIANO TRIO
    Hermitage Piano Trio
  • SHAW: ORANGE
    Attacca Quartet

79. Best Classical Instrumental Solo Award to the Instrumental Soloist(s) and to the Conductor when applicable.

  • THE BERLIN RECITAL
    Yuja Wang
  • HIGDON: HARP CONCERTO
    Yolanda Kondonassis; Ward Stare, conductor (The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)
  • MARSALIS: VIOLIN CONCERTO; FIDDLE DANCE SUITE
    Nicola Benedetti; Cristian Măcelaru, conductor (Philadelphia Orchestra)
  • THE ORCHESTRAL ORGAN
    Jan Kraybill
  • TORKE: SKY, CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN
    Tessa Lark; David Alan Miller, conductor (Albany Symphony)

 80. Best Classical Solo Vocal Album  Award to: Vocalist(s), Collaborative Artist(s) (Ex: pianists, conductors, chamber groups) Producer(s), Recording Engineers/Mixers with 51% or more playing time of new material.

  • THE EDGE OF SILENCE – WORKS FOR VOICE BY GYÖRGY KURTÁG
    Susan Narucki (Donald Berman, Curtis Macomber, Kathryn Schulmeister & Nicholas Tolle)
  • HIMMELSMUSIK
    Philippe Jaroussky & Céline Scheen; Christina Pluhar, conductor; L’Arpeggiata, ensemble (Jesús Rodil & Dingle Yandell)
  • SCHUMANN: LIEDERKREIS OP. 24, KERNER-LIEDER OP. 35
    Matthias Goerne; Leif Ove Andsnes, accompanist
  • SONGPLAY
    Joyce DiDonato; Chuck Israels, Jimmy Madison, Charlie Porter and Craig Terry, accompanists (Steve Barnett and Lautaro Greco)
  • A TE, O CARA
    Stephen Costello; Constantine Orbelian, conductor (Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra)

  

  1. Best Classical Compendium
    Award to the Artist(s) and to the Album Producer(s) and Engineer(s) of over 51% playing time of the album, if other than the artist.
  • AMERICAN ORIGINALS 1918
    John Morris Russell, conductor; Elaine Martone, producer
  • LESHNOFF: SYMPHONY NO. 4 ‘HEICHALOS’; GUITAR CONCERTO; STARBURST
    Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer
  • MELTZER: SONGS AND STRUCTURES
    Paul Appleby & Natalia Katyukova; Silas Brown & Harold Meltzer, producers
  • THE POETRY OF PLACES
    Nadia Shpachenko; Marina A. Ledin & Victor Ledin, producers
  • SAARIAHO: TRUE FIRE; TRANS; CIEL D’HIVER
    Hannu Lintu, conductor; Laura Heikinheimo, producer

  

  1. Best Contemporary Classical Composition
    A Composer’s Award. (For a contemporary classical composition composed within the last 25 years, and released for the first time during the Eligibility Year.) Award to the librettist, if applicable.
  • BERMEL: MIGRATION SERIES FOR JAZZ ENSEMBLE & ORCHESTRA
    Derek Bermel, composer (Derek Bermel, Ted Nash, David Alan Miller, Juilliard Jazz Orchestra & Albany Symphony Orchestra)
  • HIGDON: HARP CONCERTO
    Jennifer Higdon, composer (Yolanda Kondonassis, Ward Stare & The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)
  • MARSALIS: VIOLIN CONCERTO IN D MAJOR
    Wynton Marsalis, composer (Nicola Benedetti, Cristian Măcelaru & Philadelphia Orchestra)
  • NORMAN: SUSTAIN
    Andrew Norman, composer (Gustavo Dudamel & Los Angeles Philharmonic)
  • SHAW: ORANGE
    Caroline Shaw, composer (Attacca Quartet)
  • WOLFE: FIRE IN MY MOUTH
    Julia Wolfe, composer (Jaap Van Zweden, Francisco J. Núñez, Donald Nally, The Crossing, Young People’s Chorus Of NY City & New York Philharmonic)

 


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Classical music: Happy Thanksgiving! What composer, music or performer are you grateful for? Plus, the Pro Arte Quartet repeats the FREE but fantastic opening concert of its complete Beethoven cycle this Sunday afternoon

November 28, 2019
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ALERT: One of the Thanksgiving traditions for music fans is that from 10 a.m. to noon today, Wisconsin Public Radio will again broadcast highlights from this year’s honors concerts by choirs, bands and orchestras from the Wisconsin School Music Association. Music education is something to give thanks for. You can hear middle school and high school student performers from around the state as well as WPR’s usual Thanksgiving offerings of American composers and music, and then special Thanksgiving programs about gratitude.

By Jacob Stockinger

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today – Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019 – is Thanksgiving Day.

It was Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) who once remarked, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”

How true, how true.

There is such a wealth of composers, works and performers — going back many centuries — that we can be grateful for. In the Comment section, The Ear wants to hear from you about what one you would name — with a YouTube link, if possible.

But this year he has his own choice: the “Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving” – by Beethoven (below), who used it as a movement in his late String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132.

You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom, where the playing of the four string instruments also gets an interesting and fascinating graphic depiction of its structure.

The composer wrote this sublime and other-worldy music when he recovered from what he thought was a life-threating illness.

But with the Beethoven Year of 2020 fast approaching – along with celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – The Ear has another reason for his choice.

If you missed last Friday’s superb FREE opening concert of the complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, in the new Collins Recital Hall of the Hamel Music Center), you have a chance to catch a second performance this coming Sunday afternoon, Dec. 1. (Members, below left are David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violins; Sally Chisholm, viola; and Parry Karp, cello.)

From 12:30 to 2 p.m. the Pro Arte will performance the same program – and ultimately the complete cycle of six concerts — for Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen. You can attend it in person for FREE in Brittingham Gallery 3 (below) of the museum or you can stream it live.

Here are links to the program and to the streaming portal and the program: https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen11/

https://c.streamhoster.com/embed/media/O7sBNG/OS1C0ihJsYK/iqf1vBMs3qg_5

And here is a link to the complete schedule of the Beethoven string quartet cycle, done over the next 14 months, by the Pro Arte Quartet, which includes background on the Pro Arte. You’ll notice, by the way, that the Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving will be performed on the program for next Oct. 2:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/11/19/classical-music-this-friday-night-nov-22-the-uw-madisons-pro-arte-quartet-starts-its-beethoven-cycle-of-the-complete-16-string-quartets-here-are-the-dates-times-venues-and-programs-for/

 


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Classical music: University Opera succeeded brilliantly by setting Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the 1960s at Andy Warhol’s The Factory

November 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells — the Opera Guy for this blog – took in two performances last weekend of the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which played to three sold-out houses at Music Hall. He filed this review. Performance photos are by Benjamin Hopkins and Michael Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was set in Andy Warhol’s Factory of the 1960s with countertenor Thomas Alaan (below) as a Warhol-like Oberon presiding over the antics.

The opera by Britten (below) follows Shakespeare’s play fairly closely. The magical transformations and herbs of the original were translated to a hallucinogen-filled milieu of go-go dancing fairies, master-slave relationships and same-sex liaisons.

And for me it worked. That is to say, this production contained the same strangeness and wonder as the traditional productions I have seen. The play itself is very strange and wonderful.

Alaan is a fine singer and played a manipulative and somewhat slimy Warhol/Oberon whose flat affect seemed to be reflected in the relative lack of expressivity in the voice. Pitted against Oberon were Amanda Lauricella and Kelsey Wang alternating as Tytania.

Although the program stated that the portrayal of Tytania was loosely based on Edie Sedgwick in this production, without the platinum hair I missed the references. Both portrayals were much more assertive than Edie ever was, and both singers’ ardent coloratura voices tended to overshadow Oberon’s, which may have been intentional. Wang (below, far right) was an intense actress who put sparks into her portrayal, while Lauricella really has a superb voice.

(Below, from left, are Michael Kelley as Puck; Thomas Alaan as Oberon; Tanner Zocher as a young man; and Kelsey Wang as Tytania.)

The four lovers (below left) seemed to be employees at The Factory. Tenor Benjamin Liupaogo portrayed Lysander. The vocal part has an uncomfortable upper range, but Liupaogo’s singing in the second act particularly was up to the challenge.

His rival Demetrius was portrayed by baritone Kevin Green. Their contending affections for Hermia and Demetrius’ initial scorn for Helena were oddly lacking in ardor.

Hermia was double cast with Julia Urbank, a promising soprano, and Chloe Agostino, who was also a very good singer. Poor Helena, first ignored and then pursued by both men, was also double cast with a terrific Rachel Love and an equally gifted Jing Liu.

(The four lovers, below from left, were: Benjamin Liupaogo as Lysander; Chloe Agostino as Hermia; Jing Liu as Helena;, Kevin Green as Demetrius; and Paul Rowe as Theseus with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyte.)

As I have noted before, the female singers in the opera program often seem to be very solid performers. (You can hear the lovers’ quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And then there were the “Rustics” (below), the workers who have come together to put on the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the upcoming wedding of the local duke, or in this case a rich art patron.

(The six rustics, below from left, were: James Harrington as Bottom; Jacob Elfner as Quince; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; Jack Innes as Starveling; Thore Dosdall as Flute; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; with Kevin Green as Demetrius, seated.)

The six men were each talented comic actors and provided many of the performance’s laughs. Foremost was James Harrington’s Bottom. Not only a very funny actor, he produced in my opinion the finest singing among the many talented students.

Mention must be made of the very amusing Flute, hysterically portrayed by Thore Dosdall, and the promising bass Benjamin Galvin as the slow learner Snug.

These men not only sang well together and separately, but also provided many guffaws whenever they appeared. (Below are: Jacob Elfner as Quince; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; James Harrington as Bottom; Jack Innes – back row up on box – as Starveling; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; and Thore Dosdall as Flute.)

Additionally we had the fairies — all female voices in this production — who sounded wonderful together and got to demonstrate their incongruous ‘60s dance moves to Britten’s score.

Professor Paul Rowe (below left, with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyta) made an appearance as Theseus, the duke. His singing was that of a mature artist, a quality to which the students are clearly aspiring.

As the opera drew to a close with a beautifully harmonious chorus, one felt the transformation from dissonance to harmony in the opera and conflict to resolution embodied in the original play.

Many mentions of woods and forest are made in the libretto.  Director David Ronis had the walls of the factory cleverly hung with changing arrays of Warhol-like multiple images of flowers and animals. With the amount of weed being smoked and who knows what being ingested onstage, it was easy to believe that the characters might think they were in a forest despite being in a Manhattan warehouse (below).

(The cast, below from left, included Amanda Lauricella and Thomas Alaan in the foreground as Tytania and Oberon. Others were: Julia Urbank on the floor; Benjamin Liupaogo, on the floor; Chloe Flesch; Maria Steigerwald; Amanda Lauricella; Maria Marsland; Angela Fraioli; Thomas Aláan; and James Harrington lying on the couch.)

Presiding over all of this were members of the UW Symphony Orchestra led by new conductor Oriol Sans (below). I have heard maestro Sans conduct the students several times this fall, and I feel he is an outstanding addition to the music school. His control over the forces was amazing, and the subtlety he drew from the players was remarkable.

Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) has tried original twists in several of his previous productions, but I think this has been the most outlandish. And I have to say that I really loved it. So carry on, please.

He has a penchant for Britten, one of my favorite composers. His previous productions included “Albert Herring” and “Turn of the Screw.” I wonder if readers have suggestions for another Britten opera he could conceivably produce here. I have my own wish list.

 


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Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions

November 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experienced Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/28/classical-music-the-madison-opera-performs-verdis-la-traviata-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-in-overture-hall/

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.


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Classical music: The Madison Opera performs Verdi’s popular “La Traviata” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall

October 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Opera opens its 59th season with a traditional production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” (The Lost One), one of the most popular operas in history.

According to the website www.operasense.com — specifically at https://www.operasense.com/most-popular-operas/ — it has been the most performed opera in the world, beating out such perennial favorites as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Puccini’s “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” and Bizet’s “Carmen.” (Below are photos by Matthew Staver from the production by Opera Colorado in Denver, which features the same sets and costumes that will be used in the production by Madison Opera.)

Performances in Overture Hall are this Friday night, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 3 at 2:30 p.m. The opera will be sung in Italian with projected supertitles in English. The running time, with two intermissions, is 2 hours and 45 minutes.

PRE-OPERA TALKS are on Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center. One hour prior to performances, general director Kathryn Smith will give an entertaining and informative talk about “La Traviata.” The talks are free to ticket holders.

POST-OPERA Q&A’s are on Friday and Sunday and will also take place in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center. Audience members can join general director Kathryn Smith immediately after the performance to ask questions about what they have just seen. The sessions are free to ticket holders.

Tickets are $18-$135 with student and group discounts available. For information about tickets, the production and the cast, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org

Set in mid-19th century Paris, “La Traviata” tells of Violetta, a courtesan who tries to follow her heart. But societal pressures force her to leave the man she loves, and an incurable illness takes care of the rest.

Glittering parties contrast with quiet desperation, and ravishing music underscores all-consuming emotions.

“Only a few operas ever achieve a truly beloved status — and “La Traviata” is one of them,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). For being over 150 years old, its story is quite modern: a young woman trying to overcome the limitations that society has placed on her because of her class and gender, searching for happiness yet willing to make sacrifices.

“Plus it is full of very famous music, from the ‘Brindisi’ to ‘Sempre Libera’ and more,” Smith adds. “It’s always a pleasure to have a new generation discover this work, and to share it with opera omnivores who know it well.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing Violetta’s signature aria “Sempre libera” (Always Free) at the Royal Opera House in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“La Traviata” is based on the play and novel “La Dame aux Camélias” (The Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas the son (below top), which were in turn based on his real-life relationship with the courtesan Marie Duplessis (below bottom), who died in 1847 of consumption.

The play was an instant hit when it premiered in Paris in 1852, and Verdi (below) turned it into an opera the following year.

While the first production of the opera was not a success, due to the poor singing of two cast members and the physical unsuitability of one singer, its second production was acclaimed, and the opera swiftly became one of the most performed operas in the world, a status it has not lost.

Both the opera and the play have inspired countless films, including “Camille” (with Greta Garbo), “Pretty Woman” (with Julia Roberts) and “Moulin Rouge” (with Nicole Kidman).

Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) says: “”La Traviata” has been a part of my artistic life since the very beginning of my career – it’s one of the reasons I so wanted to conduct opera. The heartfelt and tragic story of a love that was cut short by both health and cultural circumstances is still deeply moving today.

“The role of Violetta is a tour-de-force that ranges from high-flying coloratura to dramatic vocalism, with a strongly-etched character. I love this opera so deeply and look forward to conducting it for our audience.”

Returning to Madison Opera as Violetta is Cecilia Violetta Lopez (she played Carmen in Madison), whom The Washington Post reviewer called “as compelling a Violetta as I’ve seen.”

Mackenzie Whitney  (below, who appeared in “Florencia en el Amazonas” for the Madison Opera) returns as Alfredo, the young man for whom she sacrifices everything.

Weston Hurt (below) debuts with Madison Opera as Alfredo’s father Germont, whose disapproval of his son’s relationship with Violetta has tragic consequences.

Madison Opera’s Studio Artists are featured: Kirsten Larson as Flora, Emily Secor as Annina, Benjamin Hopkins as Gastone, and Stephen Hobe as the Marquis d’Obigny.

Rounding out the cast are Benjamin Sieverding (Romeo and Juliet) as Dr. Grenvil and Benjamin Major in his Madison Opera debut as Baron Douphol.

Fenton Lamb (below) directs this traditional production in her Madison Opera debut.

Maestro John DeMain conducts the singers, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The Madison Opera’s production of “La Traviata” is sponsored by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, Bert and Diane Adams, Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Chun Lin, Patricia and Stephen Lucas, Millie and Marshall Osborn, Kato and David Perlman, the Wallach Family, Helen Wineke, Capitol Lakes, and the Wisconsin Arts Board.


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist

October 4, 2019
4 Comments

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ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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