The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What makes this weekend’s performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” classically Italian operas and especially inviting for beginners?

October 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will open its new season this weekend with two performances of Pietro Mascagni’s  “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s ”Pagliacci.”

Details about the productions in Overture Hall on Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. appeared in a previous posting that includes information about the cast and the tickets ($18-$131):

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/classical-music-madison-opera-offers-preview-events-leading-up-to-cavalleria-rusticana-and-i-pagliacci-on-nov-2-and-4/

https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

But Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of the Madison Opera, recently agreed to a Q&A with The Ear to discuss the two operas more specifically and at length. Here are her comments:

A veteran opera-goer told the Ear that he considers these two works ideal operas for people new to the art form.  Do you agree?

I think almost any opera is perfect for someone new to opera – supertitles make it possible to understand the words, so one can just sit down and enjoy the show.

That said, “Cav and Pag” are definitely what many people think of when you say the words “Italian opera”: elemental stories of love, hate and jealousy that lead to tragedy.

Cavalleria Rusticana, which means “Rustic Chivalry,” tells about a woman named Santuzza who had been seduced and abandoned by a man named Turridu. On Easter Sunday, she attempts to get Turridu back, then tells the husband of his new lover about that affair, resulting in a duel.

Pagliacci, which means “Clowns,” tells about a traveling theater troupe. Nedda, the wife of the troupe’s leader, Canio, wants to run away with her lover Silvio after the evening performance. Canio finds out, but goes on with the show even though his heart is breaking. He then snaps during the performance and kills both Nedda and Silvio.

The music in both operas ranges from glorious choral music (the Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana is one of the most famous opera choruses of all time for good reason) to famous arias (particularly the aria “Vesti la Giubba” from Pagliacci, or at least the line “Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), to orchestral music that is well-known in its own right, such as Cavalleria’s intermezzo, which plays an integral role in the final scene of “The Godfather” film trilogy. (You can hear that famous Intermezzo used in “The Godfather” film in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They are also compact: Each opera lasts about 70 minutes, so a lot gets packed into a short amount of time. (Below is the set of “Pagliaccio” rented from the New Orleans Opera.)

What are the shared elements that make the two operas so compatible that they are often presented together?

Pagliacci was written in response to Cavalleria Rusticana:  Ruggero Leoncavallo (below top) saw what a hit Pietro Mascagni (below bottom) had his 1890 one-act opera about real people propelled by love and revenge, and wrote his own version that premiered just two years later, in 1892.

There are some obvious parallels: both take place in small Italian villages, both take place on religious holidays, and both involve love triangles that end with someone dead. Plus the last line of each opera is spoken, not sung.

They also have musical similarities, as both have full orchestrations, large choral segments, and a style of vocal writing that calls for dramatic, expressive singing. As a result, the combined pairing makes a satisfying night of Italian opera, rather than being simply two operas that happen to be done on the same night.

Does one usually overshadow the other or are they equals?

It very much depends on the tastes of an individual audience member. When the operas were new, Cavalleria was definitely the more popular of the two – even Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she preferred it.

To modern eyes, Pagliacci may be more dramatically satisfying because more happens in it, such as the entire play-within-the-opera, which adds an element of humor to the high stakes of reality. But both are masterpieces in their own right, and the audience gets to enjoy them both.

Why do you think these verismo operas are still powerful today?

“Verismo” comes from the word “vero,” which means “true.” Cav and Pag tell stories about real people caught up in their lives, with all the emotional messiness that can entail – and those emotions are still driving people today.

Above all, the music of both operas is so powerful that it strikes to the heart of what opera can be. It can be thrilling, it can be moving, it can be funny – all in one night.

Is there something else you would like to say about the two operas and your production of them?

We have wonderful casts in each opera. Scott Piper (below top), who was last here as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, sings both Turridu and Canio; and Michael Mayes (below bottom), who was last here as the lead in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, sings both Alfio and Tonio.

We have two extraordinary sopranos making their debuts with us:  Michelle Johnson (below top) as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and Talise Trevigne (below bottom) as Nedda in Pagliacci.

The Pagliacci cast is completed by Benjamin Taylor making his debut as Silvio and Robert Goderich singing Beppe; the Cavalleria cast is completed by Danielle Wright as Lucia and Kirsten Larson as Lola.


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Classical music: “Just Bach” — a monthly mid-day FREE concert series — starts this Thursday at 1 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church. Plus, the FREE fifth annual UW Brass Fest takes place Friday and Saturday

September 25, 2018
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ALERT: This Friday and Saturday, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music will host  Brass Fest V. It features guest artists and the faculty group The Wisconsin Brass Quintet. Events are FREE and OPEN to the public. For a schedule and more information about events and performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/brass-fest-v-alumni/

By Jacob Stockinger

A new and noteworthy monthly event starts this Thursday. Here is an announcement:

“Just Bach” is a new monthly mid-day concert series in Madison. It celebrates the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below).

The series of hour-long concerts kicks off at 1 p.m. this Thursday, Sept. 27,at Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue.

Admission is free, but goodwill offerings will be accepted.

The Madison series, inspired by a model and successful program established by conductor Julian Wachner at the Trinity Wall Street Church in New York City, will offer monthly concerts at Luther Memorial Church, presenting programs curated from Bach’s sacred vocal repertoire.

As in New York City, the concerts will open with all present singing a hymn, followed by an organ solo, with the rest of the program devoted to cantatas, motets, and possibly oratorios or passions. An important component of the initiative will be the training and inclusion of local singers for the chorus. The period-instrument orchestra will include local and regional players.

Audience members may take in food and beverage for their lunch, which can be consumed during the program.

This Thursday afternoon, organist Mark Brampton Smith (below) will play the “Little” Fugue in G Minor, BWV 578 (heard, with a graphic depiction, in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the choir and orchestra will perform two beautiful cantatas: O heileges Geist- und Wasserbad (O Bath of Holy Spirit and Water), BWV 165; and Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (Dearest Jesus, My Desire), BWV 32.

Adds the organizer Marika Fischer Hoyt (below), who also directs the annual Bach Around the Clock event in March: “The goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large.

“The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach would have conceived. Members of the artistic team will prepare local singers to perform alongside seasoned professionals and develop a familiarity and love of the repertoire.

“The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

“The dream team bringing this venture to Madison consists of four individuals who have each dedicated a significant portion of their careers to the music of J.S. Bach: soprano Sarah Brailey, who did her master’s at the UW-Madison and won the Handel Aria Competition; mezzo-soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe; UW-Madison professor and bass-baritone Paul Rowe; and modern and baroque violist Marika Fischer Hoyt who also performs with the Madison Bach Musicians, Sonata à Quattro and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The vocal soloists for the concert on this Thursday will be Sarah Brailey (below), Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, tenor Wesley Dunnagan, and Paul Rowe. The period orchestra of local and regional baroque players will be led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim.

After the debut, Just Bach dates go to Wednesdays and will take place at 1 p.m. on Oct. 31, Nov. 28 and Dec. 12.

Our Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/SingetdemHerrn

Our Instagram account is at https://www.instagram.com/_just_bach_/

A website is in the process of being constructed.

We are extremely grateful to Pastor Brad Pohlman and the congregation of Luther Memorial Church for hosting the series this Fall.

We invite the Madison community to come spend a lunch hour with the sublime music of J.S. Bach – feed your body and soul!”


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Classical music: The acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performs old and new music this Friday night and Sunday afternoon when its new director also makes his debut

August 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Since it was founded in 2002, the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) has been critically acclaimed for the concert it puts together each summer in just a couple of weeks or less. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This summer, the group will be under the baton of its new artistic director, Michael McGaghie (below), who will be making his performing debut with the group.

McGaghie directs choral activities at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and also conducts the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The program this weekend ranges from the 16th century and early Baroque to the contemporary.

It will begin with works from  established masters such as Thomas Tallis, Heinrich Schütz and the Soviet conductor-composer Nikolai Golovanov.

It will then explore works from contemporary composers such as Jocelyn Hagen, Morten Lauridsen and Dale Trumbore in a program called Horizons. (Sorry, The Ear has not received the titles of specific works on the program.)

Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for students. Tickets can be bought at the door or ordered at the links below.

Concert venues are:

This Friday, Aug. 3, at 7:30 p.m. in the Lutheran Church of the Living Christ, 110 North Gammon Road, on Madison’s west side. For tickets, go to:

https://isthmusvocalens.yapsody.com/event/index/282736/ive-2018-friday-concert

This Sunday, Aug. 5, at 3 p.m. in Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 East Gorham Street. For tickets, go to:

https://isthmusvocalens.yapsody.com/event/index/282791/ive-2018-sunday-concert

For more about the impressive background of the new director, go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/

For more about the past performances and the organization, including sound samples to listen to and how to join or support the group, go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org


Classical music education: Before leaving for a festival in Scotland, the Madison Youth Choirs boy choirs will give a FREE send-off concert on Tuesday night. It features the world premiere of a new work by Madison composer Scott Gendel

July 23, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

This July, 55 members of Madison Youth Choirs’ boy choirs will travel to Aberdeen, Scotland to sing in the Aberdeen International Festival of Youth Arts, a new celebration of talented young performers from across the world. (Below is the Britten boy choir.)

The festival will continue the legacy of the Aberdeen International Youth Festival (below), a tradition which had been running nearly 50 years when it was cancelled in late 2017 after Aberdeen city councilors withdrew its funding, citing budgetary concerns.

A groundswell of local and global support for the festival led to the creation of a new event, hosted by the Aberdeen Multicultural Center, which will continue to offer world-class performing opportunities for young artists.

In order to ensure that every eligible singer, including those whose families face significant financial challenges, had the opportunity to participate in this extraordinary experience, MYC undertook a major fundraising effort for the Scotland Tour Scholarship Fund, led by a generous anonymous benefactor who offered to double every dollar donated up to a total of $10,000. In total, 107 individual donors contributed to the fund, raising $20,224 to support the young singers’ journey.

Prior to their departure to Scotland, the MYC boys will present a send-off concert on Tuesday, July 24, at 7 p.m. at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 5701 Raymond Road, in Madison. The concert is FREE and open to the public, but donations at the door will be accepted.

The concert will feature the world premiere of a new work by UW-Madison graduate and Madison composer Scott Gendel (below), “For That Alone,” which combines text from Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” with text from a work that may have inspired it, the “Declaration of Arbroath,” written in 1320 to assert Scotland’s independence.

The full list of repertoire includes:

“Sumer is icumen in,” Anonymous, mid-13th century

“O là, o che bon echo” by Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594)

“No che non morira” (from Tito Manlio) by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

“Bar’chu” by Salamon Rossi (c. 1570-1630)

“Il est bel et bon” by Pierre Passereau (fl. 1509-1547)

“Hopkinton” by William Billings (1746-1800)

“The Pasture” (from Frostiana) by Randall Thompson (1899-1984)

“Gloria Tibi” (from Mass) by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

“II. Adonai ro-I” from Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

“For That Alone” (world premiere) by Scott Gendel (b. 1977)

“Chorus of Street Boys” from Carmen by Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

“Weevily Wheat,” American play-party song, arr. Krunnfusz

“The Plough Boy,” Traditional, arranged by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) You can hear it for solo tenor with piano in the YouTube video at the bottom.

“Rustics and Fishermen” (from Gloriana) by Benjamin Britten

“I Will Howl” by Timothy Takach (b. 1978)

“Fugue for Tinhorns” (from Guys and Dolls) by Frank Loesser (1910-1969)

“Bonse Aba,” Traditional Zambian

“Birdsong” by Heather Masse, arranged by Randal Swiggum

“Revelation 19:1” by Jeffrey LaValley

“Anthem” (from Chess) by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Tim Rice, arranged by Randal Swiggum

“Will Ye No Come Back Again,” Traditional Scottish, arranged by Randal Swiggum

For more information about the Madison Youth Choirs, including how to join them and how to support them, go to:

https://www.madisonyouthchoirs.org


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Classical music: This Sunday, Beverly Taylor retires as associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Kyle Knox will succeed Taylor starting this fall.

June 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has announced that Associate Conductor Beverly Taylor (below) will retire from her current position after 22 years, effective this Sunday, July 1.

Taylor will continue to serve as Director of the Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a  photo by Greg Anderson).

She will also continue as the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where she conducts many groups including the Choral Union (below) and the Concert Choir.

Kyle Knox (below) will become the MSO’s new Associate Conductor, effective in the 2018–2019 season.

“I am delighted that Beverly will continue to work with the Madison Symphony Chorus. The chorus has improved steadily under her direction and will sing some very difficult music in the coming seasons,” said MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). “I also want to thank Beverly for the outstanding help she has given me in the preparation of our concerts over the years.”

“I’ve loved my time as associate conductor of the symphony, and will continue as chorus director,” says Taylor. “But I’m looking forward to more time for guest conducting, visiting friends and family and finishing the two books I’m at work on. I also have a grant to write a basic conducting textbook, and I’m finishing a handbook on how to develop a musical interpretation.”

John DeMain says he looks forward to Knox joining the MSO. “I think Kyle Knox is a natural to step into the associate conductor position. He has distinguished himself in the past few years with his work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Opera and the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by John W. Barker). He also successfully led the MSO in last year’s Concert on the Green.

“His recent appointment as Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) is a testament to his brilliant talent and will dovetail easily with his duties with the MSO. I so look forward to our working together and welcome him to our Madison Symphony Orchestra family.”

Knox is also very pleased with his appointment.

“My history with the MSO goes back a few years and I have long admired the work of Maestro DeMain and this wonderful group of musicians,” he says. “It is an honor to have been selected for this opportunity and I look forward to happy years of service and collaboration.”

BACKGROUND BIOGRAPHIES

Beverly Taylor has been the Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Director of the Madison Symphony Chorus since 1996 and Director of Choral Activities at UW-Madison since 1995.

Prior roles include conductor of the Boston Bar Association Orchestra, Music Director of the Back Bay Chorale, and Associate Director of Choral Activities at Harvard University.

Taylor has been a guest conductor at the Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic Orchestra in Poland, the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, the Vermont Symphony, the Harvard Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the U.S. Air Force Band and Orchestra, the Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, and the Wellesley Chamber Singers.

She graduated from the University of Delaware and Boston University School for the Arts and received a fellowship with Chorus America and an orchestral fellowship at Aspen.

Kyle Knox will take over the dual positions of Music Director of WYSO and Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra beginning in the 2018–2019 season.

Past and upcoming conducting credits include Mark Adamo’s Little Women with the Madison Opera; Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw, and Transformations; with UW-Madison’s University Opera; the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 Concert on the Green; Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers and H.M.S. Pinafore with the Madison Savoyards; as well as UW Music Clinic’s High School Honors Orchestra.

Other concerts include Carousel, Sunday in the Park with George, and Sweeney Todd (2018) with Middleton Players Theatre, Jon Deak’s The Passion of Scrooge with Oakwood Chamber Players, as well as regular appearances with the Middleton Community Orchestra.

He was formerly a clarinetist with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Santa Fe Opera and Philadelphia Orchestras, and was on the faculty at UW-Milwaukee. Festivals credits include Tanglewood, Spoleto (Italy), Santa Fe Chamber Music, and Bowdoin College, among others. His debut album, the first commercial recording of Conrad Susa’s chamber opera Transformations, will be released in the summer of 2018 on iTunes. He holds degrees from Juilliard School and the UW-Madison. He  is married to MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz. 


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Classical music: Rehearsals for the Madison Summer Choir’s 10th anniversary concert, featuring the Mass in D minor by Bruckner on July 18, start this Monday and Tuesday nights

June 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Each year since 2008, founder Ben Luedcke (below top) directs and rehearses the annual Madison Summer Choir (below bottom), which took the place of a summer choral concert dropped and defunded by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The choir sings a cappella as well as accompanied by piano and orchestra.

Membership and rehearsals start TOMORROW, June 11.

The choir rehearses on Monday and Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in Mills Hall at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. The rehearsals last for six weeks.

Then on Wednesday, July 18, at 7:30 p.m. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, across from Camp Randall Stadium, the Madison Summer Choir plus a pick-up orchestra will perform the Mass in D Minor by Anton Bruckner. (You can hear the opening Kyrie movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Sorry, no word has been received about ticket prices and availability, or about other possible works on the program.

For information about auditions, rehearsals and membership fees, go to:

http://www.madisonsummerchoir.org/join-us.html

Here is a link with more information about concerts this summer and in past summers:

http://www.madisonsummerchoir.org/concerts.html

Here is a link to the home website, where under “People” you can find background and a biography of Ben Luedcke and the names of the members in last summer’s choir:

http://www.madisonsummerchoir.org


Classical music: Choral Arts Society Chorale sings about immigration and longing for a home this Friday night. On Saturday night, the Mosaic Chamber Players offer piano trios by Beethoven and Brahms

April 26, 2018
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ALERT: The acclaimed Mosaic Chamber Players close out their current season on this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program offers two of the most famous piano trios ever composed: the “Archduke” Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, by Ludwig van Beethoven; and the Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms. Tickets are at the door, cash or check only, and cost $15, $10 for seniors and $5 for students.

For more information, go to: http://www.mosaicchamberplayers.com

By Jacob Stockinger

The theme of immigration only seems to grow as a timely and politically charged topic not only here in the U.S. but also around the world, especially in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

In another indication that the performing arts are returning to a socially activist role in the current political climate, immigration is the unifying theme of a concert by The Choral Arts Society Chorale of Madison (below), a local community chorus.

The group performs this Friday night, April 27, at 7 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1904 Winnebago Street, on Madison’s near east side, under the direction of the group’s artistic director Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below), who also founded and directs the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO).

The program, titled “Would You Harbor Me?,” features music about and by immigrants, and about longing for a home.

The centerpiece is the 1998 cantata “The Golden Door” for chorus and chamber ensemble by Ronald Perera (below). You can hear the “Names” section of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The work is based on texts from the archives of Ellis Island (below).

Also on the program – drawn from different time periods and different cultures — are pieces by various composers. They include Leonard Bernstein; Palestrina; Heinrich Isaac; Sydney Guillaume; Sweet Honey in the Rock‘s Ysaye Barnwell on themes of leaving home and welcoming the stranger; and Irving Berlin‘s setting of the poem from the Statue of Liberty (below).

Tickets are $15; $10 for students $10, and re available at the door, or online at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/choral-arts-society-chorale-spring-concert-tickets-44453227801.

The complete program is: Ysaye Barnwell: “Would You Harbor Me”; Palestrina: “Super flumina Babylonis” (By the Waters of Babylon); Traditional Irish, arr. Peter Knight: “O Danny Boy”; Carlos Guastavino: “Pueblito, mi pueblo” (Little village, my village); Heinrich Isaac: “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen” (Innsbruck, I must leave you); Sydney Guillaume: Onè – Respè; Leonard Bernstein: “Somewhere” from “West Side Story”; Intermission; Ronald Perera: “The Golden Door”; Irving Berlin: “Give me your tired, your poor”

For more information about the group, go to: http://choralartsmadison.org


Classical music: UW Choral Director Beverly Taylor talks about her life with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which she will conduct this Sunday afternoon and night

April 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” always ranks high on the short list of the greatest choral works ever composed.

And for good reason.

It represents a peak of Bach’s sacred music and his choral compositions.

This Sunday afternoon and night in Mills Hall, Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the assistant music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the UW Choral Union (below) — comprised of university and community singers — plus soloists and an orchestra, in a performance of the complete work.

At 4 p.m. they will do Part 1 and then at 7:30 p.m., Part 2.

Tickets (one ticket is good for both parts) are $15, $8 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Tickets will also be available at the door.

The Ear is always curious to learn more about the relationship between a professional musician and a towering masterpiece.

He found out more when Taylor (below) recently answered an email Q&A about her past and current experiences with the “St. Matthew Passion”:

When did you first hear the “St. Matthew Passion” and what was your reaction?

I never heard it until my late 20s, would you believe? I’d been through grad school and all its training, and learned German, knew a lot of Bach; and when Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony did it on Good Friday, I sat spellbound for over three hours.

I was shaken to the core by its beauty, and even though it was hardly an early music performance, it was well handled, and one of my favorite British singers, Robert Tear, was the Evangelist. I’ve never forgotten it!

Where do you place the “St. Matthew Passion” among Bach’s works and especially among his many choral works?

As with all masterpieces, it’s hard to choose. It’s the longest work, and its size and scope alone make it a frequent choice of many for favorite work.

It’s more dramatic than the breath-taking B Minor Mass and more meditative than the St. John Passion, but I also love the unbelievable variety of cantatas that Bach (below) produced.

Don’t make me choose!

What role has the “St. Matthew Passion” played in your personal and professional life?

I’d say it’s a pinnacle work. This is only my second time performing it, and I’m unlikely to have the chance again, although one hopes. So I’m invested in its beauty and in its core message of hope in the face of tragedy.

Are there things you would like audiences to know about your upcoming performance?

There are several things.

We have a wonderful cast of soloists, and the orchestra is not the usual student orchestra, since the UW Symphony Orchestra is committed to another program in the near future, but is instead a mixture of students, semi-pros and pros.

The work is set for the two choruses and two orchestras that play with them. Many of the choral movements are set for both orchestras, but Bach varies the texture of each movement by varying who plays in what.

If a listener hasn’t been to a Passion performance before, then you might want to know that:

The character of the Evangelist (sung superbly in this case by Wesley Dunnagan, below) is the narrator of the drama. He is accompanied by the continuo part—which is made up of a keyboard (usually organ with sacred works) and a low melody instrument, usually cello.

The chorus members sing sometimes in the character of Greek chorus commentary, sometimes as characters in the roles of Mob, Roman soldiers, Pharisees, and disciples. Most of this text comes from the book of St. Matthew. However, German theologians wrote commentary that is used for the beautiful Chorales-which basically are hymn-style settings of well-known Lutheran tunes. These chorales turn personal—for instance when Judas betrays Jesus, the chorus, after being a mob, turns around and says in repentance—It is I, I’m the one that killed you. (You can hear the final chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The text is so important, and Bach uses myriad details to bring it out. It is typical that when the text is about death, or evil, or sin, the writing is chromatic, or full of augmented fourth intervals (once nicknamed the devil’s interval). When Jesus has died and been buried, the chorus sings what feels like a lullaby, with the rocking cradle motion. When an earthquake follows Jesus’ death and the curtain of the temple is torn, the continuo cello breaks out of accompaniment mode and tears down the scale like lightning

Although this work presents Bach’s Christian view in the heart of the church year, the scope and issues of faithfulness and disloyalty, trust and fear, should resonate with listeners of all faiths.

We’ve chosen, as some other presenters have, to have a dinner/snack break between the two parts of the three-hour work. One ticket will get you into either or both halves. We do this to give singers and players a little rest, and a little movement to our listeners. Part I runs from 4 p.m. to about 5:15 p.m., and Part II runs from 7:30 p.m. to about 9:15 p.m.


Classical music: Easter is a perfect time to ask: How religious was Johann Sebastian Bach?

March 31, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Sunday is Easter 2018.

It seems a perfect time ask: How religious was the great Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach (below)?

It also seems a perfect time to listen to Bach.

After all, has any composer written more Easter music or greater Easter music than Bach did in his passions, oratorios and cantatas?

According to the new book “Bach and God” by Michael Marissen, Bach — who was composing prolifically in the early days of the Protestant Reformation and Lutheranism — was far more religious than many Bach specialists, especially modern ones, have believed.

Here is a long and highly informative book review from The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/arts/music/bach-religion-music.html

And while you are reading the book review, you can listen to Bach’s “Easter Oratorio,” BWV 249. Here it is in a YouTube video that features the Bach specialist and scholar John Eliot Gardiner conducting singers and instrumentals — for soloists plus the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists — in a wonderful period-instrument performance, with historically informed performance practices.


Classical music: Tucson celebrates the Leonard Bernstein centennial. Why not Madison?

February 17, 2018
5 Comments

Editor’s note: Larry Wells, better known as The Opera Guy who writes for this blog, recently spent time in Tucson, Arizona, where he attended many events celebrating the Leonard Bernstein centennial.

Tucson isn’t alone. This fall has seen many similar celebrations, including those in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee. But curiously there has been little in Madison.

Perhaps that will change next season. At least this week will see a FREE concert by the UW-Madison Wind Ensemble this Wednesday night, Feb. 21, in Mills Hall. The mixed program with other composers features “Profanation” from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1.

Here is a link with more information and the program:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wind-ensemble-2/

And here are observations about the Tucson celebration:

By Larry Wells

I recently spent a few weeks in Tucson. Part of that time happily coincided with the annual Tucson Desert Song Festival which this year commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell).

I was able to attend 13 of the performances and was struck by the consistently intelligent programming, large audiences, and high performance standards.

Many of the events were held at the Fred Fox School of Music at the University of Arizona. Some of these involved talented student and faculty singers performing Bernstein’s Broadway songs as well as his more serious vocal works. The venue also hosted outstanding recitals by Metropolitan Opera veterans Jennifer Johnson Cano (below top) and Lisette Oropesa (below bottom).

One of the highlights was a recital by dual pianists Steven Bleier (below top, on right) and Michael Barrett (below top, on left), founders of the New York Festival of Song. Their program included Bernstein’s final song cycle “Arias and Barcarolles” featuring the very talented Joshua Jeremiah (below middle) and Rebecca Jo Loeb (below bottom).

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra (below), under the direction of its new conductor José Luis Gomez,  filled the cavernous Tucson Music Hall for two performances of Bernstein’s underperformed Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish.” Joined by the symphony’s outstanding chorus, the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, and soprano Kelley Nassief this monumental work was electrifying. The many percussionists were given a good aerobic workout, and the audience seemed hypnotized.

The only flaw was the narration rewritten and delivered by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie. The original narration by the composer is a monologue between a man and his god. Ms. Bernstein’s narration changed the tone to that of a daughter speaking about her father.

For someone familiar with the work, I felt somewhat cheated that I was not hearing the work as it had been composed. Still it was a total delight to hear a live performance of a work that should be heard far more often than it is.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra offered a second program which featured a sparkling performance of Bernstein’s opera “Trouble in Tahiti” with the widely-praised, and rightly so, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (below in a photo by Dario Acosta).

Ballet Tucson offered a somewhat strange program featuring Bernstein songs beautifully performed by Cadie Jordan (below top) and David Margulis (below bottom, in a photo by Kristin Hoebermann). Sometimes they were accompanied by dancers and sometimes not.

Then, after a number of these songs, a recording came on of portions of the suite from Bernstein’s score for the film “On the Waterfront” with dancers performing a sort of “Romeo and Juliet” narrative. It didn’t seem to make any cohesive sense, but it was fun to watch and the quality of the music never faltered.

Two other large events were the Arizona Opera’s “Candide” and Tucson’s resident chorus True Concord’s MASS.

I attended the premiere of “Candide” (below) which was also performed in the vast Tucson Music Hall. I had only seen it performed once before, and that was the charming, witty, and intimate Harold Prince version. The Tucson version was one of the overlong operatic versions that featured additional musical numbers, which was a good thing, but wordy spoken dialogue that was unfortunately under-amplified. Therefore, unless someone was very familiar with the work, the production was a long string of seemingly unrelated musical numbers linked by incomprehensible spoken dialogue.

The dialogues themselves are very witty, but since they were not accompanied by supertitles as was the singing, the performance was seriously flawed. Still the singing was excellent, with special praise for Katrina Galka’s Cunegonde, and the staging was colorful and often amusing. Hopefully the sound issues were rectified for the following four performances. (You can hear the famous Overture to “Candide”– conducted by the composer —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

MASS (poster with scenes is below) was performed in what is termed as the ‘Chamber Version.’ I was apprehensive that somehow the musical content would be diminished, but my worries turned out to be unfounded and the performance was uniformly dynamic and engaging. True Concord is an outstanding choral group, and its leader Eric Holtan led a thoroughly engaging and moving performance of this monumental work. I was so taken by the first performance that I attended the second as well. Both performances filled the huge Centennial Hall.

Besides the orchestra and chorus the work features a celebrant, in this case the appropriately named Jubilant Sykes, an ensemble of vocal soloists, a boys chorus and dancers. The choreographers decided to add an additional layer of complexity to an already complex work by having some of the dancers portray Rose, Jacqueline and Caroline Kennedy as well as what I think was supposed to be the spirit of JFK. This was not part of the original work, and I felt it was superfluous to an already multifaceted work. But the audience loved it all, and it turns out that Madison is not the only city that seems to give everything a standing ovation.

The takeaway moment of the festival occurred during a discussion involving composer Dan Asia, the festival director and conductor George Hanson, and Jamie Bernstein. When asked how younger audiences can be lured into concert halls, all three of them immediately concurred that the answer is to program 20th-century music. They claim that any time 20th-century music is programmed, ticket sales increase. My experience at this festival was that large venues were consistently filled with audiences of all ages.

This is something for Madison to think about.


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