The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Music professor John Schaffer is retiring from UW-Madison. A benefit jazz concert on Saturday, June 1, will celebrate his career as a teacher and former director of the Mead Witter School of Music

May 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Professor John Schaffer (below), who served as the director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music for 15 years from 1997 to 2012, is retiring this summer.

A jazz concert at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 1, at Full Compass Systems, located at 9770 Silicon Prairie Parkway in Verona,  will celebrate his retirement. Details and ticket information are below.

Here is a summary of his major achievements, as compiled by a colleague:

During his tenure as director, John Schaffer:

• Raised more than $10 million for music scholarships, including the Paul Collins graduate fellowships and the Steenbock undergraduate scholarships, more than doubling all student support.

• Secured funding for three endowed professorships: Pro Arte Quartet first violinist David Perry; piano virtuoso and Van Cliburn International Piano Competition bronze medal winner Christopher Taylor; and acclaimed jazz pianist Johannes Wallmann.

• With then-chancellor John Wiley, he launched plans for the new performance facility – the Hamel Music Center — that will open this fall, and raised more than $20 million in private funds for its construction.

• Established the School of Music’s inaugural Board of Visitors, which actively connects the school with a broad community worldwide as it continues to serve in an advisory and support capacity.

• Built strong relations with community organizations including the Madison Symphony Orchestra by establishing the joint residency of the Hunt Quartet – creating further student funding opportunities – and the Independent String Teachers’ Association.

• Established the Perlman Piano Trio (below), an undergraduate scholarship opportunity funded by Kato Perlman.

• Recruited faculty professors/performers with national and international reputations.

• Collaborated with the UW Foundation and Alumni Associations to present UW student performers throughout the country and world.

• Expanded student musician performances across campus, and established the twice-annual Chancellor’s Concert Series.

• Oversaw the planning for the 100th anniversary of the Pro Arte Quartet, the school’s flagship ensemble-in-residence since 1938.

• Established the School of Music recording label, which during its active run released close to 50 albums of faculty artists.

• Created the Wisconsin Center for Music Technology, and was the founding editor of the journal Computers in Music Research.

• Revitalized the Jazz Studies program at UW-Madison that has expanded with additional faculty, new student jazz ensembles and the establishment of a major in jazz performance.

• Was actively involved in music administration on the national level by serving multiple terms on the board of directors of the National Association of Schools of Music, the national accrediting organization. He spent more than a decade training accreditation teams, and performing accreditation reviews of music schools and conservatories throughout the country.

• Served on numerous local boards including those of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Country Day School, the Isthmus Jazz Festival, and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Schaffer’s own academic work in music theory focused initially on analysis of contemporary and non-tonal music, and in artificial intelligence applications in music theory. When he returned to the faculty from being director, he re-focused his teaching on the history, theory and performance of jazz and developed new courses in the discipline and regularly coached student jazz ensembles.

After a 40-year career in academia, Schaffer is retiring to pursue other interests. For the time being, he plans to remain in the Madison area. Initially trained as a classical guitarist, his performance emphasis long ago evolved to playing jazz bass, and he’ll still be heard gigging around town, playing frequently at venues and series such as Otto’s, Capital Brewery’s beer garden, Delaney’s Steak House, Coda Cafe and the North Street Cabaret.

“The biggest reward over all my years as an educator and administrator is the impact I’ve had on the thousands of students I’ve been privileged to teach and encounter,” says Schaffer. “It’s been immensely gratifying.”

Schaffer’s contributions to music in the greater Madison area will be recognized at a benefit concert, sponsored by the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium, on Saturday, June 1, at 7:30 p.m. at Full Compass Systems, 9770 Silicon Prairie Parkway in Verona. UW-Madison Chancellor Emeritus John Wiley will offer commentary and perspective. Light refreshments will be served.

Tickets for the benefit concert are $30 at the door, $25 in advance online. A limited number of student tickets are available at $15. VIP tickets are $150 and include reserved, best-in-house seating, a private pre-concert reception at 6 p.m. and other benefits.

For more information, go to: http://www.jazzinmadison.org/event/jazz-junction-benefit-concert-for-the-jazz-consortium-full-compass/

For tickets, go to:https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4236134


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Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: What music is good to listen to every day for a year? And why? Clemency Burton-Hill discusses her book “Year of Wonder” on PBS’ “Newshour”

March 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What different pieces of classical music would be good to listen to every day of the year?

And what should you know about it?

Those are the simple but ambitious questions that the British writer Clemency Burton-Hill — who now works for the famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City — tackles in her book “Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day” (below).

You can get a sample by going to the book section of Amazon.com and looking inside the book. Just click on the Introduction for an overview and then click on some specifics dates to see how it works.

But recently Burton-Hill (below) also appeared on “The NewsHour” on PBS to talk about the book, where she explained her purpose and method, especially her intent to help expand the audience for classical music.

Her remarks impressed The Ear who has ordered a copy of her book and hopes to learn from it and maybe even pass along some lessons from it.

All the genres, all the great composers (dead and living) and most of the great works are covered, as are many other neglected composers and unknown works. So the book can be considered a terrific resource for music education for both beginners and those who are experienced.

Her commentaries are also a model of brevity and engaging interest.

All in all, “Year of Wonder” seems a supremely practical, unpretentious and informative guide to daily listening, especially given how many of these works – often they are shorter sections of larger works — can be found for free on YouTube. (In fact, a playlist of music featured in the book is available on YouTube. Go to YouTube and type in “Year of Wonder Playlist” into the search engine, then look to the upper right for a list. A sample is at the bottom. Or use this direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wNTNEZYoHg&list=PLKPwLlyrD2y-1x-uKmUBzSOiAh83GhU7A

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a link to the television interview:

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/embracing-classical-music-and-its-potential-for-sonic-salvation

The Ear hopes you find the interview both informative and useful.

Happy listening!


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Classical music: The Madison Savoyards marks its 55th anniversary with six performances of “Die Fledermaus” starting this Friday night

July 17, 2018
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ALERT: Tomorrow, on Wednesday night, July 18, at 7:30 p.m. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue near Camp Randall Stadium, the Madison Summer Choir will mark its 10th anniversary with a performance of the choral and orchestral Mass in D Minor by Anton Bruckner and other works including one by Johannes Brahms. For more information, go to:

http://www.madisonsummerchoir.org

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Madison+summer+choir

By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this weekend, the Madison Savoyards presents Die Fledermaus, or The Bat, by Johann Strauss Jr. — sung in English with supertitles — at UW Music Hall at the base of Bascom Hill.

Evening performances are on Friday, July 20; Friday, July 27; and Saturday, July 28; matinees are at 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 21; Sunday, July 22; and Sunday, July 29.

Ticket prices are $30 for the public; $28 for seniors; $15 for students and youth under 17; and $5 for children under 5. Tickets can be purchased through UW Box Office at (608) 265-2787, www.arts.wisc.edu, or in person at the door. Group sales of 10 or more available by telephone only.

For more information, go to the website: www.madisonsavoyards.org

The production marks the 55th anniversary of the Madison Savoyards, best known for presenting the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

For this production, board director J. Adam Shelton makes his debut as stage director and Kyle Knox (below), a UW-Madison graduate, returns as music director and conductor. He is also the music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the new associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the popular Overture to Die Fledermaus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Die Fledermaus is the story of a romantically stale couple that learns to love again all the while playing the fools in this comedy of errors.

Eisenstein and his wife Rosalinda, fall prey to a cruel joke by their old pal Falke involving their chambermaid, a Russian prince, a prison warden and a tenor who can’t get the girl. Everyone works his or her way up and down the social ladder in this futuristic production set in 2021.

The famous second act masquerade ball is a menagerie theme featuring a ballet performance by Central Midwest Ballet Academy of Middleton.

The choreographer is Kristin Roling, with costumes by Rebecca Stanley and set design by Corey Helser.

The cast includes Tim Rebers (below top) as Eisenstein and Erica K. Bryan (below bottom) as Rosalinda.

Also featured are Michelle Buck (below top) as Adele; Ben Swanson (below second) as Falke; Kirsten Larson (below third) as Prince Orlofsky; and Tom Kastle (below bottom) as Frosch.

Grant funding supports the artists and underwrites the Children’s Pre-Show (1 p.m. on July 22 at UW-Madison’s Music Hall) where children will meet members of the cast and crew, and learn about the show and its music, tour the theater, and create a show-centric craft for free.

American Sign Language service is available, by request, for the July 21 performance.

ABOUT THE SAVOYARDS 

It is the mission of the Madison Savoyards “to preserve the works of Gilbert and Sullivan (below) and other light opera by producing and promoting live performances; to develop the skills and talent of cast, crew and musicians of all ages; and to inspire, entertain, and educate the community through performances and other initiatives.”

More information can be found on the company’s Facebook page along with behind-the-scenes insights to the production.

J. ADAM SHELDON (below) ANSWERS TWO QUESTIONS FROM THE EAR:

Why does the anniversary production feature Johann Strauss Jr. rather than Gilbert and Sullivan?

“We decided to celebrate our 55th anniversary with Die Fledermaus to try something new as a company.  Strauss Jr.’s Fledermaus is always a party and will elevate our audiences in the same ways as they have come to expect with G&S.

“We have actually continued our tie to G&S by choosing a libretto that is based upon Gilbert’s translation of the original Meilhac and Halevy play, Le Réveillon. Gilbert’s On Bail brandishes the same humor, socio-political commentary, and alliterative patters we expect from his pen. It only seemed logical to use a translation steeped in Gilbert’s.

“Additionally, our company has performed nearly every work in the G&S collaborative canon — the only exceptions being the reconstructed Thespis & Pineapple Poll — and we want to see how the community embraces us peppering in other light opera and operettas into our repertoire. Some celebrate 55 years with emeralds; we’re celebrating with love… and a twist!

“The story of Fledermaus really did not need a ton of punching up to meet the year. For fun we have included Wisconsin references like Spotted Cow beer, cheese curds (my personal favorite), and Old Fashioneds, which enliven the second act even more, but the core of the story is timeless.

“Whether told with Viennese costumes, or modern attire and cell phones, this story could happen anytime, anywhere.  People still play practical jokes on one another, people escape to costume parties for fun, and lovers still fall in, and maybe out, of love.

“Furthermore, Rebecca Stanley (our costume designer) and I imagined a grand masquerade ball in the second act where high fashion meets “cosplay.”  (EDITOR’S NOTE: For a definition of “cosplay,” here is a link to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosplay)

Why did you choose to do it in English?

“The Madison Savoyards is dedicated to continuing the tradition of performing in English. It offers accessibility to our audiences that larger operatic works sometimes cannot. Plus, light opera historically is offered in the vernacular of wherever it’s performed.

“Likewise, we are continuing to offer comedic works as the core of our repertoire.

“We recognize we have a powerful place in the community offering comedic works exclusively in English. But we will offer supertitles this summer for those who might not be familiar with the story.”


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Classical music: Despite overly traditional staging, the Madison Opera’s “Carmen” beguiled and bewitched through the outstanding singing

November 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy attended Sunday’s sold-out performance of “Carmen” by the Madison Opera and filed the following review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

When I learned that Madison Opera was going to produce Bizet‘s “Carmen,” I was not surprised. It is annually one of the most frequently performed operas internationally, and it is a surefire vehicle for filling seats. It is safe.

On the other hand, once one watches repeated performances of an old favorite, the appeal can diminish. One advantage of an opera is that novel approaches to the production can prevent a warhorse from becoming stale.

I would love to say that the approach both musically and dramatically to this production of “Carmen” broke new ground, but it did not. In fact, the production was as traditional as could be. (Below is the main set, rented from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I attended a performance of “Carmen” in Tucson a couple of years ago, and the conductor Keitaro Harada breathed new life into the familiar music through interesting tempi and finely nuanced dynamics.

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo  by Prasad) conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a perfectly fine and occasionally uplifting manner, but there was little new to learn from his approach. The purely instrumental entr’actes shimmered, but during the rest of the opera the singing was at the forefront.

Maestro Harada (below), whom Madison should be actively courting, is currently conducting “Carmen” in Sofia, and the accompanying publicity clip in the YouTube video at the bottom (bear with the Bulgarian commentary) shows that the production is unconventional in its approach although it clearly is still “Carmen.” I would have enjoyed something other than the ultra-traditional staging and sets experienced here in Madison.

At times the production was so hackneyed and hokey that I chuckled to myself – ersatz flamenco dancing, the fluttering of fans, all of the cigarette factory girls with cigarettes dangling from their lips, unconvincing fight scenes, annoying children running across the stage, dreary costumes that hardly reminded me of Seville. And I could go on.

Yet “Carmen” has a way of drawing one in despite oneself. The music is marvelous, and the singing was uniformly excellent.

The four principals were luminous both in their solo pieces and ensembles. Cecelia Violetta López as Micaëla (below right) was lustrous in her two arias as well as in her duet with Sean Panikkar’s Don José (below left).

Panikkar started the performance off with little flair, but from the time he became besotted with Carmen toward the end of the first act he was on fire. He then maintained a high degree of passion and zest in his vocal performance.

Corey Crider (below right) was a wonderful Escamillo, singing his toréador role with great élan despite his unfortunate costumes.

And Aleks Romano (below) as Carmen made the most of her complex character. Her singing was luscious, and her acting – particularly her use of her expressive eyes – was terrific.

Likewise, the lesser roles – Thomas Forde as Zuniga, Benjamin Liupaogo as Remendado, Erik Earl Larson as Dancaïre, a radiant Anna Polum as Fransquita, and Megan Le Romero as Mercédès – were equally well sung. The ensemble work in the quintet at the end of Act II and in the card scene was outstanding.

The chorus (below) sounded terrific throughout, although the women’s costumes and the stage direction made the choristers appear ludicrous as times.

When all is said and done, “Carmen” still beguiled me by drawing me into its characters’ complex psychologies and motivations. Likewise, its music still bewitched me in much the same way as Carmen inexplicably bewitched hapless Don José (below).

But I seem to always wish for more – more compelling productions, more daring music making, more risk-taking.

I do look forward to this coming spring’s production of “Florencia en el Amazonas.” The recording is captivating, and the opera’s performances have pleased a wide variety of audiences by all accounts. And it is something new. Hallelujah!

Did you go to “Carmen”? 

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Composer-performer John Harbison explains why the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival is revisiting “The Musical Offering” by Johann Sebastian Bach for a third time

August 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you have ever attended a concert at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival (below), which opens this Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., you know how insightful the short commentaries by John Harbison invariably are.

Perhaps that should come as no surprise. Harbison (below), the co-founder and co-artistic director with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison, has been awarded a MacArthur ‘genius grant” and won a Pulitzer Prize, all while teaching at MIT.

The concerts this weekend focus on Johann Sebastian Bach’s incredible “Musical Offering,” part of which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Here is a program note by composer-pianist Harbison, which will probably be complemented by some additional remarks:

”Every musician has the experience of understanding a piece better after they have performed it. A few have careers which welcome (sometimes to a fault) chances to re-perform, hopefully with greater insight, a piece they wish to carry with them and continue to share with colleagues and listeners.

“We have performed two complete Musical Offerings by Bach (below) at Token Creek. Why are we going back to its Trio Sonata? Because it has become necessary, for the fullness of our encounter, to present what is a revision, a reconsideration, a reinforcement of vows, regarding a masterpiece whose carrot remains forever on the stick.

“Such could be said about other elements on this program. One of the subtexts is about the fascinating issue of continuo realization — the piano or harpsichord part — the strange language in which harmonic structure is described to the player in cipher.

“In pieces by Bach this language is strained to the breaking point in works such as The Musical Offering and the E minor sonata for violin and continuo; it is in fact about to disappear, replaced by the explicit writing out, in pitches, all the musical information. Living in the world before and after this decision was taken is one of the preoccupations of this concert.

“In a concert dominated by Bach, the requirement of the other pieces (by Haydn and Harbison) is really sufficient originality and integrity not to be dwarfed or rendered ephemeral by his authority, a high bar, considered carefully by the management.”

For more information about the five concerts of three different programs, including ticket information, go to: http://tokencreekfestival.org


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