The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” is a musical treat despite its outdated story. Performances remain this afternoon and Tuesday night

March 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for this blog – took in the University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” Friday night at Music Hall on Bascom Hill and filed this review. (Performance photos are by Michael R. Anderson.)

By Larry Wells

I attended the opening night of University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” (So Do They All or Such Are Women).

Considered a musical masterpiece, the opera features a cast of six singers who participate in a comedy about love and fidelity. (Below, from left, are Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi, Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando, James Harrington as Don Alfonso, Kelsey Wang as Despina, Kevin Green as Guglielmo and Chloe Agostino as Dorabella.)

In director David Ronis’ attempt to make the story more timely, the action took place in a vaguely early 20th-century setting – the Roaring Twenties, to be precise — suggested by the women’s costumes and the art deco set.

Two of the men, who are called off to war, brandished swords, which I believe were not widely used in World War I. (Below, from left, are Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando, James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Kevin Green as Guglielmo in the opening scene from Act I.)

In any event, an attempt to make an historic artifact with its incumbent unenlightened views of women relevant to the 21st century may be fruitless, and I believe that audiences today recognize the archaic attitudes expressed therein as comic and dated.

That sexist manipulation needs to be discussed today, as suggested in the director’s notes, and that women’s “agency” — to quote an overused academic term — remains an issue today is the tragedy. This comedy goes only a small distance in helping us realize that some things have not changed, even though many have.

But on to the performance.

The three female characters (below) included the vocally stunning Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi. Her “Come scoglio” was a showstopper. (Below, from left, are Chloe Agostino as Dorabella and Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi in their Act I duet.)

Chloe Agostino’s sweet soprano perfectly reflected her Dorabella, and Anja Pustaver’s comic turn as Despina revealed an interesting voice that reminded me of Reri Grist’s Oscar in the Erich Leinsdorf recording of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” – which is a compliment, albeit possibly obscure.

Kevin Green as Guglielmo grew on me as the evening progressed and as he became more confident. But the standout was James Harrington as Don Alfonso. I feel that he is a major talent in our midst. (Below in the foreground are Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi and Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando; in the background are James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Kevin Green as Guglielmo.)

Green and his partner, Benjamin Hopkins’ Ferrando, had to don disguises in order to tempt each other’s intended. In the libretto they disguise themselves as Albanians.

In what I can only hope was a nod to political correctness in order to spare the feelings of our Albanian brothers, they disguised themselves in this production as lumberjacks clad in flannel shirts and denim jeans — which was incongruously absurd but amusing at the same time. (Below,Kelsey Wang, left, as Despina examines Benjamin Hopkins as the Albanian Ferrando in a fake medical examination during the finale of Act I.)

The vocalists shone most in their many ensembles – duets, trios, quartets and sextets. The blendings of the various voices were always harmonious. The trio “Soave sia il vento” (Gentle Be the Breeze) — featuring Rosché, Agostino and Harrington (below) — was sublime and worth the price of admission on its own. (Below, from left, are Chloe Agostino as Dorabella, James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Cayla Rosché  as Fiordiligi in the famous Act I trio “Soave sia il vento,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The UW Symphony Orchestra was ably and nobly led by new conductor Oriol Sans (below) whose hiring proved to be a major coup for the university. Everything I’ve heard him conduct so far has been excellent, and this performance was no exception.

The harpsichord continuo by Thomas Kasdorf (below) was captivating in its nuance and effortlessness – very impressive.

I enjoyed the abstract unit set designed by Joseph Varga and complemented by the effective lighting designed by Zak Stowe.

In all, it was an evening primarily in which to close one’s eyes and listen.

Repeat performances, with alternating cast members, take place this afternoon – Sunday, March 1 – at 2 p.m. and again on Tuesday night, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. Running time is about 3 hours with one intermission. The opera is sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors and $10 for students. For more information about the opera, the cast and the production, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2020/02/10/cosi-fan-tutte/

 


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo trumpeter Jessica Jensen score big with an unusual program

March 2, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The concert by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) on Wednesday night presented a novel program at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

In the relatively brief first part, it presented two unusual items.

The first was by Nebojsa “Neb” Macura (b. 1982, below right with conductor Steve Kurr), a local musician of Serbian background, who has been particularly identified with Russian folk music and ensembles. But he also plays viola in the MCO, which gave him this opportunity in the spotlight.

His piece, Polar Night, is quite brief, but in this version for full orchestra (with piano), it is grounded with secure melodic flow, and it unfolds into a tonal picture full of beautiful colors. My only reservation was that I wanted more of it — either more music in this piece or other sections around it.

Macura is obviously talented, and he has a confident sense of orchestral writing. I really look forward to hearing more of him. Indeed, the MCO might well serve as exactly the laboratory in which he can develop new creations.

The second item was only a bit longer, a Trumpet Concerto by Russian composer Aleksandra Pakhmutova (b. 1929, below). Her long career has involved her in jazz, and also in extensive scoring for films. But she has a feeling for Russian traditional song, and that could be heard in this concerto.

It is cast in only a single movement, but it proceeds episodically.  There is certainly much flashy writing for the solo instrument, and local trumpeter Jessica Jensen (below) brought off her role dashingly.

The longer second part of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish,” by Robert Schumann. This splendid work was inspired by observation of life along the Rhine River.

It is unusual in being written in five movements, not the conventional four. (Oddly, their individual markings were not printed in the program, but conductor Steve Kurr (below) gave a clever spoken introduction that outlined the score for the audience.)

This is a very extroverted work, calling for a lot of orchestral sonority. I suspect that a little more rehearsal time would have helped the avoidance of some blemishes: rapid passages, especially in the first movement, were roughly articulated, and there were some tiny gaffes all along.

But the players were devoted in responding to maestro Kurr’s rather propulsive tempos. This score gives a lot to do particularly to the horn section, which played with ardent splendor.

As always, then, the MCO earned further laurels for presenting this very adventurous program.


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Classical music: UW oboist Aaron Hill performs world premieres and little known composers in a FREE recital Sunday afternoon

October 20, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This is Homecoming weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it is busy on many counts, including several classical music concerts in the city on Sunday afternoon.

But one of the more intriguing is a FREE recital at 3 p.m. in Mills Hall by UW-Madison Professor Aaron Hill (below), who teaches oboe and also performs in the Wingra Woodwind Quintet.

Hill will be joined by collaborative pianist Daniel Fung (below), who is also a vocal coach at the Mead Witter School of Music at the UW-Madison.

Particularly noteworthy is the number of world premieres and relatively unknown contemporary composers on the program.

Here is the program:

“Poem,” for oboe and piano (1953) by Marina Dranishnikova (1929-1994, below). (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Oboe Sonata (1947) by Jean Coulthard (1908-2000)

  1. Gently Flowing
  2. Sicilienne
  3. Allegro

Intermission

* Soliloquies (2013) by Andre Myers (b. 1973)

  1. To be or not to be
  2. There’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance
  3. In the Month of May
  4. Spring Discourse

   * world premiere performance

* After Manchester (2017) Aaron Hill and Michael Slon (b. 1982 and 1970, respectively) * world premiere performance

Four Personalities (2007) Alyssa Morris (b. 1984)

  1. Yellow
  2. White
  3. Blue
  4. Red

Here are some program notes by Aaron Hill:

“This program highlights five different ways to program previously unfamiliar music, as explained below.

“Poem” by Marina Dranishnikova came to me through our local community. Oliver Cardona, currently a junior music major at UW-Madison, initially brought it to my attention. The work was discovered and edited by my predecessor, Professor Marc Fink (below), during his travels in Russia.

I first heard the Oboe Sonata by Jean Coulthard (below) at the 2017 International Double Reed Society conference at Lawrence University  in Appleton, Wis.

Charles Hamann, the principal oboist of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, edited and recorded it as part of a large project to bring international attention to masterpieces by Canadian composers.

Andre Myers (below) attended the University of Michigan with me and we first became acquainted when I performed one of his orchestral works. His beautiful writing for English horn started our friendship and 15 years later, he wrote his Soliloquies for me.

The first two are based on famous scenes from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The third is based on a poem by Minnesota’s first poet laureate, Robert Bly, which will be read aloud from the stage. The final movement is inspired by a dream vision he had of centaurs playing in a meadow.

“After Manchester” was originally a free improvisation I recorded and posted to social media in the wake of the terror attack at Ariana Grande’s concert on June 4, 2017.

Later in the summer, Professor Michael Slon (below), the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Virginia, transcribed my improvisation and wrote a piano part to transform it into a piece of chamber music. The work was completed just days before the violent events in Charlottesville.

Professor Alyssa Morris (below) currently teaches oboe at Kansas State University and her compositions have become widely performed as standard literature for oboists in recent years.

She wrote “Four Personalities” to perform in her own undergraduate recital at Brigham Young University and I first heard it while searching for oboe music on YouTube. The piece is based on the Hartmann Personality Test.

In her words, the colors correspond to the following types:

Yellow: Yellow is fun-loving. The joy that comes from doing something just for the sake of doing it is what motivates and drives yellow.

White: White is a peacekeeper. White is kind, adaptable, and a good listener. Though motivated by peace, white struggles with indecisiveness. 

Blue: Blue brings great gifts of service, loyalty, sincerity, and thoughtfulness. Intimacy, creating relationships, and having purpose is what motivates and drives blue.

Red: Motivated by power. Red is aggressive and assertive. Red is visionary, confident, and proactive. 


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