The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf returns to sing on Sunday night with Chanticleer. Here’s how he got there with the right teacher, hard work, good luck and a push from mom. Part 2 of 2 

October 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday night, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the new Hamel Music Center, the a cappella singing group Chanticleer (below) will kick off the centennial anniversary celebration of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Tickets are $45 for the public; $40 for faculty staff and Union members; and $10 for students. For more information about the performers and the “Trade Winds” program, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chanticleer/

Among the 12 members of Chanticleer is Gerrod Pagenkopf, who is in his fifth year with the group as both a countertenor and the assistant music director.

For a biography of Pagenkopf, go to: https://www.chanticleer.org/gerrod-pagenkopf

Pagenkopf is a graduate of the UW-Madison. When he performed as a student, his high, clear countertenor voice was a new experience and made those of us who heard him sit bolt upright and take notice. “He is going places,” we said to each. And so he has.

But Pagenkopf’s story is not only about him. It is also about the rediscovery of countertenors, about the changing public acceptance of them, and about the challenges that young musicians often face in establishing a professional performing career.

So The Ear is offering a longer-than-usual, two-part interview with Pagenkopf (below).

Part 1 appeared yesterday. Here is a link: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/30/classical-music-uws-first-countertenor-gerrod-pagenkopf-returns-to-perform-on-sunday-night-as-a-member-of-the-acclaimed-choral-group-chanticleer-heres-how-he-got-from-here-to-there/

Here is Part 2:

Back when you were a student here, were you the only countertenor at the School of Music? How did you find out you were a countertenor and pursue that training?

As I recall, I was the only countertenor — certainly the only one studying in the voice department. I had been studying as a tenor with Ilona Kombrink (below, in photo by UW-Madison News Service) for a few semesters, and it just didn’t seem as easy as it was supposed to.

I didn’t sound like other tenors in my studio or on recordings. I remember that a famous countertenor had just come out with an album of Handel arias, and, upon hearing it, I thought to myself, “I can sing like that!”

I asked Professor Kombrink about it, and she told me to learn “Cara Sposa” from Handel’s “Rinaldo” over the summer. When I came back in the fall, if it sounded legitimate she agreed I could pursue countertenor singing.

I remember that first lesson of the fall. After I sang this Handel aria for her, she sat back and mused in her sage-like manner, “Yes, this must needs be.”

I never looked back. I think I was on the early edge of the re-emergence of countertenors. Certainly there were countertenors working professionally, but there weren’t that many. There weren’t any other countertenors in Houston when I went to grad school, and even when I moved to Boston, there were only a handful of working countertenors.

Since then, how has the treatment of countertenors changed in the academic and professional worlds?

By the time I left Boston a few years ago, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a countertenor. We now see young countertenors winning major competitions and earning places in young artist programs around the country. The competition is fierce now.

I was lucky enough to be one of just a few fish in the pond, but now countertenors are everywhere—and a lot of them are really good! I also remember that there was a stigma so that it would be difficult to find a voice teacher who would teach countertenors.

A lot of pedagogy books by reputable technicians said that countertenors weren’t real — they just sing in falsetto, which isn’t a real voice. I was lucky that Professor Kombrink was willing to explore that with me. I think now that there are so many successful countertenors singing everywhere, I hope this antiquated view of the voice type has changed.

What would you like the public to know about the program you will perform here? Are you featured in certain pieces?

Our “Trade Winds” program explores several different aspects of the wayfaring sailor. They include Monteverdi madrigals about water and nature; a wonderful mass setting by a largely unknown century Portuguese composer, Filipe de Magalhaes; several charming folksongs from around the Pacific Rim; and even a few sea shanties.

It’s a varied program that includes repertoire from as early as the 15th century up to just a few months ago. One of Chanticleer’s missions is to further the art of live music through new compositions, and we’ve commissioned a fantastic young Chinese-American composer, Zhou Tian (below), to write a new multi-movement piece for us, entitled “Trade Winds,” from which our program also gets its title.

Lots of listeners are scared of “new music,” but Zhou has given us a gem. It’s easy to listen to, and I think listeners will instantly understand what it’s all about.

What are your plans for the future?

Personally, I can’t say that I have anything coming up. As wonderful as Chanticleer is, the job pretty much limits any amount of outside freelance work. (At the bottom, you can hear Chanticleer singing “Shenandoah,” its most popular YouTube video – and a piece with a prominent countertenor part — with well over 1.6 million hits.)

One of the truly fantastic parts of singing in Chanticleer (below, performing on stage) is all the places we travel to. We started off this season with a three-week tour of Europe, which was actually the ensemble’s third trip to Europe in 2019.

We love traveling around the U.S., and as I’ve said, traveling back to Madison is certainly the highlight for me. The Midwest is always a special place for us to sing, as several of our members are from this region.

We’re very excited to travel to Australia in June 2020. I think it’s Chanticleer’s first visit “Down Under.” We will also be going back to the studio in January to record a new album for release sometime later in 2020. We have lots of exciting events coming down the pipeline.

Is there something else you would like to say?

Prior to singing with Chanticleer, I had been living in Boston for almost eight years, pursuing professional singing as a freelance artist.

To make ends meet, I had been working at Starbucks, which I actually started doing when I still lived in Madison, and my gigging was getting lucrative enough that I eventually decided to take a leave of absence from slinging lattes.

While I was in Wisconsin on Christmas vacation, I received a message from Chanticleer’s music director, William Fred Scott, letting me know that there was an immediate vacancy in the ensemble, and would I be interested in singing for them.

I thought I was being spammed, so I didn’t respond, and continued to enjoy the bliss of spending the entirety of the holidays with my family.

When I eventually got back to Boston a few days later, another email arrived from Mr. Scott: “Did you get my email? We’d really like to hear from you.” Ok, how do I tell them I’m clearly NOT the countertenor they’re looking for?

Well, after much soul-searching, calling my mother (“Just do it!” she exclaimed), and figuring out the logistics of liquidating a one-bedroom apartment, I decided to run away and join the circus. It was a complete leap of faith, but I think I made the right decision.

Don’t give up on your dreams. Singing in Chanticleer was the first legitimate dream I remember having. Although my musical path took me in several other directions, that path eventually led me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.


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Classical music: UW-Madison’s first countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf returns to perform on Sunday night as a member of the acclaimed choral group Chanticleer. Here’s how he got from here to there. Part 1 of 2 

September 30, 2019
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ALERT: Madison Symphony Orchestra organist Greg Zelek did not announce his encore after he received a standing ovation at the MSO concert Sunday afternoon. It was the final movement from the Organ Symphony No. 1 by Louis Vierne.

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday night, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the inaugural  concert in the new Hamel Music Center’s main concert hall, the critically acclaimed a cappella singing group Chanticleer (below) will kick off the centennial anniversary celebration of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Tickets are $45 for the public; $40 for faculty staff and Union members; and $10 for students. For more information about the performers and the “Trade Winds” program, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chanticleer/

Among the 12 members of the San-Francisco-based Chanticleer is Gerrod Pagenkopf, who is in his fifth year with the group as both a countertenor and the assistant music director. (You can hear Pagenkopf singing music by Henry Purcell in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For a biography of Gerrod Pagenkopf, go to: https://www.chanticleer.org/gerrod-pagenkopf

Pagenkopf (below) is a graduate of the UW-Madison. When he performed here as a student, his high, clear countertenor voice was a new experience and made those of us who heard him sit bolt upright and take notice. “He is going places,” we said to each other. And so he has.

But Pagenkopf’s story is not only about him. It is also about the rediscovery of countertenors, about the changing public acceptance of them, and about the challenges that young musicians often face in establishing a professional performing career. So today and tomorrow, The Ear is offering a longer-than-usual, two-part interview with Pagenkopf.

Here is Part 1:

When were you at the UW-Madison?

I was a student at the UW-Madison from the fall of 1997 until I graduated in May of 2002. Although I received a bachelor’s degree in music education, performing ended up being a huge part of my last few semesters.

Growing up in rural Wisconsin about 30 miles north of Green Bay, I always thought that if you liked music and were good at it, you were supposed to be a teacher. It wasn’t until I was a junior that my voice teacher, the late Ilona Kombrink, and I discovered that I had a viable solo voice. Although I received the music education degree, embarking on a solo career became more important to me.

What did you do and how well did your studies and performances here prepare you for the life of a professional musician?

I was very lucky to have ample opportunities for performing during my time at the UW. Singing in choirs was very important to me. For many years I sang in the Concert Choir under Beverly Taylor (below top) as well as in the Madrigal Singers under Bruce Gladstone (below bottom,, in a photo by Katrin Talbot). I think there was one semester where I sang in just about every auditioned choir.

Beverly Taylor also gave me a lot of solo opportunities in the large-scale works that the Choral Union performed: Bach’s “St. John” and “St. Matthew” Passions, and Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” For a 23-year-old to have those masterworks, along with the B Minor Mass and “Messiah,” on his resume was very impressive.

I was also lucky enough to perform with University Opera, singing in the chorus at first, but then singing a solo role in Handel’s “Xerxes” my final semester, and then returning as an alumni artist to sing Public Opinion in Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” and several years later Polinesso in Handel’s “Ariodante.” Director Bill Farlow took a lot of chances on my young, “raw” countertenor voice and gave me several opportunities to succeed.

I should also note the importance of the guidance and mentorship of Professor Mimmi Fulmer (below, performing at Frank Loyd Wright’s Hillside Theater at Taliesin in Spring Green) after I graduated from UW. She afforded me the opportunity to sing in recital with her numerous times — usually Brahms and Mendelssohn duets. But she also was a catalyst in bringing me back to Madison several years later to sing with the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble. Our continued relationship is actually the primary reason Chanticleer is singing in Madison this fall.

How do you feel about returning to perform at your alma mater with Chanticleer?

I’m over the moon about it. It still feels like a dream that I’m singing in Chanticleer. To be able to bring a group that I’m so proud to be a part of back to Madison feels like a great personal triumph. And to be the opening performance in the new Hamel Center (below) is such an honor!

Throughout my studies at UW-Madison, I was torn between the solo performance track and the choral career. I managed to straddle both, but my dream was always to make ensemble singing my career. Way back in the early 2000s, I heard Chanticleer sing at Luther Memorial Church, and I thought, “That’s what I want to do!”

I went down several other paths since that concert — mostly in the realm of solo, operatic singing — but it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to say I achieved my dream, and I’m coming back to place where the seed of that dream was planted almost 20 years ago.

Tomorrow: How countertenors re-emerged and were treated, the “Trade Winds” program and Pagenkopf’s future plans


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Classical music: WQXR radio names 19 musicians to watch in ’19. What do you think of the choices? Who would you add?

January 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What will 2019 bring in the way of classical music?

What and who should we be looking at and paying attention to?

WQXR — the famed classical radio station in New York City – recently published its list of 19 to watch in ‘19, with detailed reasons for and explanations of their picks.

It seems like a pretty good choice to The Ear, although there is always something of a parlor game aspect to such projects.

Nonetheless, the list covers a fine variety – instrumentalists and vocalists, young and old, American and international, the well-known and the up-and-coming such as the opera singer Devone Tines (below, in a photo by Nikolai Schukoff).

Some names will be familiar to Madison audiences – such as pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Nicola Benedettti, the JACK Quartet and cellist Steven Isserlis — especially through their live appearances at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the Madison Symphony Orchestra plus broadcasts on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here is a link to the list: https://www.wqxr.org/story/wqxr-presents-19-19-artists-collaborations-upcoming-year/

The Ear can think of some other musicians that he would add to the list.

An especially deserving one of them is the young American virtuoso pianist George Li (below, in a photo by Simon Fowler).

Born in China and brought as a child to the United States by his parents, Li attended Harvard and just finished his master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music. (At the bottom, you can hear Li play virtuosic music by Liszt and Horowitz in the YouTube video of a Tiny Desk Concert at National Public Radio or NPR.)

Li won the silver medal in the 2015 at the 15th Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow and had a lot of people talking about the energy and excitement of his playing. He was praised for both outstanding technical prowess and deep expressiveness.

He then took first prize at a piano competition in Paris.

Ever since, he has been steadily booked. At 23, the amiable Li has already toured China, Japan and Russia and seems to have a very busy schedule ahead of him, judging by his posts on Instagram.

He has also released his first recording on the Warner Classics label, a fine CD that received many positive reviews from critics, including this one.

The program includes Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor “Funeral March,” Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme of Corelli,” and Consolation No. 3 and the popular Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt.

Given all the concertos he is now performing, it would not surprise one to see his next recording be a concerto, possibly the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto N. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, which brought him instant acclaim.

Here is a link to his website: http://www.georgelipianist.com

And here is a link to his entry in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Li

Keep your ears and eyes on George Li.

What do you think of the choices made by WQXR?

Who would you add to the list of musicians to watch in 2019, and why?

If possible, maybe you can include a YouTube link to a performance, live or recorded, in your comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Messiah” marks 10 years with another sold-out performance and two new soloists this Friday night. Then starting Saturday, it’s on to “The Nutcracker”

December 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

There is no more iconic piece of classical music for the holiday season than the oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel. (You can hear the famous “Hallelujah” Chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For 10 years, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the WCO Chorus, the Festival Choir and four guest soloists (all forces from a previous performance are in the photo below) have been bringing the masterwork to Madison. And it usually plays to a full house.

This year’s performance once again takes place at 7 p.m. this Friday night, Dec. 7, at the Blackhawk Church, 8629 Brader Way in Middleton. And once again, all 800 seats are sold out.

For more information, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah-1/

“It is very successful and has become a real tradition,” says WCO’s Chief Operating Officer Sue Ellen McGuire. “We have people and families who come year after year.”

But that does not mean each year’s performance, both acclaimed by critics and popular with the public, is a repetition of the previous year’s.

True, some things carry over, such as the longtime soprano soloist Sarah Lawrence and bass soloist Peter Van de Graaff (below), who is also the overnight resonant voice of classical music on Wisconsin Public Radio via The Beethoven Satellite Network.

“It is such a great masterpiece that I feel I can play around with it somewhat and make each year’s performance distinctive and different,” says WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below). Some years, he says, he cuts out or adds certain choruses; or changes the intermission break; or alters the makeup of the instruments or choruses; or uses different soloists, or continues to adapt to and adopt early music practices.

Take this year. For the first time, the performance will include two singers who competed in the annual Handel Aria Competition held in Madison: mezzo-soprano Johanna Bronk (a finalist in 2017), and tenor Gene Stenger (bottom left, the second prize winner and audience favorite in 2017).

“It’s a no-brainer and a natural fit to use the world-class talent that takes part in a local event,” says Sewell, who is also the music director of the symphony orchestra in San Luis Obispo in California.

And for those of you who wonder what the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra does after Concerts on the Square end in the summer and before its Masterworks series starts in January, the answer is marking the holidays.

In addition to “Messiah,” the WCO will accompany the Madison Ballet’s performances of Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” that take place between Dec. 8 and Dec. 26 in the Overture Center. For details and tickets, go to: https://www.madisonballet.org/nutcracker/


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Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/


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Classical music: Singer David Daniels is accused of drugging and raping a young opera singer

August 23, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

More allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault keep emerging from the world of classical music, even as the #MeToo movement is again in the headlines with accusations and denials about the movie star Asia Argento having sex with a minor.

The latest allegation is an accusation by a young opera singer who says that in 2010 he was drugged and raped by David Daniels (below), who is world-famous as a countertenor and who teaches at the University of Michigan, where he is now on leave.

Included in the allegation is Daniels’ husband Scott Walters, who is a conductor and who is accused of participating in the drug and rape incident.

Here is a well-researched and well-reported story from National Public Radio (NPR):

https://www.npr.org/2018/08/22/640945881/opera-singer-david-daniels-accused-of-rape

And here is a link to the story in The New York Daily News, the newspaper that first broke the story. That version also has photos of the accuser and Scott Walters.

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ny-news-stasi-singer-claims-rape-classical-music-stars-20180821-story.html


Classical music: Here are the winners of Friday night’s sixth annual Handel Aria Competition

June 11, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The sixth annual Handel Aria Competition took place Friday night in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus at the Mead Witter School of Music.

It was, as usual, much fun.

Such serious fun deserved a bigger audience. But The Ear suspects that the opening night of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society at the Overture Center and the aria competition cut into each other’s audience. Maybe that scheduling conflict can be avoided in the future.

Everyone seems to agree that every year, as word of the competition continues to spread far and wide, the singers get better. This year, the seven finalists – five sopranos and three mezzo-sopranos chosen from 113 international applicants — were all terrific.

Special thanks should also go to the Madison Bach Musicians, who in a short amount of rehearsal time turned in outstanding accompaniment in music that can be hard to follow because or ornaments and embellishments as well as subjective interpretations and the Baroque singing style.

The wide repertoire included recitatives and arias from “Semele,” “Giulio Cesare,” “Rodelinda,” “Theodora,” “Hercules,” “Ariodante,” “Judas Maccabeus” and “Ricardo Primo, re d’Inghilterra” (Richard the First, King of England).

The biggest disappointment – in truth not very big — was that the competition had no male voices. There were no tenors, countertenor, baritones or basses to add to the variety. (You can hear the 2017 Audience Favorite, tenor Gene Stenger, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But that is how judging on merit works, so who can argue?

Once again, The Ear and many of his voice-savvy friends disagreed with the three professional judges. That seems to happen every year. But there will be more about that, as well as some other observations, another time.

In the meantime, let us celebrate the results.

Here, from left to right in a photo by David Peterson, are this year’s winners: soprano Sarah Hayashi, Second Prize; soprano Suzanne Karpov, First Prize; mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, Audience Favorite; and mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit, Third Prize.

All of the performances will be posted on YouTube at a later date, which The Ear will announce when it happens.

For more information about the seven finalists and the three professional judges, as well as updated news and how you can support the ever-expanding competition, go to:

https://handelariacompetition.com

https://handelariacompetition.com/2018-competition/


Classical music: UW Choral Union and soloists succeed impressively in Bach’s massive “St. Matthew Passion.” Plus, a FREE concert of Leonard Bernstein songs is at noon on Friday

April 25, 2018
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features two husband-and-wife teams. Singers bass-baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and pianists Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer will perform an all-Leonard Bernstein program in honor of his centennial. The program includes selections from Arias and Barcarolles,” “Mass,” “Peter Pan,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Songfest.” The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

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 photographs.

By John W. Barker

It comes a bit late for this year’s Holy Week, but the UW Choral Union’s impressive mounting of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last Sunday was still a major contribution to our music this spring.

Running at almost three hours, this is Bach’s longest single work, and is regarded by now as one of the musical monuments of Western Civilization. But its length and its demands make it something performed only on special occasions.

No antiquarian, conductor Beverly Taylor, who directs choral activities at the UW-Madison, tried to follow carefully Bach’s elaborate specifications, which call for both a double chorus and a double orchestra, along with soloists.

A traditionally ample agency, the Choral Union this time fielded a total of 100 singers, plus a 12-member children’s choir, as against a pair of student orchestras numbering 14 and 12 respectively, all playing modern instruments.

This was hardly a balanced combination and Bach himself could never have assembled, much less managed, so huge a chorus as this. It certainly overwhelmed the orchestras, and quite drowned out the children’s group in their appearance at the beginning and ending of Part I.

Still, there is no denying the magnificence of such a large choral force. It was just a bit challenged by the turbae or crowd passages. Nevertheless, to hear such a powerful choir sing so many of the intermittent chorales in Bach’s harmonizations is to feel the glory of the entire Lutheran legacy in religious expression.

A total of 16 soloists were employed, in functions of varying consequence.

At the head of the list stand two. Tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below left) has a voice of more Italian than German character, to my taste. But he not only carried off the heavy duties of the narrating Evangelist, he also sang the tenor arias as well, with unfailing eloquence.  And faculty baritone Paul Rowe (below right) was truly authoritative as Jesus in the parts reserved for the Savior.

The arias were otherwise addressed by a double cast of singers, two each on the other voice parts. Of the two sopranos, Sara Guttenberg (if I have the identity correctly from the confusing program) was strong and splendidly artistic.

Talia Engstrom was more a mezzo-soprano than a true contralto, and not an equally powerful singer, but I did like her very engaging singing. (You can hear the lovely contralto and violin aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The sharing of the alto arias with a countertenor was, however, not a good idea. Of the two bass-baritones, Matthew Chastain (if I have his identity aright) sang with strong and rich tone.  The other singers, mostly singing the character parts in the Gospel text, were generally students, ranging widely in maturity and appeal.

Taken as a whole, though, this performance was an admirable achievement for Beverly Taylor (below). Her tempos were on the moderate side, accommodating especially the large chorus. Above all, her enterprise was obvious in tackling this massive work, while the choral singers obviously found a special thrill in participating in it.

Compliments should be given the program, which contained the full German text interlarded with the English translation. With full house lighting, this wisely allowed the audience to follow along closely.

But the performance was divided into two sittings, one for Part I at 4 p.m., the second for Part II at 7:30 p.m., with a break in between of over two hours — really too long, I found.


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Classical music: Performances by this year’s seven Handel Aria Competition finalists are now on YouTube

July 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even if they change your opinion about who should have won what prize in this year’s fifth annual Handel Aria Competition, it’s too late.

That’s the thing about a competition: No second-guessing and no second chances — at least not this year.

But it’s not too late to enjoy the competition all over again

This past week, 14 performances by all seven finalists, who did two each, were posted on YouTube.

Here is the official announcement:

“The Handel Aria Competition is pleased to announce that first prize in the 5th annual competition, held on June 9 in Madison, Wisconsin, went to mezzo-soprano Nian Wang. Wang performed two fiery Handel arias, “Where Shall I Fly?” from Hercules and “Crude furie degl’ orridi abissi” from Serse (Xerxes).

Wang (below in a photo by Mary Gordon) is a New York-based mezzo-soprano originally from Nanjing, China. She graduated from the opera program at the Curtis Institute of Music, and in 2014 was selected as a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow.

“Along with Wang, tenor Gene Stenger (below left, in a photo by David Peterson) won second prize and the audience favorite award, while mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski (below right) took third prize in the competition.

“Seven finalists (below), selected from a field of more than 100 singers, each sang two arias accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians under the direction of Trevor Stephenson.

Finalists in the 2017 Handel Aria Competition are pictured below (top to bottom, left to right): Gene Stenger, Clara Osowski, Nicole Heinen, Brian Giebler, Nian Wang, Andrew Rader and Johanna Bronk.

UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe, Craig Trompeter and Alessandra Visconti served as the professional judges for this year’s competition.

Every finalist received some votes for the hotly contested audience favorite prize.

The Handel Aria Competition was established in 2013 to encourage emerging singers to explore the operas and oratorios of George Frideric Handel. It is held annually in Mills Hall of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

The competition, founded by Carol “Orange” and Dean Schroeder (below), was inspired by Mr. Schroeder’s passion for Handel’s operatic works.

Please note:  The arias by all seven finalists can now be seen on our YouTube channel. (As an example, winner Nina Wang‘s two arias are at the bottom.)

Bios of the winners and the other four finalists are on our web site.”


Classical music: The fifth annual Handel Aria Competition is this Friday night – and the event has grown into a major event with broad cross-cultural appeal

June 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

In a short time, it has become one of the year’s MUST-HEAR local events for fans of Baroque music, fine singing, and the music of composer George Frideric Handel.

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the fifth annual Handel Aria Competition will take place.

Handel Aria Competition tickets are $15 for general admission, and will be available at the door.

For the third year, the Madison Bach Musicians, led by the keyboardist founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson, will accompany the seven finalists who were selected from over 100 applicants from China, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and 26 states including Hawaii.

Finalists in the 2017 Handel Aria Competition are pictured below (left to right): Gene Stenger, Clara Osowski, Nicole Heinen (who studied at the UW-Madison), Brian Giebler, Nian Wang, Andrew Rader and Johanna Bronk.

In addition to the professional judging for first, second and third prize, there will be a cash prize for Audience Favorite.

The Handel Aria Competition is an annual event held in Madison, Wisconsin to promote the performance of Handel’s extensive vocal repertoire.

Once connected to the Madison Early Music Festival in July, it has evolved into a separate event due to logistics and staffing.

Founders Dean and Orange Schroeder (below) are enthusiasts of George Frideric Handel’s music and lifelong supporters of the arts.

They write:

“In the spring of 2013, we started the Handel Aria Competition with no real experience, using only the Handel Singing Competition in London – the world’s only, at that time – as a model. We were inspired by the recent groundswell of interest in Handel’s operas and oratorios, most of which have been rarely performed for some 300 years!”

Since then, the competition has grown from 50 to 105 applicants and features orchestral accompaniment as well as large, enthusiastic and often partisan audiences.

You can follow the competition, with news and background stories on the Facebook page for the Handel Aria Competition at https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=handel%20aria%20competition

For more information, including extensive biographies of the finalists and the results of past competitions as well as advice about how to apply for the competition and how to support it, go to the website HandelAriaCompetition.com

Countertenor Eric Jurenas, winner of the 2016 competition, can be heard in the YouTube video below:


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