The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


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Classical music: “Grace Presents” gets its own new website just in time for its FREE vocal concert of Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Songbook” this Saturday at noon. Plus, Karlos Moser and friends perform FREE Brazilian music at noon on Friday.

October 24, 2013
2 Comments

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison,  900 University Bay Drive, features Brazilian Song and Dance with retired University Opera director and pianist Karlos Moser and guests. It runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium (below).

FUS1jake

By Jacob Stockinger

There are quite a few free classical music organizations and concert presenters in Madison.

“Grace Presents” is one of the most up-and-coming. It provides an enjoyable and increasingly well-known a series of FREE and PUBLIC concerts of all kinds of music presented by Grace Episcopal Church (below), which is downtown at 116 West Washington Avenue on the Capitol Square.

grace episcopal church ext

The church itself is a fine place to hold a concert – classical, pop, folk and others. The dark wood and stained glass windows make for a beautiful venue, and the resonant acoustics add to the charm of the music.

MBM Grace stained glass window

MBM Grace cantatas ensemble

When she was appointed the new coordinator this summer, Kelly Hiser (below) , a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, said one of her first priorities was to generate a website for the series.

Kelly Hiser

Now her promise has become a reality – just in time for the FREE vocal concert by soprano Marie McManama and tenor Daniel O’Dea of Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Songbook” this Saturday from noon to 1 p.m. (To what your appetite, an excerpt of alive performance by Lucia Popp and Hermann Prey is at the bottom in a YouTube video.)

The work by Hugo Wolf (below, in a  1902 photo) is a song collection of 46 Italian vignettes translated into German, divided between male and female perspectives. wolf

Hugo Wolf 1902 photo

Writes Hiser: I’m happy to let you know that Grace Presents now has a website, which you can find at http://gracepresents.org/

The concert itself offers sanctuary, a perfect short respite from the crowds and business of the Dane County Farmers’ Market, which will hold its to last market on the Square for this season on Saturday, Nov. 9.

Here is more about the performers, who have local ties, this Saturday.

Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Marie McManama (below) is an accomplished opera singer and stage performer. Trained in classical voice at CCM in Cincinnati with both Bachelor’s and Masters degrees, McManama has performed in recital halls, concert halls, and operatic stages all over the country with the Madison Choral Project, Cincinnati Opera, St. Louis Symphony, San Francisco Festival Chorus, SongFest in Malibu, California, and the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson, Wyoming.

Though her background is in performance, she completed her music education licensure in December 2012 and has been teaching in the Madison area since January. In addition to her singing, she grew up studying violin and ballet and has recently added piano, guitar, and flute to her solo instrument skills. She teaches private voice in Waunakee and elementary general music in Madison.

Marie McManama

Daniel O’Dea (below) is a tenor from Chicago, Illinois. He is currently working towards his Doctor of Musical Arts in Voice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he is the recipient of the Paul Collins Wisconsin Distinguished Fellowship. In Madison he has recently performed with Madison Choral Project and the role of Jean Valjean in “Les Mis” with Middleton Players Theater. He has recently performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus, Chicago Bach Project, Grant Park Symphony Chorus, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Rockford Symphony Orchestra. He has also performed in The Crossing choir in Philadelphia and with VAE Cincinnati.

He received his Artist Diploma in Opera from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), Masters of Music in Voice from CCM and Bachelor’s of Music in Vocal Performance from Westminster Choir College. He was an Apprentice Artist with Des Moines Metro Opera and is an alumnus of the Aspen Opera Theater Center, Brevard Music Center and the Chautauqua Institute.

Daniel O'Dea headshot


Classical music: University Opera director Wiiliam Farlow talks about his retirement at the end of this season, and the rewards and challenges of staging opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

September 5, 2013
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

University Opera director William Farlow has announced that he will retire at the end of the current season, after spending 15 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

During his tenure, attendance has grown and the productions have received critical acclaim. (Below is soprano Emily Birsan, who went on to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, in the University Opera’s production of Jules Massenet‘s rarely heard opera “Thais.”)

Thais Birsan

The Ear knows Farlow as an amiable man who is always willing to help the local music scene and to promote his own vocal and instrumental students, a number of whom have gone on to important careers.

His productions at the UW-Madison are staged at Music Hall (below) at the foot of Bascom Hill.

MusicHall2

Farlow’s repertoire choices have ranged from such standards as Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” (below) and Franz Lehar‘s “The Merry Widow,” in a YouTube video at the bottom) to rarities and out-of-the-way works that he felt would be good for students to do. He has used both traditional and updated stagings.

University Opera La Boheme Photo 2

Here is a link to the University Opera home website that incudes productions, dates and times, and other information:

http://music.wisc.edu/opera

And here is a link to Opera Props, the support group that helps University Opera:

http://cpanel101.mulehill.com/~uwoperap/

Farlow (seen below in a photo by Kathy Esposito, the new concert manager and director of public relations at the UW School of Music) recently gave an email interview to The Ear.

William Farlow by Kathy Esposito

Can you give us some brief personal and professional background including when and why you came to the UW and why you are retiring? 

I came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall of 1998 after teaching at University of Arkansas-Fayetteville for five years. I came here because I felt I needed a new challenge -– which it certainly turned out to be!

I am retiring because I have spent the last 50 years of my life doing opera. It started when I was 15 and played in the second violin section for a production of Verdi’s “Aida.” I have continued into my mid-60s and feel it’s time to move on to the next chapter of my life. (Below is a photo of William Farlow in a rehearsal.)

Farlowrehearsing Cosi2004

Will you stay in Madison after you retire?

I have no immediate plans to move.

What are your plans for after retirement? Do you have special hobbies or activities you want to pursue? Will you continue to freelance as an opera director?

I will continue as Artistic Advisor to Fresco Opera Theatre and Operations Consultant to the Des Moines Metro Opera as well as continue to judge voice competitions –- I’ve been a judge for the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions for 30 years –- and to give master classes.

I do not plan on directing in the future and have turned down all offers for 2014, one of which was a complete “Ring” cycle of Wagner.

I can’t wait to cook more and read.

William Farlow witn roses

What are you most proud of during your tenure at the UW?

The huge variety of repertoire and quality productions we have been able to offer, and the phenomenal younger singers and instrumentalists.

What makes doing opera at a university school of music special or distinctive in your view, and what advice would you pass along to your successor?

There are so many more repertoire choices for university opera than for many professional companies. My advice is “Good luck” and “Leave no stone unturned.”

What was the best part of directing at the UW? The most frustrating part?

The best part was working with the opera’s music director and conductor James Smith (below top), who is such an extraordinary musician and colleague, and with soprano and associate director of University Opera Mimmi Fulmer (below bottom), who is the best everything.

The most frustrating part? FUNDING!!

Smith_Jim_conduct07_3130

Mimmi Fulmer

How healthy is the opera program now at the UW-Madison? What challenges do you see in the future?

The program is in good shape for now, but the challenges will continue to be recruitment and funding.

Why did you choose operas by  George Frideric Handel (“Ariodante” on Pct. 25, 27 and 29) and Hector Berlioz (“Beatrice and Benedict” on April 13, 15 and 19) for your farewell season?

My choices for this season are the same as they always have been — operas that give the most opportunities to the most singers.

Handel etching

berlioz

Is there anything else you would like to say? 

The last 15 years have been the most challenging and rewarding of my career. I have had the great honor of directing so many great works that I wouldn’t have dreamed would be possible at this point in my career.


Classical music: Let us now praise the young soloists and young composer who will be spotlighted at the University of Wisconsin School of Music’s annual FREE concerto competition concert this Friday night.

February 9, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

There is something heroic and stirring about a concerto that pits a single soloist against a big orchestra. So student instruments dream of the day and wait a long time for the big chance to perform a concerto.

Concertos are an exciting music genre to play and to hear, as you hear this Friday at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall when the annual FREE UW concerto competition winners will perform with the UW Symphony Orchestra (below, with the UW Choral Union) under James Smith and David Grandis.

I say that as someone who played the piano in a concerto competition when I was 16 (Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15) and lost to a 12- or 13-year-old who played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, very beautifully.

When friends find that out, they often said “I’m sorry you lost.”

But they shouldn’t be.

Concerto competitions do much more than declare winners.

In my case, the contest showed me exactly what needed to know: I didn’t have either the talent or temperament for a performing career. And it was better to have learned it sooner rather than later, after I had invested a lot of hard work, time and money in unrealistic fantasies of success.

But these young people at the University of Wisconsin School of Music have been tested in public performance before and I think their credentials speak well for them. The only thing I don’t like is that they perform movements, not entire concertos. But if that weren’t the case, the concert would last much longer.

I also like that singing is included. (That wasn’t the case in my day, as I recall.) And I like that less familiar instruments (like the marimba) get a chance to compete with the piano, strings, winds and brass. Finally, I like the young talent for composition is presented to the public.

It all reflects well on the teachers and teaching. In fact, the students at the UW School of Music just seem to get better and better as the years go by. I haven’t al these winners, but I have heard the piano in an absolutely first-rate and riveting performance of Beethoven’s final sonata, Op. 111 in C minor. So I assume the standards for winning were very high indeed.

Here is the UW press release with complete details

You don’t have to wait until after the concerts to applaud such persistence, hard work and talent.

UW SYMPHONY CONCERT FEATURES COMPETITION WINNERS

The UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of James Smith (below) will present its annual concerto and composition competition winners this Friday at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.

Admission is FREE and open to the public.

Five students were selected as winners in this year’s competition. Four will perform as soloists with the orchestra: Alice Bartsch, violin; Michael Roemer, baritone; Jeongmin Lee, piano; and Brett Walter, percussion.  In the separate category for composition, Youn-Jae Ok won for “Mi-Ryen,” which will be premiered by the orchestra on this same program.

Alice Bartsch (below) is a sophomore pursuing the Bachelor of Music degree in violin performance and studies with Felicia Moye.  She hails from Bloomington, Minnesota, and Bartsch’s past teachers include Ellen Kim and Young-Nam Kim.  She currently holds scholarships from the School of Music and the School of Music Alumni Association.  In addition to being a full-time student, Bartsch is a member of the first violin section of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and teaches violin privately. In high school, she was a finalist in the Minnesota Youth Symphony concerto competition.  She has participated in both the Northern Lights Chamber Music Institute and the Madeline Island Music Camp. Bartsch’s biggest aspiration is to perform in the pit orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera.  At this concert, she will perform all four movements of Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy.”

Michael Roemer (below) is currently pursuing the Master of Music degree in opera, studying with William Farlow and Julia Faulkner and holding a teaching assistantship in voice. He received the Bachelor of Music degree in voice performance at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he studied with Brian Leeper  A native of Brodhead, Wisconsin, he received an Encouragement Award from the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Wisconsin District in 2011.  In the same year, he performed with the Des Moines Metro Opera as an apprentice artist.  Last fall, he played the role of Marcello in University Opera’s production of “La Bohème” and next month, he will play the title role in the company’s production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” For the symphony program, Roemer will perform “Hai già vinta la causa . . . Vedrò mentre io sospiro” from “Le nozze de Figaro” by Mozart.  

Jeongmin Lee (below) is pursuing the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in piano performance and pedagogy, studying with Todd Welbourne and Jessica Johnson.  Originally from Seoul, Korea, she received the Bachelor of Music degree from Seoul National University, where she studied with Nakho Paik and Haesun Paik. She earned an artist diploma in piano performance at Oberlin Conservatory studying with Haewon Song and the Master of Music degree in piano performance and pedagogy at Northwestern University studying with Alan Chow and Marcia Bosits.  Lee is the recipient of the Perlman Trio scholarship from the School of Music.  She previously taught piano at Yanbian University of Science and Technology and music at Yanbian International Academy in China. Lee will perform the first movement (Allegro moderato) of Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major,” Op. 58.

Brett Walter is pursuing the Master of Music degree in percussion performance, studying with Anthony Di Sanza.  Originally from Grafton, Wisconsin, he received the Bachelor of Music degree in percussion performance from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he studied with Cheryl Grosso. He previously studied with Tom Fischer. Walter was a member of the 2007 Colts Drum and Bugle Corps and won second place in the Green Bay Civic Symphony Concerto Competition  In addition, he is a freelance musician and an active sectional coach with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra. Walter will perform “Prism Rhapsody for Marimba and Orchestra” by Keiko Abe.

Youn-Jae Ok (below) is a candidate for the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition and has studied with Stephen Dembski and Laura Schwendinger.  His early schooling was in Korea and England and he completed the International Baccalaureate at the Chateau du Rosey in Switzerland.  Ok holds the Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music and the Master of Music degree from Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of the Performing Arts. His teachers include Stacy Garrop, Daron Hagen, Joel Hoffman, Michael Fiday and Mara Helmuth.  Ok was the winner of the 2007-08 Roosevelt Wind Ensemble Competition for “Audacity” and was a regional winner of the 2008 SCI/ASCAP student composition competition for “Zest for Olive Salad.”  He is a repeat winner of the School of Music’s composition competition, having won in 2009 for “Vacillation.”  

Ok’s program notes begin, “The title of the piece, ‘Mi-Ryen,’ is an emotional state that describes a mixture of the following feelings: longing, nostalgia, lingering, regret and hovering. . . .  Mi-Ryen is perhaps a piece that describes an emotional state rather than expressing it, opening possibilities for audiences to link the described emotion to their current emotional state.  In other words, its intention is to evoke the listener’s emotions and not to impose emotion of my own.”

The new work will be performed under the direction of graduate assistant conductor David Grandis (below). Grandis will also open the concert with the Overture to Verdi’s “La forza del destino.”

A free public reception for musicians and audience will follow in Mills Hall lobby, sponsored by the School of Music Alumni Association. Mills Hall is located in the Mosse Humanities Building on the UW-Madison campus, at the corner of Park Street and University Avenue.


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