The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Mozart masterfully melds the emotional and the intellectual, says maestro Gary Thor Wedow, who will conduct two performances of “The Magic Flute” this weekend for the Madison Opera. Here is Part 1 of his two-part interview with The Ear

April 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute this Friday night, April 21 at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. (Production photos are courtesy of the Arizona Opera, from which the Madison Opera got its sets and costumes.)

Here are an introduction and some details, courtesy of the Madison Opera:

Written in the last year of his life, Mozart’s opera is part fairy tale, part adventure story, and is filled with enchantment.

Set in a fairy-tale world of day and night, the opera follows Prince Tamino and the bird-catcher Papageno as they embark on a mission to rescue Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Pamina had been kidnapped by Sarastro, the leader of a religious order. But it turns out that exactly who is “good” and who is “evil” is not always what it appears.

Along the way to happily-ever-after, Pamina, Tamino and Papageno face many challenges, but are assisted by a magic flute, magic bells, a trio of guiding spirits and their own clear-eyed sense of right and wrong.

“The Magic Flute has been beloved around the world since its 1791 premiere,” says Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “It has been called a fairy tale for both adults and children, with a story that works on many levels, all set to Mozart’s glorious music. I’m so delighted to be sharing it again with Madison, with an incredible cast, director and conductor.”

The opera runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets are $18 to $130.

“The Magic Flute” will be sung in German with English supertitles.

For more about the production and cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/

And also go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/cast/

Dan Rigazzi, who has been on the directing staff at the Metropolitan Opera for 10 years, makes his Madison Opera debut with this beautiful production that incorporates some steampunk elements into its fairy-tale setting.

Gary Thor Wedow, a renowned Mozart conductor, makes his mainstage debut with this opera, after having conducted Opera in the Park in 2016 and 2012.

Conductor Wedow (below) recently agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:

Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers?

Hello! I’m an American conductor, born in LaPorte, Indiana. A faculty member at The Juilliard School, I spend a lot of time with music of the 18th century — Handel and Mozart and often earlier, like Monteverdi, Purcell and Cavalli. But I conduct everything and grew up in love with the Romantics. I’ve also always done a lot of contemporary music. I love it all.

Mozart’s music sounds so clear and easy or simple, but the reality is quite different, musicians say. What do you strive for and what qualities do you think make for great Mozart playing?

Mozart engages both the brain and the heart. He challenges your intellect with amazing feats of counterpoint, orchestration and structure while tugging at your heart, all the time pulling you along in a deep drama.

Mozart was an Italian melodist with a German contrapuntal, harmonic engine – like an incredible automobile with an Italian slick body and a German motor.

Do you share the view that opera is central to Mozart’s music, even to his solo, chamber and ensemble instrumental music? How so? What is special or unique to Mozart’s operas, and to this opera in particular?

From all accounts, Mozart (below, in his final year) was a huge personality who was full of life and a keen observer of the human condition; his letters are full of astute, often merciless and sometimes loving evaluations of family, colleagues and patrons.

Mozart’s music speaks of the human condition: its passions, loves and hopes— no matter what genre. His music is innately dramatic and primal, going immediately to the most basic and universal human emotions with breathtaking nuance, variety and depth. (You can hear the Overture to “The Magic Flute,” performed by the Metropolitan Opera orchestra under James Levine, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tomorrow: Tricks to conducting Mozart and what to pay special attention to in this production of The Magic Flute.


Classical music: University Opera’s entertaining production of “Transformations” features a wonderful student cast and great resourcefulness. The last performance is TONIGHT at 7:30. Plus, the UW Chamber Orchestra performs a FREE concert Wednesday night.

March 15, 2016
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ALERT: The UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra, under its director James Smith, will give a FREE performance on this Wednesday night at 7:30 in Mills Hall. The program features the Divertimento for Strings by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara; the Divertimento, by Bela Bartok; and Elegy (string orchestra version), by the late American composer Elliott Carter.

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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Among the works of the prolific American composer Conrad Susa (1935-2013) were five operas. The last of them (1994) was The Dangerous Liaisons, after the scandalous 18th-century French novel by Choderlos de Laclos.

Susa’s first, Transformations (1973), was utterly different, a true novelty. He called it a “chamber opera” but one might wonder if it is really an opera at all, by conventional standards of lyric theater.

(NOTE: The last performance of the University Opera’s current production of “Transformations” is TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall. Admission is $25 for the general public, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.)

To begin with, the work has no real libretto, but rather represents Susa’s settings of eight of the poems in a collection of the same title published in 1971 by the brilliant but mentally troubled Anne Sexton (below, 1928-1974). Her book contained 17 poems, each representing a reframing of one of the Grimm folk tales.

anne sexton

Of those 17, Susa (below) selected 10 for his Transformations, setting them as they stand and putting them in his own sequence.

Conrad Susa

The work is scored for eight singers, supported by an ensemble of eight instrumentalists.

Sexton’s saucy texts are both reflective and narrative, but they do not create consistent “roles.” Through solos and ensembles, the singers give out those texts, with selective opportunities for character representation.

The vocal writing is often quite daring, always very clever and witty, but hardly melodic in traditional ways, while the instrumental contributions are spikey, often provocative, and sometimes allusive. There is not a single melody to remember, but the effect of this “ensemble opera” is consistently absorbing, and entertaining.

Transformations has been Susa’s most successful and widely performed work. This 2016 production is in fact the third to have been given by the University Opera at the UW-Madison. The first was mounted under Karlos Moser in 1976, there years after the premiere performance by the Minnesota Opera and it was the second new production anywhere. Moser repeated it in 1991.

Now we have had the realization of it by interim University Opera director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio).

David Ronis color CR Luke DeLalio

In the Minnesota Opera production, the successive episodes are launched in a set representing an insane asylum. Moser studiously avoided that in his productions.Ronis has used instead an urban office or room that serves as a space for a kind of group therapy session.

At first thought, it seems an unnecessary imposition. (Yes, Sexton, who is represented in the piece, did spend some time in mental institutions, before the last of her suicide attempts was successful.) In point of fact, however, little is made of such a setting as the production progresses, so it does not much matter one way or the other.

What marks this production, however, is Ronis’ unflagging resourcefulness in devising movements and gestures for his singers to constantly point up details in the story-telling.

And he has a simply wonderful cast of young singers to carry out his direction. Because of inevitable weekend schedule crunches, I had to attend the Sunday afternoon performance, at which Cayla Bosché was the robust portrayer of Sexton and some problematical mothers.

High soprano Nicole Heinen (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) represented Snow White and numerous princesses or virginal types. Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Beuchel was particularly delightful as the Witch to Hansel and Gretel.

Dress Rehearsal for "Transformations"

Tenor Dennis Gotkowsky was deliciously arch as Rumpelstiltskin, and tenor William Ottow (below, lying down, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) cleverly represented a number of princes. Tenor Michael Hoke, baritone Brian Schneider, and bass Benjamin Schultz were all admirable in their varied assignments.

Transformations William Ottow and Rebecca Beuchel CR Michael r. Anderson

Under the leadership of conductor Kyle Knox (below), a gifted and busy graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the instrumentalists gave pointed support throughout.

Kyle Knox 2

Not a big-hit item, then, as the rather thin attendance on Sunday afternoon suggested—not something for those who seek Mozart, Verdi and Puccini.

But it is a very enjoyable novelty that really does warrant presentation, as this new production amply demonstrated.

In this photo by Michael R. Anderson, cast members include Brian Schneider, Rebecca Buechel, Cayla Rosche (foreground, as Anne Sexton), William Ottow, and Nicole Heinen in Transformations.

Dress Rehearsal for "Transformations"


Classical music: Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle” wins two Golden Globe awards. But Season 2 — which is now available for streaming and features real-life famous longhairs — gets a mixed review from The New York Times

January 17, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

“Sex, drugs and classical music”?

It was easy to underestimate the Amazon comedy sitcom “Mozart in the Jungle” as just a commercial low-brow, rock and roll take on the high-brow world of classical music.

Mozart in the Jungle poster

Until two weeks ago.

That when the TV comedy series, which portrays the trials and tribulations of being a classical musician in today’s pop-oriented culture, won two Golden Globe awards.

golden globes 2016

One award went to the accomplished Mexican actor, director and producer Gabriel Garcia Bernal (below) for the Best Actor in a TV Series, Comedy or Musical. He plays Rodrigo, an orchestra conductor.

Gael Garcia Bernal as conductor Rodrigo Mozart in the Jungle CR Amazon Studios

The second award went to the show as Best TV Series for Comedy or Musical.

Will any Emmys follow?

The second season has been ready for streaming since Dec. 30. And winning the two Golden Globe awards is sure to spike viewer interest. (You can see the trailer for Season 2 in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Although there are some fine things to admire in Season 2, apparently it loses steam and gets repetitive.

At least that is the assessment of music critic Zachary Woolfe, who writes for The New York Times.

One interesting sidelight of Season 2 is that several big-name classical musicians make a cameo appearance on the show.

They include the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the phenom music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

DudamelChris Christodoulou

The flamboyant Chinese superstar pianist Lang-Lang:

Lang Lang so expressive

And mainstream American piano star Emanuel Ax, who will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in March. (NOTE: Ax was to play the Symphonic Variations by Cesar Franck and the Burleske by Richard Strauss. That program has now been changed to the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven.)

Emanuel Ax Philharmonia

To The Ear, the show still sounds like fun – if you can get past or overlook the endless sense of crisis.

Which, curiously, also just happens to be how one might feel about the real-life, non-fiction world of classical music these days with its focus on declining attendance, fewer recordings, labor strife and programming.

Here is a link to the review:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/arts/television/mozart-in-the-jungle-where-classical-music-meets-soap-opera.html?_r=0

Tell us in the COMMENT section what you think of either the first season or the second season, if you have already started to watch it.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music Q&A: Meet opera director David Ronis who makes his local debut in the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring” this Friday night in Music Hall with additional performances on Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night.

October 20, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

You may recall that the longtime director of University Opera William Farlow retired last spring. While no permanent successor has been named yet, the impressively qualified David Ronis, from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY), was chosen from a national search and is serving as a guest director this academic year.

Ronis (below, seen talking to the cast on stage) makes his University of Wisconsin-Madison debut this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill, with a production of British composer Benjamin Britten’s comic opera “Albert Herring.”  (The opening scene from a Los Angeles Opera production can be heard at the bottom in a YouTube video.) Additional performances are on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m.

Albert Herring Rehearsal

Tickets are $22 general admission; $18 for senior; and $10 for student. They are available at the door and from the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office or call (608) 265-ARTS (2787)/ Buy in person and you will save the service fees.

Here are links with more information about the opera and about Ronis, including a fine profile interview done by Kathy Esposito, the public relations and concert manager at the UW-Madison School of Music:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2014/09/19/david-ronis-theatrical-emphasis/

http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/david-ronis/

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2014/09/19/university-opera-presents-brittens-albert-herring/

And here is a link to David Ronis’ personal website:

http://www.davidronis.com

Finally, here is the email Q&A that David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) gave to The Ear:

David Ronis color CR  Luke DeLalio

Can you give readers a brief introduction to yourself, including when and how you started learning music, your early training and formative experiences, your major professional accomplishments and some personal information like hobbies and other interests as well as current and future plans for your career?

I grew up on Long Island, did my undergraduate degree (a B.F.A. in Voice) at Purchase College, and have lived in Manhattan ever since. I studied both piano and voice as a kid and, in high school, was very much involved in musical theater. After graduating from Purchase, I supported myself by doing a lot of professional choral singing.

Soon after, I started getting hired to sing character tenor roles in opera companies in U.S, Europe and Asia, which I did for a number of years. One of the highlights was being a part of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place/Trouble in Tahiti when it was done at La Scala Milan, the Kennedy Center and the Vienna State Opera.

At one point in the mid-’90s, when I had less than a full year of regional opera work, I started auditioning for Equity musical theater jobs and was cast in the Los Angeles company of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

In opera circles, I was considered to be a “good actor.” But, to forgive myself (and others), I didn’t really know from good acting! In LA, my new colleagues and friends were actors, as opposed to singers and musicians, and I started seriously questioning my own (lack of) acting technique. After three years of doing Beauty –- in both LA and on the national tour -– I went back to New York, got into in a heavy-duty acting class, and started working in spoken theater, TV commercials (I have some very funny stories about that), and independent films, as well as continuing to sing in opera regionally.

My work in theater completely changed my perspective on stage work in opera and I found myself newly critical of much of the operatic acting I saw.

One day, my friend Paul Rowe (below) –- who teaches voice at the UW-Madison — was in New York hanging out at my apartment (this is very vivid in my mind) and he said something like, “David, you should put this together. You’re now an accomplished actor as well as a singer and you have a pretty unique perspective on how one affects the other.” Bingo!

Paul Rowe

Long story short: I started teaching Acting for Singers classes, doing small directing projects, and very soon got hired at Queens College to direct the Opera Studio. Almost immediately, this transition from performing to teaching just felt right.

I was hired as an Adjunct Lecturer at Queens with only a bachelor’s degree, and decided that I should probably have at least a master’s. So I enrolled in a terrific M.A. L.S. (Master of Arts in Liberal Studies) program at a de-centralized SUNY school, Empire State College. The M.A.L.S. was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It is a self-designed, inter-disciplinary research degree in which the candidates have to articulate their areas of academic inquiry and pursue them by creating individual courses and working with tutors. Over 2 ½ years, I wrote about 300 pages of material focused on operatic acting and production, research that I still regularly call upon in my teaching.

What are my principal influences? I’d say that my principal acting teacher, Caymichael Patten, is a big one. Cay’s a terrific, tough teacher who tells it like she sees it. She has an uncanny knack for “being inside your head –with you.” I learned a huge amount from her and, in many ways, have modeled my teaching on Cay’s. I also have a number of friends – all opera directors working in academia as well as professionally, who are on the same page as I am as far as operatic acting training. They’ve been big influences too -– Stephen Wadsworth (below, who teaches at the Juilliard School) and Robin Guarino, to name just a couple.

As for the future, who knows? I’ve actually never been one to have a detailed life plan. I’ve been very fortunate that opportunities have come my way and I’ve just followed my nose. I do know one thing -– that my passion for directing and teaching seems to be growing (if that’s even possible) and that I very much enjoy working in a university environment.

stephen wadsworth

As an East Coast native, how do you like the Midwest, Madison and the especially the UW-Madison?

I’ve spent plenty of time in the Midwest, mostly working. So I “get” the Midwest and I’m comfortable here. I’m finding what “they say” about Madison to be true -– that it’s a pretty unique place within the Midwest — culturally, politically, intellectually.

I think these are things that make people who are kind of East Coast-centric, like myself, feel more at home, when “home” means lots of intellectual and artistic stimulation. What’s not to like about a city where everyone reads the New York Times and The New Yorker magazine and goes to the Madison Symphony Orchestra!

Madison at sunset

Why did you choose “Albert Herring” by Benjamin Britten (below top) to do this semester and “The Magic Flute” by Mozart (below bottom) to do second semester? Have you staged them before? What would you like audience members here to know about your productions of them?

I make repertoire decisions based on a variety of factors. This year, we needed to do a piece with small orchestral forces in the fall and a full orchestra show in the spring.

I also like to do shows that involve a good number of students. Both the Britten and the Mozart fit those descriptions.

Also, the “who do we have at school” factor is big. We need to do operas that we can cast well from the student population.

And, most importantly, I consider the educational value of various shows. Albert Herring is not only a great piece of music and theater, but there’s so much that the students learn from working on it. The roles are difficult, both vocally and musically. And since it’s a big ensemble show, students are challenged to develop their ensemble singing and acting skills. So far, I’m very pleased with the results.

Benjamin Britten

I’ve directed The Magic Flute before. We’re going to do a version of a production I did some years ago that locates the drama vaguely in a South Asian environment. Flute, for all of its brilliance, is kind of a dramaturgical mess. Who are the truly good and bad guys/gals? Where do we start and where do we end up and what do each of the characters learn for having gone on the journey?

My take on the story very indirectly alludes to a conflict between East (Sarastro) and West (Queen of the Night), and attempts to examine the two opposing forces on the most basic, human level – even if they are iconic figures. Why makes the Queen tick? Why did Sarastro “steal” her daughter and why is he “holding her captive?” These are the questions that intrigue me.

Mozart old 1782

Was there an Aha! Moment – a work or performer, a concert or recording – that made you realize that you wanted to have a professional life in music and specifically in opera?

My Aha! moment? OK, you’re going to think I’m a nerd. As a high school senior, I took a philosophy elective in which I was reading people like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. At the time, I was obsessed with an LP called “The Genius of Puccini” -– essentially excerpts from operas by Puccini (below) –- which I would play over and over again in my room. I recall going into my parents’ room one night, with record blaring in the background, and ranting on about what I was reading and how it described exactly what filled me up like nothing else. (Cue the big ensemble from the first act of Turandot). From that moment, it was all downhill!

puccini at piano

Is there anything else you would like to add or say?

I’d just like to encourage people to come to both University Opera productions. We’ve got a terrific cast for Albert Herring, not to mention an incredibly talented and articulate young conductor in Kyle Knox (below)– Kyle is truly someone to keep your eye on.

Kyle Knox 2

We’ve been having so much fun during rehearsals – laughing a lot! I firmly believe that spirit transfers across the proverbial footlights.

If any of your readers are hesitant (perhaps because they tend to respond to 19th century Romantic pieces and might be reticent to go to an opera with which they’re not familiar), I can confidently say that Albert Herring is a very accessible piece –– extremely entertaining and, at times, quite moving. The physical production is coming along –- all in all, I’m very excited about the show.

Albert Herring Rehearsal

 

 


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