The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.

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Classical music: Here is how Chopin’s famous “Fantaisie-Impromptu” sounds – and looks

March 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most popular pieces in the piano repertoire is the “Fantaisie-Impromptu” in C-sharp minor, Op. 66, by Frederic Chopin (below).

Chances are good that you already know how it sounds.

But it case you don’t, here is one popular interpretation – with almost 9 million views – thanks to a YouTube video by the Chinese pianist Yundi Li (now known simply as Yundi). In 2000, at the age of 18, he became the youngest person ever to win the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition.

And here is how it looks in an arresting, artistic and ingenious graphic display that might help you to understand the work structurally, rhythmically, melodically and harmonically:

Do you have any reactions to the playing and the seeing?

Do you want to see more of such graphic interpretations? Of what specific pieces?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Here are the performers, programs and schedule for Saturday’s concerts by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras

March 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras to post:

Join us for our second concert series of the season, the Diane Ballweg Winterfest Concerts on this Saturday, March 10, in Mills Concert Hall, 455 North Park Street, on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Programmed pieces include works from Brian Balmages, Ludwig van Beethoven, Ralph Matesky, Gustav Holst, Samuel Barber, and more.

For the full concert repertoire, go to: https://www.wysomusic.org/2018-winterfest-repertoire/

“Every one of these concerts is jam-packed with great music—the kind of classics that have endured,” said interim WYSO artistic director Randal Swiggum (below).

“These concerts will inspire audiences, guaranteed, not just with masterworks like Holst’s ‘Jupiter’ from The Planets, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, but with the energy and freshness that young musicians bring to this music.” (You can hear the dramatic and well-known opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with an engaging graphic display of its structure, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Additional highlights from the concerts include an Opus One collaboration with the WYSO Music Makers Honors Ensemble on the traditional piece Goin’ To Boston; a guest appearance from NBC-15 TV News Anchor/Reporter John Stofflet (below top) who will narrate Sinfonietta’s performance of Lincoln at Gettysburg; and concerto performances from the 2017-2018 Youth Orchestra Concerto Competition winners, violist Maureen Sheehan (below middle) of Middleton and violinist Dexter Mott (below bottom) of Madison.

“Both Maureen with the Walton Viola Concerto, and Dexter with the Sibelius Violin Concerto, have tackled mature pieces that demand not just technical prowess, but thoughtful, nuanced interpretation,” Swiggum said. “I know audiences will be truly moved by their playing.”

Tickets are available at the door the day of the concerts, and are $10 for adults and $5 for youth 18 and under.

               Diane Ballweg Winterfest Concerts Schedule

11:30 a.m. – Opus One with WYSO Music Makers (below, playing at the Wisconsin Union Theater) and Sinfonietta with NBC-15 News Anchor/Reporter John Stofflet narrating Lincoln at Gettysburg.

1:30 p.m. – Harp Ensemble (below) and Concert Orchestra.

4:00 p.m. – Philharmonia Orchestra (below), with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, and Holst’s “Jupiter” from The Planets.

7:00 p.m. – Youth Orchestra, with performances from the 2017-2018 Youth Orchestra Concerto Competition winners, Dexter Mott and Maureen Sheehan.


Classical music: Pianist Alon Goldstein and the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet perform Scarlatti, Mozart and Brahms this coming Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Farley’s

March 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Acclaimed Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein (below, in a  photo by Cigna Magnoli) returns to Madison this weekend for a Salon Piano Series concert in which he will be joined by University of Wisconsin-Madison’s own Pro Arte Quartet.

There will be two performances: on Saturday, March 10, at 7:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, March 11, at 4 p.m. Both performances are at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side neat West Towne Mall.

Tickets are $45 in advance or $50 at the door, with $10 admission for full-time students. You can buy tickets by calling Farley’s at (608) 271-2626 or going online at www.brownpapertickets.com

An artist’s reception follows each concert and is included in the ticket price.

Goldstein will begin the concert with solo Scarlatti sonatas, one of which he’ll play on a clavichord built by Tim Farley. (A half-hour before each concert, a video about the restoration of the 1908 Chickering concert grand that Goldstein will play on will be screened.)

Then the Pro Arte Quartet (below top, in a photo by Rick Langer) and UW-Madison double bassist David Scholl (below bottom) will join him on stage for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, in a chamber music arrangement, and the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34. (You can hear the opening movement, with an engaging graphic display of its structure, of the Brahms Quintet, played by pianist Stephen Hough and the Takacs String Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

According to a press release: “Alon Goldstein is one of the most original and sensitive pianists of his generation, admired for his musical intelligence, dynamic personality, artistic vision and innovative programming.

“He has played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the San Francisco, Baltimore, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, Toronto and Vancouver symphonies as well as the Israel Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Los Angeles and Radio France Orchestra. He played under the baton of such conductors as Zubin Mehta, Herbert Blomstedt, Vladimir Jurowski, Rafael Frübeck de Burgos, Peter Oundjian, Yoel Levi, Yoav Talmi, Leon Fleisher and others.

The New York Times’ senior music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote of Goldstein’s performance: “Here was a beautifully balanced approach to the score, refined yet impetuous, noble yet spirited.” The Philadelphia Inquirer stated “Such performances take a kind of courage so seldom heard these days you want to hear him at every possible opportunity.”

About the Salon Piano Series

Now in its fifth season, Salon Piano Series was founded by Tim and Renée Farley to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos.

The setting replicates that experienced by audiences throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and offers audiences the chance to hear artists whose inspiring performances are enhanced by the setting and the fine pianos.

Concerts take place at Farley’s House of Pianos and feature historic pianos restored in the Farley’s workshop. For more information, go to: www.SalonPianoSeries.org


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Classical music: This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony and music by Bach. It also highlights principal violist in music by Berlioz

September 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below in a photo by Peter Rodgers), with music director John DeMain conducting, opens its 92nd season with a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation.

The season-opening concert also showcases the Madison Symphony Orchestra as an ensemble with no guest soloist. The MSO’s Principal Violist Chris Dozoryst (below) will solo in Hector Berlioz’sHarold in Italy.”

Also featured is Leopold Stokowski’s famous orchestral arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation will be honored with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony.

The concerts in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, are on Friday night, Sept. 15, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Sept. 16, at 8 p.m., and Sunday afternoon, Sept. 17, at 2:30 p.m.

Ticket information is below.

According to the MSO press release: “The concerts present the music of two composers who shared a deeply spiritual relationship with the Lutheran faith, and passion for music. It is said that Johann Sebastian Bach set faith to music, and Felix Mendelssohn clarified faith for all to hear.

MSO Music Director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) chose to pair Bach and Mendelssohn specifically for this program.

“Both Bach (below top) and Mendelssohn (below bottom) were devout Lutherans, Mendelssohn having converted from Judaism when he was 12 years old,” DeMain says.

“I decided to open the season with Leopold Stokowski’s great transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ, and then give the first performance by the MSO of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, subtitled the Reformation. Indeed, this symphony quotes extensively from one of the greatest Christian hymns of all time — “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.””

Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor is a transcription for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski (below) and became well-known after its inclusion in Disney’s film Fantasia. The piece was originally cut from the theatrical release of the film, but was later added back in a 1946 re-release and included Stokowski directing the orchestra at the beginning of the piece. (You can hear the original version for organ, with an unusual graphic display, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Hector Berlioz’sHarold in Italy” is considered an autobiographical vignette recounting the composer’s Italian experience. The piece is filled with youthful vitality, tinged with an appealing Romantic sensibility that Berlioz (below)  borrowed freely from literature, most specifically Lord Byron’s poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” Playing the solo viola part is MSO’s Principal Violist Chris Dozoryst.

The 2017–18 season will mark Christopher Dozoryst’s 10th season as principal viola with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. In addition to his orchestral duties, Chris also performs with the MSO’s HeartStrings Program as violist with the Rhapsodie Quartet. He also performs and records, working locally and regionally in Madison and Chicago. He has performed numerous engagements with well-known musicians including Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, and Smokey Robinson.

Originally commissioned in 1830 for a celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, Mendelssohn honors Martin Luther (below) in his Symphony No. 5Reformation” by including in the finale the beloved hymn Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) that Luther had written while the Augsburg Confession was in session. This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the establishment of the Lutheran Church.

One hour before each performance, Amy Hartsough (below), acting director of music at Bethel Lutheran Church, will lead a FREE 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please read the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/1.Sep17.html.

The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk (free for all ticket-holders).

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $18 tickets.

More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.  

Major funding for the September concerts is provided by: the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison.com, Rosemarie and Fred Blancke, Capitol Lakes, The Gialamas Company, Inc., Marvin J. Levy, Nancy Mohs, and Peggy and Tom Pyle. Additional funding is provided by: DeWitt Ross & Stevens S.C., Forte Research Systems and Nimblify, the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin, and the federal National Endowment for the Arts.


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