The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Tales of Hoffmann” proved a musical and theatrical delight from beginning to end. Plus, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble performs Saturday night

April 22, 2016
2 Comments

ALERT: This Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Gates of Heaven Synagogue, 300 East Gorham Street in James Madison Park, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble will perform a concert of music by Claudio Monteverdi, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, Francois Couperin and others. Tickets at the door are $20 for the public, $10 for students. A free reception with the musicians follows at 2422 Kendall Avenue, second floor. For more information about the performers and the program, visit www.wisconsinbaroque.org

By Jacob Stockinger

Editor’s note: The Ear’s good friend and knowledgeable classical music fan Larry Wells offered the following review of last weekend’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” by the Madison Opera. Production photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.

By Larry Wells

I had been looking forward to Madison Opera’s production of “The Tales of Hoffmann” by Jacques Offenbach (below) ever since it was announced.

Jacques Offenbach seated

The opera is a particular favorite of mine, and I’ve seen a number of productions in larger houses, most recently in Tokyo and most memorably a production at the San Francisco Opera 30 years ago with Placido Domingo and James Morris.

I was interested to see how Madison Opera would approach this somewhat theatrically difficult work, and Sunday’s performance was a delight from beginning to end.

First, the singing.

The cast was consistently strong, and each singer could be mentioned in a positive vein. So, I single out three who particularly stood out.

The star of the show, for me, was coloratura soprano Jeni Hauser (below, center, in white) as Olympia, the doll. Her vocal pyrotechnics were sensational. She would be a wonderful Zerbinetta, and I would enjoy seeing her tackle Baby Doe. She is a very funny physical comic actress, and she was simply wonderful.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Doll Olympia Jeni Hauser CR James Gill

Morgan Smith (below) as Hoffmann’s four nemeses was excellent possessing a strong, deep bass-baritone. As a side note, he is the second singer I’ve seen and heard recently in Wisconsin who will be featured in Tucson Opera’s upcoming premiere of “Riders of the Purple Sage,” the other being Keith Phares who was in Florentine Opera’s recent production of Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers.” It will be conducted by Keitaro Harada, who is a talent to watch.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Morgan Smith CR James Gill

The third standout was mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (below) as Hoffmann’s Muse and attendant. She was outstanding vocally and fun to watch.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Adriana Zabala The Muse JAMES GILL

Hoffmann was sung by tenor Harold Meers (below right, in suit).  For an exhausting role, Meers toughed it out and, when singing full voice, was resonant and lyrical.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Harold Meers on right CR James Gill

The production was set in a well-stocked bar, and Hoffmann’s series of bad choices in love appeared fueled by alcohol.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set CR James Gill

The set, from the Virginia Opera, and costumes were dazzling, particularly in the Giulietta act, which in a departure from the productions I’ve seen, was the third act. I felt that the change of the order of the acts made a lot of sense dramatically.

And I loved the use by stage director Kristine McIntyre of the Roaring Twenties theme – flappers and Charlestons, along with gondolas, fog and a bit of German Expressionism. Total fun.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Gondola CR James Gill

Madison Opera Hoffmann Morgan Smith in cape CR James Gill

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was excellent throughout, and Maestro John DeMain is a treasure whom Madison is extremely fortunate to have. His sense of timing and dynamics is a wonder.

My favorite moment of the opera is the ensemble in the Giulietta scene “Hélas Mon Coeur,” and its performance Sunday nearly brought me to tears. In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear that music performed by Placido Domingo and the remarkable Agnes Baltsa.

So, bravo Madison Opera, for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon at the opera. I heard several people say that it was a long one — three hours — but for me the time flew.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since reviews are subjective, for purposes of comparison here is a link to John W. Barker’s rave review that just appeared in Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/arts/stage/tales-of-hoffman-madison-opera/


Classical music: Jacques Offenbach’s fantastical masterpiece “The Tales of Hoffmann” will be performed by Madison Opera on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Here is Part 1 of a two-part preview

April 12, 2016
2 Comments

ALERT: The concert by the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble that was scheduled for this Saturday has been CANCELED due to illness.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friends at the Madison Opera write:

Madison Opera will present two performances of  “The Tales of Hoffmann” by French composer Jacques Offenbach (below) this weekend.

Jacques Offenbach

The production will be performed in Overture Hall of the Overture Center on Friday at 8 p.m. and on
 Sunday at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in French with projected English translations.

Tickets are $18-$129. Student and group discounts are available. Tickets can be purchased at the Overture Box Office, 201 State St., Madison, and by calling (608) 258-4141 or visiting www.madisonopera.org

This will be the company’s first production in 20 years of Offenbach’s masterpiece, which moves in a fantasy world. It offers showpiece arias for the bravura cast, the gorgeous “Barcarolle,” and a moving tribute to what it means to be an artist. (You can hear the famous and familiar Barcarolle in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

THE STORY

As he sits in a tavern, the poet Hoffmann drinks, smokes and encounters Lindorf, his rival for his current lover, the opera singer Stella.

He recalls how his nemesis seems to appear constantly in his life, and urged on by his fellow bar patrons, tells the three tales of his loves: Olympia, who turns out to be a mechanical doll; Antonia, a singer who dies of a mysterious illness; and Giulietta, a courtesan who steals his reflection. His adventures take him from Munich to Venice, always accompanied by his most faithful love, his muse.

The opera ends back in the tavern, as Hoffmann’s muse consoles him and urges him on to the higher purpose of art.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set 2

PRAISE AND BACKGROUND

“The Tales of Hoffmann is one of my absolute favorite operas,” says Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill), the general director of Madison Opera. “I love the music, the story, the myriad facets to the characters, and the fact that no two productions of this opera are identical. It has comedy, tragedy, drinking songs, lyrical arias, and even some magic tricks.”

Offenbach’s final opera, “The Tales of Hoffmann” premiered in 1881 at the Opera-Comique in Paris. The title character was based on the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, now most famous as the author of the original “Nutcracker” story; the different acts were adaptations of Hoffmann’s own short stories.

Offenbach was celebrated for over 100 comic operettas such as “Orpheus in the Underworld”; “Hoffmann” was intended to be his first grand opera. Unfortunately, he died before completing the opera, and other composers finished it. Over the past century, there have been many different versions of the opera, with different arias, different plot points, and even different orders of the acts.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

“The Tales of Hoffmann, for me, is the perfect blend of great music and
 great theater,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the artistic director of Madison Opera and the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. “It’s particularly fun to conduct because the orchestra plays a central role in
the moment to moment unfolding of the drama, and Offenbach achieves this at the same time as he is spinning out one gorgeous melody after another.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

THE CAST

Madison Opera’s cast features a quartet of debuts in the leading roles. Harold Meers (below), who sang at Opera in the Park in 2015, makes his mainstage debut as Hoffmann, the poet.

Harold Meers

Sian Davies (bel0w) makes her debut singing three of Hoffmann’s loves – Antonia, Giulietta and Stella – a true vocal and dramatic feat. Jeni Houser returns to Madison Opera following her most recent role as Amy in Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” to sing the role of his fourth love, Olympia. She has also appeared here in George Frideric Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” and Stephan Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”

Sian Davies

Baritone Morgan Smith makes his debut as Hoffmann’s nemesis, who appears in forms both sinister and comic.

Making her debut as Hoffmann’s sidekick Nicklausse, who also turns out to be his Muse, is mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala.

Returning to Madison Opera as the four servants is Jared Rogers, who sang Beadle Bamford in Stephen Sondheim‘s “Sweeney Todd.” Thomas Forde, last here as Don Basilio in Giaocchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” sings the dual roles of Luther and Crespel. Robert Goderich, who sang Pirelli in “Sweeney Todd,” sings Spalanzani, the mad inventor. Tyler Alessi makes his debut as Schlemil.

Three Madison Opera Studio Artists round out the cast: Kelsey Park as the voice of Antonia’s dead mother and William Ottow and Nathaniel Hill as two students.

SETTING

Madison Opera’s production is set in the Roaring 1920s, with stylish costumes that are perfect for Offenbach’s fantasy that travels time and location.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set 3

Kristine McIntyre (below), who directed Jake Heggie‘s “Dead Man Walking” and Giuseppe Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” for Madison Opera, stages this complex story that has a vast dramatic scope.

Kristine McIntyre 2016

Tomorrow: Artistic and music director John DeMain and stage director Kristine McIntyre address the differences between the reputation and the reality of “The Tales of Hoffman.”


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