The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: University Opera’s updated Hollywood production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” proves a triumph on all counts. Plus, FREE Opera Scenes concert is Tuesday night

November 20, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest review by The Opera Guy of Giuseppe’s Verdi’s “Falstaff” as staged by the University Opera. Performance photos are by Michael Anderson.

By Larry Wells

In the past few years I’ve seen Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” set in the Spanish Civil War, Wagner’s Ring cycle re-imagined as the history of cinema, and Puccini’s “Turandot” presented as a performance by a traveling circus.

Thus, Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ set in 1930’s Hollywood seemed a reasonable reinterpretation, and so it proved at its final performance Tuesday evening by University Opera.

“Falstaff,” drawn from three plays by Shakespeare, is Verdi’s final opera and a rare comedy. More importantly, gone are his familiar forms of a recitative followed by an aria with lots of oom-pa-pa orchestral accompaniment, now replaced with a conversational style that to me shows Wagner’s influence. It just doesn’t sound like Verdi, but it certainly sounds good.

I felt that the whole evening was a triumph.

The sets were beautifully dressed, the costumes were excellent and the lighting was effective.

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The UW Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Smith, played wonderfully, although from where I sat the sound was occasionally muffled.

Thank goodness a new music building is being built, and I trust that there will be a theater within it that will accommodate operatic performances. The current Music Hall has its limitations, one being that much of the orchestra was playing underneath the stage and another being that for some reason the theater’s temperature cannot be controlled. It was stiflingly hot during the performance.

As for the singing and acting, the cast I saw was uniformly strong. Falstaff, performed by UW-Madison faculty member Paul Rowe (below), was very robust and was particularly affecting during his act III soliloquy. The Ear mentioned to me his Oliver Hardy mannerisms, and once I noticed that I was constantly amused.

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Yanzelmalee Rivera as Alice was hilarious in her seduction scene and really came alive in Act III. Courtney Kayser as Meg was a compelling comic actress. Rebecca Buechel’s Mistress Quickly was an equally adept comic actress and had an excellent voice. Emily Weaver as Nannetta was a beautiful singer who shone in her third act moments as Queen of the Fairies. These four women had some outstanding ensemble moments, and I was constantly diverted by their antics as they outwitted the men.

Among the hapless male characters, Brian Schneider was a standout as Ford and the deep voice of Benjamin Schultz (below left, with Paul Rowe and Jiabao Zhang) made the minor character Pistola noticeable whenever he was on stage.

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But the voice of the evening belonged to tenor José Daniel Muñiz (below right) as Fenton. He excelled not only in his solo moments but blended extremely well with his paramour Nannetta (Claire Powling, below left).

uw-falstaff-jose-muniz-and-claire-powling

The outstanding ensemble work exhibited throughout the opera culminated in the grand fugue at the end of the opera, and the nearly full-house audience was blown away by those final moments. (You can hear the fugal finale, conducted by Sir George Solti, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The 1930’s Hollywood concept worked well. It seemed completely fitting and was undoubtedly more amusing than it would have been had the opera been set in the time of Henry IV.

“Well done” to the University Opera’s new full-time director David Ronis (below center) for his imagination and direction. I look forward to his production of Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” in early March.

uw-falstaff-david-ronis

And since this University Opera production and other events are being presented to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the exhibition of a First Folio at the Chazen Museum of Art, I want to put in a plug for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love” which has almost exactly the same plot as “Falstaff” and is woefully underperformed.

I also want to draw your attention the FREE Opera Scenes concert by University Opera that will be presented this Tuesday night, Nov. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall. Featured are singers, with piano accompaniment, in scenes from: Charles Gounod’s “Faust”; Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea“; Giacomo Puccini‘s “La Rondine”; Leonard Bernstein‘s “Trouble in Tahiti”; Gioacchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”;  Dominick Argento’s “Postcard From Morocco”; and Marc Blitzstein’s”Regina.” 

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Classical music: Heard enough about Prince? Read about violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Plus, a FREE voice recital commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare is at noon on Friday

April 28, 2016
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, located at 900 University Bay Drive, features tenor Adam Shelton and pianist Vincent Fuh in the program “Assassinating Shakespeare.” The concert features music by Gerald Finzi, Roger Quilter, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Schubert and Dominick Argento.

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s a week later but news about the premature death at 57 on April 21 of the influential superstar pop rocker Prince continues to preoccupy the media.

To flood the media, really.

Prince with guitar

The Ear doesn’t want to take away from Prince and his substantial artistic achievements. Nor does The Ear mean to belittle Prince’s premature death, which is sad and unfortunate but hardly unusual in the world of pop music — and not really tragic in the larger scheme of things, given how the world is filled today with terrorism and refugees.

But he does think maybe a little perspective about this celebrity or star is required.

Does anyone else share The Ear’s impatience with such saturation coverage and think that the media have gone overboard? There have been so many stories, so much repetition, such meaningless follow-up and continuing coverage that it almost belittles Prince’s death with endless trivialities and predictable banalities.

So take a break.

Here is a story – from the Deceptive Cadence blog for NPR or National Public Radio — about this past weekend’s 100th anniversary of the April 22, 1916 birth of the famed British violinist, teacher and polymath Sir Yehudi Menuhin (below top as a child, from the Underwood Archives, and below bottom as an older man in a photo by Erich Auerbach for Getty Images).

yehudi menuhin young underwood archives

Yehudi Menuhin Erich Auerbach Getty Images

It is filled with inspiring details that command your respect for this great artist and humanitarian, who was international in his interests and many of whose accomplishments The Ear didn’t know. You can hear him playing Bach in the YouTube video at the t bottom.

It is written by Tom Huizenga and features a lot of commentary and recollection by the gifted violinist Daniel Hope (below), who played music of European Jewish composers exiled in Hollywood during World War II by Hitler and the Nazis coming to power, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra two seasons ago.

Daniel Hope playing

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/04/22/474824320/yehudi-menuhins-potent-blend-of-music-humanism-and-politics


Classical music: The acclaimed Madison Choral Project will perform its third annual Holiday Concert this FRIDAY night (NOT Saturday) and Sunday afternoon. It features two world premieres plus readings from Shakespeare, Rumi and the Bible

December 15, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The acclaimed Madison Choral Project (below top), under the direction of its founder and conductor Albert Pinsonneault (below bottom) — who used to teach at Edgewood College and now teaches at Northwestern University — will present two performances of its third annual holiday concert, “A Procession of Angels,” this weekend.

(NOTE: You can hear the Madison Choral Project singing its beautiful a cappella arrangement of the carol “Angels We Have Heard on High” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Madison Choral Project 5-15 1

Albert Pinsonneault 2

The popular Holiday program will be performed twice in Madison; this Friday night, Dec. 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ at 1609 University Ave. and again on Sunday night, Dec. 20, at 2:30 p.m. at Lutheran Church of the Living Christ, 110 N. Gammon Rd.

The concerts feature Christmas music, as well as music from other traditions, and TWO WORLD PREMIERES of new compositions: “My Brilliant Image” by Madison composer and MCP singer Jasper Alice Kay (below top); and a new arrangement of “Deck the Hall” by the award-winning composer Jocelyn Hagen (below bottom). Other guests artists are also featured.

Jasper Alice Kay

Jocelyn Hagen

Wisconsin Public Radio‘s news director Noah Ovshinsky (below) again joins the MCP to read selected texts that relate to the theme of the concert. There will also be a chance for the audience to join in on some holiday sing-alongs.

Noah Ovshinsky

Music by composers such as Dominick Argento (below top), Felix Mendelssohn (below bottom), Alexander Sheremetev, William Billings, Ola Gjeilo and Kenneth Jennings, among others, will represent many of the points of view that unite the public in reflection upon the season.

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Also featured is John Aley (below), a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of music and the virtuoso principal trumpet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and the reading of texts by William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Hildegard von Bingen as well as from the Bible and from the mystic Sufi Arabic and Persian poets Ibn Arabi and Rumi.

john aley color

The Madison Choral Project, founded in 2012, is Madison’s professional choir. Its 22 voices are made up of professional singers, teachers and graduate students from the Madison Area.

The MCP says it “is committed in its mission to enrich lives in our community by giving voice to the great music of our diverse world; to express, to inspire, to heal; to garner joy in the experience of live music; and to educate and strengthen the next generation of singers and listeners.”

Tickets are available in advance at www.themcp.org as well as at the door of each performance venue. ($25 at the door, $20 advance tickets and $10 student tickets with student I.D.)

For more information, visit: http://themcp.org


Classical music: The acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performs its annual summer concerts this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

July 28, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friends at the critically acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble write:

When conductor Scott MacPherson convened some of Madison’s top singers in 2002, he had no way of knowing that the newly formed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) would begin one of Madison’s most anticipated summer musical traditions.

Known as “Madison’s most temporary choir,” the ensemble – a semi-professional choir of approximately 60 singers – brings new life to over 500 years of choral music within a brief two-week rehearsal period.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble group concert dress

This intense spirit of camaraderie produces a singular remarkable experience, year after year. (You can hear the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sing the “Abendlied” (Evening Song) by Josef Rheinberger in 2012 in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

This summer, Madison-area audiences have two opportunities to hear the 2015 program.

The traditional Friday night concert takes place on at 7:30 p.m. on this Friday, July 31, at Christ Presbyterian Church (below), located at 944 East Gorham Street in downtown Madison.

Christ Presbyterian Church

The program will be repeated at 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 2, at Lutheran Church of the Living Christ (below), located at 110 North Gammon Road, on Madison’s far west side.

Lutheran Church of the Living Christ

General admission tickets are available online at isthmusvocalensemble.org or at the door. Admission is $15 for adults; $10 for students and seniors. 

The program, “Unconventional Images” is a tapestry of unexpected beauty, including works spanning from the 1500s up to brand new compositions, featuring a world premiere from composer Corey Rubin (below) entitled “The Snow Man.”

Corey Rubin

Director Scott MacPherson writes: “For these concerts, prepare your ears and mind to be led down an unconventional path, where you will ponder such images as the nativity, snow in the summer, sensual beauty, the desert, glory, mortality and divine renewal.”

Other featured works include “Three Nativity Carols” by the late Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus (below top); “Beati quorum via” and “Coelos ascendit hodie” by Charles Villiers Stanford; “Du bist aller Dinge schön” and “Fahet uns die Füchse” by Melchoir Franck; “Schaffe in mir Gott” by Johannes Brahms; the Gloria by Dominick Argento; and several newly composed pieces, including “Desert Rose” by Frank Wiley, as well as “I Sing to Use the Waiting” and “An Irish Blessing” by University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus, Andrew Rindfleisch (below bottom).

stephen paulus

Andrew Rindfleisch portrait

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble is led by Scott MacPherson (below), director of choral activities at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Its members include professional singers, choral directors, professors, lawyers, students and passionate advocates for the arts. The choir has performed by invitation at the North Central Conference of the American Choral Directors Association, commissioned several world premieres and released two professional CDs.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble rehearsing with Scott MacPherson


Classical music Q&A: Edgewood College conductor Albert Pinssonneault discusses The Madison Choral Project, a new professional vocal group, makes its debut this Saturday night with a program celebrating Spring.

May 16, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Choral Project (below) – a new vocal group on the Isthmus -– will give its inaugural concert this Saturday night, May 18, at 7 p.m. in the Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, in Madison.

Madison Choral Project color

The debut concert, entitled “Celestial Spring,” will celebrate the season- with sets on the return of color, nature and love. For details about specific works and composers, see below.

Tickets are free. Those who are able are encouraged to leave a suggested donation of $15 each.

For more information including how to audition for the vocal group, contact The Madison Choral Project, 901 High Street, Madison, Wisconsin, 53715 or visit www.themcp.org, Albert Pinssonneault, the founder and director of the choir, who teaches choral conducting at Edgewood College in Madison, recently gave an email Q&A to The Ear:

Albert Pissonneault 2

Can you briefly describe how and why the Madison Choral Project came about?

Many pieces came together to make the Madison Choral Project happen, like spokes on a wheel.

First were the incredible voices in Madison, interested in ensemble singing.

Additionally, there was the huge support for choral music in town, dating from the era of Robert Fountain (below, in 1979) at the UW-Madison to today with many extremely fine choruses and UW ensembles performing.

I had a passion to bring together a core of the finest singers for a single “project,” and with a lot of help I was able to raise and secure funding, find venues, audition singers, and a new entity was born: The Madison Choral Project.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

Why is another choral group needed or wanted in Madison? Briefly, how do you expect it to be different from other local groups?

The Madison Choral Project is unique in Madison, in that it is a fully professional chamber choir of 16 voices.  We hope to offer a highly refined and expressive chamber choral sound, singing both new unique repertoire, and treasured favorites.

As this very talented group comes together to present one project at a time, we feel we can tailor our concerts to the needs and tastes of our musical community.  We are so excited to contribute our small part to the outstanding musical landscape of Dane County.

Can you briefly introduce us to your career in choral singing and directing, to your professional and personal commitment to it?

I’ve always loved making music with others, and I love people, and I love text, and expression.  I grew up in Minnesota and wanted to move away to a conservatory for college, yet some inexplicable gut feeling drew me to attend St. Olaf College (in Northfield, Minnesota), where I found a choral music experience that was the nexus of all the things I loved.

In the years following St. Olaf I lived in St. Paul and completed a Master’s degree in choral conducting at the University of Minnesota, where under the excellent tutelage of Kathy Saltzman Romey I had the opportunity to work closely with the German conductor Helmuth Rilling (below top) and the American vocal conductor Dale Warland (below bottom).

helmut rilling

Dale Warland

Applying broadly to doctoral programs, I was extremely fortunate to receive a kind offer from the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, where I was able to work with several wonderful professional conductors, including Earl Rivers, Richard Westenburg, Richard Sparks and Donald Nally.  I completed my doctorate in choral conducting and music theory from CCM in 2009, and got a dream job: Full-time employment at a wonderful liberal arts college in Madison — Edgewood College (below, he is conducting the Chamber Singers at Edgewood College).

Edgewood Chamber Singers

Can you comment on the upcoming premiere program and specific works on it?

The idea behind “A Celestial Spring” came not only from the title work by F. Melius Christiansen (below), but also from the season of spring and its promise of rebirth and newness, fitting for the inaugural concert of a new ensemble.

F. Melius Christiansen

Our first set of German Romantic composers seeks to capture the comforting return of lush green in nature, echoed in wondrous rich harmonies.

The very first work, “Abendlied” (Evening Song) by Joseph Rheinberger (below bottom) invites the audience to “Bide with us,” an entreaty both to for the duration of the concert and for our life as a new ensemble.

Josef Rheinberger bw

The second set, “The Celestial Season,” focuses on the season of spring itself, beginning with rays of sunshine (“I Am the Great Sun” by Jussi Chydenius) and ending in sunset (“The Sun Has Gone Down” by Leland Sateren).  In between are two movements of F. Melius Christiansen’s “Celestial Spring” (at bottom in a YouTube video), a work composed completely without text.  Christiansen (below) sought to capture the sounds of the season with an orchestra of voices, and later gave the finished score to his colleague Oscar Overby to “fill in” with text.

The third set of music, “The Call of Summer,” explores transitions into a wondrous hereafter, in settings by the great English composers Charles Hubert Parry (below top) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (below bottom). This set addresses the end of spring, and alludes as well to the idea of death as a gateway into an everlasting summer.

hubert parry

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

Our fourth set traces the evolution of romantic love through texts depicting five tableau scenes.  In “O Mistress Mine” by Matthew Harris (below top), the protagonist is struck with attraction from a distance.  “The Devon Maid” by Dominick Argento (below bottom) represents first contact and flirtation, in this case by an aggressive suitor. “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” by Nils Lindberg represents the honeymoon of intense passion, while “It Was a Lover and His Lass” (Parry) recounts many merry days of coupled frolicking.  “Rest” (Vaughan Williams) is a tender goodbye, to that loved one now deceased.

Matthew Harris Color

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Is there more you would like to add or say?

Thank you so much, Jake, for the opportunity to share our efforts on The Well-Tempered Ear!


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