The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Thursday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra closes its season with duo-pianists in music by Mozart and Saint-Saens, and the latter’s “Organ” Symphony. Wednesday is the last Just Bach concert of the season 

May 28, 2019
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ALERT: This Wednesday, May 29, at 1 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, is the last FREE Just Bach concert of the season. The one-hour early music program includes: the cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” (Praise Ye God in All Lands), BWV 51; Duetto II in F Major, BWV 803; and the cantata “Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!” (Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!), BWV 70. For more information, go online to the home website: https://justbach.org

By Jacob Stockinger

This Thursday night, May 30, the largely amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Rupert) will close its ninth season with a special family-friendly concert.

The concert, under the baton of conductor Steve Kurr (below), takes place at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Guest artists are University of Wisconsin-Madison students and duo-pianists Satoko Hayami (below top) and Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom). They will perform the witty and entertaining “Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and then the Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below) will be the narrator in “The Carnival of the Animals.” (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the opening Introduction and Royal March of the Lion, with the late Sir Roger Moore — aka James Bond or 007 — as the narrator plus an all-star cast of musicians and some very cool animal videos in back-and-white.) 

The concert concludes with the always impressive, ambitious and popular Symphony No. 3  — the famous “Organ” Symphony – by Saint-Saens (below, seated at the piano in 1900).

Adds MCO co-founder Mindy Taranto: “We are really excited to share a special concert with the community as we celebrate the end of MCO’s ninth season.

“It took a village to make this concert possible. Farley’s House of Pianos is donating the use of an 1890 Steinway to match the Steinway at the hall. WPR radio host Norman Gilliland is generously volunteering to narrate the ‘Carnival of the Animals’ and Full Compass is offering us a discount on the sound equipment we need to play the “Organ” Symphony. Our very own recording engineer, Alex Ford, is playing the organ.

“Please bring your kids and share this information to invite all students free of charge to hear this concert.”

Admission is $15 for adults; all students get in for free. Tickets are available at the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the auditorium opens at 7 p.m.

As usual, after the concert there will be a free meet-and-greet reception for musicians and the public.

For more information about this concert, and about how to join or support the Middleton Community Orchestra, call 608 212-8690 or go online to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org


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Classical music: “Into the Woods” proved a complete, first-rate theatrical experience

February 26, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog  – attended two performances of “Into the Woods” at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and filed this review. (Photos are by Beau Meyer for the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.)

By Larry Wells

The University Theatre and University Opera’s recent joint production of “Into the Woods” was a feast for fans of Stephen Sondheim (below). It was a complete theatrical experience with excellent singing, a nuanced orchestral accompaniment, skilled acting and enchanting staging.

The nearly three-hour work is an amalgamation of several well-known fairy tales exploring themes such as parent-child relationships, loss of innocence, self-discovery, the consequences of wishes being fulfilled, and death – but all in an amusing, literate, fast-paced kaleidoscope of witty dialogue, catchy music and sophisticated lyrics.

The production employed an attractive, ever-changing set, designed by John Drescher, that was vaguely reminiscent of Maurice Sendak.

Stage director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) utilized the large cast and what had to be an equally large number of backstage crew members in a captivating succession of ensemble pieces and solo numbers. I was never aware of the passing of time. Not looking at my watch is my acid test of a production’s success.

Among the many standout performances, Bryanna Plaisir (below) as the Witch was comical in her delivery and quite amazing in the physicality of her performance. There were a number of times when she flew, and each time I was taken by surprise at her effortlessness. Her initial song, accompanied mostly by percussion, was mesmerizing.

There were two roles that were double cast: Elisheva Pront and Miranda Kettlewell (below) as the Cinderellas; and Meghan Stecker and Zoe Bockhorst as the two Little Red Riding Hoods.

Both Pront and Kettlewell possess excellent voices.

Stecker was the more girlish of the two Red Riding Hoods, whereas Bockhorst (below left) portrayed a slightly more canny character.  Both were very funny in their encounter with Cobi Tappa’s Wolf (below right).

Tappa is a physical actor whose tall lankiness conveyed the Wolf’s lupine nature flawlessly. He also portrayed the Steward, and I was completely captivated by his performance, as was the appreciative audience.

Joshua Kelly (below) was the narrator and also played the baker’s father.  His was a professional quality performance from beginning to end – enunciating so clearly that he was completely understandable throughout.

Jack was played by Christian Michael Brenny. His portrayal of a simple-minded boy was touching, and his singing was outstanding.

Emily Vandenberg (below left) as the wife of the baker (played by Michael Kelley, below right) was another outstanding performer – an excellent comic actress and an accomplished vocalist.

Mention must also be made of Rapunzel and Cinderella’s princes, Tanner Zocher  and Jacob Eliot Elfner. Their two duets, “Agony” and “Agony Reprise,” were enthusiastically received by the audience not only for their delivery but also for such lyrics as “…you know nothing of madness ‘til you’re climbing her hair…”.

Sondheim’s way with words continues to amaze me. In describing a decrepit cow, Jack’s mother gets to sing “…while her withers wither with her…”.  The Wolf gets to sing the line “…there’s no possible way to describe what you feel when you’re talking to your meal…”

Chad Hutchinson (below) conducted the orchestra in a finely shaded performance – never overpowering and always supportive.

There were many other excellent performances and memorable moments. Suffice it to say that altogether cast, crew, artistic and production staff created a show that I enjoyed on two consecutive evenings. In fact I was completely entranced both times.

Postscript: The first evening I sat in front of a person who coughed more or less continually the entire first act.  Mercifully she left at the intermission. Next to me was a woman who alternated between audibly clearing her throat and blowing her nose — when she wasn’t applying moisturizer to her hands — throughout the entire show. Stay home if you’re sick. And remember that you are not at home watching your television.  You are in a theater.


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Classical music: Sunday afternoon the Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform  “Sing To Me a Love Song” featuring the “Liebeslieder” Waltzes by Johannes Brahms

February 7, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

With Valentine’s Day coming up, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will present an afternoon of love songs including Johannes Brahms’ beloved Liebeslieder Waltzes (Set 1), sung in German. (You can hear the opening waltz in the YouTube vide at the bottom)

The program “Sing Me a Song of Love” is filled with various music styles  and sizes of ensembles. The intimate concert is a chance to hear a wide variety of music composed by Brahms, Samuel Barber, Gaetano Donizetti, Leo Delibes, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz and others.

The concert takes place this Sunday afternoon, Feb. 10, 2019, at 3 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium (below), 900 University Bay Drive.

Advance tickets for the performance are available for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or from a member of the choir.

Brahms’ Liebeslieder (Love Songs) explore various aspects of love, both pleasant and painful, set to an accompaniment of a piano duet played by Mark Brampton Smith (below top) and Sherri Hansen (below bottom).

The remainder of the program features solos, duets and small ensembles sung by talented soloists from the choir including tenor Chris Eggers (below top), contralto Natalie Falconer (below second), soprano Julie Hutchinson (below third), mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below bottom), and many other performers.

A mix of classical music and musical theater selections balance out the program, including the sumptuous “Flower Duet” from Lakmé, the opera aria Una furtiva lagrima from The Elixir of Love, and entertaining musical theater selections such as The Miller’s Son (A Little Night Music) and All I Care About Is Love (Chicago).

Immediately following the event, audience members are invited to join the singers for a reception with complimentary hors d’oeuvres, wine and chocolates.


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Classical music: FREE Handel aria concert by area high school singers is this Saturday afternoon at Capitol Lakes

January 23, 2019
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature flutist Marilyn Chohaney, of The Oakwood Chamber Players, with pianist Joseph Ross and clarinetist James Smith. The program is salon music by Arnold Bax, Florent Schmitt, Claude Debussy and Dmitri Shostakovich. Sorry, no titles have been given. The concerts run from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

On this coming Saturday afternoon, Jan. 26 at 2 p.m. at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street – two blocks off the Capitol Square — there will be an hour-long program featuring five young singers performing Handel arias.

There will also be a guest performance of a Handel duet by the Handel Aria Competition’s new artistic director Sarah Brailey (below top) and founding artistic director Cheryl Bensman-Rowe (below bottom).

You can hear Brailey, who won the Handel Aria Competition in 2015  and is now doing graduate work at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music while pursuing her growing career, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Karlos Moser, professor emeritus of the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s opera program, will accompany on the piano.

The performance is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

“Our goal is to encourage high school singers in the Madison, Wisconsin area to explore works from Handel’s vocal repertoire,” says Brailey.

All participating high school singers will receive a $100 Handel Aria Competition scholarship towards voice lessons or membership in the Madison Youth Choirs.

The high school singers who will perform are: Allana Beilke from Madison West High School; Daphne Buan from Verona Area High School; Ava DeCroix from Middleton High School; Cecilia League from McFarland High School; and Virginia Morgan from Madison West High School.

The students are all very active in the local arts scene and have participated in Wisconsin Badger All-State Choir, the Madison Opera Youth Apprentice Program, the Madison Symphony Chorus, the 50th anniversary Wisconsin School Music Association State Honors Treble Choir, and have won numerous awards in the National Association for Teachers of Singing Student Auditions and the State Solo and Ensemble Festival.

The program will include selections from operas and oratorios “Agrippina,” “Joshua,” “L’Allegro,” “Semele” and “Solomon.”


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Classical music: Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra offers FREE concert tickets to furloughed federal workers

January 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Restaurants, food banks, retail stores and other organizations have responded with compassion and generosity to victims of the ongoing partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

Here is an announcement of a timely move that The Ear thinks is terrific news for budget-strapped workers who have to cut back on entertainment or discretionary expenses. It should be a model for other local groups as well as statewide, regional and national arts presenters.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) is offering free tickets to furloughed federal workers for the Masterworks performance on Friday, Jan. 25, featuring the young cello prodigy and sensation, Miriam K. Smith.

Fresh from performances with the Cincinnati and Louisville symphonies, Smith (below) will perform the Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor by Camille Saint-Saëns. (You can hear her perform a violin and cello duet by George Frideric Handel and Johan Halvorsen in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

If you want to know more about Smith, go to her website: https://miriamksmith.com

A forgotten gem by Domenico Cimarosa, Overture to The Secret Marriage, will open the concert, and the performance concludes with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, the sunniest of his even-numbered symphonies.

The concert, under the baton of WCO music director Andrew Sewell, will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St.

If you are a furloughed federal employee, you can call the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra offices at (608) 257-0638, and mention your place of employment. Best available tickets are on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets are limited to two per person.

Others who want to attend this concert can find information about the soloist, the program and tickets at: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-i-4/


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Classical music: This Saturday the critically acclaimed new production of Francesco Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” is featured in cinemas in “Live from The Met in HD” satellite broadcasts and on Wisconsin Public Radio. Read a rave review

January 10, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday afternoon, Jan. 12, brings the fifth production of this season’s “Live From the Met in HD” series: Francesco Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur.”

This 1902 opera – the only well-known one by this Italian composer (1866-1950) — seeks to capture the Baroque era’s richness of Paris and the French court in 1730. It is based on a real-life French actress who captured the public with her on-stage and off-stage passion.

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production, directed by Sir David McVicar, features superstar soprano Anna Netrebko as Adriana while the acclaimed tenor Piotr Beczala plays Maurizio, who is as smitten with Adriana as she is with him. (You can hear their duet from Act I in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The conductor is the acclaimed and much in-demand Gianandrea Noseda (below), the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and a frequent conductor at the Met.

Mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili (below) has also received critical acclaim for her powerful singing in the production.

The hi-definition broadcast of the live performance from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City starts at 11:55 a.m. and runs until 4:15 p.m. with two intermissions. (It will also air at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

The encore HD showings are next Wednesday, Jan. 16, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

The opera will be sung in Italian with supertitles in English, German, Spanish and Italian.

Tickets for Saturday broadcasts are $24 for adults and $22 for seniors and children under 13. For encore showings, all tickets are $18.

The cinemas where the opera can be seen are two Marcus Cinemas: the Point Cinema on the west side of Madison (608 833-3980) and the Palace Cinema (608 242-2100) in Sun Prairie.

Here is a link to the Marcus website for addresses and more information. You can also use them to purchase tickets:

https://www.movietickets.com/movies

Here is a link to the Metropolitan Opera’s website where you can find the titles, dates, casts, production information and video clips of all 10 productions this season, which includes operas by Bizet, Wagner, Donizetti, Saint-Saens, Puccini, Verdi and Poulenc plus a new work, “Marnie,” by Nico Muhly: https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/

Here is a rave review of “Adriana Lecouvreur” by senior classical music critic Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/01/arts/music/review-adriana-lecouvreur-metropolitan-opera.html

Here is a link to a synopsis and cast list: https://www.metopera.org/globalassets/season/in-cinemas/hd-cast-sheets/adriana_usglobal.pdf?performanceNumber=15136

Here is a link to other information about the production of “Adriana Lecouvreur,” including photos and audiovisual clips: https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/Adriana-Lecouvreur/

And here is a Wikipedia history of the broadcast series that gives you more information about how many cinemas it uses, the enormous size of the worldwide audience – now including Russia, China and Israel — and how much money it makes for The Met.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Opera_Live_in_HD


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Classical music: Flutist and activist Iva Ugrcic is Musician of the Year for 2018

December 31, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The classical music scene in Madison is so rich that it is always a challenge to name a Musician of the Year.

There are just so many deserving candidates. One obvious example is conductor John DeMain, who is completing his 25th year of outstanding stewardship in directing the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera.

But part of the intent behind such an honor is not just to recognize well-known figures. It is to encourage a broader awareness of those people who do a lot for local classical music but who often fly under the radar for many people.

That is why The Ear is naming flutist and activist Iva Ugrcic (below) as the Musician of the Year for 2018.

As both a performer and entrepreneur, Ugrcic is always very busy broadening her varied career. Being both a player and an activist, she is making a difference, musically and socially, that deserves to be recognized and supported.

Serbian by birth and educated in Belgrade and Paris, she came to Madison where she completed her doctorate in flute performance and also took business courses at the UW-Madison Business School.

She is a first-rate performer who has won a national prize for performing. While at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, she won both the concerto competition (below) and the Irving Shain competition for wind instruments in duets. (You can hear her amazing technique in the YouTube video at the bottom. In it Ugrcic performs “Voice” for solo flute by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.)

She now plays with the Black Marigold Wind Quintet and Sound Out Loud, both of which are based in Madison and both of which devote themselves to contemporary composers and new music.

This year, Urgcic also soloed with the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by John W. Barker), performing to critical acclaim a relatively unknown concerto by 19th-century composer Carl Reinecke.

This year, Urgcic also took over as artistic director of the Rural Musicians Forum, which brings classical music, jazz, world music and ethnic music, played by outstanding performers to the Spring Green area, often at the Taliesin compound of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

But perhaps her most long-lasting contribution is her founding and now directing the LunART Festival that, in the same year of the Me Too movement, sought to present an all-women event that featured composers, performers, visual artists and writers.

Such was its inaugural success in 2018 that it won a national prize from the National Flute Association and a second festival will take place from June 9 through June 9, 2019.

2019 will also see the release of her second solo recording devoted to the music of the contemporary Romanian composer Doina Rotaru, even while she is working on a recording of “Beer Music” by contemporary American composer Brian DuFord.

And all that is just the beginning for such a promising talent. We will be hearing much more from her and about her in years to come.

To see her impressive biography, as well as updated activities, video and audio clips, photographs and other information, go to: https://www.ivaugrcic.com/bio

Here is one more thing that speaks to The Ear. It feels important, even necessary, to recognize the positive contributions of an immigrant at a time when the current “America First” administration under President Donald Trump seems so paranoid and negative, so xenophobic and afraid of foreigners.

The U.S government should be less intent on condemning or stigmatizing immigrants, whether legal or undocumented, and should put more emphasis on their contributions and on the long and distinguished history they have in the United States.

Iva Urgcic is yet another example of the talent we Americans stand to lose if we do not accept and encourage the gifts that immigrants bring in so many ways — from the arts, medicine, education and technology to everyday life and work.

Please join The Ear is expressing gratitude and congratulations to Iva Urgcic.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” this Friday night in Madison and Sunday afternoon in Whitewater

December 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about performances this coming weekend by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) and the professional orchestra Sinfonia Sacra of what is, unfortunately and undeservedly, often considered, when compared to Handel’s “Messiah,”  “The Other Oratorio” for the holiday season:

There will be two performances of four parts of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” (1734). On Friday night, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m. at the Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave., in Madison; and on Sunday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater, 930 Main Street, in Whitewater.

Advance tickets for the Friday night performance at Luther Memorial Church in Madison are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports (Madison) and Willy Street Coop (all three locations in Madison and Middleton).

Advance tickets for the Sunday afternoon performance at Young Auditorium in Whitewater are available from www.uww.edu/youngauditorium/tickets

Of the six cantatas that make up the “Christmas Oratorio,” Part, 1, 2, 3 and 5 will be performed. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the brisk and energetic opening, performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir.)

Parts 1 to 3 tell the Christmas story: Mary and Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the shepherds and the angels. Part 5 introduces the magi from the East, traditionally known as the Three Kings.

The music offers a sampling of every style of music in the repertoire of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) as a composer.

Massive, concerto-like movements crowned by brilliant trumpet fanfares, booming timpani and virtuosic fugues highlight the full chorus.

Solo arias, duets and trios and even one instrumental movement provide a contemplative contrast with constantly changing instrumental colors—from lush strings to playful flutes and the pastoral sounds of oboes and bassoons.

Featured vocal soloists include mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below top) and tenor J. Adam Shelton (below middle), both on the faculty of UW-Whitewater. Highly accomplished members of the choir, including baritone Bill Rosholt (below bottom, and a Madison Savoyards regular), will share the solo parts with these professionals.

The members of Sinfonia Sacra, under concertmaster Leanne League (below), are drawn from the rosters of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and the music faculties of UW-Madison, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.

Trumpet virtuoso John Aley (below top) and oboist Marc Fink (below bottom) will also perform.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios, a cappella choral works from various centuries, and world premieres.

Bach’s music has always occupied a special place in the choir’s repertory, with performances of the Christmas Oratorio (2002 and 2003), the Mass in B minor (2005), the St. John Passion (2010) and the Magnificat (2017).

Artistic Director Robert Gehrenbeck (below) has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble performs a concert of music by Handel, Strozzi, Sammartini and rarely heard other composers this Friday night at 7:30

November 21, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below bottom) will perform a concert of baroque chamber music on this coming Friday night, Nov. 23, at 7:30 p.m. in Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below top), 1833 Regent Street, on Madison’s near west side.

Tickets are at the door ONLY: $20 for adults, $10 for students.

Members of the ensemble are: Eric Miller, viola da gamba; Sigrun Paust, recorder; Chelsie Propst, soprano; Charlie Rasmussen, baroque cello and viola da gamba; Consuelo Sañudo, mezzo-soprano; Monica Steger, traverso, harpsichord and recorder; Anton TenWolde, baroque cello; and Max Yount, harpsichord.

The program is:

Giulio Ruvo – Sonata for cello and basso continuo in A minor (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom played by cellist Charlie Rasmussen and harpsichordist Max Yount of the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble)

Andreas Lidl – Trio for flute, viola and cello

George Frideric Handel – Cantata “Dite, mie piante” (Say, My Plants)

Unico Wilhelm Count Van Wassenaer – Sonata No. 1 for recorder and basso continuo

INTERMISSION

Barbara Strozzi (below): “L’amante segreto” (The Secret Lover) from Opus II (1651)

Giuseppe Tommaso Giovanni Giordani – Duo No. 2 for two cellos, Op.18

Giuseppe Sammartini – Trio Sonata No.  5 for two flutes and basso continuo (1727)

Handel – “Tanti Strali” (Many Rays) HWV 197

Michel Corrette – Concert “Le Phénix”

For more information: (608) 238-5126, email: info@wisconsinbaroque.org, or got to: www.wisconsinbaroque.org


Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/


Posted in Classical music
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