The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions

November 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experienced Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/28/classical-music-the-madison-opera-performs-verdis-la-traviata-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-in-overture-hall/

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.


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Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet closes out its season with polished, precise and emotionally intense performances of contrasting music by Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Caroline Shaw

May 16, 2019
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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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The Ancora String Quartet (below) is closing its season with a cluster of concerts around the area, including a central one Tuesday night at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street in Madison.

Of the three works in the program, the centerpiece was the Entr’acte by the American musician and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw (below, in a photo by Kait Moreno). It was written in 2011 when Shaw was 29, and has won some acclaim over the years.

It is cast roughly in the traditional form of a minuet and trio, but its point is less any musical substance than the invention of new and utterly eccentric ways of string playing for ear-catching sound effects. Many of those effects are, to be sure, intriguing.

Surrounding this was a pair of quartets seemingly very distinct from each other but related.

The first published quartet, in A major, Op. 13, by Felix Mendelssohn (below), was written in the wake of a romantic song he wrote and whose motives he then used in the quartet.

Emotional suggestions aside, however, it is notable as a darker and more intense work than his subsequent ones in this form. It was composed in 1827, when Mendelssohn was 18, but also the year in which Beethoven died. And it is the shadow of Beethoven, and of Beethoven’s innovations in his later quartets, that hangs over the Mendelssohn work.

Clearly the young master was trying to see how he could absorb the older master’s progressive style into his own still emerging one. I think he found in the process that the two could not be reconciled, and so his subsequent quartets were to be in a less stressful vein.

Against that 1827 work, we were then offered a composition from Beethoven’s own earlier years when he was 29 or 30.  This was the final quartet in the set of six published as his Op. 18.

This Op. 18, No. 6, by Beethoven (below) in B-flat major — the program had it mistakenly in G major — is a Janus-faced work, its first two movements still rooted in the late 18th-century background, but with a scherzo full of quirks and tricks that point to the future, and a finale that plays on emotional contrasts.

Its opening Malinconia – or melancholic – music is contested by music of rousing joy, somewhat prefiguring Beethoven’s absorption with recovering his health in the Heiliger Dankgesang (Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving) of his late string quartet, Op. 132. (You can hear the two contrasting moods and themes in the last movement, played by the Alban Berg Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For all three of these scores, a quartet member gave some introductory comments. (Below, first violinist Wes Luke introduces the work by Caroline Shaw.)

Members of the Ancora String Quartet are violinists Wes Luke and Robin Rynan, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb. As a group, the Ancora players displayed intensity and absorption as well as polished precision, in a program of contrasts.


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Classical music: Acclaimed pianist Ya-Fei Chuang plays works by Schubert, Liszt and Ravel this Saturday night at Farley’s House of Pianos

April 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed pianist Ya-Fei Chuang (below) will return to Madison this weekend to perform a solo recital and give a master class for the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Advance tickets are $45 (students $10) or $50 at the door

You can purchase tickets at: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3499200

Service fees may apply. Tickets are also for sale at Farley’s House of Pianos by calling 608 271-2626. Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event.

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

For more information, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org

RECITAL

The recital by Chuang, who appears at festivals and concert halls around the world, is this Saturday night, April 6, 7:30 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos.

She comes with high praise from the famed Alfred Brendel, who said: “If you want to listen to Chopin and Liszt with different ears, Ya-Fei Chuang’s ecstatic performances cannot leave you cold, and her pianism is staggering.”

The program will include:

Maurice Ravel – Sonatine (1905) –  Moderate; Menuet; Animated

Franz Schubert – “Moments Musicaux” (Musical Moments), D. 780/Op. 94

    No. 2 in A-flat Major (1827);   No. 3 in F Minor (1823) – played by        Vladimir Horowitz in the YouTube video at the bottom;  No. 6 in A-flat Major (1824)

Franz Liszt – “Reminiscences of Bellini’s ‘Norma,’” S. 394 (1831)

INTERMISSION

Maurice Ravel – “Jeux d’eau” (Fountain, or Play of Water) (1901)

Franz Liszt – “Reminiscences of Mozart’s ‘Don Juan,’” S. 418 (1841)

MASTER CLASS

On this Sunday afternoon, April 7, at 2 p.m., Ya-Fei Chuang will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, where she will instruct local students.

This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe.

The master class program will include:

  1. Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor (”Pathetique”), Op. 13, Third Movement; performed by Angelina Chang whose teacher is Julie Chang
  2. Franz Liszt – “Liebestraum” (Dream of Love) No. 3 in A-flat Major “Notturno” (Nocturne); performed by Antonio Wu whose teacher is Shu-Ching Chuang
  3. Sergei Rachmaninov – Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, in C-sharp Minor; performed by Alexander Henderson whose teacher is Vlada Henderson

The master classes for the 2018-19 season are supported by the law firm of Boardman and Clark LLP.

This concert is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from Jun and Sandra Lee.

Another year of exceptional artists is planned for the 2019-20 season. Subscribe to the series’ e-newsletter, and check the website and social media sites Instagram and Facebook for the season announcement in June.

For more information, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org

To become a sponsor of Salon Piano Series, contact Renee Farley. Salon Piano Series is a nonprofit organization founded to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts, including solo recitals and chamber music with piano, featuring exceptional artists.


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Classical music: You be the critic. Was there a specific piece or an entire concert of holiday music that you especially liked – or disliked — this year?

December 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Well, Hanukkah, the winter solstice and Christmas are over and we’ve just about made it through another holiday time, with Kwanzaa and New Year’s still to come.

Holiday music, especially choral music, is undeniably popular during holiday season.

Year after year, the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas program (below is a photo by Peter Rodgers)  – which uses local and ethnically diverse talent and well as imported guest vocal artists — usually comes close to selling out three performances in Overture Hall.

And year after year for a decade, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Festival Choir plus guest soloists (below) sell out their one performance of “Messiah” at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton.

Plus, there are lots of other holiday events – including the Madison Bach Musicians with Baroque chamber music favorites and the Madison Choral Project with spoken word narration and new music as well as programs of traditional carols and hymns– that drew good crowds or even full houses.

There are so many holiday music events, in fact, that it can often be hard to choose.

So here is what The Ear is asking: You be the critic.

Please tell us if there was a particular piece of music you especially enjoyed – say, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” or George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” or violin concertos by Arcangelo Corelli – music you really liked or disliked?

For next year, what do you recommend that people should keep an eye and ear out for, including programs on Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television as well as on other TV and radio stations?

Similarly, was there a specific program or event – an entire program or concert – that surprised you for better or worse?

Given the limited time that most people have during the holidays, what holiday concerts should people plan on attending or avoid next year?

Often the public trusts other audience members more than they trust professional critics.

So here is a chance for you to be a critic and to direct the public’s attention as well as to thank certain performers and groups for what you see as the Best Holiday Music of 2018.

The Ear wants to hear.


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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/


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Classical music: TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m., guest artist Clive Greensmith of the Tokyo String Quartet and USC will give a FREE cello recital at the UW-Madison

October 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you like cello music – which to some ears sounds especially appropriate in autumn – you might be interested in an event tonight.

One of the most distinguished chamber music cellists in the world has been at the University of Wisconsin’s Mead Witter School of Music over the weekend for a three-day residency involving UW string and piano students and members of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO).

He is Clive Greensmith (below) who played with the acclaimed Tokyo String Quartet from 1999 until it disbanded in 2013 and who now teaches at the Colburn School of Music at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Greensmith’s residency of lectures, demonstrations and master classes culminates TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall with a FREE recital that also features UW piano professor Christopher Taylor, UW cello professor Uri Vardi and the UW Cello Choir.

The appealing program includes the Sonata for Two Cellos by Luigi Boccherini; “Silent Woods” by Antonin Dvorak and the Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99, by Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the slow movement of the Brahms sonata, played by the late cellist Jacqueline du Pré and pianist Daniel Barenboim, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information about Greensmith, his UW residency, his teaching and the concert tonight, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/guest-artist-recital-clive-greensmith-cello/

To to learn much more about Greensmith, including his recordings and latest projects, go to his homepage web site at: http://www.clivegreensmith.com


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