The Well-Tempered Ear

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: The Token Creek Festival will “harvest” gardens of music from next Saturday through Sept. 2

August 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The summer season for classical music in Madison has gotten busier and busier. But the summer still ends on the same high note — the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival that is co-directed by John Harbison and Rose Mary Harbison.

Here is the announcement about this year’s festival, the 29th, that begins this coming weekend:

“The late-summer garden inspires the 2018 season theme of “Harvest” at this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

“Both garden and festival share much in common:  risk, patience, experimentation, disappointment, and finally amazement that a piece —whether a piece of ground or a piece of music — is capable of such nourishment, abundance and variety.

“In the musicians’ garden, with its unpredictability and surprise, there is always the hope of reducing the variables — but they persist, and the richness of choice, the endlessness of the resources we inherit drive us to continue to create.

“One of the advantages of our season title is that it implies a summing up, a reaping of things planted, but of a kind that can occur each year,” writes co-artistic director and composer John Harbison (below). “Each planting retains certain elements and adjusts others with the hope of increased productivity. But so many of the adjustments made in hope of improvement do not work, but create new problems, require new approaches.  What a fine analogy for the making of art.”

Here are this year’s Concert Programs. Please note something new this year: All weekend concerts start at 4 p.m.

Program I: ROOTS – Music of Bach and Primosch. On Saturday, Aug. 25, at 4 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 26, at 4 p.m.

“Continuing our ongoing exploration of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) in cantatas and instrumental works, and its reflection in the music of James Primosch (below bottom), one of the few composers in our time able to grasp both the possibilities and responsibilities available in sacred music in a tradition inherited from Bach.”

Program II: NEW GROWTH – The Kepler Quartet (below, with composer Ben Johnston, and playing Johnston’s String Quartet No. 7 in the YouTube video at the bottom) on Wednesday, Aug. 29, at 7:30 p.m.

“A recital of beautifully alluring micro-tonal music “in between the notes.” The attractive and intelligible musical surface, and our experience hearing it, belies the at-times complex compositional methods.

“We are impressed by the pure pleasure of hearing tones combining differently but convincingly. The recital will be augmented with a demonstration and discussion by the Keplers.

Works are by Ben Johnston, Stefano Scodanibbio (below top), Henry Cowell (below middle) and Harry Partch (below bottom).”

Program III: CORNUCOPIA – Saturday, Sept. 1, at 4 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 2, at 4 p.m.

“Schumann’s beloved and timeless song cycle “Dichterliebe” (A Poet’s Love) with tenor Frank Kelley (below) and his impassioned, enigmatic and exuberant Piano Trio in D minor anchor this program.

“The program also includes the Violin Sonata in G Major, K. 301, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Piano Sonata in E Major by Franz Joseph Haydn sonatas and the world premiere of John Harbison’s new song cycle, “In Early Evening,” to poems by Louise Gluck.”

The ARTISTS are Mark Bridges, cello; Laura Burns, violin; Ryne Cherry, baritone; Ross Gilliland, bass; John Harbison, portative organ and piano; Rose Mary Harbison, violin; Frank Kelley, tenor; The Kepler Quartet; Karl Lavine, cello; Sharan Leventhal, violin; Jennifer Paulson, viola; James Primosch, piano; Brek Renzelman, viola; Eric Segnitz, violin;  Janice Weber, piano; and Sarah Yanovitch, soprano.

Performances take place in the Festival Barn (below top and bottom), on Highway 19 near the hamlet of Token Creek (10 minutes north of Madison, near Sun Prairie). 

The charming and rustic venue — indoors and air-conditioned, with modern comforts — is invitingly small; early reservations are recommended, and casual dress is suggested. Ample parking is available.

Tickets are $12-$32, and can be purchased at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/token-creek-festival-2018-harvest-tickets-47217166817

For more information about the performers and specific works on programs, call (608) 241-2525 or go to www.tokencreekfestival.org

ABOUT THE FESTIVAL

The Token Creek Festival has been called “ferociously interesting and important, an ideal musical experience, a treasure nestled in the heart of Wisconsin cornfields.” (Photo below is by Jess Anderson.)

“Now in its 29th season, this late-summer series near Madison is known for its artistic excellence, diverse and imaginative programming; a deep engagement with the audience; and a surprising, enchanting and intimate performance venue in a  comfortable refurbished barn.”


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Classical music: This year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will explore “Necessary Music” by Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Ravel, Harbison and other composers from Aug. 26 through Sept 3

August 17, 2017
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 By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post about an annual event that puts on a lot of MUST-HEAR programs:

TOKEN CREEK, WIS. –    In what way, and for whom, is a certain kind of music necessary?

Certainly the presenters of a chamber music festival would be presumptuous to offer a program as a sort of prescription for listeners. And at Token Creek we won’t.

So often the music we need arrives by chance, and we did not even know we needed it until it appears. And other times we know exactly what we are missing. And so we offer this year’s programs of pieces that feed the soul.

Saturday, Aug. 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 27, at 4 p.m., Program I: Continuo

Some works of art are so rich that they sustain a lifetime of inquiry and encounters, each time revealing fresh new insights only possible through sustained engagement, pieces so resilient they admit multiple interpretations, approaches, nuances, shadings.

We open the season with music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below), pieces we’ve played before and some we have not, music that continues to compel for the very reason that it can never be fully plumbed, music that rewards over and over again. In a concert dominated by Bach, the requirement of the other pieces is really only that they offer sufficient originality and integrity not to be dwarfed or rendered ephemeral by his authority.

Flutist Dawn Lawler (below top), cellist Sara Sitzer (below second) and pianist Jeffrey Stanek (below third join the artistic directors composer-pianist John and violinist Rose Mary Harbison (below bottom) for this opening program.

Works:
BACH Sonata in E minor for violin and continuo, BWV 1023

HAYDN    Trio in F major for flute, cello and piano XV:17

BACH   Two Fugues, from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080

HARBISON    Mark the Date, for flute and piano (pre-premiere)

BACH Sonata in G major for violin and continuo, BWV 1021

BACH Three-Voice Ricercar, from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079

BACH Sonata in C minor, from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079

Wednesday, Aug. 30, at 7:30 p.m. Program II: Schubert

A sequel to last year’s all-Schubert program, which offered Die Schöne Müllerin and the “Trout” Quintet, this season we offer two late masterworks by  Schubert (below): the song cycle Schwanengesang (Swan Song) and the solo piano set of six Moments Musicaux (Musical Moments).

In structure, ingenuity and invention these two large works offer an eloquent counterpoint and complement to one another. We are pleased to welcome back pianist Ya-Fei Chuang (below top), and to introduce tenor Charles Blandy (below middle) with pianist Linda Osborn (below bottom).

Works:

SCHUBERT      Andante, from Sonata in C for Piano Four Hands (“Grand Duo”),  D.812

SCHUBERT     Moments Musicaux, D.780

SCHUBERT      Schwanengesang, D.957

Saturday, Sept. 2, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 3, at 4 p.m. Program III: Waltz

This program explores the familiar form of the waltz as an unexpectedly flexible and diverse musical type, with uncommon approaches from a wide variety of composers from Schubert through Sur.

We conclude the season with Schumann’s splendid Piano Quartet, whose third movement offers one of the greatest of slow waltzes of all time. (You can hear it performed by the Faure Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

We are pleased to introduce violist Becky Menghini (below top) and cellist Kyle Price (below bottom).

Works:

FRITZ KREISLER   Three Old Viennese Melodies for Violin and  Piano

DONALD SUR        Berceuse for Violin and Piano

SCHUBERT      Waltz Sequence

RAVEL     Valses nobles et sentimentales

GEORGE CRUMB    Sonata for Solo Cello

SCHUMANN     Quartet in E-flat for Piano and Strings, Op.   47

The Token Creek Festival has been called a gem, a treasure nestled in the heart of Wisconsin cornfields, a late-summer fixture just outside of Madison.

Now in its 28th season, the Festival has become known for its artistic excellence, diverse and imaginative programming, a deep engagement with the audience, and a surprising, enchanting and intimate performance venue in a comfortable refurbished barn.

The 2017 festival offers five events to close the summer concert season, Aug. 26–Sept. 3.

Performances take place at the Festival Barn (below), on Highway 19 near the hamlet of Token Creek (10 minutes north of Madison, near Sun Prairie) with ample parking available.

The charmingly rustic venue—indoors and air-conditioned with modern comforts—is invitingly small, and early reservations are recommended.

Concert tickets are $32 (students $12). Reservations can be secured in several ways:

More information about the Token Creek Festival and all events and artists can be found at the website, www.tokencreekfestival.org or by calling 608-241-2525.


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