The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera announces its 2020-21 season and plans for Opera in the Park on July 25. Plus, today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. What music would you choose to mark the event?

April 22, 2020
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ALERT: Today, April 22, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which was founded by Gaylord Nelson, a former Wisconsin governor and senator. To celebrate it, in the YouTube video at the bottom is “The Earth Prelude” — a long work, both Neo-classical and minimalist, with beautiful photos, by the best-selling, award-winning Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. It has more than 2.3 million views.

What music would you listen to to mark the event? Leave suggestions with YouTube links, if possible, in the Comment section.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera has just announced its upcoming 2020-21 season.

As usual, there are three works. The fall and spring operas take place in Overture Hall and the winter production, a Broadway musical, will use the Capitol Theater.

Below are the titles with links to Wikipedia entries for more information about the works and their creators:

Here are the titles:

“Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour) – with the popular “Anvil Chorus” — by Giuseppe Verdi (below) in Overture Hall on Friday night, Nov. 6, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 8, at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in Italian with projected English translations.

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

“She Loves Me” with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (below) – the same team that created “Fiddler on the Roof” — in the Capitol Theater on Friday night, Jan. 29, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Jan. 31, at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in English with projected text.

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

“The Marriage of Figaro,” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below) in Overture Hall on Friday night, April 30, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, May 2, at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in Italian with projected English translations.

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

You can see a short preview peek — with music but no word about casts, sets or production details — on Vimeo by using the following link: https://vimeo.com/398921274

For more forthcoming information about the season, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org

OPERA IN THE PARK

You may recall that this spring the Madison Opera had to cancel its production of “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Jacques Offenbach because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What about this summer’s 19th annual Opera in the Park (below, in a photo by James Gill)?

It is still slated for Saturday, July 25, in Garner Park, on Madison’s far west side, with a rain date of Sunday, July 26.

But the opera company is being understandably cautious and says: “At this time, we are proceeding with Opera in the Park as scheduled.

“The safety and wellbeing of our community are our top priority, and we are closely following the guidelines and recommendations of public health officials. We are prepared to make necessary decisions in response to rapidly changing conditions.

“We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate these circumstances.”

For updates and more information about Opera in the Park, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2019-2020-season/oitp2020/

 


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Classical music: The 7th annual Schubertiade at the UW-Madison is this Sunday afternoon and will explore the influence of Beethoven on Schubert

January 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, Jan. 26, is the seventh annual UW Schubertiade – named after the evening gatherings of friends (below) where the composer Franz Schubert performed and premiered his own music.

This year’s theme, given that 2020 is the Beethoven Year, is the immense influence that the older Beethoven (below top) 1770-1827) had on the younger Schubert (below bottom, 1797-1828).

The event will begin with a pre-concert lecture by UW-Madison Professor of Musicology Margaret Butler at 2:15 p.m. in the Rehearsal Hall at the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue, next to the Chazen Museum of Art.

Then at 3 p.m. in the 330-seat Collins Recital Hall in the same building, the two-hour concert will take place.

The concert will close with the usual custom. The audience and performers will join in singing “An die Musik” (To Music). (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear it sung by legendary German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and legendary British accompanist Gerald Moore.)

A reception will follow the concert in the main lobby.

For more description of the event plus a complete program and list of performers – who consist of UW-Madison graduates and musicians including soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below top) and mezzo-soprano Alisanne Apple (below middle) as well as the Pro Arte Quartet (below bottom, in a photo by Rick Langer) – go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/our-annual-schubertiade/

At the site, you will also find information about buying tickets – general admission is $20 with free student tickets on the day of the concert is space is available – and about parking.

The event was founded by and continues to be directed by wife-and-husband pianists Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes (below) who also sing, accompany and play works for piano, four hands.

Lutes sent the following introductory remarks: “Ever since Martha and I presented the first of our annual Schubertiades back in January 2014, we’ve looked for ways to keep our all-Schubert birthday parties fresh and interesting for our audience.

“From time to time we contemplated introducing another composer – maybe even switching our allegiance from the immortal Franz to another of our favorites: perhaps a “Schumanniade.”

“This time, with six years of all-Schubert behind us, we thought we would do the obvious and finally unite Schubert with the composer who probably meant more to him than almost any other – Beethoven, whose 250th birthday is being celebrated this year.

“Once Beethoven moved permanently to Vienna at age 22, he soon became famous and eventually was regarded as the greatest of the city’s composers.

“Schubert, who was born in Vienna five years after Beethoven’s arrival, grew up hearing the older master’s works, often at their premieres. As his genius flowered early, Schubert was often challenged and inspired by Beethoven’s music.

“We bring together these two giants who lived in the same city, knew the same people, attended the same musical events, perhaps met or quite possibly didn’t.

“Yet Beethoven’s presence and example guided Schubert in his own road toward the Ultimate Sublime in music. Our concert of “Influences and Homages” features works where the musical, if not the personal, relationship is there for all to hear.”

Lutes also supplied a list of the song titles in English translation:

“Ich liebe dich” – I love you

“Der Atlas” – Atlas

“Auf dem Strom” – On the River

“Der Zufriedene” – The Contented Man

“Der Wachtelschlag” – The Quail’s Cry

“Wonne der Wehmut” – Joy in Melancholy

“Kennst du das Land?” – Do You Know the Land?

“An die ferne Geliebte” – To the Distant Beloved

“An die Freude” – Ode to Joy

“Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” – Scene from Hades

“Elysium”

“Nachthymne” – Hymn to the Night

“Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” – Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament

Have you attended a past Schubertiade (below, in Mills Hall)?

What did you think?

Would you recommend it to others?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Today is the Winter Solstice. It’s a good time to listen to Schubert’s “Winterreise” (Winter Journey)  — this year in English translation

December 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Winter starts today – Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019 – when the Winter Solstice arrives tonight at 10:19 p.m.

That means tonight — the longest night of the year — we turn the corner. The days start getting longer and the nights shorter.

It is also the day when The Ear likes to listen to the best winter music ever written: the cycle of 24 songs called “Winterreise” (Winter Journey) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

Over the years, The Ear has heard many fine versions. Among his favorite singers are Ian Bostridge, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Matthias Goerner and Thomas Quasthoff.

Next year, you can probably expect to see a new release of the performance this past week by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and the pianist-conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

But this year, he is listening – even as he writes – to a 2018 version by the critically acclaimed British baritone Roderick Williams (below top) with pianist Christopher Glynn (below bottom) on the Signum Classics record label.

The real and unusual appeal is that all the songs are sung in English — not the original German.

And The Ear finds it very appealing not to have to read translations but instead to sit back and listen directly to the meaning of the stories in the songs — all sung with excellent diction — in the austere, subtle and outstanding translation by theater director and writer Jeremy Sams (below).

It makes The Ear want to hear more Lieder or art songs sung in English translation — both live and recorded — just as he likes the translation, used by the Metropolitan Opera, done by the late American poet J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”

Try it and see what you think.

Here is the first song on YouTube, where the audio proceeds through the remainder of the 70-minute cycle after the end of each song.

Enjoy. And let us know what you think of the English translation:

 


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Classical music: Soprano Sarah Brailey and nine UW-Madison cellists team up for the FREE concert of songs at Grace Presents this Saturday at noon

September 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, Sept. 21, at noon, a FREE one-hour program in the Grace Presents series will feature soprano Sarah Brailey (below) in “My Loyal Heart,” a recital of songs by Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Guillaume de Machaut, Dmitri Shostakovich and Heitor Villa-Lobos.

The concert is at Grace Episcopal Church (below), located downtown on the Capitol Square at 116 West Washington Avenue.

Brailey is an acclaimed professional singer who often tours and who is doing graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Brailey will be joined by friends and colleagues. They include UW baritone Paul Rowe and members of the UW Madison Cello Ensemble, featuring nine local Madison cellists who include Grace Presents program coordinator James Waldo. (Below is a summer cello choir at the UW-Madison from several years ago.)

The works will be sung in Russian, Portuguese, and both modern and medieval French.

Here is an introduction from Waldo:

“It is often said that the cello is the instrument most like the human voice.

“My Loyal Heart,” devotes an entire program to music for soprano Sarah Brailey and cello from the 14th century to the 20th century.

“It opens with Arvo Pärt’s L’abbé Agathon about the legend of Father Agathon from the 4th century book “The Desert Fathers,” followed by a new arrangement by Brailey for soprano and cello trio of Guillaume de Machaut’s elegant love song Se quanque amours puet donner.

“This intimately ardent piece is followed by a more tragic love story, that of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, in the opening movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok.

“The program continues in Russian with Sir John Tavener’s powerful and darkly spiritual Akhmatova Songs with poetry by Russian-Soviet Modernist poet, Anna Akhmatova.

“The concert concludes with the hauntingly beautiful and famous first movement and the playful concluding dance of Bachianas Brasileiras (Brazilian Bach Suites) No.for soprano and eight cellos by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. (You can hear the Villa-Lobos aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Text and translations will be provided.

“This program will not be performed anywhere else in Madison.”


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Classical music: The Madison Opera stages its first-ever production of Dvorak’s fairy tale opera “Rusalka” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A preview roundtable is this Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage its production of Antonin Dvorak’s luxurious masterpiece Rusalka on Friday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Running time is 3 hours with two intermissions, and will feature projected supertitles with English translations of the original Czech that will be sung.

Tickets are $18-$131 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

Inspired by the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story travels from a mythical forest to a palace and back again. Its lush score includes the famous “Song to the Moon.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing”Song to the Moon” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in a mythical realm, Rusalka is about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. She tells her father Vodnik that she wishes to become human and live with the Prince on land. Horrified, Vodnik tells her that humans are full of sin, but reluctantly suggests she enlist the help of Jezibaba, a witch. Jezibaba agrees to make her human, but cautions that Rusalka will lose her power of speech. Further, if the Prince betrays her, she will be cursed forever.

The Prince falls in love with Rusalka and plans to marry her, but her silence unnerves him, and a Foreign Princess interrupts the wedding festivities with evil intent. Rusalka returns to the lake as a spirit that lures men to their death – and the Prince follows her.

Rusalka is one of the most gorgeous operas in the repertoire,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with it when I first saw it over 20 years ago, and listening to the score is a pure pleasure. I am so delighted to share this opera with Madison, so that everyone can learn how brilliant an operatic composer Dvorak was, and experience an opera that is justifiably popular around the world.”

Rusalka’s story was inspired by multiple sources, including Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben, Hans Christian Andersen, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

The opera premiered on March 31, 1901 in Prague and quickly became a massive success, hailed as Dvorak’s masterpiece.

But it was not initially widely performed outside of Czech territories; the first U.S. performance was in 1975. But in recent decades, the opera by Dvorak (below) has become a regular part of the opera repertoire, due to its beautiful music and lovely story.

This production is not only a Madison Opera premiere, but also the company’s first-ever opera in Czech.

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Soprano Emily Birsan (below) returns to Madison Opera in the title role, following successes here as Gounod’s Juliet and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Last month, she sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has praised her singing for her “amazing clarity of diction, accuracy of intonation and fineness of expression.”

Tenor John Lindsey (below) returns to Madison Opera as The Prince, after singing in last summer’s Opera in the Park.

Making their debuts with Madison Opera are soprano Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess, contralto Lindsay Amman as the witch Jezibaba and bass William Meinert as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik. Emily SecorSaira Frank and Kirsten Larson play the three wood sprites; Benjamin Liupaogo sings the Hunter.

The Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra round out the musical forces, all under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director.

Keturah Stickann (below) directs her first opera for Madison Opera; she has directed both traditional and contemporary repertoire across all of the U.S., most recently for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera.

This production originated at Minnesota Opera and features projections (below) by Wendall K. Harrington, who has been described as “the godmother of modern projection design.”

In reviewing the Minnesota production, theTwin Cities Arts Reader praised “the stunning visuals on display, which only serve to enhance and elaborate on the action and the music.”

Madison Opera’s production of “Rusalka” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kay & Martin Barrett, Millie & Marshall Osborn, Sally & Mike Miley, Kato Perlman, Charles & Martha Casey, John Lemke & Pam Oliver, and The Ann Stanke Fund.

RELATED EVENTS

You can learn more about “Rusalka” at the events leading up to the performances.

Opera Up Close will take place this Sunday, April 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center (below) 335 West Mifflin Street, $20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers.

This event features a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Rusalka. General director Kathryn Smith will discuss Antonin Dvorak and the history of his fairy-tale opera. Principal artists, stage director Keturah Stickann and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this masterpiece.

Pre-Show Talks by Kathryn Smith take place on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

Post-Opera Q&A’s are on Friday, April 26, and Sunday, April 28, immediately following the opera in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

More information — including cast biographies and a blog with Q&A interviews with some cast members — is available at https://www.madisonopera.org and https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/rusalka/.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
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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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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Classical music: The Madison Savoyards marks its 55th anniversary with six performances of “Die Fledermaus” starting this Friday night

July 17, 2018
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ALERT: Tomorrow, on Wednesday night, July 18, at 7:30 p.m. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue near Camp Randall Stadium, the Madison Summer Choir will mark its 10th anniversary with a performance of the choral and orchestral Mass in D Minor by Anton Bruckner and other works including one by Johannes Brahms. For more information, go to:

http://www.madisonsummerchoir.org

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Madison+summer+choir

By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this weekend, the Madison Savoyards presents Die Fledermaus, or The Bat, by Johann Strauss Jr. — sung in English with supertitles — at UW Music Hall at the base of Bascom Hill.

Evening performances are on Friday, July 20; Friday, July 27; and Saturday, July 28; matinees are at 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 21; Sunday, July 22; and Sunday, July 29.

Ticket prices are $30 for the public; $28 for seniors; $15 for students and youth under 17; and $5 for children under 5. Tickets can be purchased through UW Box Office at (608) 265-2787, www.arts.wisc.edu, or in person at the door. Group sales of 10 or more available by telephone only.

For more information, go to the website: www.madisonsavoyards.org

The production marks the 55th anniversary of the Madison Savoyards, best known for presenting the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

For this production, board director J. Adam Shelton makes his debut as stage director and Kyle Knox (below), a UW-Madison graduate, returns as music director and conductor. He is also the music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the new associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the popular Overture to Die Fledermaus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Die Fledermaus is the story of a romantically stale couple that learns to love again all the while playing the fools in this comedy of errors.

Eisenstein and his wife Rosalinda, fall prey to a cruel joke by their old pal Falke involving their chambermaid, a Russian prince, a prison warden and a tenor who can’t get the girl. Everyone works his or her way up and down the social ladder in this futuristic production set in 2021.

The famous second act masquerade ball is a menagerie theme featuring a ballet performance by Central Midwest Ballet Academy of Middleton.

The choreographer is Kristin Roling, with costumes by Rebecca Stanley and set design by Corey Helser.

The cast includes Tim Rebers (below top) as Eisenstein and Erica K. Bryan (below bottom) as Rosalinda.

Also featured are Michelle Buck (below top) as Adele; Ben Swanson (below second) as Falke; Kirsten Larson (below third) as Prince Orlofsky; and Tom Kastle (below bottom) as Frosch.

Grant funding supports the artists and underwrites the Children’s Pre-Show (1 p.m. on July 22 at UW-Madison’s Music Hall) where children will meet members of the cast and crew, and learn about the show and its music, tour the theater, and create a show-centric craft for free.

American Sign Language service is available, by request, for the July 21 performance.

ABOUT THE SAVOYARDS 

It is the mission of the Madison Savoyards “to preserve the works of Gilbert and Sullivan (below) and other light opera by producing and promoting live performances; to develop the skills and talent of cast, crew and musicians of all ages; and to inspire, entertain, and educate the community through performances and other initiatives.”

More information can be found on the company’s Facebook page along with behind-the-scenes insights to the production.

J. ADAM SHELDON (below) ANSWERS TWO QUESTIONS FROM THE EAR:

Why does the anniversary production feature Johann Strauss Jr. rather than Gilbert and Sullivan?

“We decided to celebrate our 55th anniversary with Die Fledermaus to try something new as a company.  Strauss Jr.’s Fledermaus is always a party and will elevate our audiences in the same ways as they have come to expect with G&S.

“We have actually continued our tie to G&S by choosing a libretto that is based upon Gilbert’s translation of the original Meilhac and Halevy play, Le Réveillon. Gilbert’s On Bail brandishes the same humor, socio-political commentary, and alliterative patters we expect from his pen. It only seemed logical to use a translation steeped in Gilbert’s.

“Additionally, our company has performed nearly every work in the G&S collaborative canon — the only exceptions being the reconstructed Thespis & Pineapple Poll — and we want to see how the community embraces us peppering in other light opera and operettas into our repertoire. Some celebrate 55 years with emeralds; we’re celebrating with love… and a twist!

“The story of Fledermaus really did not need a ton of punching up to meet the year. For fun we have included Wisconsin references like Spotted Cow beer, cheese curds (my personal favorite), and Old Fashioneds, which enliven the second act even more, but the core of the story is timeless.

“Whether told with Viennese costumes, or modern attire and cell phones, this story could happen anytime, anywhere.  People still play practical jokes on one another, people escape to costume parties for fun, and lovers still fall in, and maybe out, of love.

“Furthermore, Rebecca Stanley (our costume designer) and I imagined a grand masquerade ball in the second act where high fashion meets “cosplay.”  (EDITOR’S NOTE: For a definition of “cosplay,” here is a link to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosplay)

Why did you choose to do it in English?

“The Madison Savoyards is dedicated to continuing the tradition of performing in English. It offers accessibility to our audiences that larger operatic works sometimes cannot. Plus, light opera historically is offered in the vernacular of wherever it’s performed.

“Likewise, we are continuing to offer comedic works as the core of our repertoire.

“We recognize we have a powerful place in the community offering comedic works exclusively in English. But we will offer supertitles this summer for those who might not be familiar with the story.”


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Classical music: UW Choral Union and soloists succeed impressively in Bach’s massive “St. Matthew Passion.” Plus, a FREE concert of Leonard Bernstein songs is at noon on Friday

April 25, 2018
17 Comments

ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features two husband-and-wife teams. Singers bass-baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and pianists Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer will perform an all-Leonard Bernstein program in honor of his centennial. The program includes selections from Arias and Barcarolles,” “Mass,” “Peter Pan,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Songfest.” The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

It comes a bit late for this year’s Holy Week, but the UW Choral Union’s impressive mounting of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last Sunday was still a major contribution to our music this spring.

Running at almost three hours, this is Bach’s longest single work, and is regarded by now as one of the musical monuments of Western Civilization. But its length and its demands make it something performed only on special occasions.

No antiquarian, conductor Beverly Taylor, who directs choral activities at the UW-Madison, tried to follow carefully Bach’s elaborate specifications, which call for both a double chorus and a double orchestra, along with soloists.

A traditionally ample agency, the Choral Union this time fielded a total of 100 singers, plus a 12-member children’s choir, as against a pair of student orchestras numbering 14 and 12 respectively, all playing modern instruments.

This was hardly a balanced combination and Bach himself could never have assembled, much less managed, so huge a chorus as this. It certainly overwhelmed the orchestras, and quite drowned out the children’s group in their appearance at the beginning and ending of Part I.

Still, there is no denying the magnificence of such a large choral force. It was just a bit challenged by the turbae or crowd passages. Nevertheless, to hear such a powerful choir sing so many of the intermittent chorales in Bach’s harmonizations is to feel the glory of the entire Lutheran legacy in religious expression.

A total of 16 soloists were employed, in functions of varying consequence.

At the head of the list stand two. Tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below left) has a voice of more Italian than German character, to my taste. But he not only carried off the heavy duties of the narrating Evangelist, he also sang the tenor arias as well, with unfailing eloquence.  And faculty baritone Paul Rowe (below right) was truly authoritative as Jesus in the parts reserved for the Savior.

The arias were otherwise addressed by a double cast of singers, two each on the other voice parts. Of the two sopranos, Sara Guttenberg (if I have the identity correctly from the confusing program) was strong and splendidly artistic.

Talia Engstrom was more a mezzo-soprano than a true contralto, and not an equally powerful singer, but I did like her very engaging singing. (You can hear the lovely contralto and violin aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The sharing of the alto arias with a countertenor was, however, not a good idea. Of the two bass-baritones, Matthew Chastain (if I have his identity aright) sang with strong and rich tone.  The other singers, mostly singing the character parts in the Gospel text, were generally students, ranging widely in maturity and appeal.

Taken as a whole, though, this performance was an admirable achievement for Beverly Taylor (below). Her tempos were on the moderate side, accommodating especially the large chorus. Above all, her enterprise was obvious in tackling this massive work, while the choral singers obviously found a special thrill in participating in it.

Compliments should be given the program, which contained the full German text interlarded with the English translation. With full house lighting, this wisely allowed the audience to follow along closely.

But the performance was divided into two sittings, one for Part I at 4 p.m., the second for Part II at 7:30 p.m., with a break in between of over two hours — really too long, I found.


Posted in Classical music
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