The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.

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Classical Music: The Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble will take Madison listeners on a FREE concert of ‘Imaginary Journeys’ TONIGHT at 7 p.m.

October 27, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement for a concert that sounds in keeping with the spirit of Halloween:

The Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble (below, in a photo by Thomas Mohr) will lead listeners on aural adventures through space, time and fantasy at its “Imaginary Journeys” concert TONIGHT, Oct. 27.

The concert is FREE and open to the public, and will take place at 7 p.m. at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 5701 Raymond Road, in Madison.

For more information, call (608) 271-6633 or visit www.gslcwi.com or gargoylebrass.com.

The professional ensemble of brass quintet and pipe organ, with percussion, will perform the Madison premieres of new works and arrangements it recently commissioned for its novel array of instruments.

The concert’s namesake work, “Imaginary Journeys,” was written for the ensemble by Chicago-area composer Mark Lathan. It takes listeners on a rocket-powered interstellar adventure, inspired by recent astronomical discoveries.

“For this piece,” Lathan says, “I wanted to bring in some drama, somewhat in the manner of a film score.” Lathan earned a doctorate in music from the University of California at Los Angeles, where he received the Henry Mancini Award in Film Composition and studied film scoring with Jerry Goldsmith.

Another Madison premiere is Craig Garner’s brass-and-organ arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s ever-popular Suite from “The Firebird,” a ballet based on Russian fairy tales. “The audience will hear an all-time favorite orchestral work like it’s never been heard before,” says Rodney Holmes, founder and artistic director of the Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble.

Concertgoers will also hear the first local performances of “Short Fuse” for brass, organ and percussion by Chris Reyman (below), a jazz performance specialist teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso. Holmes says, “This piece shows off a very different face of what a pipe organ and brass can do.”

Other first hearings include Garner’s two-part instrumental suite from English Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s “Come Ye Sons of Art.”

The concert’s journey into the Baroque era includes brass and organ arrangements of movements from Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale cantata “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), BWV 80.

The concert’s imaginative works include “Earthscape” by David Marlatt (below, and heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) as well as pipe-organ versions of “Clair de lune” (Moonlight) by Claude Debussy and Louis Vierne.

Performers will include Madison-based organist Jared Stellmacher (below), an award-winning musician heard on the Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble’s critically acclaimed 2015 debut CD “Flourishes, Tales and Symphonies.” He holds a master’s degree in music from Yale University.

Gargoyle ensemble players are trumpeters Lev Garbar and Andrew Hunter, horn player Amy Krueger, trombonist Ian Fitzwater, tuba player Jason Lyons, and percussionist Logan Fox. Conductor will be Jakob Noestvik.

About the Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble

“The Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble plays with warmth, elegance, and panache,” said U.S. music magazine Fanfare in a review of the ensemble’s debut CD. “[They] are perfect companions for the music lover in need of calming nourishment.”

The group takes its whimsical name from the stone figures atop gothic buildings at the University of the Chicago, where the now-professional ensemble got its start in 1992 as a brass quintet of faculty and students.

Under its founder and artistic director Rodney Holmes, it has evolved over the decades into an independent organization of classically trained musicians that focuses on commissioning and performing groundbreaking new works and arrangements for brass and pipe organ. More information can be found at gargoylebrass.com.


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