The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: This weekend pianist Emanuel Ax helps conductor John DeMain celebrate his 25th anniversary season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra

September 26, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will open its season by celebrating the 25th anniversary of its music director and conductor John DeMain, who will collaborate with renowned pianist Emanuel Ax (below bottom, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco).

The program opens with the “Fanfare Ritmico” by Jennifer Higdon, the contemporary American composer and Pulitzer Prize winner. Then comes a special suite of favorite movements, cobbled together by DeMain, from the ballet score for “Romeo and Juliet” by Sergei Prokofiev. The grand finale is the monumental Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday night, Sept. 28, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Sept. 30, at 2:30 p.m.

Jennifer Higdon’s “Fanfare Ritmico” celebrates the rhythm and speed of life. Written on the eve of the new millennium, the work reflects on the quickening pace of life as time progresses.

Higdon (below) herself notes, “Our lives now move at speeds much greater than what I believe anyone would have imagined in years past. As we move along day-to-day, rhythm plays an integral part of our lives — from the individual heartbeat to the lightning speed of our computers. This fanfare celebrates that rhythmic motion, of man and machine, and the energy which permeates every moment of our being in the new century.”

Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (below) originally wrote the Romeo and Juliet Suite in 1935 for the titular ballet produced by the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theatre. In addition to the somewhat standard instrumentation, the ballet orchestration also requires the use of tenor saxophone, a voice that adds a unique sound and contributes to the sense of drama prevalent in Shakespeare’s original tragedy.

For this performance, John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) has hand-picked the best excerpts from across the work to create one orchestra piece.

The epic Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83, is separated by 22 years from Johannes Brahms’ first piano concerto and is dedicated to Brahms’ teacher Eduard Marxsen. It was premiered in 1881 in Budapest, Hungary, with Brahms (below) playing the piano solo.

The work was an immediate success and demonstrates Brahms’ ability to blend beauty with fire, tenderness with drama. (You can hear the unusual and fiery Scherzo movement, played by Krystian Zimmerman and Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Emanuel Ax (below) is considered one of the best-known concert pianists of the 21st century. As the Seattle Times reports, “[Ax’s] touch is amazing. The keys are not so much struck as sighed upon — moved as if by breath. There is no sense of fingers or hammers or material mechanisms…[it] simply materializes and floats in the air.”

Ax captured public attention in 1974 when he won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. In 1975 he won the Michaels Award of Young Concert Artists, followed by the coveted Avery Fisher Prize four years later. In 1975, he made his Madison solo recital debut at the Wisconsin Union Theater and he has frequently performed here since then.

Ax is a particular supporter of contemporary composers and new music, and he has given three world premieres in the last few seasons: “Century Rolls” by John Adams; “Seeing” by Christopher Rouse; and “Red Silk Dance” by Bright Sheng. He has also received Grammy awards for the second and third volumes of his cycle of Haydn’s piano sonatas and has made a series of Grammy-winning recordings with cellist Yo-Yo Ma of the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas for cello and piano.

Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) is currently a faculty member of the Juilliard School of Music, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of Yale University’s Sanford Medal.

One hour before each performance, MSO retired trombonist and longtime program annotator J. Michael Allsen will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticketholders.

Allsen’s program notes for the concerts are available online at this address: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1819/1.Sep18.html

The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert.

Tickets can be purchased in the following ways:

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/axthrough the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Subscribers to 5 or more symphony subscription concerts can save up to 50% off single ticket prices. More information is available about the season at: https://madisonsymphony.org/18-19
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

 NOTE: Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 93rd season in 2018–2019 and its 25th season under the leadership of Music Director John DeMain. Find more information about the rest of the MSO season at madisonsymphony.org

The Presenting Sponsors for the September concerts are: Joel and Kathryn Belaire. Major funding is provided by: The Wisconsin State Journal and Madison.com; the Irving and Dorothy Levy Family Foundation, Inc.; the Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, Inc.; Rosemarie and Fred Blancke; and David and Kato Perlman. Additional funding is provided by Jeffrey and Angela Bartell, Martin L. Conney and the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: As the beginning of a new school year approaches, a parent makes the case for letting students study and major in music and then pursue a musical career – no matter how difficult it seems in the bad job market today.

August 11, 2013
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

As the beginning of another new school year approaches, a good and loyal friend of this blog wrote in to say that others should read this essay that she found on-line. It defends students who want to study and even major in music and then go on to pursue a professional career in music. (Below is a photo of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chamber Orchestra.)

UW Symphony Orchestra 9-2012

This comes at a welcome moment, especially in the wake of the two stories I recently posted by Paul Solman (below), the longtime and prize-winning economics reporter for PBS’ “The Newshour” and a Distinguished Fellow now teaching journalism at Yale University.

Paul Solman hat

In one story Solman explored how difficult it is to pursue music as a career in such a difficult job market as we have today.

Here is a link to that post and story with sources that included gifted student at the Juilliard School and professional musicians:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/07/13/classical-music-beauty-is-big-business-and-a-hard-job-pbs-economics-reporter-paul-solman-insightfully-explores-how-hard-it-is-to-find-good-jobs-for-even-the-most-talented-musicians-and-othe/

And then Solman followed it up with a story, using some of the sources, about how young musicians should develop entrepreneurial skills.

Here is a link to that story:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/07/27/classical-music-todays-young-classical-musicians-need-to-develop-skills-as-business-entrepreneurs-according-to-a-very-credible-newshour-report-by-ace-pbs-economics-reporte/

And here is the blog essay by a parent who works in music making the case that young students should indeed be allowed to pursue their dreams of a musical m career and not dissuaded towards a “real” career.

It makes for good reading and perhaps sage advice. So here is a link:

http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130728144536-52594-let-the-kid-study-music-already

Along similar lines, here is a story about the famous Berklee College of Music (below) in Boston that is linking up with a business program:

http://www.boston.com/yourcampus/news/berklee/2013/08/berklee_launches_first_all-online_mba_in_music_business.html

Berklee College of Music

How does the blog essay defending musical careers compare with the realities, the fears and the rewards that you, your children and others you know have experienced?

The Ear – -who likes and favors a flexible liberal arts education education and who thinks we often end up making a living and having a career in a field we never expected to enter — wants to hear.


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