The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra announces an ambitious 2020-21 season with new guest soloists and conductors, but with no Middleton venue

March 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Amid all the concert cancellations due to COVID-19 comes good news.

The mostly amateur and critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (MCO, below) — which has canceled and postponed concerts for the remainder of this season — has announced its five-concert line-up for the 2020-21 season.

It is undeniably ambitious on several counts.

But unfortunately it usual venue — the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School — will be undergoing renovations.

That means that the MCO will be using other venues besides its home base (below) for its 11th season.

The new venues include the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall (below) in the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., at the UW-Madison, which will host three of the concerts.

Also included for the other two concerts are the brand new McFarland Performing Arts Center (below)  – where the MCO will give the center’s inaugural public concert on Oct. 7 — and Madison Memorial High School.

Concert dates and times are usually Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. They are Oct. 7, Dec. 16, Feb. 17, April 2 (Friday) and May 26. Admission will remain $15 with free admission for students. And, as usual, post-concert meet-and-greet receptions will be held at all performances.

The ambitious new season includes some familiar faces but also some new names.

On Oct. 7, pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below) will open the season by performing the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff; and then, on May 26, he will close the season with the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven as the first installment of a complete cycle of Beethoven piano concertos.

On Oct. 7, UW professor and Pro Arte Quartet first violinist David Perry (below top) will make his MCO debut in the Violin Concerto No. 4 by Mozart; and on Dec. 16, Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below bottom) will return to play the Violin Concerto by Brahms.

On April 2, the Festival Choir of Madison (below), under its director Sergei Pavlov, will makes its MCO debut in the movie-score cantata “Alexander Nevsky” by Prokofiev.

And the teenage winners of the second Youth Concerto Competition, to be held next December, will perform with the orchestra on Feb. 17.

The conductor for three concerts will be Kyle Knox, the music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) and associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO).

A frequent MCO guest conductor, Knox has also agreed to become the ensemble’s new principal conductor and artistic adviser. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Kyle Knox conducting the MCO last December in Wagner’s Overture to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” (The Master Singers of Nuremberg) at the UW’s Hamel Music Center.)

Two guest conductors will be making their MCO debuts: UW-Whitewater professor Christopher Ramaekers (below top) on Oct. 7 and Edgewood College professor Sergei Pavlov (below bottom) on April 2.

Some repertoire still hasn’t been decided. For up-to-date information, as well as information about how to audition for the MCO, how to subscribe to its email newsletter and how to support it, go to the newly redesigned website at: https://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

“We will also try to schedule the concert with this year’s Youth Concerto Competition winners for this summer, even if it means going to an outdoor venue,” says MCO co-founder and co-artistic director Mindy Taranto. The winners are: violinists Ava Kenny and Dexter Mott, and cellist Andrew Siehr.

Adds Taranto: “We are really excited about the lineup of guest soloists and new conductors, and are especially grateful to Kyle Knox for his continued association with us. We’re going to have a fantastic year.”

 


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Classical music: Today is World Piano Day. Why do you love the piano? Do you have a favorite piano piece? A favorite pianist? Something to say about taking piano lessons? Want to thank your piano teacher? The Ear wants to hear

March 28, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Saturday, March 28, 2020 – is World Piano Day.

The international celebration is fitting because today happens to be Day 88 of the year – a timely parallel to the fact that most pianos have 88 keys.

Here is a link to the official website with a list of international events and other links to playlists of piano music on SoundCloud and Spotify: https://www.pianoday.org

Here is a link to the virtual live streaming piano festival — starting at 3 p.m. Central European Time (CET), which is 6 hours ahead of Central Daylight Time or at 9 a.m. CDT) — by the record label  Deutsche Grammophon: https://www.udiscovermusic.com/classical-news/deutsche-grammophon-world-piano-day-livestream/


A lot of us took piano lessons.

So today seems like a good occasion to say something about the role of the piano in your life.

Why do you love the piano? The sound? The physical act of playing? The vast repertoire?

Maybe you want to mention a specific piano piece that made a difference in your life, as the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39, by Chopin did for The Ear. (You can hear Arthur Rubinstein play it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Maybe you have a favorite piano piece or piano composer you like to listen to?

Maybe you wished you had stopped lessons earlier or continued them longer?

Would you like to say thank you to your piano teacher?

Maybe you have memories – good or bad — of a recital you gave?

Who is your favorite pianist from the past – maybe Van Cliburn or Vladimir Horowitz (below), Sviatoslav Richter or Dame Myra Hess?

Which pianist today would you recommend to others? Daniil Trifonov or Haochen Zhang, Simone Dinnerstein (below) or Maria Joao Pires?

Those suggestions hardly exhaust the possibilities. So be creative and leave a Comment with a YouTube link, if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Starting this Sunday, radio station WORT-FM 89.9 will air recordings that Rich Samuels made of many live performances in the Madison area

March 21, 2020
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ALERT: The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) will be suspending the remainder of its spring season until further notice. Music director Kyle Knox and executive director Bridget Fraser says they are hopeful that an adjusted end-of-year schedule might be possible. Many ideas are under consideration. But they say they have no idea at this point what might be possible given the restrictions currently in place at the UW-Madison. “All we can do is explore possible scenarios and be ready to react if the restrictions are lifted,” they add.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following note from Rich Samuels (below), a retired Chicago reporter and broadcaster who is often seen at concerts with microphones and a laptop computer. His public service is especially commendable and useful during the current coronavirus pandemic when almost all live concerts in music-rich Madison have been canceled or postponed for the foreseeable future.

Jake:

WORT (89.9 FM and at wortfm.org) will shortly start to air recordings of past public performances by Madison area classical musicians within its regularly scheduled classical music broadcasts.


This should help keep our local musician friends in the public ear even though their local venues have been shuttered and their gigs canceled.

I’ve had the good fortune to record hundreds of hours of local performances since 2012. I’m now editing them into segments that can be inserted into the shows of WORT’s classical music hosts.

The first segment to air, if all goes well, will be part of the “Musica Antiqua” early music program, hosted by Carol Moseson, this Sunday, March 22, from 8 to 11 a.m.

It will feature Eric Miller on viola da gamba and Daniel Sullivan on harpsichord performing a suite by French Baroque composer Louis Couperin. I recorded the concert (below) last Oct. 11 in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison (FUS).

Other such segments will follow on the weekday classical music shows that air from 5 to 8 a.m. We are still working on the details.

Additionally, I’ll be pre-recording three-hour broadcasts that can be run in place of the regularly scheduled classical music shows, assuming the host, for whatever reason, is unable to make it to the station.

These will hopefully include complete concert performances from the FUS Friday Noon Musicale, Grace Presents (in the YouTube video at the bottom) and Willy Street Chamber Players (below) series.

I gave up my own Thursday morning WORT show about a year ago after my wife developed some health issues. But I’ve continued to record local musicians whenever possible. (My wife, by the way, is presently in good shape).

Hopefully, this WORT effort will benefit both local musicians and their audiences. (Below is Samuels recording at Bach Around the Clock, which has been canceled this year.)

Please join The Ear in thanking Rich Samuels and WORT for their service to the community by leaving word in the Comment section.

What do you think of his project?

 


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Classical music: This Friday at noon, technology meets Beethoven when UW-Madison pianist Kangwoo Jin plays a FREE concerto performance

March 5, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale — tomorrow, March 6 — at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features an unusual concert in which classical music meets high technology.

Kangwoo Jin (below, in a photo by Steve Apps for the Wisconsin State Journal), a gifted and prize-winning pianist from South Korea, will perform the second and third movements of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58.

But instead of a second piano or a full orchestra, Jin will be accompanied by a newly developed interactive app that adjusts to Jin and allows him to play his solo part flexibly with a real orchestra accompaniment that has been recorded minus the piano part.

Jin is studying for his doctorate with UW Professors Christopher Taylor and Jessica Johnson. He will graduate this May.

Next week Jin — who has won the UW-Madison Concerto and Beethoven Competitions and who teaches at Farley’s House of Pianos, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the UW Continuing Education program– will open and close the UW-River Falls Piano Festival with two performances of the same Beethoven concerto with the St. Croix Valley Symphony Orchestra

Jin suffers from hemophilia and has to be careful about injuring himself from over-practicing and over-playing. He has a fascinating and inspiring personal story to tell. Here is a link to a story about him in the Wisconsin State Journal: https://madison.com/wsj/entertainment/uw-pianist-shares-musical-gift-despite-health-challenge/article_fdba6f0f-9245-5816-a97c-c4f3a6e2d0ed.html

You can follow his Facebook page. And here is a link to Jin’s own website, which has more biographical information and videos: https://www.pianistkangwoojin.com


Jin says that, in addition to the two concerto movements, he will also play several short pieces:  “Clair de Lune” (Moonlight) by Claude Debussy; the “Raindrop” Prelude by Chopin; and two song transcriptions by Franz Liszt — Schubert’s “Litany” and Schumann’s “Widmung” (Dedication).

The orchestral accompaniment for the Beethoven concerto is performed by MusAcc — an iPad app. It is an app that can customize and manipulate the audio, much like an actual instrument, in real time.  Think of it as an orchestra in a box that you can use anywhere.

Jin explains the reasons for his FUS concert, which starts at NOON (not 12:15 p.m., as it used to be) and goes to about 1 p.m.:

“Playing a concerto is not possible in that venue, so I am using a recorded file for the orchestra part,” Jin says. “My friend Yupeng Gu, who developed this audio controlling device, will conduct and control the pacing of the recording so that the sound synchronizes with my playing. It is quite incredible and will be a very interesting concert.”

“I hope this breaks the barrier of having to have a big venue and other difficulties for performing concertos, and lets local people enjoy a more accessible and diverse repertoire,” he says. “If people like it, I would like to play the whole concerto and maybe more concertos — hopefully, all five Beethoven piano concertos — this way. This is something I have not tried before, so I am excited about it.”

“People have much easier access to solo performances, but not to concertos due to many limitations,” Jin adds. “So I expect them to have a novel experience with this concert.”

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a similar performance, done with the same device, featuring a different pianist playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15.

 


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Classical music: University Opera updates and stages Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” on this Friday night, Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night. Plus, here are the winners of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Final Forte

February 27, 2020
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NEWS UPDATE: If you missed it, here are the results of Wednesday’s night Final Forte teenage concerto competition with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which was broadcast live from Overture Hall on Wisconsin Public Radio and PBS Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin Public Television).

First and second place prizes of a $2,000 scholarship went to pianist Michael Wu and pianist Jessica Jiang, respectively. The two runners-up — violinists Emily Hauer and Jonah Kartman — each received a scholarship of $1,000.

Here is a link to more information, photos and background – including teachers — for each of the four contestants as well as the dates for rebroadcasting the finalists’ concert on radio and TV.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/02/23/classical-music-this-wednesday-night-four-teenage-soloists-compete-in-this-years-final-forte-competition-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-attend-it-live-for-free-or-watch-and-hear-it-l/

By Jacob Stockinger

The prize-winning University Opera and UW Symphony Orchestra will stage three performances of “Cosi fan tutte” (So Do They All, or Women Are Like That), the late comic and seriously satirical opera by Mozart about love, gender roles and cheating on partners.

The performances are in Old Music Hall on Bascom Hill on this Friday night, Feb. 28, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday afternoon, March 1, at 2:30 p.m.; and Tuesday night, March 3, at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $25 for general admission with reserved seats, $20 for seniors (62 and up) and $10 for UW students.

As usual, UW students will alternate certain roles during the three performances. (Below is returning singer Anja Pustaver, one of the three Despina’s in the production.)

The stage director is David Ronis, the head of the opera program at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. He has won numerous national awards during his tenure at the UW-Madison for his inventive re-imaginings of well-known operas and musicals.

The student orchestra will be conducted by Oriol Sans, the acclaimed new professor of conducting and director of Orchestral Activities at the UW-Madison. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the Overture to  “Cosi” played by the Metropolitan Opera conducted by James Levine.)

Below is a studio photo by radio host Norman Gilliland of members of the production when they appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio. From left are: conductor Oriol Sans, director David Ronis, soprano Julia Urbank and soprano Cayla Rosche.

The opera has been updated to the Roaring Twenties, at a time when the women’s suffrage movement and other women’s rights issues were gaining traction. The re-staging also seems especially timely and contemporary, given the #MeToo and Time’sUp movements.

Here is a link to the full press release with the complete cast and production staff as well as a sketch of the abstract stage set (below) designed by Joseph Varga and other information, including a detailed synopsis and an explanation of the reason for setting the opera by in the Roaring 20s: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2020/02/10/cosi-fan-tutte/

Here is a link to a shortened version – with information about tickets and parking — on the Mead Witter School of Music’s home website under Concerts and Events: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-mozarts-cosi-fan-tutte/2020-02-28/

 


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Classical music: The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet performs the second of its free, MUST-HEAR, six-concert Beethoven string quartet cycle this Friday night. Here is a revised schedule.

February 25, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, during the first concert of the cycle) plays the second concert in its FREE year-long, six-concert Beethoven cycle to mark the Beethoven Year that celebrates the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The Ear heard the first concert in the cycle and found it superb. He recommends the performances highly enough to call them MUST-HEARs.

But a couple of things have changed in the cycle.

Since the last listing was published, the last concert of the cycle has been pushed back one day.

Also, UW-Madison Professor of Musicology Charles Dill (below) will be giving a pre-concert lecture one hour before each of the remaining five concerts in the series. This Friday night,  Dill speaks at 7 p.m. in the Lee/Kaufman Rehearsal Hall.

Members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below, from left in a photo by Rick Langer) are David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violins; Sally Chisholm, viola; Parry Karp, cello.

Here is the revised schedule:

PROGRAM I  (completed)

Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, 8 p.m. in Collins Recital Hall

String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 (1798-1800)

String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, “Serioso” (1810)

String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130 (1825-6)

PROGRAM II

This Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, at 8 p.m., in Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall

String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1 (1798-1800). You can hear the opening of this first quartet by the young Beethoven, played the Alban Berg Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 74, “Harp” (1809).

String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 131 (1826)

Pre-Concert lecture by Professor Charles Dill, 7 p.m. in  Lee/Kaufman Rehearsal Hall

PROGRAM III

Thursday, April 16, 2020, 7:30 p.m. in Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall

String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3 (1798-1800)

String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2 (1806)

String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127 (1825)

Pre-Concert lecture by Professor Charles Dill, 6:30 p.m. in Collins Recital Hall

PROGRAM IV

Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, at 8 p.m. in Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall

String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, No. 5 (1798-1800)

String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4 (1798-1800)

String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132 (1825)

Pre-Concert lecture by Professor Charles Dill at 7 p.m. in Collins Recital Hall

PROGRAM V

Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, at 8 p.m. in Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall

String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6 (1798-1800)

String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135 (1826)

String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 (1806)

Pre-Concert lecture by Professor Charles Dill at 7 p.m. in Collins Recital Hall

PROGRAM VI

Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021, at 7:30 p.m. in Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall

String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1 (1806)

String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, with the Great Fugue finale (Grosse Fuge), Op. 133 (1825)

Pre-Concert lecture by Professor Charles Dill at 6:30 p.m. in Collins Recital Hall

 


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Classical music: This Wednesday night, four teenage soloists compete in this year’s Final Forte competition with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Attend it live for FREE, or watch and hear it live on PBS Wisconsin and Wisconsin Public Radio

February 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below in a  photo by Peter Rodgers), PBS Wisconsin and Wisconsin Public Radio will present the 14th annual “Wisconsin Young Artists Compete: The Final Forte.”

The concert of four teenage concerto competition winners features the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) led by Associate Conductor Kyle Knox (below).

The concert is FREE and open to the public. But audience members must register in advance, and arrive by 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 26, prior to the beginning of the live broadcast. Reservations are required. Call (608) 257-3734 or go online to register at https://madisonsymphony.org/finalforte

Doors open at 6:15 p.m. and close at 6:45 p.m. due to the live broadcast. The event runs until 8:30 p.m. No tickets will be issued at the door. Seating is general admission in select areas of the concert hall.

The four finalists (below, in a photo by James Gill who did all the contestant photos) were chosen from 10 semi-finalists in November.

They are:

Jessica Jiang (far left), who will perform the first movement from Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. (You can hear the Prokofiev movement, played by Martha Argerich, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Jonah Kartman (far right), who will perform the first movement from Saint-Saens’ Violin Concerto No 3.

Emily Hauer (third from left) who will perform the first movement from Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor.

Pianist Michael Wu (second from left) who will perform Liszt’s “Totentanz” (Dance of Death).

Videos to introduce each finalist are now available for viewing online.

Jessica Jiang: https://pbswisconsin.org/wpt-video/wpt-music-arts/final-forte-jessica-jiang-qto5ir/

Emily Hauer: https://pbswisconsin.org/wpt-video/wpt-music-arts/final-forte-emily-hauer-8ihe8s/

Jonah Kartman: https://pbswisconsin.org/wpt-video/wpt-music-arts/final-forte-jonah-kartman-xsr1z6/

Michael Wu): https://pbswisconsin.org/wpt-video/wpt-music-arts/final-forte-michael-wu-frbf66/

Rebroadcast dates on the Wisconsin Channel (WPT-2) will be Friday, March 6 at 8 p.m. and 11p.m.; Saturday, March 7, at 3 p.m.; and Thursday, March 12, at 3 a.m.

ABOUT THE FINALISTS

Jessica Jiang (below) is a junior at Madison Memorial High School. She took up the piano at the age of four and currently studies with Bill Lutes, Emeritus Professor at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. Jessica received the Steenbock Youth Music Award in the 2018 Bolz Young Artist Competition and took second place in Division III of the National Steinway and Sons Piano Competition in 2019.

Emily Hauer (below) is a home-schooled senior from Appleton. She began violin lessons at the age of two and currently studies with Ilana Setapen, associate concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Emily won the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Young Artist Concerto Competition in 2017 and is currently in her fourth year as the concertmaster of the Fox Valley Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Jonah Kartman (below) is a home-schooled senior from Glendale. He has been playing the violin for 13 years, and currently studies with I-Hao Lee at DePaul University’s School of Music. Jonah was a finalist in the 2019 Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Audrey G. Baird Stars of Tomorrow competition, and a two-time winner and scholarship recipient in the Civic Music Association of Milwaukee Competition.

Michael Wu (below) is a senior at Sun Prairie High School. He began piano lessons at age five, and currently studies with Bill Lutes, Emeritus Professor at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. Michael received the Steenbock Youth Music Award in the 2017 Bolz Young Artist Competition and took first place in Division III of the National Steinway and Sons Piano Competition in 2018.

ABOUT THE FINAL FORTE

This competition has captured an enormous following and numerous honors, including an Emmy nomination, First Place in the “Special Interest” category from the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association in 2007, and the fifth most-watched program in the February 2007 Nielsen ratings. The 2008 broadcasts reached more than 60,000 viewers and listeners in the Madison market alone and the 2009 broadcasts reached an estimated 200,000 statewide.

The Final Forte is funded by major support from Diane Ballweg, Stephen Morton, W. Jerome Frautschi, A. Paul Jones Charitable Trust, Julie and Larry Midtbo, Fred and Mary Mohs, and Elizabeth Olson, with additional support from Bell Laboratories, James Dahlberg and Elsebet Lund, Kato Perlman, Cyrena and Lee Pondrom, Sentry Insurance Foundation, Darcy Kind and Marc Vitale, Dr. A. Beyer-Mears, Nick and Judith Topitzes, the Focus Fund for Young Performers, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.

 


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Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will sing a program of “Live, Laugh and Love” this Sunday afternoon. Music by Brahms, Puccini, Bizet, Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda and others is featured

February 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Sunday afternoon, Feb. 16, at 3 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Landmark Auditorium, 900 University Bay Drive, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform a varied program of vocal music.

The “Live, Laugh and Love” program includes Johannes Brahms’ Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes (New Love Song Waltzes) along with a wide variety of solos, duets and ensembles encompassing music by Giacomo Puccini, Georges Bizet, Clara Schumann, John Dowland, Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The singers will accompanied by duo-pianists Mark Brampton Smith and Sherri Hansen.

Brahms (below) completed his second group of “Love Song Waltzes” in 1874, setting poems that are alternately passionate, brooding, fiery and contemplative. (You can hear some excerpts in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Building on the success of his first installment of Liebeslieder from five years earlier, Brahms’ music for the later set is more deeply emotional, mirroring the composer’s own complex romantic entanglements. Out of all Brahms’ female friends, he seems to have maintained the deepest affection for Clara Schumann (below), whose music appears on the first half of our program.

Classic arias and duets from the operas La Bohème, and The Pearl Fishers, and contemporary selections by Stephen Sondheim and Hamilton composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, round out the program to be performed in the intimate setting of the historic auditorium designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A wine-and-cheese reception will follow the concert.

Advance tickets are available online for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org or Brown Paper Tickets, or from a member of the choir. The ticket price at the door is $20.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Handel, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres.

Artistic director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) – who heads the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

 


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Classical music: The UW Schubertiade last Sunday afternoon explored the influence of Beethoven on Schubert with insight and beauty

February 2, 2020
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ALERT: In early editions of my last post, I mistakenly said that the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform the Verdi Requiem on May 25 and 26. The correct dates are APRIL 25 and 26. The Ear regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most informative and enjoyable events of the Beethoven Year – 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – came early.

It took place last Sunday afternoon in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison.

It was the seventh annual Schubertiade, and its theme was “Schubert and Beethoven: Influences and Homages.” A classic contrast-and-compare examination of two musical giants who lived and worked in Vienna in the early 19th century, the concert took place for almost three hours before a packed house. (Schubert is below top, Beethoven below middle, and the sold-out audience below bottom)

The annual event is organized by co-founders and co-directors UW piano professor Martha Fisher and her pianist husband Bill Lutes (below, greeting the crowd), who also perform frequently, especially as outstandingly sensitive and subtle accompanists.

They make the event, with audience members sitting onstage, look easy and informal. But it takes a lot of hard work.

The two sure know how to choose talent. As usual, all the singers and instrumentalists – UW alumni and faculty members (below) — proved very capable. The concert cohered with consistency.

Nonetheless, The Ear heard highlights worth singling out.

Baritone Michael Roemer (below) sang exceptionally in “An die ferne Geliebte” (To the Distant Beloved) by Beethoven (1770-1827). His voice brought to mind the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the inviting tone and direct delivery of the first song cycle ever composed. It was also the one that inspired the younger Schubert (1797-1828) to compose his own song cycles, and you could hear why.

Soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below right), accompanied by Bill Lutes and cellist Karl Knapp (below center), brought warmth, ease and confidence to the lyrical beauty of “Auf dem Strom” (On the River).

Tenor Daniel O’Dea (below) showed how Schubert’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” – the same Romantic poem made famous in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” – ended up much more lighthearted than the more familiar, serious and intense symphonic version.

Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes, who also sang as well as narrated and accompanied, showed complete blending and tightness in Schubert’s first published composition: “Eight Variations on a French Song.” It was for piano, four-hands – a sociable genre that Schubert favored and wrote a lot of.

Soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below) sang Schubert’s song “Elysium” in which it is unclear whether it is a pastiche or a parody of Beethoven, who remained a mentor until Schubert died at 31. Could that ambiguity point to Schubert’s maturing sense of himself and his own art as compared to Beethoven’s?

One year after Beethoven’s death – Schubert was a pallbearer — Schubert put on his only formal public concert of his own work. That was when he premiered his Piano Trio No. 2, the bravura last movement of which was played by Bill Lutes with cellist Parry Karp and first violinist David Perry (below), of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

Then all four members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) – with violist Sally Chisholm and second violinist Suzanne Beia – played the last two movements of Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, the work that Schubert requested to hear performed as he lay on his death bed in his brother’s Vienna apartment.

Of course there were other moments that pleased and instructed. There was a set of four songs – one coupling sung by mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple (below) — in which the same texts were set to music by both Beethoven and Schubert.

We got to hear Beethoven’s final song, “Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” (Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament).

Then there was the heart-wrenching “Nachthymne” (Hymn to the Night) by Schubert, again beautifully performed by Jamie Rose Guarrine. (You can hear “Hymn to the Night,” sung by Elly Ameling, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So in the end, what were the big lessons, the takeaways from this year’s Schubertiade?

One lesson is that for all his more familiar symphonies and concertos, his string quartets and piano trios, his piano sonatas and his sonatas for cello and violin, Beethoven was also a much more accomplished song composer than the public generally knows.

But for The Ear, the biggest lesson of all is that despite Beethoven’s deep influence, Schubert retained his own special voice, a voice full of unforgettable melodies and harmonies, of lyricism and empathy.

And using a mentor to find, refine and retain one’s own identity is the highest homage any student can pay to a teacher.

 


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