By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Bach Musicians (below), which specializes in authentic period performances of early music, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” this coming Friday and Saturday nights, both at 7:30 p.m., in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.
On both nights at 6:45 p.m., MBM founder and music director Trevor Stephenson (below) will give a free pre-concert lecture on the “Structure and Performance History of the St. John Passion.” In his remarks, Stephenson said he will discuss the question of anti-Semitism in the famous work.
(NOTE: Stephenson and some of the players will also be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland TODAY at noon.)
At the end of Part I, the Rev. Michael Schuler of the Unitarian Society will give a talk focusing on “Theological Reflections on Bach and the St. John Passion.”
This is only the second time the work has been performed in historical style in the state of Wisconsin. For more information and explanation, see the story in the Wisconsin State Journal:
Tickets are $28-$33 and are available online, at Orange Tree Imports and at the door. Ticket information is at www.madisonbachmusicians.org
Trevor Stephenson writes the following about the work and the performance:
Bach was 38 years old when he composed the monumental St. John Passion during his initial year of employment in Leipzig, 1723-24. The work was first performed at the Nikolai Church during the Good Friday service on April 7, 1724.
As was the custom, no concerted music had been played in church during the previous six weeks of Lent, and the airing of the St. John Passion ― music of unprecedented complexity, lasting for over two hours — must have had an overwhelming effect on the fresh ears and devoted souls of the parishioners.
From its outset—with the whirling gear-like figures in the strings beneath the moiling of the oboes—the St. John Passion has an otherworldly aura of a story that has been foretold. Bach’s genius is in how he balances this inevitability with a sense of forward dramatic thrust: the passion story must happen, has already happened, but it also must be played out in real-time by living people, step by painful step. Time is at once both linear and circular. (Below is the manuscript for the “St. John Passion.”)
I believe that the objective of Bach (below) in setting the St. John Passion was to tell as vividly as possible the story of Jesus’ cruel earthly demise while at the same time tempering this vividness with frequent textual reminders, as well as an overarching tone, that convey the firm belief that Jesus’ Passion had not only been prophesied long before his birth but that Jesus’ suffering and death on earth was the only solution for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins.
The Evangelist John is our guide for the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. John sings his narration in the dry and angular recitative style, addressing the audience directly. He summarizes some scenes and introduces others, which are then played out in present-tense tableau format by various characters: Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Court officers, the angry mob.
Bach uses two techniques to pause and comment upon the narrative: first, with arias for solo voices and instrumental obbligato, that employ freely-composed poetry to reflect upon the story in a personal way — like the thoughts of someone observing the action; and second, by chorales which use tunes and texts that would have been familiar to Bach’s parishioners to elicit a broader communal response to the passion story. Many of the chorales are like a spiritual balm, providing moments of much needed rest throughout the work.
For the upcoming April 14 and 15 concerts of the St. John Passion ― on Good Friday and Holy Saturday ― the Madison Bach Musicians has endeavored as much as possible to recreate the early 18th-century sound world of that first Leipzig performance in 1724. MBM will use a 17-member baroque orchestra, conducted by UW-Madison bassoonist and performance-practice specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill).
The orchestra will play entirely on 18th-century style instruments:
These instruments will join with 10 outstanding vocalists—specialists in singing both solo and choral baroque repertoire.
Internationally recognized, and Grammy Award winning tenor, Dann Coakwell (below, in a photo by Mary Gordon) will sing the part of John the Evangelist.
The Passion will be sung in its original German; but an English translation of the text will be projected in supertitles scene-by-scene throughout the performance.
MBM is thrilled to be presenting this masterwork in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) at First Unitarian Society, a space beautifully suited to early music. The sightlines are superb, and the acoustics offer a great balance of clarity, crispness, and spaciousness.
Seating is limited, so advance ticket purchase is suggested.
By Jacob Stockinger
World-famous avant-garde stage director Peter Sellars (below, in a photo by Christian Carisius for the European Press Photo Agency) is known for his unorthodox recasting of operas and Bach cantatas.
But one of his productions, done almost 30 years ago, has proven especially prescient.
The plot centers on the medieval “droit du seigneur” that allowed a nobleman to be entitled by law to have sex with a servant on her wedding night before the husband did. (In the YouTube video at bottom is the famous and so breathtakingly beautiful Forgiveness scene, featured in the Oscar-winning film “Amadeus,” with the faithful Countess and the philandering Count that ends the masterpiece opera.)
In 1988 Sellars set the opera on the 52nd floor of the luxurious Trump Tower (below), as the equivalent of an aristocratic estate, of net-feudalistic excess and wealth.
With great insight and articulateness, Sellars recently discussed with The New York Times the inspired settings in light of the past history, campaign and recent election of President-elect Donald Trump.
The Ear found the interview both enlightening and entertaining, and he hopes you do too.
Here is a link:
It makes you wonder: How will other forms of art deal with the new administration?
Could it be that we are in for more activist protest art, something of a return to the 1960s and such efforts as Barbara Garson’s 1967 “MacBird,” which recast Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth” as a theatrical satire of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, or LBJ, and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson as the Macbeths following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or JFK?
What do you think?
Can you think of other works that lend themselves to such an approach to contemporary affairs?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
The University Opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music will stage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro” in Music Hall (below, at the foot of Bascom Hill) this coming Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m., Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. and next Tuesday night at 7 p.m.
Tickets are $25 for adults; $20 for seniors; and $10 for students with ID.
The stage director is David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio), a guest director from the Aaron Copland School of Music at CUNY in New York City who is here at the UW-Madison for a second year in a row.
The Ear recalls that last year’s eclectic and sold-out production by Ronis of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” was a highlight of the season. Ronis drew incredible performances from the students and the costumes and sets, which mixed India‘s Bollywood aesthetic with a traditional Western monastic aesthetic. The opera was well sung and eye-popping in the best sense. It was Big Fun.
So The Ear has big expectations of this opera, which he likes even more, and which will be performed by the same stage director and music director, James Smith (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson), conducting the UW Symphony Orchestra.
In fact, The Ear is willing to bet that once again Ronis, Smith and student performers will deliver the goods and sell out all four performances, not just the three that were typical of past productions.
The Ear asked Ronis, who is among the national pool of candidates who have applied to fill the post of University Opera director permanently, why he chose another Mozart opera. (Last year, he also did Benjamin Britten‘s “Albert Herring.” This coming April he will do Conrad Susa’s and Ann Sexton’s “Transformations.”)
Here is his answer:
“As far as why we’re doing “Figaro” in light of just having done “The Magic Flute.” Simple: it was the best choice for the group of students that we have this year in terms of educational value and the current talent pool. It happened to be Mozart (below) – with absolutely nothing planned or any connection between the two.”
If you would like to know more about the production and about the cast – and also about how to buy tickets — visit this site with the comprehensive press release from the UW-Madison:
But even more importantly, The Ear says it is worth a seeing if for no other reason than hearing the sublime forgiveness quartet at the end. (You can hear it in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
The music is otherworldly and heart-wrenching in its beauty.
And as Mr. Mozart knew so well: Who doesn’t need love and isn’t moved by forgiveness?
By Jacob Stockinger
It is Easter Sunday — a day when Christians and many others around the world think about the spiritual meaning of death, redemption and forgiveness. That also makes it an appropriate time to think about certain pieces of music — say, the Passions and Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach — and certain operas.
Take, for example, the Madison Opera’s upcoming production of the contemporary opera “Dead Man Walking.”
Later this week, The Well-Tempered Ear will feature interviews that arts critic Mike Muckian did with “Dead Man Walking” composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. (Below in a photo by James Gill are Daniela Mack as Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes as the convicted killer facing execution Joseph DeRocher.)
PLEASE NOTE: The real Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie will be in Madison and offer a FREE public discussion this Thursday night at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue. No reservations are needed.
But on this special day, to whet your appetite and set the stage, so to speak, with basic facts, here is an official press release:
Sets and costumes come from the Eugene Opera’s acclaimed production in Oregon.
The opera will be sung in English with project text in surtitles. Tickets are $18 to $121. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org.
The opera does carry a Parental Advisory because it contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language; it is not recommended for anyone under age 18.
The production is a Madison Opera and Upper Midwestern premiere, and “Dead Man Walking” is cathartic and humanizing, set to a stunning American score that ranges from hymns to zydeco.
With a libretto by Terrence McNally, “Dead Man Walking” is based on the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, which also served as the inspiration for the critically acclaimed 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.
The opera tells of a nun’s journey as the spiritual advisor of a convicted murderer on Louisiana’s death row. From its shocking beginning to its emotionally searing final scene, this opera changes everyone who encounters it. Its stunning score and intense story combine into a work that the San Francisco Chronicle says, “must be reckoned something of a masterpiece – a gripping, enormously skillful marriage of words and music to tell a story of love, suffering and spiritual redemption.”
At bottom is a YouTube video of the production by the Houston Grand Opera, where Madison Symphony Orchestra music director and Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain worked before coming to Madison 20 years ago) with Joyce Di Donato, Frederica von Stade and Philip Cutlip in the title roles.
“Dead Man Walking is, for me, unquestionably one of the greatest operas ever written,” says Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “When I saw it in 2002 at New York City Opera, I was completely blown away by its music, its dramatic power, and the sheer theatrical intensity that seared particular scenes in my mind for a decade. I am thrilled to produce it in Madison with this stunning cast, and particularly honored that Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean are coming to Madison for opening night and to speak with our community the evening before.”
“Dead Man Walking” also has special significance to conductor and Madison Opera Artistic Director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Harper Fritsch), who has a long history with the opera.
“From my very first encounter with “Dead Man Walking” at its 2000 premiere in San Francisco, I knew it was an opera for the ages, and one that I wanted to conduct and present to an ever-widening audience,” recalls DeMain. “I was fortunate to be able to create the second new production of the work, and conduct it in Orange County, Detroit, New York City, and its first international production in Australia.
“In every instance, this new opera connected viscerally with its audience for all the right reasons. It was a powerful, immensely moving drama with lyrical, memorable music, and a fine libretto. The playwright, Terrence McNally, knew exactly how to handle a sad and tragic situation with pathos, great humanity, and a wonderful sense of humor. “
Maestro DeMain encourages local audiences, whether long-time devotees of opera or completely new to the art form, to experience “Dead Man Walking.”
“It is deeply spiritual, deeply moving, and deeply human with a score steeped in the American vernacular including the blues, which is so appropriate to New Orleans and the protagonist’s world,” he says. “This is a real opera that works the way all operas that we cherish work. Powerful arias, duets, and ensembles, sung by a variety of characters, all of whom we can identify with. I assure our Madison audiences that this is a riveting evening, a great moment in our history, and an occasion not to be missed.”