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
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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: 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: Here are the Grammy Award nominations for 2019 in classical music. They can serve as a great holiday gift guide and many have local ties

December 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is there a classical recording you wish to give or get?

Perhaps the list of classical Grammy nominations for 2019, which was just released yesterday, can help you.

It is worth mentioning that many of the musicians nominated have past, present or future ties to Madison.

Flutist Stephanie Jutt, singer Timothy Jones and pianist Jeffrey Sykes perform regularly with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and Jutt and Sykes also have ties to the University of Wisconsin-Madison; producer Judith Sherman recorded the centennial commissions for the Pro Arte Quartet at the UW-Madison; and Canadian violinist James Ehnes has performed several times with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and will do so again this season, while pianist Marc-André Hamelin will make his MSO debut this season.

And there are other local tie-ins including pianist Jonathan Biss and the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison, who also co-directs the  Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. Plus, the group Apollo’s Fire makes its local debut playing Bach and Vivaldi in March at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Here are — without record labels, curiously  — the nominees for the 61st annual Grammy Awards. The winners will be announced during a live TV broadcast on CBS on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, from the Staples Center in Los Angeles. For more information, go to: https://www.grammy.com


  1. Best Engineered Album, Classical
    An Engineer’s Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.)

BATES: THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS
Mark Donahue & Dirk Sobotka, engineers; Mark Donahue, mastering engineer (Michael Christie, Garrett Sorenson, Wei Wu, Sasha Cooke, Edwards Parks, Jessica E. Jones & Santa Fe Opera Orchestra)

BEETHOVEN: SYMPHONY NO. 3; STRAUSS: HORN CONCERTO NO. 1
Mark Donahue, engineer; Mark Donahue, mastering engineer (Manfred Honeck & Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

JOHN WILLIAMS AT THE MOVIES
Keith O. Johnson & Sean Royce Martin, engineers; Keith O. Johnson, mastering engineer (Jerry Junkin & Dallas Winds)

LIQUID MELANCHOLY – CLARINET MUSIC OF JAMES M. STEPHENSON
Bill Maylone & Mary Mazurek, engineers; Bill Maylone, mastering engineer (John Bruce Yeh)

SHOSTAKOVICH: SYMPHONIES NOS. 4 & 11 (below)
Shawn Murphy & Nick Squire, engineers; Tim Martyn, mastering engineer (Andris Nelsons & Boston Symphony Orchestra)

VISIONS AND VARIATIONS
Tom Caulfield, engineer; Jesse Lewis, mastering engineer (A Far Cry)

 

  1. Producer Of The Year, Classical A Producer’s Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.)

BLANTON ALSPAUGH

  • Arnesen: Infinity – Choral Works (Joel Rinsema & Kantorei
  • Aspects Of America (Carlos Kalmar & Oregon Symphony)
  • Chesnokov: Teach Me Thy Statutes (Vladimir Gorbik & PaTRAM Institute Male Choir)
  •  Gordon, R.: The House Without A Christmas Tree (Bradley Moore, Elisabeth Leone, Maximillian Macias, Megan Mikailovna Samarin, Patricia Schuman, Lauren Snouffer, Heidi Stober, Daniel Belcher, Houston Grand Opera Juvenile Chorus & Houston Grand Opera Orchestra)
  • Haydn: The Creation (Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Betsy Cook Weber, Houston Symphony & Houston Symphony Chorus)
  • Heggie: Great Scott (Patrick Summers, Manuel Palazzo, Mark Hancock, Michael Mayes, Rodell Rosel, Kevin Burdette, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Nathan Gunn, Frederica von Stade, Ailyn Pérez, Joyce DiDonato, Dallas Opera Chorus & Orchestra)
  • Music Of Fauré, Buide & Zemlinsky (Trio Séléné)
  • Paterson: Three Way – A Trio Of One-Act Operas (Dean Williamson, Daniele Pastin, Courtney Ruckman, Eliza Bonet, Melisa Bonetti, Jordan Rutter, Samuel Levine, Wes Mason, Matthew Treviño & Nashville Opera Orchestra)
  • Vaughan Williams: Piano Concerto; Oboe Concerto; Serenade To Music; Flos Campi (Peter Oundjian & Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

DAVID FROST

  • Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Volume 7 (Jonathan Biss)
  • Mirror In Mirror (Anne Akiko Meyers, Kristjan Järvi & Philharmonia Orchestra)
  • Mozart: Idomeneo (James Levine, Alan Opie, Matthew Polenzani, Alice Coote, Nadine Sierra, Elza van den Heever, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus)
  • Presentiment (Orion Weiss)
  • Strauss, R.: Der Rosenkavalier (Sebastian Weigle, Renée Fleming, Elīna Garanča, Erin Morley, Günther Groissböck, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus)

 ELIZABETH OSTROW

  • Bates: The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs (Michael Christie, Garrett Sorenson, Wei Wu, Sasha Cooke, Edwards Parks, Jessica E. Jones & Santa Fe Opera Orchestra)
  • The Road Home (Joshua Habermann & Santa Fe Desert Chorale)

JUDITH SHERMAN (below top)

  • Beethoven Unbound (Llŷr Williams)
  • Black Manhattan Volume 3 (Rick Benjamin & Paragon Ragtime Orchestra)
  • Bolcom: Piano Music (Various Artists)
  • Del Tredici: March To Tonality (Mark Peskanov & Various Artists)
  • Love Comes In At The Eye (Timothy Jones, below bottom, Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, Jeffrey Sykes, Anthony Ross, Carol Cook, Beth Rapier & Stephanie Jutt). An excerpt is in the YouTube video at the bottom.
  •  Meltzer: Variations On A Summer Day & Piano Quartet (Abigail Fischer, Jayce Ogren & Sequitur)
  • Mendelssohn: Complete Works For Cello And Piano (Marcy Rosen & Lydia Artymiw)
  • New Music For Violin And Piano (Julie Rosenfeld & Peter Miyamoto)
  • Reich: Pulse/Quartet (Colin Currie Group & International Contemporary Ensemble)

DIRK SOBOTKA

  • Beethoven: Symphony No. 3; Strauss: Horn Concerto No. 1 (Manfred Honeck & Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
  • Lippencott: Frontier Symphony (Jeff Lippencott & Ligonier Festival Orchestra)
  • Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (Thierry Fischer, Mormon Tabernacle Choir & Utah Symphony)
  • Music Of The Americas (Andrés Orozco-Estrada & Houston Symphony)


Best Orchestral Performance

 Award to the Conductor and to the Orchestra

  • BEETHOVEN: SYMPHONY NO. 3; STRAUSS: HORN CONCERTO NO. 1. Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
  • NIELSEN: SYMPHONY NO. 3 & SYMPHONY NO. 4. Thomas Dausgaard, conductor (Seattle Symphony)

      •  RUGGLES, STUCKY & HARBISON: ORCHESTRAL WORKS. David Alan Miller, conductor (National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic)

  • SCHUMANN: SYMPHONIES NOS. 1-4. Michael Tilson Thomas (below), conductor (San Francisco Symphony)

      • SHOSTAKOVICH: SYMPHONIES NOS. 4 & 11. Andris Nelsons, conductor (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Best Opera Recording – Award to the Conductor, Album Producer(s) and Principal Soloists.

  • ADAMS: DOCTOR ATOMIC. John Adams, conductor; Aubrey Allicock, Julia Bullock, Gerald Finley & Brindley Sherratt; Friedemann Engelbrecht, producer (BBC Symphony Orchestra; BBC Singers)

      •   BATES: THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS. Michael Christie, conductor; Sasha Cooke, Jessica E. Jones, Edwards Parks, Garrett Sorenson & Wei Wu; Elizabeth Ostrow, producer (The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra) 

  • LULLY: ALCESTE. Christophe Rousset, conductor; Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro & Judith Van Wanroij; Maximilien Ciup, producer (Les Talens Lyriques; Choeur De Chambre De Namur) 
  • STRAUSS, R.: DER ROSENKAVALIER. Sebastian Weigle, conductor; Renée Fleming, Elīna Garanča, Günther Groissböck & Erin Morley; David Frost, producer (Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; Metropolitan Opera Chorus) 
  • VERDI: RIGOLETTO. Constantine Orbelian, conductor; Francesco Demuro, the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky (below) & Nadine Sierra; Vilius Keras & Aleksandra Keriene, producers (Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra; Men Of The Kaunas State Choir)

 

  1. Best Choral Performance

Award to the Conductor, and to the Choral Director and/or Chorus Master where applicable and to the Choral Organization/Ensemble. 

  • CHESNOKOV: TEACH ME THY STATUTES. Vladimir Gorbik, conductor (Mikhail Davydov & Vladimir Krasov; PaTRAM Institute Male Choir) 
  • KASTALSKY: MEMORY ETERNAL. Steven Fox, conductor (The Clarion Choir) 
  • MCLOSKEY: ZEALOT CANTICLES. Donald Nally, conductor (Doris Hall-Gulati, Rebecca Harris, Arlen Hlusko, Lorenzo Raval & Mandy Wolman; The Crossing)

      •  RACHMANINOV: THE BELLS. Mariss Jansons (below), conductor; Peter      Dijkstra, chorus master (Oleg Dolgov, Alexey Markov & Tatiana Pavlovskaya; Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Chor Des Bayerischen Rundfunks) 

  • SEVEN WORDS FROM THE CROSS. Matthew Guard, conductor (Skylark)
  • Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance 

For new recordings of works with chamber or small ensemble (twenty-four or fewer members, not including the conductor). One Award to the ensemble and one Award to the conductor, if applicable.

  • ANDERSON, LAURIE: LANDFALL. Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet
  • BEETHOVEN, SHOSTAKOVICH & BACH. The Danish String Quartet
  • BLUEPRINTING. Azure Quartet 
  • STRAVINSKY: THE RITE OF SPRING CONCERTO FOR TWO PIANOS Leif Ove Andsnes & Marc-André Hamelin (below)
  • VISIONS AND VARIATIONS. A Far Cry

 

  1. Best Classical Instrumental Solo

Award to the Instrumental Soloist(s) and to the Conductor when applicable. 

  • BARTÓK: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2. Yuja Wang (below); Simon Rattle, conductor (Berliner Philharmoniker)
  • BIBER: THE MYSTERY SONATAS. Christina Day Martinson; Martin Pearlman, conductor (Boston Baroque). 
  • BRUCH: SCOTTISH FANTASY, OP. 46; VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1 IN G MINOR, OP. 26. Joshua Bell (The Academy Of St. Martin In The Fields) 
  • GLASS: THREE PIECES IN THE SHAPE OF A SQUARE. Craig Morris 
  • KERNIS: VIOLIN CONCERTO. James Ehnes; Ludovic Morlot, conductor (Seattle Symphony)

  1. Best Classical Solo Vocal Album 

Award to: Vocalist(s), Collaborative Artist(s) (Ex: pianists, conductors, chamber groups) Producer(s), Recording Engineers/Mixers with 51% or more playing time of new material.

  • ARC. Anthony Roth Costanzo; Jonathan Cohen, conductor (Les Violons Du Roy) 
  • THE HANDEL ALBUM. Philippe Jaroussky; Artaserse, ensemble
  • MIRAGES. Sabine Devieilhe; François-Xavier Roth, conductor (Alexandre Tharaud; Marianne Crebassa & Jodie Devos; Les Siècles)

      • SCHUBERT: WINTERREISE. Randall Scarlata; Gilbert Kalish,     accompanist

 SONGS OF ORPHEUS – MONTEVERDI, CACCINI, D’INDIA & LANDI.          Karim Sulayman; Jeannette Sorrell, conductor; Apollo’s Fire, ensembles 

  1. Best Classical Compendium 

Award to the Artist(s) and to the Album Producer(s) and Engineer(s) of over 51% playing time of the album, if other than the artist. 

  • FUCHS: PIANO CONCERTO ‘SPIRITUALIST’; POEMS OF LIFE; GLACIER; RUSH. JoAnn Falletta, conductor; Tim Handley, producer 
  • GOLD. The King’s Singers; Nigel Short, producer 
  • THE JOHN ADAMS (below) EDITION. Simon Rattle, conductor; Christoph Franke, producer
  • JOHN WILLIAMS AT THE MOVIES. Jerry Junkin, conductor; Donald J. McKinney, producer 
  • VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: PIANO CONCERTO; OBOE CONCERTO; SERENADE TO MUSIC; FLOS CAMPI. Peter Oundjian, conductor; Blanton Alspaugh, producer

 

  1. Best Contemporary Classical Composition 

A Composer’s Award. (For a contemporary classical composition composed within the last 25 years, and released for the first time during the Eligibility Year.) Award to the librettist, if applicable.

  • BATES: THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS. Mason Bates, composer; Mark Campbell, librettist (Michael Christie, Garrett Sorenson, Wei Wu, Sasha Cooke, Edwards Parks, Jessica E. Jones & Santa Fe Opera Orchestra) 
  • DU YUN: AIR GLOW. Du Yun, composer (International Contemporary Ensemble) 
  • HEGGIE: GREAT SCOTT. Jake Heggie, composer; Terrence McNally, librettist (Patrick Summers, Manuel Palazzo, Mark Hancock, Michael Mayes, Rodell Rosel, Kevin Burdette, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Nathan Gunn, Frederica von Stade, Ailyn Pérez, Joyce DiDonato, Dallas Opera Chorus & Orchestra) 
  • KERNIS: VIOLIN CONCERTO. Aaron Jay Kernis, composer (James Ehnes (below), Ludovic Morlot & Seattle Symphony) 
  • MAZZOLI: VESPERS FOR VIOLIN. Missy Mazzoli, composer (Olivia De Prato)


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Classical music: Live radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera start their 87th season with the Verdi Requiem at NOON this Saturday on Wisconsin Public Radio.

December 1, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

What is the longest-running classical music broadcast on American radio?

If you said the live Saturday matinee broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City, you got it right.

So, does that qualify the Met, and opera in general, as pop culture?

Does it do anything to reassure those who worry about the future of opera and classical music?

Anyway, the 87th broadcast season starts again on Wisconsin Public Radio this Saturday morning and runs through May 5.

Of course, not there are also the popular and more cinematic broadcasts of “Live From the Met in HD.” But many listeners still prefer the radio — which is FREE — to help them focus on the music, not the visual and theatrical aspects, and to use their imagination more.

On Saturday at the usual time of NOON — not 11:05 a.m. as was mistakenly first published here — the Met features a performance of the dramatic Requiem by opera great Giuseppe Verdi (below). (You can hear the operatic Dies Irae, or Day of Wrath, section in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Requiem will be conducted by James Levine (below), the now retired longtime artistic director of the Met.

The 90-minute performance will dedicated to the famed Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (below bottom), who died two weeks ago from a brain tumor at age 55. For more information about the late singer, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/11/24/classical-music-charismatic-russian-baritone-dmitri-horostovsky-is-dead-at-55/

For as complete schedule of the works to be performed, which include well-known standards by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and Richard Strauss as well as a contemporary work by Thomas Adès, go to the WPR website:

https://www.wpr.org/metropolitan-opera-begins-its-87th-broadcast-season


Classical music: What piece of classical music best embodies Hillary Clinton?

August 28, 2016
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today The Ear has a simple question:

What piece of classical music best embodies Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president of the United States?

hillary clinton thumbs up

Maybe an aria — by either a villain or a hero — from an opera by Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini or Richard Wagner?

Maybe an instrumental piece?

Maybe a song?

Yesterday, the same question was posed for Donald Trump.

Here is a link if you want to read that post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/08/27/classical-music-what-piece-of-classical-music-best-embodies-donald-trump/

Think about it.

Listen to some choices.

And let us know what you think with a COMMENT and a YouTube link to a performance.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: What piece of classical music best embodies Donald Trump?

August 27, 2016
15 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today The Ear has a simple question:

What piece of classical music best embodies Donald Trump (below), the Republican nominee for president of the United States?

Donald Trump thumbs up

Maybe an aria — by either a villain or a hero — from an opera by Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini or Richard Wagner?

Maybe an instrumental piece?

Maybe a song?

Think about it.

Listen to some choices.

And let us know what you think with a COMMENT and a link to a YouTube performance.

The Ear wants to hear.

Tomorrow it is Hillary Clinton‘s turn.


Classical music: It’s Valentine’s Day 2016. What do you think is the most romantic piece of music ever written? Plus, this afternoon is the last performance of the Valentine program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra

February 14, 2016
2 Comments

ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the Valentine’s Day program of works by Peter Tchaikovsky, Maurice Ravel and Ludwig van Beethoven performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Daniel Hegge and guest soloist violinist Alina Ibragimova. The opening night performance received fine reviews.

Here is a link to the review by Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/concert-review-madison-symphony-dedicates-valentine-s-weekend-to-love/article_21d106c8-1011-5f6c-9346-f17c3d07b2e3.html

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Valentine’s Day.

Cupid

That makes it a good occasion to talk about romantic music – not necessarily Romantic music (with a capital R) since there is plenty of Baroque, Classical era and modern music that fits the bill.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak, Giuseppe Verdi, Gustav Mahler, Gabriel Faure, Maurice Ravel, Peter Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev – all of them, and many other composers, wrote some deeply moving romantic music.

And it comes in so many different forms: symphonies and concerto; sonatas and suites; orchestral music; choral music and songs; solo works for piano; chamber music for strings, winds and brass.

The Ear loves listening to and also playing romantic music. He thinks probably the most consistently romantic composer was the German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856, below with his wife). So many of his greatest pieces — in so many different genres — were inspired by his steadfast and often thwarted, but finally victorious, love of his wife Clara Wieck Schumann.

An outstanding concert pianist, the much younger Clara outlived the mentally troubled Robert, and edited the publication of his works and popularized them through performing them.

Schumann_Robert_and_Wieck_Clara

But if you asked The Ear to pick the single most romantic piece of music he knows, it would have to be the opening arias from the opera “La Bohème” by Giacomo Puccini.

Every time he hears Rodolfo and Mimi sing to each other and fall in love at first sight, the little hairs on his neck stand up and often his eyes tear up.

You can hear that sung in the YouTube video at the bottom. It features the late superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti. He could not  read music, but he sure could sing. And his voice has a special quality that adds to the romance and poignancy.

What do you think is the most romantic piece of music? What romantic music would you play for someone special or have played for yourself on Valentine’s Day?

Leave your choice – preferably with some personal background or commentary or even a dedication to your Valentine plus, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance – in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” is a second-rate opera that got a first-rate production from the Madison Opera

February 12, 2016
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Rankin Utevsky. The young violist, baritone and conductor is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and conductor James Smith, plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra, and sings with the University Opera.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO – www.MAYCO.org), which will perform its sixth season this summer. He also directs a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of this past weekend’s performance of Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” by the Madison Opera.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Also, his latest venture was the successful recent launch of the Impresario Student Opera at the UW-Madison.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below) with production photos by James Gill for the Madison Opera:

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

By Mikko Rankin Utevsky

A great opera can be memorable in many ways. You might remember how you felt at the climaxes of the music, or walk out humming the Big Tune from the showstopper aria, or leave with an image fixed in your mind’s eye of the most dramatic moment in the first-act finale.

In an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Giuseppe Verdi or Giacomo Puccini, you might remember all of these. But in American composer Mark Adamo’s debut opera, “Little Women,” there’s nothing to remember — no great moving moments, no thrilling stage pictures, no hummable tunes.

There are motifs, certainly, and recurring lines. But “Things change, Jo” (song by acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the YouTube video at the bottom) can hardly hold a candle to “O soave fanciulla” in Puccini’s “La Bohème,” the first-act Trio in Mozart’s “Figaro,” the parents’ sextet in Jake Heggie‘s “Dead Man Walking,” or the quartet from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

It’s all technically correct, but it’s not great opera — neither great storytelling nor great music.

I left the Sunday performance by Madison Opera with the unshakeable feeling that Adamo’s score had been performed far better than it deserved.

Part of the problem is that Mark Adamo (below) is too clever for his own good. The libretto, from the classic 19th-century American novel by Louisa May Alcott, is stronger than the music — never quite moving, but full of evocative and witty phrases.

The music displays a clear command of naturalistic settings of the text, rising to peaks when it should and creating compelling atmosphere. But it always seems to pull back just when a lyrical melody might break forth, or when an emotional climax draws near.

Mark Adamo

Several times he uses the gambit of two conversations on stage at the same time, talking about the same things. But the pacing is never quite right, and the unison lines are predictable and trite rather than powerful. He lacks the confidence to let people talk over one another unless we’ve already heard half of the lines. (Whether the lack of trust is in the audience or stems from his own compositional skill is a matter of conjecture.)

The dramatic and musical tricks are all “correct” — Adamo knows his business — but none of them make an emotional impact, a point driven home by their success in last season’s “Dead Man Walking,” which employs all the same devices to far greater effect. When the opening scene came back at the end of the show, I was ready to walk out. Enough already!

It is a sad fact that the most moving part of the whole affair was only half Adamo’s — a setting of Goethe’s “Kennst du das Land” (Do You Know the Land) thrown into the second act that almost approached melody, and tugged at the heartstrings in a way no other scene of the opera managed to do.

Beth’s death scene – below top with Chelsea Morris Shephard as Beth (left) and Heather Johnson as Jo — was a close second, admittedly.

Little Women 143 Beth dies GILL

And the lovely wedding vow — below bottom with, from left, Alexander Elliott as John Brooke; Courtney Miller as Meg; Rick Henslin as Gideon March; Elizabeth Hagedorn as Alma March — was marred only by Rick Henslin’s intonation.

LIttle Women 101 wedding GILL

The minimal set cheated the opera out of the lush visual setting it deserved. If the realism of the story had been played up, with painted walls and structures, the human elements of the story might have been more believable in a setting that doesn’t feel as though a strong wind might knock it all down.

Little Women 58 GILL

Instead, a few flown-in flats with cheap-looking projections stood in for the occasional wall, and some rather cool shifting images on the scrim in front of the orchestra highlighted the apparent supernatural elements of the story — not that I thought there were supposed to be any in “Little Women.”

Little Women Jo 40 GILL

This is not to say the visuals were all misses — costumes, wigs, and makeup (Karen Brown-Larimore and Jan Ross) were excellent, particularly in establishing distinctive characterizations for the four sisters, who could easily have been hard to tell apart in a less careful production.

The ghostly vocal quartet that opens the opera — and haunts various scenes in the middle, although I’m told they were intended to be offstage — felt like nothing so much as discount Eric Whitacre: cascading clusters and whole-tone scales with no particular narrative purpose, illuminating nothing about the plot. I did find myself wondering if we were supposed to think Jo had gone insane, between that and the drifting projections on the set, but I’m sure that wasn’t the intended effect.

Despite all this, the voices themselves were superb, and married to strong acting skills to boot. Time and again Madison Opera has shown a knack for finding up-and-coming young singers with tremendous talent, and this cast was no exception.

The four Little Women themselves (below, from left, with Eric Neuville as Laurie; Courtney Miller as Meg, Heather Johnson as Jo; Chelsea Morris Shephard as Beth; Jeni Houser as Amy), aided by sure-handed direction from Candace Evans, mustered warm, credible camaraderie and sisterly love.

They, and their paramours, baritone Alexander Elliot and tenor Eric Neuville, all displayed rich and even vocalism, with clear and precise English diction rendering the supertitles mostly superfluous.

Litlle Women 22 GILL

As the aloof Aunt March and the mother Alma, Brenda Harris and UW-Madison guest professor Elizabeth Hagedorn were secure and confident in their roles as well.

As the German teacher Friedrich Bhaer (below left, with Heather Johnson as Jo), Craig Verm’s accent faded in and out, but his aria, the aforementioned setting of Goethe’s famous “Kennst du das Land,” was the highlight of the show despite this.

Little Women 130 GILL

Guest conductor Kyle Knox (below), a graduate student at the UW-Madison, led musicians of the Madison Symphony Orchestra capably through a score mired in complexity and made the result sound natural — not an easy feat.

Kyle Knox 2

I admire general director Katherine Smith (below) and the Madison Opera for taking a chance on contemporary American opera, and I dearly hope they do so again next season, and the season after that.

In a tremendously conservative industry, it takes guts to put on something by a living composer when everyone else is picking the safe options to sell out the house. And I’d rather see a contemporary opera and hate it than sit through a mediocre “Bohème” (though this fall’s “Bohème” by the Madison Opera was quite excellent).

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Modern opera is a gamble, both for the box office and for the musicians. Sometimes you find “Dead Man Walking.” And sometimes you don’t. I hope the next contemporary piece to grace the Capitol Theater stage is one for the ages, even if this one, well, wasn’t.

NOTE: For purposes of comparison, here are links to two other reviews of the Madison Opera’s production of “Little Women”:

This is the review John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/arts/stage/madison-opera-little-women/

And this is the review by Greg Hettmansberger, who writes for Madison Magazine and now has his own blog WhatGregSays as well as monthly appearances on WISC-TV:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/madison-opera-stands-tall-for-little-women/

And here is a  link to an interview with Mark Adamo:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/classical-music-it-always-starts-from-the-singing-line-composer-and-librettist-mark-adamo-talks-about-creating-his-popular-opera-little-women-which-will-be-perfo/


Classical music: The Festival Choir of Madison performs “The Romance of Music” — featuring beloved favorites — this Saturday night. Plus, a concert of Indian music and Beethoven will take place SUNDAY night.

November 5, 2015
3 Comments

ALERT: A noteworthy new event — and perhaps a new tradition — will take place at 7 p.m. this SUNDAY night (NOT Saturday night as mistakenly first listed here) in Mills Hall. That’s when the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra welcomes sitarist Chitravina N. Ravikiran (below) in the third edition of the cross-cultural  and world music Melharmony Festival. The music is by Indian composer Dikshitar and Ludwig van Beethoven, who were contemporaries at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century. Andrew Sewell will conduct.

For more information about the event, the players and tickets ($10-$35), visit:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/melharmony-festival/

Chitravina N Ravikiran

By Jacob Stockinger

Friends at The Festival Choir of Madison have sent the following word:

The Festival Choir of Madison (below top) will perform “The Romance of Music,” conducted by Sergei Pavlov (below bottom), who also teaches at Edgewood College.

festivalchoir

Sergei Pavlov

The concert is this Saturday night, Nov. 7, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

Tickets are $15 for general admission; $12 for seniors; and $9 for students.

Do you remember when you fell in love with music? Was it a time and place? A person and feeling? Rediscover your love of music with trios of sacred songs, gypsy tunes and lullabies, straight from our heart to yours.

The program features such favorites as: “Jesu Meine Freude” (Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring) by Johann Sebastian Bach (at bottom in a YouTube video); “Hear My Prayer” by Felix Mendelssohn; “Bless the Lord, Oh My Soul” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky; the “Humming Chorus” from “Madama Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini; the “Gypsy Chorus“or “Anvil Chorus” from the opera “Il Trovatore” by Giuseppe Verdi; “Cantique de Jean Racine” by Gabriel Faure; and more.

The Festival Choir is a mixed voice choir of 40 to 50 singers.

Special guest musicians — who often perform with the Kat Trio, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — for this concert include: Victoria Gorbich (below top) on violin; Vladislav Gorbich (below second) on clarinet; Mary Ann Harr Grinde on harp (below third); and James McKenzie (below bottom) on percussion.

victoria gorbich

vladislav gorbich

mary ann harr

james mckenzie

For more information and tickets, visit:

http://festivalchoirmadison.org


Classical music: UW alumna and opera diva Brenda Rae returns to wow the crowd with her virtuosic singing while the UW Symphony Orchestra puts its strengths on display.

September 29, 2015
3 Comments

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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra on Sunday evening night was hyped largely for the appearance of the brilliant young soprano Brenda Rae (née Kinkert in Appleton, Wisconsin).

Soprano Brenda Rae

An undergraduate in the UW-Madison School of Music, and participant in University Opera productions a few years back, she has since moved on, through the Juilliard School, to a burgeoning career in German opera houses. This concert was the climax of her weekend return here to help promote the funding of the UW voice and opera program.

To her considerable credit, she chose as her scheduled vehicle Reinhold Gliere’s Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra, a rarely heard work that is quite fascinating.

Gliere uses the solo part in instrumental terms, as a vocalise, without words. The work might be described as a concerto for vowels and orchestra. It is meant to explore the sheer sound of the soprano voice, in all its possible colors.

The soloist (below) is heard in the slow first movement blending into a handsomely melodious Late Romantic orchestral sound, while the second movement tests a coloratura’s virtuosity in suggesting meaning through inflection rather than words.

Brenda Rae in Gliere

It is an extraordinary work, both lovely and clever, and too few sopranos have opportunities to try it out. Inevitably, though, there was the big-hit opera aria as an encore, no less than Violetta’s grand effusions in Act One of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata.”

Brenda Rae (below) sang it as a true diva, to tonal and dramatic perfection. But it also served to point up the kind of operatic style that Gliere was suggesting, and affectionately spoofing, in his concerto.

Brenda Rae in Verdi

There was far more than just vocal display to this concert, however.

The opening item was no less than Claude Debussy’s challenging tone poem La Mer. The work calls for both skilled playing and artful leadership. Conductor James Smith gave another demonstration of his capacity to draw wonders from his student players — unfolding and blending the kaleidoscope of instrumental colors that Debussy manipulates variously in each of the three movements.

UW Symphony violins 2015

Though some of the audience (mostly students, I think) walked out at the intermission — more interested in performers than in music, I fear — the bulk of the audience that remained was treated to another of maestro Smith’s wonders, if not miracles. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, his last completed work, is a fiercely difficult and draining affair.

Smith and his students sounded like confident pros in a probing, powerful performance of this piece, one of the truly great orchestral scores of the 20th century. I think this performance will be found to stand up well against impending competition, when the Madison Symphony Orchestra plays the same work in its October program. (Don’t miss that!)

UW Symphony cellos 2015

Here we have “Madison’s third orchestra” – the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra being the other two — making a blazing trail of its own in the direct wake this past weekend of the MSO’s own magnificent September concerts.

Oh, how blessed musically is Madison for those who take the trouble to benefit from it all!


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