The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Adam Neiman defines what makes for great Chopin playing. He performs an all-Chopin recital this Sunday afternoon at Farley’s House of Pianos.

February 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

What makes for great Chopin playing?

It is an especially germane question since the critically acclaimed pianist Adam Neiman (below) will perform an all-Chopin recital this coming Sunday at 4 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets are $45. For more information, go to:

http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

Neiman –pronounced KNEE-man — has appeared here as a soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and recorded piano concertos by Mozart with the WCO. He is a critically acclaimed prize-winning pianist with a major concertizing and recording career. He also teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago and is a member of the Trio Solisti, a piano trio that has been hailed as the successor to the famous Beaux Arts Trio.

Here is a link to Neiman’s website with information about him and his recordings, including upcoming releases of Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninoff:

http://www.adamneiman.com

Adam Neiman also recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:

adam-neiman-2017

There are some exceptional players of Beethoven and other German composers who sound completely out of their element in Chopin. What qualities do you think make for great Chopin playing and what makes Chopin difficult to interpret?

Chopin’s music incorporates a narrative language and an emphasis on very “first person” points-of-view; in other words, it is highly personalized, expressing emotion from the perspective of the individual, including nationalistic sentiments. Often, Germanic music aims for “objective” viewpoints, with extremely stringent instructions by the composer.

For players who struggle with the open-ended idiomatic flavor in Chopin’s music, the lack of objective instruction by the composer can make it difficult for them to know what to do. (You can hear Adam Neiman discussing much more about Chopin’s personality and artistic achievement in the YouTube video at the bottom)

To play Chopin (below) at a very high level requires imagination and freedom, as well as a poetic and introspective musical tendency. The fluidity of rubato, the contrapuntal interaction between the hands and the frequent use of widely spread textures requires a nimble master of the instrument, one with the ability to emphasize the piano’s specific virtuosic abilities.

In addition, Chopin’s music is centered around a bel canto operatic style of melody, whereas Germanic melody tends to be more motivic in nature, and therefore developmental.

A composer like Beethoven will emphasize motivic metamorphosis as a means of augmenting a form to create large structures, whereas Chopin will glide from one melodic area to another, using harmonic exploration as the central means of formal expansion.

This compositional difference outlines different strengths in the pianists, as the skill set to play reams of melody lines in succession can often be very different from those skills required to highlight motivic development in a work.

Chopinphoto

Can you place the 24 Preludes that you will be playing within the context of Chopin’s entire body of works. What would you like the public to know about the preludes and how you see them individually and as a group?

The 24 Preludes were composed while Chopin was on holiday in Mallorca, Spain, which proved to be Chopin’s first palpable bout with tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed him. (Below is an 1849 photo of Chopin on his deathbed.)

Many of these works were written in a fever-state, in haste, and during a stressful time period in which Chopin was not only facing his own mortality, but also dealing with the myriad challenges of integrating with the children of his lover, the French writer Aurora Dudevant who is better known as George Sand.

These Preludes are like snapshots into the mind of the composer at a moment in time, often without regard for cohesion or development. They exist in a timeless place, where the music expresses the extremely personal sentiments roiling through Chopin’s consciousness.

In many ways, these works capture his spirit in the most distilled possible way, giving the player and listener an opportunity to view the mind and heart of Chopin without filter or refinement, hallmarks of his larger works.

Despite the widely varied emotional content of these Preludes, as a set they hold together as a marvelous and surprisingly cogent musical journey. They exemplify the 19th-century “Romantic” ideals of fantasy, freedom, individuality and raw emotion.

Chopin on deathbed photo

You will also perform all four Ballades. How they do they rank within Chopin’s output? What would you like listeners to know about each of the four ballades, about what they share in common and what distinguishes each one? Do you have favorites and why?

If the Preludes represent the pinnacle of Chopin’s ability to express poetic ideals within miniature forms, the Ballades represent the apex of his more grandiose musical philosophy.

The Ballade, as a form, emanates from epic poetry, often portraying a heroic protagonist overcoming seemingly inescapable challenges. Ballades can also be tied to nationalistic notions, and for Chopin, all four Ballades are truly Polish in their expression.

As Chopin’s native Poland was invaded and he was cut off permanently from re-entry, Chopin became an orphan of the world, whose adopted home of France revered and celebrated him without equal.

His musical mission — exemplified by the Ballades, Mazurkas and Polonaises in particular — was to heighten awareness of Poland’s cultural contributions to a European audience totally unaware of the goings-on in the east.

As a result of the immense conflicts suffered by Chopin’s homeland, and in keeping with the deep pride and identification Chopin felt as a Pole, these Ballades express the emotional rollercoaster of a lone Polish hero — perhaps Chopin himself, autobiographically — battling the world.

All four of these works make an enormous impression on the listener. From the despair and anger of the first Ballade, the bi-polar conflicts of the second (below is the opening of the second Ballade in Chopin’s manuscript), the pastoral hopefulness of the third, and the desolate introspection of the fourth, these Ballades speak to the soul and require the most intensely personal voice of the performer.

Adam Neiman 2 2016

They require the possession of immense physical power and emotional maturity, which renders these works as being among Chopin’s most challenging.

I love all four of them equally. They are true masterworks of the highest order.

chopin-ballade-2-autograph

In there anything else you would like to say?

I am deeply honored and extremely delighted to return to Madison to perform this recital. I look forward to seeing many familiar faces, as well as new friends. Thank you!


Classical music: Can arias from Baroque operas address current chaos and concerns? Singer Joyce DiDonato thinks so. Plus, a FREE concert of music by Dvorak, Debussy, Frank Bridge and Amy Beach is at noon on Friday

November 29, 2016
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Shannon Farley, viola, with Chris Allen, guitar; Leah King and Jason Kutz, piano; Elspeth Stalter Clouse and Ela Mowinski, violin; Leslie Damaso, mezzo-soprano; and Morgan Walsh, cello. They will perform the Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak; Three Songs for Mezzo-soprano, viola and piano by Frank Bridge; “Beau Soir” (Beautiful Evening)  for guitar and viola by Claude Debussy; and a Romance for violin by Amy Beach as arranged for viola and piano. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Can the past help us understand and weather the present time with its conflicts and chaos?

Mezzo-soprano and Grammy Award winner Joyce DiDonato (below) thinks so.

joyce-didonato

In fact her latest album, for the Erato-Warner label, of arias from Baroque operas from the 17th and 18th centuries is dedicated to that proposition. The album’s title is “In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music” (below).

It includes arias from opera by George Frideric Handel (one of which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom), Henry Purcell, Niccolo Jommelli, Leonardo Leo and Claudio Monteverdi, and it features two world premiere recordings as well as familiar works.

joyce-didonato-cd-cover-in-war-and-piece

The singer talks about her concept album in an interview with Ari Shapiro of “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio (NPR).

She boils much of her viewpoint down to one question: In the widest of chaos, how can you find peace?

Sure seems timely, given foreign wars and domestic political strife.

Here is a link with the interview and some fetching music:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/11/04/500515350/joyce-didonato-on-why-art-matters-in-the-midst-of-chaos

Listen to it.

See what you think.

Then let the rest of us know what you think, and whether you agree or disagree, and whether you have other works that come to mind.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Old music and new music mingle superbly at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival through a concert with viols, a countertenor and a new composition by John Harbison

September 1, 2016
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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. Barker also provided the performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The second of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival’s three public concerts, which took place on Tuesday evening, was a study in the old and the new, and the mingling thereof.

The program title was, in fact, “Viol Music, Then and Now.” The performing group was the Second City Musick Consort of Viols of Chicago (below)  — three players from there, plus visitor Brady Lanier.

Craig Trompeter, Russell Wagner, Anna Steinhoff at the Planetarium, Chicago, May 30, 2013

Craig Trompeter, Russell Wagner, Anna Steinhoff at the Planetarium, Chicago, May 30, 2013

Much, but hardly all, of their contributions were consort pieces of the 16th and 17th centuries, although a certain number of transcriptions — ironically, of later music — were involved.

Three Fantasias for three viols by William Byrd and one by John Jenkins for four viols were prime specimens. Two pairs of examples from Henry Purcell’s Fantasias in 4 Parts represented a late contribution to the consort literature, but were probably intended — primarily, if not exclusively — for members of the violin family, not viols.

Token Creek viols JWB

With the addition of countertenor Nathan Medley, groups of “consort songs” were presented: three by Byrd and one each by four different composers of the late-Elizabethan and early Stuart periods. These were capped by one of the favorite airs of Purcell, “Fairest Isle”— which is a part of his large “semi-opera” King Arthur.

Token Creek viols and countertenor closeup JWB

The program’s centerpiece, however, was a new work by festival co-founder and co-artistic director, John Harbison (below), who won a Pulitzer Prize and has been a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellow and who teaches at MIT.

John Harbison MIT

The nature and the scoring of this work, The Cross of Snow, was defined by the patron who commissioned it. This was local businessman William Wartmann (below), who intended it as a tribute to his deceased wife, the painter and singer Joyce Wartmann.

wiiliam wartmann

It was understood from the outset that it would be written for countertenor and consort of viols, and that the texts set would come from 19th-century poetic literature.

The choice eventually fell on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who also lost his wife tragically, in a fire. The three poems set are: The Cross of Snow, Suspira and “Some day, some day.” All of them deal with the deep and enduring pain over the loss of a loved one. The three settings are framed by a Prelude and a Postlude for the consort alone. (You can hear the poem “The Cross of Snow” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Harbison has a strong sense of tradition and a genuine sympathy for Baroque music. Still, in this composition he by no means attempts simply to imitate long-past styles. While he is interested in exploring the special coloring and harmonics of the viols, he also brings to them a lot of the playing techniques familiar from writing for modern stringed instruments, but alien to viols. Indeed, the instrumental role in this work could pretty easily be transferred from viols to modern strings.

Nevertheless, Harbison’s stylistic assimilations run deep. The five movements, and especially the quite contrapuntal Postlude, are built upon allusions to chorales by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). And, quite wisely, the consort played transcriptions of three such pieces in conjunction with Harbison’s score.

Bach1

Moreover, it was decided to perform Harbison’s new work twice, once in each half of the concert. This was most helpful in allowing a deepened appreciation of the emotional content of both the poetry and the music. The vocal lines are strongly etched, and were beautifully sung by countertenor Medley, a superb artist.

With the final program, on this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., the spotlight will be exclusively on Franz Schubert (below) — his “Die Schoene Muellerin” (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter) song cycle and the famous “Trout” Piano Quintet — music in a world between the two evoked by this concert.

Schubert etching

For more information, visit: http://tokencreekfestival.org


Classical music: The founders and co-artistic directors of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival explain the origins of the upcoming “water music” programs

August 25, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

In the essay below, John and Rose Mary Harbison (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), the founders and co-artistic directors of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, explain the origins of the upcoming “water music” programs that mark the 27th festival.

You can hear that famous “trout” theme of the original song used in Franz Schubert‘s “Trout” Piano Quintet, which will be performed at the festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Here is a link to a posting earlier this week with much more information about the concerts, the programs and the performers:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/08/22/classical-music-this-years-token-creek-chamber-music-festival-celebrates-local-ecological-restoration-with-water-music/

John and Rose Mary Harbison Katrin Talbot

ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION: THE BROOK AT TOKEN CREEK — WHY NOW?

By John and Rose Mary Harbison

In 1932 Dan and Alice Pedersen, Rose Mary Harbison’s parents, came from Chicago to Madison and purchased a small farm on State Highway 19, then a seldom travelled dirt road. (Below is a photo by Jess Anderson of a more recent barn built on the farm property.)

Token Creek land:barn Jess Anderson

The farm eventually became a producer of organic vegetables for sale, and a place of contemplation, leading to Dan’s life as a Swedenborgian pastor, wartime fireman and early sustainable farmer; and Alice’s as a Sunday school teacher and eventually a much published anti-Vietnam War activist. (Below is a photo by Jess Anderson of a field on the farm.)

Token Creek land 2 Jess Anderson

But it was just three years into their tenure on the farm that the State of Wisconsin came up with a plan to raise carp for New York markets, and by eminent domain seized four acres of land from the Pedersen farm, building a 400-foot carp pond, and routing the tributary trout stream on the Pedersen farm into it. (Historic photos are from the Token Creek Watershed Association.)

Token Creek Watershed 1

This was a loss from which the couple never really recovered, since it cost the stream, which had originally flowed into Token Creek, much loss of vitality, swiftness and natural flow.

Within a decade the State had lost interest in the original project, but the Pedersens were never able to persuade the necessary agencies to undertake restoration of the trout stream and repair the damage.

Token Creek watershed 2

The 2012 Token Creek Festival season included a forum, “Listen to the Land,” with an eminent group of ecologists commenting on our attempt to redevelop as prairie a large set-aside field.

As it turned out, the best outcome of this gathering, in spite of the expensive and to this point discouraging track of that project, was the unanimous view of that forum that the restoration of the tributary trout stream, and the elimination of the carp pond, would dynamically and radically upgrade the entire ecology of the area, one that is an extremely important component of the Cherokee Marsh and Lake Mendota watershed. (below is a picnic by Token Creek.)

Token Creek picnic

This year’s festival, “Water Music,” celebrates the unlikely achievement of that goal. Unable to find civic partners, the transformation was a private initiative, brilliantly realized by the river restoration firm Inter-Fluve, and spearheaded by the participants in our opening forum. (Below is a mill on the creek.)

Token Creek mill

Art and Nature are already familiar partners; Art and Technology increasingly so. One common impulse seems to be to increase harmony and invention; to limit pointless destruction; and to preserve enhance and develop, positively, some of the forces we cannot control, or fully understand.


Classical music: Red Priest aims to revive the excitement of Baroque classics. It performs music by Handel, Bach and Telemann this Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

February 24, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The group is called Red Priest – the nickname given to the red-haired violinist and popular Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi, who taught music at a girls’ school in Venice.

But during its Madison debut appearance, the group will not be playing music by Vivaldi. The focus will shift to Handel, with some Bach and Telemann thrown in.

Red Priest (below) performs this Saturday at 8 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater. Tickets are $27.50 to $42.50.

0288-Joan Solo Tour Press Image FINAL

Compared to various rock groups such as the Rolling Stones and the Cirque de Soleil  for its flamboyant presentation of centuries-old classics, the group’s program is called “Handel in the Wind” – recalling the famous song “Candle in the Wind” by chart-topping rocker Elton John.

But that seemingly unorthodox approach, according to Red Priest, fits right in with the true underlying aesthetic of Baroque music, which is too often treated as rigid and codified, predictable and boring.

For more information and background, including the full program, critics’ reviews and how to get tickets, visit:

http://uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season15-16/red-priest.html

Red Priest member and recorder player Piers Adams (below) — whom you can also hear talking about  “Handel in the Wind” in a YouTube video at the bottom — recently took time from his very busy schedule to give a Q&A to The Ear:

Piers Adams

What makes your approach to Baroque music unique and different from standard playing or from the early music approach that features the period instruments and historically informed performance practices?

Actually we do use period instruments and historically informed performance practices, albeit mixed in with some more modern aesthetics. The instruments are a mixture of originals (the cello dates from 1725, in original baroque set-up), close copies (violin and harpsichord) and modern instruments (most of my recorders, which are heavily “souped up” versions of baroque originals).

We differ from the mainstream baroque groups by doing everything we can to bring the music to life — not just in a “Here’s how they used to do it” sense, but rather by “This is how we’re going to do it!”

As musicians who like to live (or at least, to play) on the edge, that means we’re naturally drawn to some of the more extreme and colorful characters and performance practices from the Baroque era, mixed in with our own ideas drawn from interest in other musical genres, such as folk, world and rock music.

red priest on stage

How and why did you come up with that approach? Why do you focus on Baroque music? Is there something special to say about Baroque music?

After years of bowing down to the authority of the early music movement — which has a habit of policing anyone who disagrees with its creed or who wants to show a bit of individuality — it was a wonderful realization that in fact it’s OK to do one’s own thing!

As soon as we made that break, we found ourselves on the edges of that rather safe (but dull) world of historically accurate re-creation and in a genre of our own, where anything goes as long as it’s musically satisfying to us and to the audience.

In fact, much of the most satisfying playing does come from “following the rules,” where the rules tell us to perform with wild abandon and heartfelt expression in every note!

Baroque music is a wonderful place for experimentation and co-creation -– perhaps more so than any other area of classical music, because so much is already left to the performer to decide, and because arrangement and transcription were such important aspects too.

Baroque music also has a harmonic and rhythmic structure that many people can relate to, perhaps closer to modern-day pop and rock than the more harmonically complex music of the later Classical and Romantic periods.

red priest jumping

Why are you emphasizing George Frideric Handel in your Madison program? In your view, is his music underrated or underperformed? How important or great is Handel?

We have toured the US close to 40 times, and try to bring something new with us where possible. The latest creation is a transcription of music from Handel’s “Messiah,” which we’ve converted into a colorful instrumental journey, bringing out the drama in a very different way from the normal choral performance.

Handel is regarded as one of the greatest Baroque composers, but this is the first time we have created a project around his music. I don’t know why we waited so long, as he wrote some amazing tunes!

handel big 3

How would you compare Handel to Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann, whose music you will also be performing?

Handel’s music is in some ways simpler than Bach’s, which tends to be very dense and complex, but both can produce moments of high drama and great beauty.

Telemann was above all a great craftsman, and in his day was considered the greatest composer of all, but now is held in rather lower esteem than Bach and Handel – maybe partly because of his frequent reliance upon gypsy folk melodies in his works.

The pieces we have chosen bring out the characters of these three great Baroque masters.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

We’re greatly looking forward to this, our first visit to Madison!


Classical music: This is your brain on music! New scientific research shows that the human brain evolved special channels for hearing music. Read all about it!

February 13, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

What is your brain like on music? (The illustration below is by Marcos Chin.)

music and brain CR Marcos Chin

One of the most fascinating stories The Ear has ever read about music and science came last Tuesday in this week’s Science Times section of The New York Times.

The “Music Channel” story was reported by the acclaimed science writer  and journalist Natalie Angier (below), who won a Pulitzer Prize and has been nominated for a National Book Award She also included a sidebar story about her own experience undergoing the kind of MRI scan that helped researchers.

natalie angier

The upshot is this: No matter what kind of music you like – classical, jazz, folk, country, rock, pop – the human brain has developed special neural pathways to perceive the music.

In short, the human brain seems to have its own music room.

The story says this may help to explain why music seems a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon and why the first music instruments, such as the vulture bone flute found in Germany (below, in a photo by Jensen of the University of Tubingen) date back 42,000 years — some 24,000 years before the first cave painting appear in Lascaux, France.

Vulture bone flute CR Jensen:University of Tubingen

Plus, the story points out that the scientists and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) do not get the same result with non-musical noises. The special nerve pathways or circuits seem to have evolved specifically to receive musical information.

There is a lot more fascinating information in the story.

For The Ear, the bottom line is that we are closer to knowing why music has such deep appeal in so many different ways. And the researchers say that this study is just the beginning. (You can hear more about the effects of music on the human brain and body in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear looks forward to seeing more research about why music is special to the human brain: Is it the structure of music? The logic and intellectual content? Primarily the melody or harmony or rhythm? The emotional content?

Here is a link to the must-read story:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/science/new-ways-into-the-brains-music-room.html?_r=0

And here is the sidebar story, “Lending Her Ears to MIT Experiment,” about Natalie Angier’s own experience with the MIT research study about music and the human brain. It explains the research methods in details from a subjective point of view:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/science/lending-her-ears-to-an-mit-experiment.html


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 performed twice this weekend by the Madison Opera.

February 3, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will present its modernist production of the popular contemporary opera “Little Women” (below, in a traditional production by the Calgary Opera) by Mark Adamo this weekend.

Christina Ryan,Calgary Herald CALGARY, AB.:JANUARY 21, 2010 -- Calgary Opera's Canadian premiere production 'Little Women' stars Krisztina Szabo as Meg, Allyson McHardy as Joe, Mariateresa Magisaro as Beth, and Catherine May as Amy in Calgary on January 21, 2010.(Photo by Christina Ryan/Calgary Herald) (for Entertainment story by Bob Clark)00025573A

Christina Ryan,Calgary Herald CALGARY, AB.:JANUARY 21, 2010 — Calgary Opera’s Canadian premiere production ‘Little Women’ stars Krisztina Szabo as Meg, Allyson McHardy as Joe, Mariateresa Magisaro as Beth, and Catherine May as Amy in Calgary on January 21, 2010.(Photo by Christina Ryan/Calgary Herald)

Performances are in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center on Friday at 8 p.m. and on Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets to the opera, based on Louisa May Alcott’s famous 19th-century American novel of the same name, run $21-$101. You can call the Overture Center box office at 608 258-4141.

The production features guest conductor Kyle Knox (below), a busy and experienced musician who is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. His dramatic story was featured on this blog yesterday:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/classical-music-here-are-two-dramas-behind-the-scenes-in-this-weekends-production-of-mark-adamos-little-women-by-the-madison-opera/

Kyle Knox 2

Candace Evans (below) returns as the stage director:

Candace Evans

Heather Johnson (below) returns to sing the lead role of Jo March:

Heather Johnson

“Little Women” will be sung in English with projected surtitles.

The running time is 2-1/2 hours with one intermission.

Also, Mark Adamo is doing the pre-show talk on Friday night in tandem with the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith. Says Smith: “That means I’m going to ask him questions, so he can talk about his opera instead of me doing so as usual. That is at 7 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center, and is free to ticket holders.”

For more information about the opera, tickets, the cast and the production as well as the pre-performance lecture and post-performance Q&A, visit:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2015-2016/little_women/

Here is a link to Mark Adamo’s informative website, where you can also see what other music Adamo, who teaches composition at New York University, composes:

http://www.markadamo.com

And here is link to his entry on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Adamo

Adamo – who will attend the Friday night performance — generously agreed to a recent email interview with The Ear:

mark adamo BW

Is there anything beyond what is on your website that you think readers should know about you, your background and your career, including your latest and upcoming projects?

The website has only a little detail about “Becoming Santa Claus,” which is my fourth opera and which was given a lovely premiere (below) in Dallas in December. I’m editing the soundtrack for an upcoming DVD of the piece even as we speak.

Adamo Becoming Santa Claus

What attracted you to “Little Women” as a subject for an opera?

I actually resisted it up front. I thought it was charming, but too antique and undramatic even to speak, let alone sing.

I was drawn to it only when I realized the show was neither “Three Weddings and a Funeral” (that is, not a story of all the March girls, save Beth, growing up to marry) nor a story of a girl struggling to be an artist (her whole family supports her) but a startling, and startlingly proto-modern, story of a girl/woman who learns too late that the destinies of even those she loves are out of her control.

Once it occurred to me that it was the story of everyone who’s ever heard, or uttered, the words, “I love you, but I have to leave” — and didn’t know why it had to be so — I knew the piece could sing.

How difficult a challenge is it for you to do both the score and the libretto? Do you prefer doing one to the other or find one easier?

For me, it’s natural. I was trained not only as a musician but as a playwright and lyricist (and, less comprehensively, as an actor and director) and, temperamentally, I’m the sort of artist who likes to take the most various, and longest possible, view of the project first before I start it.

An opera is a structure of words and music designed to be acted So the more questions I ask myself up front, the clearer both the script and the score can become even before they’re created, because the piece has been conceived in toto first and then the words and music designed to express it.

So I ask myself: What is the story? How can the journey of this character tell it? What is the sound of this story as verbal diction? Vocal contour? Harmonic mass? Melodic line? (Below are the handwritten manuscript and published score to a work by Mark Adamo.)

Adamo score for Tim Thumb

How would you describe the style of your music to the general public?

It always starts from the singing line. But I let the emotion of the character and the flow of the story determine everything else.

If the character feels like she’s making beautiful discoveries as she falls in love, the harmonies open up, moving from key to key before it settles when she does. If the conversation is turbulent, unsettled, inconclusive, the music is similarly fugitive.

Technically, that means the music is tonal, except when it’s chromatic; harmonic, unless just a sound or an orchestral color can carry the meaning; rhythmically steady, unless rhythms careen every which way to follow the turns of argument. In sum, it is eclectic — but not arbitrarily so. (NOTE: In a YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear an example in Beth’s aria from the production of “Little Women” by the Fayetteville Opera.)

“Little Women” has been performed in more than 65 international productions. What do you think has made it so popular? What is the usual public reaction to the work?

It’s actually over 100 at this point. Obviously, the path of the opera begins with the novel, one of the most beloved in English since its publication. Obviously, you try, as an artist, to make a piece as true and clear and deep as you can. But you can’t control whether artists subsequently believe in that piece (or not), or whether audiences embrace it (or not.)

Eighteen years after its premiere, my only possible response is gratitude that this opera is still speaking so often and to so many.

 


Classical music: Why Schubert? Ask pianist-singer Bill Lutes and go to the UW-Madison’s third annual Schubertiade this Saturday night at 8 p.m.

January 27, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The third time is the charm.

By then you know a tradition has been born.

For the third year in a row, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is holding a Schubertiade at the end of January, near the birthday of Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828, below). Can there be a better way to kick off the second semester of concerts and music-making?

Franz Schubert writing

The event, which was founded by and now is organized by and performed by the wife-and-husband team of UW-Madison collaborative piano professor Martha Fischer and piano teacher and former music director for Wisconsin Public Radio Bill Lutes, takes place this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.

Admission is $15 for adults, free for students of all ages. A post-concert reception is included.

martha fischer and bill lutes

ALSO, BE ADVISED THAT THERE IS A UW HOCKEY GAME THAT NIGHT, SO FINDNG PARKING WILL BE MORE CHALLENGING THAN USUAL. ALLOW FOR EXTRA TIME TO GET TO THE CONCERT. THE HALL WILL OPEN AT 7:30 P.M., IF YOU WANT TO COME EARLY AND GET TO YOUR FAVORITE SEATS.

What is it about Schubert that makes him special to the many performers and listeners who will take part?

One answer can be found in a press release from the UW-Madison:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2015/12/17/third-schubertiade/

More can be found in a story written by Sandy Tabachnick for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/third-annual-schubertiade-franz-schubert/

But Bill Lutes also agreed to talk about Schubert (below) and the Schubertiade in an email Q&A with The Ear:

Franz Schubert big

This is the third consecutive year of the UW-Madison Schubertiades that you have presented in honor of his birthday on Jan. 31, this year being the 219th. What is it about Schubert that draws audiences and performers to his music?

Probably the most obvious thing we love about Schubert is the endless stream of glorious, memorable melody – melodies that we can only call “Schubertian.” Who can forget a tune like “The Trout” or “Ave Maria” or the famous “Serenade”? These are part of our cultural DNA.

Then there is Schubert’s rich harmonic vocabulary, and his expansiveness and generosity of form. Although he fashioned innumerable miniatures of exquisite perfection – short songs and piano pieces – he also wrote some of the biggest works of the time, including some of the songs we are performing.

They are big in every way, the “heavenly length” that Robert Schumann wrote about and loved, the sense of adventure and the unexpected and the sheer spaciousness of his musical paragraphs — and the long passages of rhythmic obsession that seem to anticipate today’s Minimalist composers.

Above all, his music is unique in the ways it explores the most joyful and the most tragic aspects of our experience, often interwoven, and ambiguously overlapping.

Those of us who are attracted to Schubert feel that he is our friend, our consoler, our guru and our guide to something that shines beyond the travails of our earthly life. He left us such a rich and varied body of music. The amount he composed in his 31 years is absolutely incredible. But also the level of inspiration is so high throughout so much of it.

Schubert etching

Your program has a lot of variety. Is there some overarching “theme” that ties the program together?

This year, the pieces we are doing are all inspired by Schubert’s exploration of the sounds and imagery of nature. We’re calling it Schubertian “Naturescapes: Water, Winds and Woodlands.” Schubert came along at a time when the Romantic poets, painters and musicians began to think of nature in a new way.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Schubert and his poets spelled Nature with a capital N. The poetry he set to music often evokes the grandeur and sublimity of Nature, and the ways that we humans experience transcendence by observing mountains, forests, lakes and seas, and rushing winds or gentle breezes. All of the lieder that we have selected for this program reflect this almost religious attitude toward Nature (depicted below in the painting “Summer,” with a couple embracing amorously under a tree, by the Romantic German artist Casper David Friedrich.)

Caspar David Friedrich Summer and love couple BIG

What are some of the challenges that Schubert’s music poses to pianists in particular?

Schubert’s piano style is unique, and calls for an ability to sing on the instrument, and to play with an array of orchestral colors.

Playing his songs of course means that you understand something about what it takes to sing them, and you have to completely get into the poetry and the ideas being explored.

He was a very social and sociable composer, and so a lot of playing Schubert involves playing nicely with others. That includes of course playing duets by two pianists at one keyboard.

Schubert was probably the greatest composer for this medium and wrote some of this greatest works for piano duet.

The two pianists must play the same instrument, and sound as one. It is harder than you might think! The issue of playing in such close proximity to your partner invites a level of physical intimacy that can be quite pleasant or quite awkward, depending on the music in question.

The great pianist Artur Schnabel (below) spoke of “music that is better than it can be played.” He included most of Schubert in this category.

Artur Schnabel BIG

The idea for the Schubertiades originated in Schubert’s lifetime — social gatherings devoted to hearing Schubert’s music, but also to having a good time with friends. How do modern performers recreate this informal atmosphere?

Part of it is the variety of the music, and the large number of performers who will be joining us, most of whom will be seated around the piano on stage during the concert (below top). We will also have seating on stage for audience members who want to have a bit of the intimate feeling of those first legendary Schubertiades (below bottom) held in salons in Vienna.

Schubertiade 2014 stage in MIlls Hall

Schubertiade in color by Julius Schmid

We aim for an atmosphere of spontaneity and informality, as we have in the past two Schubertiades. We are thrilled this year that our concert is underwritten by a generous donor, Ann Boyer, whose gift has allowed us to include opera singer Jamie-Rose Guarrine (below, in a photo by Peter Konerko) as our featured guest artist and alumna.

We both worked a lot with Jamie-Rose when she was a student here and she’s a wonderful singer who will be travelling to us from New England where she is a new voice faculty member at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

And of course we are delighted to be making music with so many of our UW-Madison School of Music faculty, other alumni and friends.

Jamie-Rose Guarrine Peter Konerko

Anything else you want to add?

We will be performing all the songs in their original German. However, you’ll find full German texts and translations at the door. We encourage people to come early and read the poetry before the concert begins. It’s a nice way to familiarize yourself with the gist of the poems without having to be glued to your program while the songs are being sung.

Here is the impressive and appealing complete list of works and performers:

Schubertian Naturescapes – Water, Winds and Woodlands

Jamie-Rose Guarrine (JRG), Mimmi Fulmer (MF), Sara Guttenberg (SG), Marie McManama (MM), Daniel O’Dea (DO), David Ronis (DR), Paul Rowe (PF), Benjamin Schultz, (BS), singers

Soh-hyun Park Altino (SP), violin

Sally Chisholm (SC), viola

Parry Karp (PK), cello

Ben Ferris, (BF), double bass

Daniel Grabois (DG), horn

Wesley Warnhoff (WW), clarinet

Bill Lutes (BL) and Martha Fischer (MF), piano

Program

Wanderers Nachtlied (II), D. 768   Wayfarer’s Night Song (MF, BL) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Der Fluss D. 693   The River   (JRG, BL) Friedrich von Schlegel

Widerspruch, D. 865, Contrariness (DO, DR, BS, PR, MF) Johann Gabriel Seidl

Auf dem Wasser zu Singen, D. 774, To Be Sung on the Water (SG, MF) Friedrich Leopold, Graf zu Stolberg-Stolberg

Fischerweise D. 881, Fisherman’s Ditty, (BS, MF) Franz Xaver von Schlechta

Die Forelle, D. 550, The Trout (MM, BL) Christian Friedrich Schubart

Piano Quintet in A major “Trout,” D. 667 (SP, SC, PK, BF, MF) Movement IV: Theme and Variations (heard in a YouTube video at the bottom)

Suleika I, D. 720 (JRG, BL); Suleika II, D. 717 (JRG,MF) Marianne von Willemer, rev. Goethe

Auf dem Strom, D. 943, On the River (DO, DG, MF) Ludwig Rellstab

INTERMISSION

Frühlingsglaube, D. 686, Faith in Spring (DR, BL) Ludwig Uhland

Im Walde “Waldesnacht,” D. 707, In the Forest “Forest Night” (PR, BL) Friedrich Schlegel

Dass sie hier gewesen, D. 775, That She has Been Here (MF, BL) Friedrich Rückert

Allegro in a minor ”Lebensstürme,” D. 947, Life’s Storms (MF, BL)

Der 23 Psalm, D. 706, (MM, SG, MF, MF, BL) The Bible, trans. Moses Mendelssohn

Der Hirt auf dem Felsen D. 965, The Shepherd on the Rock (JRG, WW, MF) Wilhelm Müller/Karl August Varnhagen von Ense

An die Musik, D. 547 To Music. Franz von Schober. Everyone is invited to sing along. You can find the words in your texts and translations.

 


Classical music: The “Eroica” Symphony gets a heroic reading from the amateur Middleton Community Orchestra in a popular all-Beethoven program that also featured an outstanding performance of the “Choral Fantasy.”

December 22, 2015
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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

Happily avoiding all the holiday falderal this month, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave Ludwig Beethoven a slightly delayed birthday tribute in the form of an unusual concert program on last Friday night that drew a full house.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

Led by the bold and enterprising conductor Steve Kurr (below center), the orchestra plunged straightway into no less than Beethoven’s epochal Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.”

NOTE: For more background, here is a link to The Ear’s interview with Steve Kurr about this program: 

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/classical-music-conductor-steve-kurr-talks-about-the-all-beethoven-program-that-the-middleton-community-orchestra-performs-this-friday-night-with-pianist-thomas-kasdorf-and-the-madison-symphony-choru/

MCO Beethoven Kurr and orchestra

The 50-minute long “Eroica” is a work that transformed the symphonic genre, and it continues to challenge performers. Provocative sounds, passages of complex counterpoint and assertions of tonal power—all these call for a disciplined and confident performance.

Kurr brought that off handsomely, to his and his players’ great credit. I had the feeling that he asked of these players more than they had first thought they could give, and he drew it out of them, to their obvious pride and satisfaction.

To be sure, there were some occasional smudges here and there, but the ensemble standards were otherwise consistently high. I am always interested to hear, in an orchestra that does not have overwhelming strings, the more balanced audibility of the winds, especially the woodwinds.

Here it was the brass (complete with four horns) that offered particular heroics. At times Kurr perhaps allowed them too much freedom when only filling out chords; but where they deserved prominence they sounded magnificent—notably in the scherzo’s trio section. In all, the overall mix really brought out the daring  use by Beethoven (below) of pungent dissonances and harmonic shocks.

Beethoven big

Kurr took the opening movement at a particularly brisk speed, while the second movement, the profound funeral march, was paced much more slowly than most conductors would take it — but to truly eloquent effect. (You can hear the astonishing Funeral March movement performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

I found the symphony’s finale sometimes was given a rather foursquare quality, but the enthusiasm maintained momentum.

It was a difficult act to follow. But the choice of the other item on the program was a brilliant one, bringing us a remarkable Beethoven work that is rarely ever heard in concerts.

How often can an orchestra afford to assemble a brilliant pianist, six vocal soloists and a chorus — all for one 25-minute work? But those are the demands of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy,” a product of a time when concerts often brought together a whole circus of performers.

In a special way, this novelty made a perfect pairing with the “Eroica.” In the two works, we catch Beethoven in his two great instances of self-borrowing to the end of evolving perfection.

The finale of the “Eroica” was the fourth and final destination for a set of variations on a contradance tune. In its turn, the Fantasy, after opening with an improvisatory exercise for the pianist, turns into a concerto-like set of variations on a tune, which is finally taken up by solo vocalists and then the chorus.

That tune represents the second of three stages in what eventually became the triumphant “Ode to Joy” melody of the famous finale of the Ninth Symphony.

The brilliant and versatile Thomas Kasdorf (below), a familiar soloist around these parts who was raised in Middleton and studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music — was the energetic pianist.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

Six young singers were the solo battery, and a corporal’s guard from the Madison Symphony Chorus (below top and bottom) provided the brief but telling final justification for calling this a “Choral Fantasy.”

MCO Beethoven MSO Chorus left

MCO Beethoven MSO Chorus right

(The singers, below but not in order, were sopranos Allison Vollinger and Kirsten Larson; alto Jessica Lee Kasinski; tenor Richard Statz; baritone Gavon Waid; and bass Robert Dindorff.)

MCO Beethoven 3 women singers

MCO Beethoven 3 male singers

The orchestra played its role with gusto, and it’s wonderful how, by the end, it almost sounds as if we are moving into the Ninth Symphony.

This was an exhilarating concert, and a wonderful achievement for all involved.

 


Classical music: Meet Zuhal Sultan, the founder of the Iraqi Youth Orchestra

October 17, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Wouldn’t it be nice for a change to hear good news from Iraq?

Usually we hear about sectarian violence, suicide bombings and widespread government corruption.

So for a change of pace, meet Zuhal Sultan (below), the woman who founded the Iraqi Youth Orchestra.

Zuhal Sultan

Her words remind us of what must have been in the mind of Marvin Rabin when he founded the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, which is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Sultan’s words about the importance of music education and music performance have meaning not only to Iraq and other nations at war but also to us.

Not that she and the Iraqi Youth Orchestra (below) don’t continue to face major obstacles, especially from The Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL) as they were preparing for a tour. (You can hear the orchestra during a festival in Scotland in a YouTube video at the bottom. Be sure to check out the comments by readers and listeners as wells by Zuhal Sultan.)

Iraqi Youth Orchestra 2

But NPR, or National Public Radio, has done a public service by offering us a fine interview with her, by showing harmony amid conflict.

Here is a link to the story done by the reporter and new host of “All Things ConsideredAri Shapiro. You can read the set up piece, but you a should also listen to the audio:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/09/28/443214847/-we-need-to-be-human-zuhal-sultan-on-starting-the-iraqi-youth-orchestra


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