The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.


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Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 2018
6 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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


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Classical music: ECM Records finally streams its entire catalogue of award-winning artists and recordings

November 18, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed and award-winning independent label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) was founded in Munich, Germany, in 1969 by the Grammy-winning producer Manfred Eicher (below).

Known for its penchant for the contemporary and even avant-garde, Eicher’s label was nonetheless a conservative hold-out when it came to the newer technology of digital streaming.

The old technology has its points besides superior sound quality. When you got an ECM CD, you usually also got one of their terrific black-and-white photographs, often a square-format landscape, as a cover. (ECM even published a book of its photographic covers.)

But as of this past Friday, ECM finally gave into the inevitable and streamed its entire catalogue. Its rationale was that it was more important for its music and musicians to be heard than to remain loyal to certain platforms.

ECM also cited the pressure from unauthorized uploads to YouTube and bootleg versions of its recordings as the reason for the decision.

So as of yesterday, ECM, which has won many awards for individual titles and artists, will be available on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, Deezer, Tidal and other streaming services.

ECM is known for its popular and critically acclaimed jazz artists including pianist Keith Jarrett (below, of “The Köln Concert” or The Cologne Concert) and saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (“Officium”). But it also included classical chamber music groups such as the Keller Quartet, the Trio Medieval, the Danish Quartet and others.

ECM is also known for championing contemporary classical composers (Arvo Pärt, below, who is the most performed contemporary composer, as well as Tigur Mansurian, Lera Auerbach, Gyorgy Kurtag and Valentin Silvestrov among others) and some outstanding crossover classical musicians, including Jarrett, a jazz great who has also recorded Bach, Handel and Shostakovich on both piano and harpsichord.

The Ear especially likes violist Kim Kashkashian and Harvard pianist Robert Levin (a frequent performer at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival) in sonatas of Brahms. He is also fond of Alexei Lubimov in various piano recitals as well as the many recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Janacek and Robert Schumann by the superb pianist Andras Schiff (below). In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Schiff in a live performance of the Gigue from Bach’s Keyboard Partita No. 3.)

And there are many, many more artists and recordings worth your attention. Here is a link to an extensive sampler on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/user/ECMRecordsChannel

Who are your favorite ECM artists?

What are your favorite ECM recordings?

What ECM downloads do you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Why do Americans hear so few American symphonies and so many German and Austrian symphonies?

January 6, 2016
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here we are, living and listening to music in America.

So why is it that we hear so few 19th-century symphonies by American composers and so many symphonies by German and Austrian composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Bruckner and Richard Strauss?

To be specific, why have we heard the New York Philharmonic perform so much by Johannes Brahms and so little by composers such as John Knowles Paine (below, in a photo from The Library of Congress), who also headed the music department at Harvard University?

John Knowles Paine CR Library of Congress

You might think it has to do with the quality of the music.

But that just isn’t so, says Douglas W. Shadle (below, by Steven Green of Vanderbilt University), a musicology scholar at Vanderbilt University. He has just published a long study of the issue. The book is called “Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century Symphonic Enterprise” (330 pages, Oxford University Press, $55).

9-2-2014 - Studio photo of Douglas Shadle, Prof. of Musicology in the Blair Schoolof Music. (Steve Green / Vanderbilt University)

The Ear would have to hear more American music to believe that argument.

Which makes it a vicious cycle: More American music won’t be programmed until it gets heard and liked by the public, and it won’t get heard or liked by the public until it is programmed more frequently.

What will break that cycle?

Which end gives way first?

Wouldn’t it be nice if some of that music was programmed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or even the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra?

Or if it were featured on Wisconsin Public Radio or WORT-FM? Perhaps one or the other radio station could even established an hourlong weekly program of American music — normally highlighted mostly on Thanksgiving — to help educate us about ourselves and our own cultural history, past and present?

Anyway, The Ear found the review of the book in The New York Times to be fascinating and highly informational, even revelatory.

Here is a link to the book review:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/29/books/review-douglas-w-shadles-orchestrating-the-nation.html?_r=0

And here is a link to a YouTube video of a symphony by John Knowles Paine. I think you will be impressed, as was The Ear:


Classical music: Go inside the Money Opera at the Met with the Pulitzer Prize-winning financial reporter James B. Stewart.

March 30, 2015
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It is no secret that the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City has been having major financial and labor problems during the tenure of its General Director Peter Gelb (below).

Peter Gelb 2.jpg

But it is hard to find a better researched or more detailed account of what is going on than the account that was written by the journalist James B. Stewart and appeared in the March 23 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

A graduate of the Harvard University Law School, Stewart (below), you may recall, is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and currently a columnist for the New York Times. He has also written best-selling books. Such qualifications give him added credibility when reporting on the fiscal state of the arts.

James B. Stewart

Plus, Stewart got access to documents and records as well as to members of the board of directors. His account is filled with specific details about costs and fundraising that are convincing.

The discrepancy, for example, between what the Met said was the official cost of its recent and controversial “Ring” cycle (below) by Robert Lepage of Cirque du Soleil and what others say it cost is both astonishing and appalling.

Lepage Ring set

In an interview with Jim Zirin, Peter Gelb defends himself and his tenure in a YouTube video at the bottom.

To The Ear, the larger question is whether some of the same criticisms apply to other large performing arts groups, opera companies and symphony orchestras in other cities.

But that is another story for another day.

Here is a link to the story about the Met by James B. Stewart:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/a-fight-at-the-opera

 


Classical music: Is there more to say about Beethoven and his music? Acclaimed musicologist Jan Swafford thinks so, and says so in his new biography of The Ludwig.

August 9, 2014
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

By most polls and surveys, the most popular composer of classical music remains Ludwig van Beethoven (below). The surly, willful and influential musician bridged the Classical and Romantic eras, and his music retains much of its power and universal appeal even today.

All you have to do is mention the names of works in virtually all the various musical genres and forms — solo sonatas, chamber music, symphonic music, concertos, vocal music — that Beethoven mastered and pushed into new realms of expression:

The “Eroica” Symphony.

The Fifth Symphony.

The “Pastoral” Symphony.

The Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy.”

The “Emperor” Concerto for piano.

The “Razumovsky” and “Late” String Quartets.

The “Ghost” and  “Archduke” piano trios, and the “Triple” Concerto.

The “Moonlight,” “Pathetique,” “Tempest,” “Appassionata,” “Waldstein” and “Hammerklavier” piano sonatas.

The “Spring” and “Kreutzer” violin sonatas.

The “Missa Solemnis.”

“Fidelio.”

And on and on.

Such nicknames and so many! Talk about iconic works!

Beethoven big

What more is there to be said about Beethoven?

Well, quite a lot, apparently, according to the acclaimed music historian Jan Swafford (below), who did his undergraduate work at Harvard University and his graduate work at Yale University and who now teaches composition and music history at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Jan Swafford color

Swafford, who has also written biographies of Johannes Brahms and Charles Ives, has just published his 1,000-page biography of Beethoven with the subtitle “Anguish and Triumph.”

It is getting some mixed or qualified reviews. But before you look into that, better check into the pieces that NPR (National Public Radio) did on Swafford and his takes on Beethoven, some of which defy received wisdom and common sense.

Here is a summary of some common perceptions about Beethoven that may -– or may NOT –- be true, according to Swafford. It i s an easy and informative read.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/08/05/337857557/ask-us-anything-about-beethoven

And here is another piece on NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog that deals with how the powerful Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” reveals Beethoven’s personality. (You can hear the opening, played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

http://www.npr.org/2014/08/03/336656578/beethovens-eroica-a-bizarre-revelation-of-personality

Some critics have questioned whether the book (below) is too long, whether it repeats things that are already well known and whether the writing style is accessible to the general public.

But nobody is ignoring it.

Jan Swafford Beethoven cover

Here are two reviews by reputable media outlets.

From The Wall Street Journal:

http://online.wsj.com/articles/book-review-beethoven-anguish-and-triumph-by-jan-swafford-1406927297

From The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/books/review/beethoven-by-jan-swafford.html?_r=0

Have you read Jan Swafford’s other work?

What do you think of his music histories and biographies?

Or of his new Beethoven book, if you have read it?

And what is your favorite  work by Beethoven?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Eclectic superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma says that culture and the arts are vital to our society and to education and he has Three Big Ideas about what we can do to help the in America.

April 13, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Classical music organizations of all kinds are wondering what they can do to foster a better appreciation of the arts and to put the performing arts on a more solid financial footing with broader public and political acceptance.

Famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma (below top), who, in addition to his world-wide career as a recitalist, chamber musician and concerto soloist,  has also been a creative consultant to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and who has performed with the eclectic Silk Road Ensemble (below bottom), thinks he has the answer.

At bottom is a YouTube video of Ma playing a movement of a solo cello suite by J.S. Bach that has had almost 10 million hits:

yo-yo ma

Silk Road Ensemble

And the Harvard-educated Ma, who describes himself as a “venture culturalist”  revealed his view about the need for diversity and his Three Big Ideas recently in the Nancy Hank Lecture on Arts Advocacy Day in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. He linked and emphasized the role of the arts in all education and in economic development.

And as always, NPR’s outstanding classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” was on top of the story.

Here is a link with a story and a video of the complete speech. Spread the word and share it — his remarks deserve it:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/04/09/176681242/can-yo-yo-ma-fix-the-arts

Be sure to read some of the readers’ comments, which I find most enlightening –- especially the story about and quote by Winston Churchill.


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