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: WQXR radio names 19 musicians to watch in ’19. What do you think of the choices? Who would you add?

January 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What will 2019 bring in the way of classical music?

What and who should we be looking at and paying attention to?

WQXR — the famed classical radio station in New York City – recently published its list of 19 to watch in ‘19, with detailed reasons for and explanations of their picks.

It seems like a pretty good choice to The Ear, although there is always something of a parlor game aspect to such projects.

Nonetheless, the list covers a fine variety – instrumentalists and vocalists, young and old, American and international, the well-known and the up-and-coming such as the opera singer Devone Tines (below, in a photo by Nikolai Schukoff).

Some names will be familiar to Madison audiences – such as pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Nicola Benedettti, the JACK Quartet and cellist Steven Isserlis — especially through their live appearances at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the Madison Symphony Orchestra plus broadcasts on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here is a link to the list: https://www.wqxr.org/story/wqxr-presents-19-19-artists-collaborations-upcoming-year/

The Ear can think of some other musicians that he would add to the list.

An especially deserving one of them is the young American virtuoso pianist George Li (below, in a photo by Simon Fowler).

Born in China and brought as a child to the United States by his parents, Li attended Harvard and just finished his master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music. (At the bottom, you can hear Li play virtuosic music by Liszt and Horowitz in the YouTube video of a Tiny Desk Concert at National Public Radio or NPR.)

Li won the silver medal in the 2015 at the 15th Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow and had a lot of people talking about the energy and excitement of his playing. He was praised for both outstanding technical prowess and deep expressiveness.

He then took first prize at a piano competition in Paris.

Ever since, he has been steadily booked. At 23, the amiable Li has already toured China, Japan and Russia and seems to have a very busy schedule ahead of him, judging by his posts on Instagram.

He has also released his first recording on the Warner Classics label, a fine CD that received many positive reviews from critics, including this one.

The program includes Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor “Funeral March,” Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme of Corelli,” and Consolation No. 3 and the popular Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt.

Given all the concertos he is now performing, it would not surprise one to see his next recording be a concerto, possibly the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto N. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, which brought him instant acclaim.

Here is a link to his website: http://www.georgelipianist.com

And here is a link to his entry in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Li

Keep your ears and eyes on George Li.

What do you think of the choices made by WQXR?

Who would you add to the list of musicians to watch in 2019, and why?

If possible, maybe you can include a YouTube link to a performance, live or recorded, in your comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Happy Birthday to Lenny at 100! Here are some ways to celebrate today’s Bernstein centennial

August 25, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One hundred years ago today, the versatile and world-celebrated American musician Leonard Bernstein (below) was born.

For most of his adult life, starting with his meteoric rise after his nationally broadcast debut with the New York Philharmonic, Lenny remained an international star that has continued to shine brightly long after his death at 72 in 1990.

When his father Sam was asked why he wouldn’t pay for young Lenny’s piano lessons and why he resisted the idea of a career in music for his son, he said simply: “I didn’t know he would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein.”

Lenny! The name itself is shorthand for a phenomenon, for musical greatness as a conductor, composer (below, in 1955), pianist, educator, popularizer, advocate, humanitarian and proselytizer, and so much more.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia biography where you can check out the astonishing extent of Lenny’s career and his many firsts, from being the first major American-born and American-trained conductor — he studied at Harvard University and the Curtis Institute of Music — to his revival of Gustav Mahler:

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

You should also view the engaging YouTube video at the bottom.

So eager have the media been to mark the centennial of Leonard Bernstein, one might well ask: “Have you had enough Lenny yet?”

New recordings and compilations of recordings have been issued and reissued.

Numerous books have been published.

Many new photos of the dramatic, expressive and photogenic Lenny (below, by Paul de Hueck) have emerged.

TV stations have discussed him and Turner Classic Movies rebroadcast several of his “Young People’s Concerts.”

For weeks, radio stations have been drowning us with his various performances, especially his performances of his own Overture to “Candide.”

Still, today is the actual Leonard Bernstein centennial and the culmination of the build-up and hype, and if you haven’t paid attention before today, chances are you wind find Encounters with Lenny unavoidable this weekend. 

Yet if you pay attention, you are sure to learn new things about Lenny who seems an inexhaustible supply of insights and interesting information, a man of productive contradictions.

With that in mind, The Ear has just a few suggestions for this weekend, with other tributes coming during the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin’s Mead Witter School of Music and other music groups and individuals.

You can start by listening to the radio.

For most of the daytime today Wisconsin Public Radio with pay homage to Lenny. It will start at 10 a.m. with Classics by Request when listeners will ask to hear favorite pieces and offer personal thoughts and memories. After that a couple of more hours of Bernstein’s music will be broadcast on WPR.

Then on Sunday at 2 p.m., WPR host Norman Gilliland (below top) will interview Madison Symphony Orchestra conductor John DeMain (below bottom, by Prasad) about working with Lenny.

Here, thanks to National Public Radio (NPR), is the best short overview that The Ear has heard so far:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/08/24/641208843/the-complex-life-of-leonard-bernstein-a-once-in-a-century-talent

Want to know more about Lenny the Man as well as Lenny the Musician?

Try this review from The New Yorker  by David Denby of daughter Jamie Bernstein’s book (below) that has juicy anecdotes and new information about growing up with her famous father.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/06/25/leonard-bernstein-through-his-daughters-eyes

And here, from Time magazine, is the little known story of how Lenny the Humanitarian conducted an orchestra of Holocaust survivors (below):

http://time.com/5376731/leonard-bernstein-holocaust-survivors-concert/

What is your favorite tribute to Bernstein so far? Leave a link in the COMMENT section if you can.

What is you favorite composition by Bernstein?

What is your favorite performance by Bernstein?

What would you like to say or tell others about Leonard Bernstein?

The Ear wants to hear.


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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: The acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performs old and new music this Friday night and Sunday afternoon when its new director also makes his debut

August 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Since it was founded in 2002, the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) has been critically acclaimed for the concert it puts together each summer in just a couple of weeks or less. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This summer, the group will be under the baton of its new artistic director, Michael McGaghie (below), who will be making his performing debut with the group.

McGaghie directs choral activities at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and also conducts the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The program this weekend ranges from the 16th century and early Baroque to the contemporary.

It will begin with works from  established masters such as Thomas Tallis, Heinrich Schütz and the Soviet conductor-composer Nikolai Golovanov.

It will then explore works from contemporary composers such as Jocelyn Hagen, Morten Lauridsen and Dale Trumbore in a program called Horizons. (Sorry, The Ear has not received the titles of specific works on the program.)

Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for students. Tickets can be bought at the door or ordered at the links below.

Concert venues are:

This Friday, Aug. 3, at 7:30 p.m. in the Lutheran Church of the Living Christ, 110 North Gammon Road, on Madison’s west side. For tickets, go to:

https://isthmusvocalens.yapsody.com/event/index/282736/ive-2018-friday-concert

This Sunday, Aug. 5, at 3 p.m. in Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 East Gorham Street. For tickets, go to:

https://isthmusvocalens.yapsody.com/event/index/282791/ive-2018-sunday-concert

For more about the impressive background of the new director, go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/

For more about the past performances and the organization, including sound samples to listen to and how to join or support the group, go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org


Classical music: This Sunday, Beverly Taylor retires as associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Kyle Knox will succeed Taylor starting this fall.

June 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has announced that Associate Conductor Beverly Taylor (below) will retire from her current position after 22 years, effective this Sunday, July 1.

Taylor will continue to serve as Director of the Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a  photo by Greg Anderson).

She will also continue as the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where she conducts many groups including the Choral Union (below) and the Concert Choir.

Kyle Knox (below) will become the MSO’s new Associate Conductor, effective in the 2018–2019 season.

“I am delighted that Beverly will continue to work with the Madison Symphony Chorus. The chorus has improved steadily under her direction and will sing some very difficult music in the coming seasons,” said MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). “I also want to thank Beverly for the outstanding help she has given me in the preparation of our concerts over the years.”

“I’ve loved my time as associate conductor of the symphony, and will continue as chorus director,” says Taylor. “But I’m looking forward to more time for guest conducting, visiting friends and family and finishing the two books I’m at work on. I also have a grant to write a basic conducting textbook, and I’m finishing a handbook on how to develop a musical interpretation.”

John DeMain says he looks forward to Knox joining the MSO. “I think Kyle Knox is a natural to step into the associate conductor position. He has distinguished himself in the past few years with his work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Opera and the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by John W. Barker). He also successfully led the MSO in last year’s Concert on the Green.

“His recent appointment as Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) is a testament to his brilliant talent and will dovetail easily with his duties with the MSO. I so look forward to our working together and welcome him to our Madison Symphony Orchestra family.”

Knox is also very pleased with his appointment.

“My history with the MSO goes back a few years and I have long admired the work of Maestro DeMain and this wonderful group of musicians,” he says. “It is an honor to have been selected for this opportunity and I look forward to happy years of service and collaboration.”

BACKGROUND BIOGRAPHIES

Beverly Taylor has been the Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Director of the Madison Symphony Chorus since 1996 and Director of Choral Activities at UW-Madison since 1995.

Prior roles include conductor of the Boston Bar Association Orchestra, Music Director of the Back Bay Chorale, and Associate Director of Choral Activities at Harvard University.

Taylor has been a guest conductor at the Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic Orchestra in Poland, the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, the Vermont Symphony, the Harvard Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the U.S. Air Force Band and Orchestra, the Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, and the Wellesley Chamber Singers.

She graduated from the University of Delaware and Boston University School for the Arts and received a fellowship with Chorus America and an orchestral fellowship at Aspen.

Kyle Knox will take over the dual positions of Music Director of WYSO and Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra beginning in the 2018–2019 season.

Past and upcoming conducting credits include Mark Adamo’s Little Women with the Madison Opera; Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw, and Transformations; with UW-Madison’s University Opera; the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 Concert on the Green; Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers and H.M.S. Pinafore with the Madison Savoyards; as well as UW Music Clinic’s High School Honors Orchestra.

Other concerts include Carousel, Sunday in the Park with George, and Sweeney Todd (2018) with Middleton Players Theatre, Jon Deak’s The Passion of Scrooge with Oakwood Chamber Players, as well as regular appearances with the Middleton Community Orchestra.

He was formerly a clarinetist with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Santa Fe Opera and Philadelphia Orchestras, and was on the faculty at UW-Milwaukee. Festivals credits include Tanglewood, Spoleto (Italy), Santa Fe Chamber Music, and Bowdoin College, among others. His debut album, the first commercial recording of Conrad Susa’s chamber opera Transformations, will be released in the summer of 2018 on iTunes. He holds degrees from Juilliard School and the UW-Madison. He  is married to MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz. 


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