The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What happens when Shakespeare and Benjamin Britten meet Andy Warhol and The Factory? The University Opera explores a new spin on an old tale

November 12, 2019
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ALERT: At 7:30 p.m. this Thursday night, Nov. 14 — the night before it opens the opera production below — the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Oriol Sans, will perform a FREE concert in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue, next to the Chazen Museum of Art. The program offers Darius Milhaud’s “The Creation of the World,” Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” and Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 “The Clock.”  

By Jacob Stockinger

The Big Event in classical music this week in Madison is the production by the University Opera of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

It is a chance to see what happens when Shakespeare (below top) meets Britten (below bottom) through the lens of the Pop art icon Andy Warhol.

The three-hour production – with student singers and the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor Oriol Sans — will have three performances in Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill: this Friday night, Nov. 15, at 7:30; Sunday afternoon, Nov. 17, at 2 p.m.; and Tuesday night, Nov. 19, at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $25 for the general public; $20 for seniors; and $10 for students.

For more information about the production and how to obtain tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-a-midsummer-nights-dream/2019-11-15/

For more information about the performers, the alternating student cast and a pre-performance panel discussion on Sunday, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/A-Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Media-release.pdf

And here are notes by director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) about the concept behind this novel production:

“When the artistic team for A Midsummer Night’s Dream met last spring, none of us expected that we would set Britten’s opera at The Factory, Andy Warhol’s workspace-cum-playspace.

“For my part, I wanted to find a way to tell this wonderful story that would be novel, engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

“I only had one wish: that we did a production that did not feature fairies sporting wings – a representation that, to me, just seemed old-fashioned and, frankly, tired.

“As we worked on the concept, we found that The Factory setting allowed us to see the show in a new, compelling light and truly evoked its spirit and themes. The elements of this “translation” easily and happily fell into place and now, six months later, here we are!

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the intersecting stories of three groups of characters – Fairies, Lovers and Rustics – and its traditional locale is that of a forest, the domain of Oberon, the Fairy King. (You can hear the Act 1 “Welcome, Wanderer” duet with Puck and Oberon, played by countertenor David Daniels, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“In our production, the proverbial forest becomes The Factory, where our Oberon, inspired by Andy Warhol (below, in a photo from the Andy Warhol Museum), rules the roost. He oversees his world – his art, his business, and “his people.” He is part participant in his own story, as he plots to get even with Tytania, his queen and with whom he is at odds; and part voyeur-meddler, as he attempts to engineer the realignment of affections among the Lovers.

“Tytania, in our production, is loosely modeled on Warhol’s muse, Edie Sedgwick (below top), and Puck resembles Ondine (below bottom), one of the Warhol Superstars.

The Fairies become young women in the fashion or entertainment industries, regulars at The Factory; the Lovers, people who are employed there; and the Rustics, or “Rude Mechanicals,” blue-collar workers by day, who come together after hours to form an avant-garde theater troupe seeking their 15 minutes of fame.

“For all these people, The Factory (below, in a photo by Nat Finkelstein) is the center of the universe.  They all gravitate there and finally assemble for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta – in this setting, a rich art collector and his trophy girlfriend.

“Magic is an important element in Midsummer. In the realm of the fairies, Oberon makes frequent use of magical herbs and potions to achieve his objectives. In the celebrity art world of mid-1960s New York City, those translate into recreational drugs.

“The people who work in and gather at The Factory are also are involved in what could be called a type of magic – making art and surrounding themselves in it. They take photographs, create silk screen images, hang and arrange Pop art, and party at The Factory.

“Not only does this world of creative magic provide us with a beautiful way to tell the story of Midsummer, but it also becomes a metaphor for the “theatrical magic” created by Shakespeare and Britten, and integral to every production.

“We hope you enjoy taking this journey with us, seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in perhaps a new way that will entertain and delight your senses and, perhaps, challenge your brain a bit.”

 


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Classical music: The future of Western classical music is in Asia – specifically China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Why is that?

May 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not just about Lang Lang.

The signs are everywhere.

They were present at a recent piano recital by elementary school, middle school and high school students that The Ear attended.

You see it at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and at top music schools, including the Curtis Institute of Music, across the U.S. and Western Europe. And you see it in youth groups such as the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (below).

Western classical music recording labels, such as Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classical, are looking to develop new markets and so are signing more Asian musicians, such as the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Shanghai String Quartet, and releasing more Asian performances. (Below is the Taiwanese-Australian, prize-winning violinist Ray Chen, who is also a master at using social media to build his meteoric career.)

All these items point to the same conclusion: The future of Western classical music looks more and more likely to be found in Asian culture and in Asia  – specifically in China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. (Next season, prize-winning South Korean pianist Joyce Yang (below) returns to Madison, where she first gave a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, to solo with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Consider some of the following:

There are, The Ear read somewhere, now more piano students in China than in all of Europe, North America and South America combined. And he is reading about more and more concert tours of China and other Asian countries by Western performers — even while in the U.S. the number of pianos in homes are on the decline.

Increasingly the winners of major international competitions — such as the Chopin competition, the Van Cliburn competition, the Tchaikovsky competition, the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium competition and the Leeds competition – come from Asia or are Asian. (Below, in a photo by Simon Fowler, is American pianist George Li, who immigrated from China as a child and attended Harvard and the New England Conservatory before winning a silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition. His concert career is now blossoming fast.)

In recent years, China has been building a lot of first-rate concert halls, opera houses and music schools. And the famed Juilliard School in New York City will open its second campus this fall in Tianjin, near Beijing.

China has certainly come a long way from the days of the Cultural Revolution when people could be imprisoned for listening to Beethoven, who is now a cultural icon in China — as you can hear at the bottom in the YouTube video of Li Jing Zhan conducting the orchestra at the Chinese National Opera in Beethoven’s No. 7. (Below is the striking new National Center for the Performing Arts in China.)

https://www.interlude.hk/front/culture-construction-chinas-new-concert-halls/

Nineteen of the 24 final competitors, ages 13-17, in the second Van Cliburn Junior Competition – which starts in Dallas, Texas, on May 31 and ends on June 8 – are Asian, Asian-American and Asian-Canadian, all with astonishingly impressive credentials and experience. It will be streamed live and free. Take a look and listen:

https://www.cliburn.org/2019-cliburn-junior-competitors/

Why this Asian shift is happening remains somewhat of a mystery to The Ear, although he had been thinking about for a long time.

Then he came across a op-ed column confirming the prevalence of Asian classical musicians. It was written by the American concert pianist and teacher Inna Faliks (below), who teaches at UCLA and who wrote convincingly about her recent concert experiences in China in The Washington Post.

Read it and see what you think, and tell us whether you agree:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-future-of-classical-music-is-chinese/2019/03/22/2649e9dc-4cb5-11e9-93d0-64dbcf38ba41_story.html?utm_term=.7f149e0f8eb9

Why are Asians so interested in Western classical music and music education? And why do they respect it or even revere it so much?

Does it have to do with the “tiger mom” phenomenon of strong parental pressure to succeed and achieve?

Is it largely a function of population?

Is it because of the collective teamwork required to make a lot of chamber music and orchestral music, or with the intense and instructive teacher-student relationship?

Is it because the cultural depth and seriousness in Western music education – ing contrast to the increasingly pop culture of the West – that prepares students well for the training and intellectual discipline required in other educational fields and careers, including the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?

Is Asia simply fascinated by Western culture the same way that Western culture was fascinated by the exotic Asian cultures – especially in China and Japan — during the 19th century and earlier? Or is the West increasingly ignoring its own culture. (The Ear can’t recall any classical musicians performing at President Donald Trump’s White House. Can you?)

How do you see the situation and react to it? And what do you think about the causes and effects?

Please leave your reactions and thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Madison Opera offers preview events leading up to performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “I Pagliacci” on Nov. 2 and 4

October 13, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information to post:

The Madison Opera presents the classic double-bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, by Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo respectively, on Friday, Nov. 2 ,at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 4, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall.

“Cav and Pag” – as they are traditionally known because they are usually presented together — feature some of the most emotionally dramatic music in the repertoire, these two operas offer the ultimate portrayal of passion and jealousy on stage.

Both operas are set in rural Italy and follow characters whose human emotions lead to tragic endings. (The sets, below, used in Madison, come from the New Orleans Opera.)

Cavalleria Rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry”) tells the story of Turridu, who has abandoned his lover, Santuzza, to rekindle an affair with his now-married former girlfriend. As Easter Sunday unfolds, Santuzza and Turridu engage in a battle of emotions that will end with violent consequences.

I Pagliacci (“The Clowns”) tells of a small theatrical troupe arriving in a village for a performance.  Nedda, wife of the troupe’s leader Canio, agrees to run off with her lover, Silvio, that evening.  Another troupe member, Tonio, tells Canio, who responds violently.

But the show must go on, and as Nedda and Canio enact the play-within-a-play, reality bleeds over onstage and tragedy follows. (You can hear the famous aria “Vesti la giubba” sung by Luciano Pavarotti in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“When people think of the phrase ‘Italian opera,’ it’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci that often come to mind,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a  photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director.  “The intense emotions of both the characters and the music they sing has never been equaled. I vividly remember the first time I saw Cavalleria and was overwhelmed by the power of it. I am so delighted to produce these operas in Madison for the first time in over 30 years, with this fantastic cast and production team.”

Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni (below) was written for a one-act opera competition in 1890. Based on a short story and play of the same name, it was an immediate smash hit, with 185 productions around the world within three years, making Mascagni an international icon of Italian music.

Ruggero Leoncavallo (below) wrote I Pagliacci two years later in direct response, hoping for a similar success with a one-act opera about real people caught up in an emotional web. Like Mascagni, he had an immediate success, and the two operas have been paired together intermittently for much of the 20th century.

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Making her debut in the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana is soprano Michelle Johnson, who has been praised for her “extraordinary breath control and flawless articulation.”

Also making her Madison Opera debut is soprano Talise Trevigne in the role of Nedda in Pagliacci; Trevigne has received acclaim for her “luxuriant vocalism [and] unwavering commitment to character.”

Returning to Madison Opera are tenor Scott Piper(below top) in the dual roles of Turridu/Canio and baritone Michael Mayes(below bttom) in the dual roles of Alfio/Tonio. Piper was last seen in Madison as Cavaradossi in the 2013 production of Puccini’s Tosca; Mayes returns to Madison after his electrifying performance as Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in 2014.

Rounding out the Cavalleria Rusticana cast are Kirsten Larson as Lola and Danielle Wright as Mamma Lucia, both in their Madison Opera debuts.

Pagliacci will also feature baritone Benjamin Taylor in his Madison Opera debut as Silvio and Madison favorite Robert Goodrich as Beppe.

Kristine McIntyre (below) returns to direct, after her highly acclaimed production of Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas last season.

Conducting this production will be Joseph Mechavich (below), who made his Madison Opera debut with Mozart’s Don Giovanni and most recently conducted Opera in the Park 2017. Says Mechavich, “Seeing Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci is the ultimate in an Italian operatic experience.  Audiences will have a visceral reaction to synthesis of music and drama.”

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci both have magnificent choral writing, from the celebrated Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana to the Chorus of the Bells in Pagliacci, as well as sumptuous orchestral music.

Rounding out the musical forces are the Madison Opera Chorus, members of the Madison Youth Choirs, and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Events leading up to the opera can help the community learn more about Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. Community preview will be offer an entertaining look at “reality opera” – the “verismo” school, which produced works like Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.

Cinematheque and Madison Opera will co-sponsor a showing of the 1928 silent film Laugh, Clown, Laugh on Oct. 22.  Opera Up Close provides an in-depth discussion of the operas, including a cast roundtable, on Oct. 28.

RELATED EVENTS

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928); Saturday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m.; UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall (http://cinema.wisc.edu)

FREE and open to the public; doors open 30 minutes before showtime

Lon Chaney (below), the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” plays Tito, a smiling-on-the-outside circus clown heading for heartbreak after he becomes smitten with the fetching Simonetta (Loretta Young). This reworking of the Pagliacci story offers a great showcase for the two leads and talented director Herbert Brenon. The silent film will feature live piano accompaniment by David Drazin and will be preceded by Acrobatty Bunny (1946), starring Bugs Bunny.

Opera Up Close; Sunday, Oct. 28, 1-3 p.m.; the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street

$20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers

Join Madison Opera for a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci.  General Director Kathryn Smith will discuss the composers and the history of these two pieces. Principal artists, stage director Kristine McIntyre and conductor Joseph Mechavich will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on these masterpieces.

Pre-Opera Talks: Friday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 4, at 1:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, free to ticket holders. Attend an entertaining half-hour introduction to “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” one hour prior to curtain.

Post-Opera Q&A: Friday, Nov. 2, and Sunday, Nov. 4, following the performance in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, free to ticket holders

You’ve seen the operas and loved them. But are you perhaps wondering about …?  Join General Director Kathryn Smith immediately after the performances to ask questions about what you have just seen.

More information — including a blog that has interviews with the cast members — is available at www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: Here are the classical music winners of the 2017 Grammy Awards

February 18, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This posting is both a news story and a shopping guide for recordings you might like to give or get.

It features the classical music winners for the 59th annual Grammy Awards that were announced last Sunday night.

grammy award BIG

Music about the famed American writer Ernest “Papa” Hemingway (below), writing while on safari in Kenya in 1953), with cellist Zuill Bailey, turned out to be a four-time winner for Naxos Records. You can hear the opening movement — titled “Big Two-Hearted River” after the famous short story by Hemingway — in the YouTube video at the bottom.

EH3541P

For more information about the nominees and to see the record labels, as well as other categories of music, go to:

https://www.grammy.com/nominees

On the Internet website, the winners are indicated by a miniature Grammy icon. On this blog they are indicated with an asterisk and boldfacing.

As a point of local interest, veteran producer Judith Sherman – who has won several Grammys in the past but not this year – was cited this year for her recordings of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet centennial commissions, Vol. 2. So at least there was a local Grammy nominee, a rare event.

Of regional interest, the non-profit label Cedille Records of Chicago won for its recording of percussion music by Steve Reich.

And to those Americans who complain about a British bias in the Gramophone awards, this list of Grammy winners shows a clear American bias. But then that is the nature of the “industry” – and the Grammys are no less subject to national pride and business concerns than similar awards in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. At least that is how it appears to The Ear.

Anyway, happy reading and happy listening.

BEST ENGINEERED ALBUM, CLASSICAL

*“Corigliano: The Ghosts of Versailles” — Mark Donahue & Fred Vogler, engineers (James Conlon, Guanqun Yu, Joshua Guerrero, Patricia Racette, Christopher Maltman, Lucy Schaufer, Lucas Meachem, LA Opera Chorus & Orchestra)

“Dutilleux: Sur Le Même Accord; Les Citations; Mystère De L’Instant & Timbres, Espace, Mouvement” — Alexander Lipay & Dmitriy Lipay, engineers (Ludovic Morlot, Augustin Hadelich & Seattle Symphony)

“Reflections” — Morten Lindberg, engineer (Øyvind Gimse, Geir Inge Lotsberg & Trondheimsolistene)

“Shadow of Sirius” — Silas Brown & David Frost, engineers; Silas Brown, mastering engineer (Jerry F. Junkin & the University Of Texas Wind Ensemble)

“Shostakovich: Under Stalin’s Shadow: Symphonies Nos. 5, 8 & 9” — Shawn Murphy & Nick Squire, engineers; Tim Martyn, mastering engineer (Andris Nelsons & Boston Symphony Orchestra)

PRODUCER OF THE YEAR, CLASSICAL

Blanton Alspaugh

*David Frost (below)

Marina A. Ledin, Victor Ledin

Judith Sherman (pictured below with a previous Grammy Award. She came to Madison to record the two volumes of new commissions for the centennial of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet)

Robina G. Young

david-frost-grammy

BEST ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE

“Bates: Works for Orchestra” — Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (San Francisco Symphony)

“Ibert: Orchestral Works” — Neeme Järvi, conductor (Orchestre De La Suisse Romande)

“Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 In B-Flat Major, Op. 100” — Mariss Jansons, conductor (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra)

“Rouse: Odna Zhizn; Symphonies 3 & 4; Prospero’s Rooms” — Alan Gilbert, conductor (New York Philharmonic)

*“Shostakovich: Under Stalin’s Shadow – Symphonies Nos. 5, 8 & 9” (below) — Andris Nelsons, conductor (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

nelsons-shostakovich-5-cd-cover

BEST OPERA RECORDING

*“Corigliano: The Ghosts of Versailles” (below) — James Conlon, conductor; Joshua Guerrero, Christopher Maltman, Lucas Meachem, Patricia Racette, Lucy Schaufer & Guanqun Yu; Blanton Alspaugh, producer (LA Opera Orchestra; LA Opera Chorus)

“Handel: Giulio Cesare” — Giovanni Antonini, conductor; Cecilia Bartoli, Philippe Jaroussky, Andreas Scholl & Anne-Sofie von Otter; Samuel Theis, producer (Il Giardino Armonico)

“Higdon: Cold Mountain” — Miguel Harth-Bedoya, conductor; Emily Fons, Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard & Jay Hunter Morris; Elizabeth Ostrow, producer (The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra; Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program for Singers)

“Mozart: Le Nozze Di Figaro” — Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Thomas Hampson, Christiane Karg, Luca Pisaroni & Sonya Yoncheva; Daniel Zalay, producer (Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Vocalensemble Rastatt)

“Szymanowski: Król Roger” — Antonio Pappano, conductor; Georgia Jarman, Mariusz Kwiecień & Saimir Pirgu; Jonathan Allen, producer (Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Royal Opera Chorus)

ghosts-of-versailles-cd-cover

BEST CHORAL PERFORMANCE

“Himmelrand” — Elisabeth Holte, conductor (Marianne Reidarsdatter Eriksen, Ragnfrid Lie & Matilda Sterby; Inger-Lise Ulsrud; Uranienborg Vokalensemble)

“Janáček: Glagolitic Mass” — Edward Gardner, conductor; Håkon Matti Skrede, chorus master (Susan Bickley, Gábor Bretz, Sara Jakubiak & Stuart Skelton; Thomas Trotter; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Bergen Cathedral Choir, Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Choir of Collegium Musicum & Edvard Grieg Kor)

“Lloyd: Bonhoeffer” — Donald Nally, conductor (Malavika Godbole, John Grecia, Rebecca Harris & Thomas Mesa; the Crossing)

*“Penderecki Conducts Penderecki, Volume 1” — Krzysztof Penderecki, conductor; Henryk Wojnarowski, choir director (Nikolay Didenko, Agnieszka Rehlis & Johanna Rusanen; Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra; Warsaw Philharmonic Choir)

“Steinberg: Passion Week” — Steven Fox, conductor (The Clarion Choir)

penderecki-conducts-penderecki-vol-1-cd-cover

BEST CHAMBER MUSIC/SMALL ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE

“Fitelberg: Chamber Works” — ARC Ensemble

“Reflections” — Øyvind Gimse, Geir Inge Lotsberg & Trondheimsolistene

“Serious Business” — Spektral Quartet

*“Steve Reich”— Third Coast Percussion

“Trios From Our Homelands” — Lincoln Trio

reich-third-coast-percussion-cd-cover

BEST CLASSICAL INSTRUMENTAL SOLO

“Adams, John.: Scheherazade.2” — Leila Josefowicz; David Robertson, conductor (Chester Englander; St. Louis Symphony)

*“Daugherty: Tales of Hemingway” — Zuill Bailey (below); Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor (Nashville Symphony)

“Dvořák: Violin Concerto & Romance; Suk: Fantasy” — Christian Tetzlaff; John Storgårds, conductor (Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra)

“Mozart: Keyboard Music, Vols. 8 & 9” – Kristian Bezuidenhout

“1930’s Violin Concertos, Vol. 2” – Gil Shaham; Stéphane Denève, conductor (The Knights & Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra)

Deluxe Photography / Diane Sierra

BEST CLASSICAL SOLO VOCAL ALBUM

“Monteverdi” — Magdalena Kožená; Andrea Marcon, conductor (David Feldman, Michael Feyfar, Jakob Pilgram & Luca Tittoto; La Cetra Barockorchester Basel)

“Mozart: The Weber Sisters” — Sabine Devieilhe; Raphaël Pichon, conductor (Pygmalion)

*“Schumann & Berg” (below top) — Dorothea Röschmann; Mitsuko Uchida, accompanist (tied)

*“Shakespeare Songs” (below bottom) — Ian Bostridge; Antonio Pappano, accompanist (Michael Collins, Elizabeth Kenny, Lawrence Power & Adam Walker) (tied)

“Verismo” — Anna Netrebko; Antonio Pappano, conductor (Yusif Eyvazov; Coro Dell’Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia; Orchestra Dell’Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia)

uchida-and-roschmann-schumann-and-berg-cd-cover

bostridge-shakespeare-songs-cd-cover

BEST CLASSICAL COMPENDIUM

*“Daugherty: Tales of Hemingway; American Gothic; Once Upon A Castle” — Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer

“Gesualdo” — Tõnu Kaljuste, conductor; Manfred Eicher, producer

“Vaughan Williams: Discoveries” — Martyn Brabbins, conductor; Andrew Walton, producer

“Wolfgang: Passing Through” — Judith Farmer & Gernot Wolfgang, producers; (Various Artists)

“Zappa: 200 Motels – The Suites” — Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Frank Filipetti & Gail Zappa, producers

tales-of-hemingway-cd-cover

BEST CONTEMPORARY CLASSICAL COMPOSITION

“Bates: Anthology of Fantastic Zoology” — Mason Bates, composer (Riccardo Muti & Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

*“Daugherty: Tales of Hemingway” — Michael Daugherty (below), composer (Zuill Bailey, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)

“Higdon: Cold Mountain” — Jennifer Higdon, composer; Gene Scheer, librettist (Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Jay Hunter Morris, Emily Fons, Isabel Leonard, Nathan Gunn & the Santa Fe Opera)

“Theofanidis: Bassoon Concerto” — Christopher Theofanidis, composer (Martin Kuuskmann, Barry Jekowsky & Northwest Sinfonia)

“Winger: Conversations With Nijinsky” — C. F. Kip Winger, composer (Martin West & San Francisco Ballet Orchestra)

michael-daugherty-composer


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Classical music: The University of Wisconsin Choral Union says goodbye to Madison architect and longtime member Rick Levin with Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers.” A memorial for Levin will be held May 18.

May 3, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Gradually The Ear is catching up with reviews of local concerts.

April has been such a busy month for music, that I have given priority, as usual, to previews and advance features. They better serve not only the performers and presenters, but also the public.

But here is one review — really more of an appreciation than a review — that I wanted to include before it was too late.

A week today, last Saturday night, April 26, we said good-bye to Richard “Rick” Levin (below), a local architect, an avid baseball fan and a devoted chorister.

rick levin 2014

We said that good-bye through the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union, in which Rick Levin (pronounced le-VINN) sang bass for 20 years or so.

But last year Rick was diagnosed with a form of oral cancer. He fought valiantly, with good humor and with hope, and many of us thought he would definitely make it.

Sadly, he did not.

He died on March 3.

So the UW Choral Union dedicated its one-night only performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s a cappella Vespers of “All-Night Vigil,” Op. 37, based on the Russian Orthodox liturgy, to Levin, who had started rehearsing the work at the beginning of the semester.

Rick was Jewish, the work’s liturgy was Christian; but it was the music by the Russian neo-Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), not the religion, that mattered.

Rachmaninoffold

Here is a link to some background, provided in a Q&A by the two leaders of the performance, conductors Beverly Taylor and Adam Kluck:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/classical-music-qa-co-conductors-beverly-taylor-and-adam-kluck-explain-the-appeal-of-sergei-rachmaninoffs-vespers-and-why-they-are-hard-to-perform-and-exotic-to-hear-f/

The performance proved a moving experience.

It is not a concert I really want to review artistically. I leave that task to this blog’s sometime guest critic John W. Barker, who usually writes for Isthmus.

Barker (below) knows the liturgical and religious aspects, the musical score, the Church Slavonic language and the dynamics of choral singing much better than I do. So I defer to Barker’s judgment and his review, which you can find a link to lower down on this posting.

John Barker

But I do feel capable of making some general observations.

This is the second time – the first was about 10 years ago — that conductor Beverly Taylor, the director of the choral department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and the assistant conductor to music director John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, had conducted the relatively neglected work and brought it to the Madison public. She also shared her conducting duties with graduate student conductor Adam Kluck.

The two switched on and off with great continuity, and both seemed in command of the score and the style.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Adam Kluck conducting

The chorus sang the difficult a cappella work, without accompaniment, with heart.

The singers changed their usually standing position on risers, and sat in a horse shoe-like semi-circle, which added to the intimacy. It almost felt like a comforting religious set-up, suggesting a surrounding circle of friends, the kind you might find in some church, synagogue or congregation.

Vespers seating UW Choral Union

Adding to the atmosphere of the work were some paintings of angels, mural-like or mosaic-like such as you might find in a Eastern Orthodox church

Vespers 1

Vespers angel 2

There were some red candles in golden church brass holders, forming an altar next to the conductor’s podium, where even an icon of the Madonna and Child had been placed on the stage.

Vespers podium and altar

Vespers stage icon5

In addition, the Vespers opened with Father Michael, of Madison’s Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, holding aloft a candle as an invocation.

Vespers Father Michael

The Choral Union did everything to create an atmosphere that would make this concert seem unusual, special and less concert-like, more intimate, if you will.

And it worked.

I sat in the audience with Rick’s wife and several friends.

We were all moved, especially, I thought, by the many verses about redemption and salvation. Unbeliever that I am, I ask: How else does one move forward from such loss of love and the grief that accompanies it?

The texture of the vocal sound enveloped us. The chorus seemed to sing with precise attacks and releases, and with good balances that shifted emphasis from section to section. Rachmaninoff’s rich sense of harmony and of melodic line showed through.

But a higher purpose than turning in an outstanding artistic performance was served, at least for some of us.

We all sat moved –- by the testimony of a great composer, unafraid of emotion, and by the many musicians paying tribute to one of their own. Such is the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Art and, for The Ear, especially of music.

It was a fine evening of fine music that served a fine purpose. I think Rick Levin would have been very pleased.

Is there more to say? Not for me, not now.

Except perhaps that a celebration or memorial gathering for Rick Levin will be held in two weeks, on Sunday, May 18, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., in the shelter in Warner Park (below) on Madison’s far east side.

Warner Park shelter

If you feel close enough to Rick and his wife Judy to join in the words and music, the ballpark franks and food that Rick so loved from his childhood in Chicago, where he was a Chicago Cubs fan and regularly went to Wright Field (below), I am told you are welcome and even invited to attend. As for memorials, Rick Levin modestly asked only that contributions be made to Wisconsin Public Radio.

Wrigley Field

Here is a link to Rick Levin’s obituary:

http://host.madison.com/news/local/obituaries/levin-richard-rick/article_9282977f-eb94-52f7-8e76-ded2b25864d2.html

And here is the link to the review of the UW Choral Union’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers,” done by retired UW-Madison history professor John W. Barker, that I referred to above:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42618&sid=1d5a87b16b85286f287599373df2f6be

Finally, here in its entirety is the beautiful and mysterious “Vespers” from a live performance in a popular YouTube video. Even just the opening will, I expect, move you:

 

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Classical music Q&A: Co-conductors Beverly Taylor and Adam Kluck explain the appeal of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” and why they are hard to perform and exotic to hear for Western ears. Hear them for yourself when the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union performs this a cappella masterpiece on this Saturday night, April 26.

April 21, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” or “All-Night Vigil.” (Below is St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is only one performance of this rarely heard work. One short and beautiful audio clip is at the bottom in a YouTube video, and will give you a sample of the gorgeous a cappella, or unaccompanied, sound.

Admission is $10 for adults and the general public. Senior citizens and students get in for free. Tickets may be purchased for concerts up to one month in advance. 
Remaining tickets will be sold at the door. 
You can call (608) 265-ARTS (2787) for ticket information and reservations.

The Ear asked co-conductors Beverly Taylor (below top) and Adam Kluck (below bottom) to answer a Q&A by email. Below are the answers provided by Beverly Taylor (BT) and Adam Kluck (AK).

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Adam Kluck conducting

Sergei Rachmaninoff is known primarily as a virtuosic piano and orchestral composer. How do his vocal compositions, in particular the “Vespers,” stand up in quality and characteristics of the melodies and harmonies, the rhythm and Russian feel, to his more popular works?

BT: I actually know little of his vocal output beyond the vespers, although I know there are some lovely works for women’s voices. Most of the Vespers are based on existing chant, and although the melodies are not always as expansive as Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, the flow and grace are part of his output, and his use of extreme dynamics from very soft ppp to very loud ff are those of a Romanticist.

AK: It is interesting to note that Rachmaninoff, lauded for his prowess as a “melodist” in his instrumental works, would choose to set the All-Night Vigil service of the Orthodox church (thus limiting himself to a composition that had to be completely a cappella or without accompaniment).

We know that Rachmaninoff grew up near the church in Novgorod (further down is an icon from a Russian Orthodox church in that city) and, although he was not a practicing Orthodox Christian, he certainly was familiar with the practices and — most importantly — the musical and liturgical aspects of the church. Interestingly, Rachmaninoff set another large-scale a cappella work based on another Orthodox church service, “The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Tchaikovsky and several other well-known Russian composers set this as well. Rachmaninoff did not like what he ended up with, and so he decided to set the All-Night Vigil.

Most movements are harmonizations and re-workings of chant melodies dating back to the Byzantines, although Rachmaninoff (below)  does create a few movements based on his own melodic content; and these latter movements are just as effective, if not more so.

The long melodic lines throughout much of the work are characteristic of Rachmaninoff, but even harmonically the compositional language is relatively conservative.

Rachmaninoff

How do the Vespers compare or rank when placed against some of the other great choral music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and other works and composers that the UW Choral Union performs?

BT: They’re simply–different! Most of what we sing in the UW Choral Union (seen below, with the UW Symphony Orchestra) is accompanied by orchestra, and most of the Classical and early Romantic works have more periodic phrasing, so that an overall form emerges. That is much less the case with these beautiful pieces; a few of them have verses and recognizable refrains.  Others are through-composed. They are more meditative, and show off particularly the low and mellow sounds.  The basses (and we have them!) are asked to sing low D’s, C’s and even a low B in the work.

AK: The pacing of the All-Night Vigil is atypical of those other composers. There are often several movements strung together with very similar tempi, and some of the movements are much longer than others.

The absence of any instrumentalists also means no break for the choir and a magnification of any intonation and tuning issues. Additionally, the first soprano and tenor parts sit quite high in the voice for sustained periods of time, compounding the difficulty.

It is certainly one of the most challenging pieces of any size and scope for these reasons, and for the audience it does require a somewhat different mindset as well. There won’t be the rollicking fugues we’ve come to love and expect from a Haydn or Mozart mass, or a Bach cantata. This piece is something else entirely.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Why do you think the Vespers aren’t better known or performed more frequently?

BT: They call for a fair amount of “divisi” — divided parts in all the ranges, but mostly it’s the lack of good low basses, which I think explains why they’re not done more often.

AK: Apart from the unique challenges it presents, I think that in the United States, Russian choral music is still intimidating to us. The language is still the primary barrier, but the choral sound in Eastern Europe and Russia is different to us as well. Rather than attempting to replicate these sonorities as accurately as possible, some directors often choose to program something that is more familiar to audiences and choristers alike. (Below is the interior of a Russian Orthodox Church.)

Russian Orthodox church interior

What specific things would you like to point out for the public to know about the Vespers and your performance of them?

BT: My assistant Adam Kluck loves this work, and so we’re splitting the conducting duties. We’re also doing some minor things involving projections and icons to convey somewhat the world of the senses in which these works would be performed — candles, beautiful art. (Below is an icon from a Russian Orthodox church in the city of Novgorod, where Rachmaninoff grew up.)

AK: In the Russian church tradition, there are many prescriptions for singing as part of a service. We will have one of our choir members, Father Michael, an Orthodox priest, sing the chant before the piece, so that it is permissible to sing the “amen” at the beginning of each of the first two movements.

Rachmaninoff’s setting of each movement illustrates the text very well, and so especially if you are able to follow along with the translations, the piece will really come alive.

Russian icon from Novgorod

Is there something else you would like to say or add?

BT: The concert will be lovely, but more meditative than some concerts.  It won’t always hit you in the face, but it will certainly be well worth listening deeply to.

AK: If your readers enjoy this piece of music, I would encourage them to seek out other choral music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Peter Tchaikovsky, Alexander Gretchaninoff, and any other Russian composers. The sacred and secular music of the Russian-Baltic region just after the turn of the century is wonderfully expressive and unique.

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