The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Despite overly traditional staging, the Madison Opera’s “Carmen” beguiled and bewitched through the outstanding singing

November 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy attended Sunday’s sold-out performance of “Carmen” by the Madison Opera and filed the following review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

When I learned that Madison Opera was going to produce Bizet‘s “Carmen,” I was not surprised. It is annually one of the most frequently performed operas internationally, and it is a surefire vehicle for filling seats. It is safe.

On the other hand, once one watches repeated performances of an old favorite, the appeal can diminish. One advantage of an opera is that novel approaches to the production can prevent a warhorse from becoming stale.

I would love to say that the approach both musically and dramatically to this production of “Carmen” broke new ground, but it did not. In fact, the production was as traditional as could be. (Below is the main set, rented from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I attended a performance of “Carmen” in Tucson a couple of years ago, and the conductor Keitaro Harada breathed new life into the familiar music through interesting tempi and finely nuanced dynamics.

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo  by Prasad) conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a perfectly fine and occasionally uplifting manner, but there was little new to learn from his approach. The purely instrumental entr’actes shimmered, but during the rest of the opera the singing was at the forefront.

Maestro Harada (below), whom Madison should be actively courting, is currently conducting “Carmen” in Sofia, and the accompanying publicity clip in the YouTube video at the bottom (bear with the Bulgarian commentary) shows that the production is unconventional in its approach although it clearly is still “Carmen.” I would have enjoyed something other than the ultra-traditional staging and sets experienced here in Madison.

At times the production was so hackneyed and hokey that I chuckled to myself – ersatz flamenco dancing, the fluttering of fans, all of the cigarette factory girls with cigarettes dangling from their lips, unconvincing fight scenes, annoying children running across the stage, dreary costumes that hardly reminded me of Seville. And I could go on.

Yet “Carmen” has a way of drawing one in despite oneself. The music is marvelous, and the singing was uniformly excellent.

The four principals were luminous both in their solo pieces and ensembles. Cecelia Violetta López as Micaëla (below right) was lustrous in her two arias as well as in her duet with Sean Panikkar’s Don José (below left).

Panikkar started the performance off with little flair, but from the time he became besotted with Carmen toward the end of the first act he was on fire. He then maintained a high degree of passion and zest in his vocal performance.

Corey Crider (below right) was a wonderful Escamillo, singing his toréador role with great élan despite his unfortunate costumes.

And Aleks Romano (below) as Carmen made the most of her complex character. Her singing was luscious, and her acting – particularly her use of her expressive eyes – was terrific.

Likewise, the lesser roles – Thomas Forde as Zuniga, Benjamin Liupaogo as Remendado, Erik Earl Larson as Dancaïre, a radiant Anna Polum as Fransquita, and Megan Le Romero as Mercédès – were equally well sung. The ensemble work in the quintet at the end of Act II and in the card scene was outstanding.

The chorus (below) sounded terrific throughout, although the women’s costumes and the stage direction made the choristers appear ludicrous as times.

When all is said and done, “Carmen” still beguiled me by drawing me into its characters’ complex psychologies and motivations. Likewise, its music still bewitched me in much the same way as Carmen inexplicably bewitched hapless Don José (below).

But I seem to always wish for more – more compelling productions, more daring music making, more risk-taking.

I do look forward to this coming spring’s production of “Florencia en el Amazonas.” The recording is captivating, and the opera’s performances have pleased a wide variety of audiences by all accounts. And it is something new. Hallelujah!

Did you go to “Carmen”? 

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players open their new season with three concerts this weekend that feature music by Chick Corea, Bruce Broughton, Alexander Arutiunian and others

September 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) officially begin their 2017-2018 season series with the theme “Journey” this coming weekend with a concert titled Departure on Saturday, Sept. 9, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 10, at 2 p.m.

However, the Oakwood Chamber Players will also present a special performance at Bos Meadery (below), 849 E. Washington Ave., on this Friday night, Sept. 8, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in a range of music choices that will include excerpts from the Departure concert along with a breadth of other styles of music. Donations will be accepted.

The two full-length concerts will both be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on the far west side of Madison near the West Towne Mall.

Guest artists pianist Joseph Ross, violist Sharon Tenhundfeld (below top) and violinist Maureen McCarty (below bottom) will join members of the Oakwood Chamber Players to launch their season.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks (no credit cards) at the door: $25 general admission, $20 seniors and $5 students.

For tickets and more information, go to www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com or call (608) 230-4316.

According to a press release, “Departure will explore composers’ musical journeys as influenced by shifts in their artistic lives.

“Just two years after the start of his huge success in the expanding world of jazz-fusion, with renowned hits such as “Spain,” American composer and pianist Chick Corea (below) wrote his Trio for flute, bassoon and piano in 1973.

“He created a fascinating blend — a classical style that both reflects his personal jazz-like fluidity at the keyboard but also transfers the sense of conversational-like interactions that occurs between players. (You can hear Chick Corea’s Trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“This succinct piece is infused with the composer’s essential and recognizable artistic voice. Corea bridges the boundary between genres in an artful and engaging way, creating a brief snapshot of two artistic worlds joined through the piece’s synergy.

“Academy Award-winning and Emmy award-winning film composer Bruce Broughton (below) has consistently contributed to the world of chamber music literature. Broughton’s successes in the film industry include Young Sherlock Holmes, Silverado and The Rescuers Down Under.

“His Primer for Malachi, for flute, clarinet, cello and piano, was written in anticipation of the birth of a grandchild in 1997. Through its five short movements the piece creates a programmatic feel. It begins with quiet introspection, progressing through each movement with increasing rhythmic and melodic intensity, peaking with an action-packed instrumental musical tag, and concluding by musically catching its breath, slowing in the final movement to calm and flowing lines, mirroring the opening effect.

“Known for his emotive melodies Armenian-Soviet pianist and composer Alexander Arutiunian wrote prolifically for orchestra, chamber music and film.

“Written in Armenia after spending several years in Moscow, the Concert Waltz for winds and piano is taken from his 1958 film score for the movie “About My Friend.” It is a wry waltz set in a minor key, and the composer infuses the familiar waltz dance form with a tongue-in-cheek sense of being on a slightly careening carousel. The piece sparkles with Armenian folk flavor and the energy is captivating.

“The Kaiserwaltz by Viennese composer Johann Strauss musically conjures up the grandeur of the ballroom. The piece was intended to symbolize ‘a toast of friendship’ between Germany and Austria. The waltz is full of upbeat musical declarations and graceful melodies.

“The Oakwood Chamber Players were pleased to discover that the piece had been reimagined from its full orchestral orchestration, written in 1889, to this delightful version, arranged in 1925 for chamber ensemble by Arnold Schoenberg (below). The grace of this music is refined and enduring.

“German composer and organist Max Reger’s perspective on compositional artistry was informed by the masters who came before him.

“However, perpetually fascinated by fugues, Reger (below) often wrote pieces that were very abstract. He worried about the lasting reputation of penning these kinds of ultra-academic compositions. He was an ardent admirer of Bach, Brahms and Beethoven and was very capable of writing a range of styles that were both accessible and rooted in the historic perspectives.

“In his Serenade for flute, violin, and viola, written just a year before his death, he sought to show the range of his compositional capabilities and to silence critics by leaving more approachable music for posterity. At this pivotal time he reached his goal ably, giving the performers an outstanding piece with nimble rhythms, memorable melodies, and the bright voicing of an upbeat sound palette.”

This is the first of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2017-2018 season series entitled Journey. Remaining concerts will take place on Nov. 26; Jan. 13 and 14; March 10 and 11; and May 19 and 20.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


Classical music: The 18th annual Madison Early Music Festival concludes its look at the Spanish Renaissance with another outstanding “concept concert” featuring all participants

July 19, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Nobody here does “concept concerts” better than the Madison Early Music Festival.

Proof came again last Saturday night in Mills Hall when the large forces of professional faculty members and workshop student participants (both below) joined to present a comprehensive overview of Renaissance music in Spain.

The program featured various combinations, including a quartet (below) as well as choral music and instrumental music. It offered sacred and secular fare, courtly music and folk music, Latin and vernacular Spanish.

Once again, the impressive program was assembled and conducted by Grant Herreid (below top) of the internationally acclaimed Renaissance band Piffaro (below bottom), a popular and regular guest at MEMF. (You can hear Piffaro perform music from the Spanish Renaissance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

As in past years, history, biography, literature, religion and music get layered on top of each other and interwoven among each other. As a formula, from year to year the concept keeps getting refined and keeps succeeding.

In this case, the narration and story line centered on the surprisingly adventurous life of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (below), who wrote the first important novel, “Don Quixote.”

Last year, the festival celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare; this year, it was the 400th anniversary of the death of Cervantes.

The Ear really likes the format. The All-Festival concert ran 75 minutes and was done without intermission. Even if you are not a big fan of such early music, the concert was varied enough and short enough to hold your attention.

Unity was provided by excerpts from various texts of Cervantes, including “Don Quixote” as well as less well-known works. Some of his words were even substituted for other texts in songs and choruses.

The chorus and soloists sounded very well rehearsed, and the large instrumental section – with all those unusual-looking early instruments like sackbuts and shawms – was exceptional.

Herreid kept an outstanding sonic balance between the vocal and instrumental forces throughout the event.

There were quite a few narrators (below) who presented the short texts by Cervantes. And they proved the only weak point. Some people just don’t seem as up to the task as others do.

Perhaps in future years, the festival could pick, say, one man and one woman to alternate in the readings. The audience would have a better sense of their identities, and the effect would be better if the narrators were chosen for their ability to project dramatically and enunciate clearly but with expression – something that proved uneven with so many different narrators taking turns.

The Ear didn’t go to a lot of the festival events. He confesses that he is more a Baroque than a Renaissance person who looks forward to next year’s theme of “A Journey to Lübeck,” with German Renaissance and even Baroque music, especially music by Dietrich Buxtehude. (The 19th annual festival will be held July 7-14, 2018.)

But this final wrap-up concert is proof that even if very early music is not your thing, you shouldn’t miss the final event.

The All-Festival concert really is a MUST-HEAR.

You learn a lot.

And you enjoy even more.

Certainly the audience seemed to agree.

Were you there?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival will perform familiar and unfamiliar Spanish Renaissance music. What composers and works will be performed? And what makes them different? Part 2 of 2

July 3, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday, when the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) starts to explore Iberian music during the Renaissance Age of novelist Miguel de Cervantes (below) and his pioneering novel “Don Quixote,” much will be familiar but much will also be new.

To provide a look at what to expect, the longtime co-artistic directors of the festival – wife-and-husband singers Cheryl Bensman Rowe and Paul Rowe (below) – provided the following overview through an email Q&A with The Ear.

All-festival passes are $90 and tickets to individual concerts cost $20, $10 for students.

Click here to buy online, call 608-265-ARTS (2787), or visit the Campus Arts Ticket Box Offices in Memorial Union or Vilas Hall (click here for hours).

(Note: All MEMF Concert Series concerts and lectures are free for participants in the MEMF Workshop. There is a $4 transaction fee per ticket when purchasing online or by phone.)

How does early Spanish music differ from its counterparts in, say, Italy, France, Germany and England. What is the historical origin and importance of the music from that era in that part of the world?

The music from the Iberian Peninsula reflects the influences and changes that were happening all over Europe throughout the period that MEMF is examining this summer.

From the “romances” and “villancicos” of Juan del Encina during the time of Columbus to the Baroque era masses, secular songs and instrumental music of Antonio Soler (organ), Luis de Briceño and Gaspar Sanz (vihuela/guitar, below top) and Domenico Scarlatti (below bottom), Spanish music maintained its own unique traditions born of its complicated mixture of cultures and expanding global empire while still reflecting the overall developments that were occurring in Italy, France and Germany.

Some crucial differences include the presence of the Muslim and Jewish poetic and musical influence in the predominantly Catholic region reflected in preferred instrumentation where the vihuela was used more often than the lute, the exotic stories from Middle Eastern sources and the harmonies and melodies that are unique to the Spanish repertoire.

The fact that the political makeup of the area was constantly changing and being buffeted by global changes can make it difficult to understand what really constitutes “Spanish” just as Italy and Germany were not unified in the way we think of them today but were made of individual and distinct regions.

There was much blurring of borders between countries. For example, Naples, which we would think of as Italian, was a Spanish city for most of this time period, with a flourishing court, which supported the flourishing of the musical culture. Artistic changes and developments reflect this rather flexible organization of regions which did not take its current shape until well into the 19th century. (below is an old map of the Iberian Peninsula)

What music and composers of that era have been most neglected and least neglected by historians and performers?

The music from the Iberian Peninsula has been receiving increasing attention in the last 50 years or so. MEMF has focused on this area several times as new editions and discoveries are coming to light.

There are many reasons for this, including the German bias created by musicologists from that area starting in the 19th century. The lack of understanding of a complicated history and a condescension directed towards all things from the “hotter” regions of Europe except for Greece also prevented research, recording and appreciation of this varied repertoire.

The composers that will be most familiar to audiences will be Cristobal de Morales (below top), Francisco Guerrero (below middle) and Tomas Luis de Victoria (below bottom), who are known for their choral music including motets and settings of the Catholic Mass and Mateo Flecha (father and son), who composed secular choral pieces featuring popular tunes of the day put together in a kind of musical pastiche called an “ensalada.”

There are many less known composers from the various regions of Spain.

Juan del Encina is probably responsible for the collection titled ” Cancionero de Palacio” and is credited with 60 pieces from this volume of nearly 500 first published in the 1490s. Juan Hidalgo (below top and in the YouTube video at the bottom) is credited with the creation of the zarzuela, a theatrical form similar to the Neapolitan opera of the time. There is Diego Ortiz, who flourished in Naples, and Antonio de Cabezón (below bottom), who composed primarily keyboard music and Gaspar Sanz, who is familiar to modern guitarists and composed many pieces for the vihuela.

Can you tell us about the program and performers for the All-Festival concert on July 15?

The All-Festival Concert is unique to MEMF. All week long, workshop participants and faculty will work side by side to create Iberian Tapestry: Music and Conquest from the Spanish Golden Age, which includes sacred and secular compositions by Victoria, Guerrero, Flecha, Vasquez, music from the Moors of the Reconquista, Sephardic music for the heritage of the Jews, and from the New World.

This concert will include narrations selected from Don Quixote.

This year, the program was created and will be directed by Grant Herreid (below), who also curated the Piffaro program that opens the MEMF 2017 Concert Series.

Are there other sessions, guest lectures and certain performers that you especially recommend for the general public?

The week is so full of wonderful adventures that I really encourage people to experience it all.

Besides the concert series and workshop classes there are pre-concert lectures and a dance event, ¡Bailemos!, on Thursday, July 13, 2017 at 7:30 p.m., in the Frederic March Play Circle on the second floor of the Memorial Union.

Several free events, besides the Harp concert and master class are the Participant Concert on Friday, July 14, at 1 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall; the Early Opera Workshop; and the Loud Band free concert on Saturday, July 15, at 2 p.m. at Music Hall featuring participants from the Advanced Loud Bound Intensive and the Early Opera & Continuo Workshop performing works by Tomás Luis de Victoria, Francisco Guerrero and several cancioneros plus scenes from La púrpura de la rosa by Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco.

MEMF provides a wonderful opportunity to go back in time and be immersed in the Spanish Renaissance through music, art, dance, concerts and lectures, plus workshop classes. People can play an active role participating as a student, or join us in the audience to listen to the glorious sounds of the historical instruments and voices as we recreate the music from the Golden Age of Spain.

Check out our website for the most up-to-date information and how to get tickets: www.madisonearlymusic.org


Classical music: The third and final week of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season offers vocal music, four-hand piano music and instrumental chamber music of four centuries plus a Midwest premiere

June 22, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Building on the success of the past two weekends and previous four programs, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society chamber music festival, which features top local and guest performers, concludes its season this weekend with a typically eclectic mix of vocal and instrumental music that ranges from the late 18th century up to today, including a Midwest premiere.

As usual, the BDDS venues are suitably intimate for chamber music: The Playhouse (below top) at the Overture Center at 201 State St.; the jewel box historic Stoughton Opera House (below middle) at 381 East Main St.; and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside Theater (below bottom) at Taliesin on County Highway 23 in Spring Green.

Concerts are spiked with stories about the music, mystery guests and even door prizes.

This season’s theme is Alphabet Soup, because it’s BDDS’ 26th year and there are 26 letters in the alphabet. Each program is named after a combination of letters used in everyday language. Sometimes the musical interpretation of those letters is literal and sometimes it’s quite loose.

The final weekend of concerts welcomes back audience favorites Hye-Jin Kim, violin; Ara Gregorian, viola; Randall Hodgkinson, piano (below top); and Timothy Jones, bass-baritone (below bottom).

They are joined by the acclaimed local violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below top), a new member of the UW-Madison music faculty, and by Madison Symphony Orchestra cellist Madeleine Kabat (below bottom, in a photo by Christian Steiner), who is filling in for UW-Madison professor and Pro Arte Quartet cellist Parry Karp, who has sustained a finger injury.

“Cs the Day” includes the Midwest premiere of “Cool Fire” for flute, string quartet and piano by Paul Moravec (below), and Mozart’s  “Coronation Piano Concerto” arranged for the entire ensemble.

Timothy Jones will be featured in the song cycle, “Let Us Garlands Bring” by Gerald Finzi. These are settings of carpe diem poems of Shakespeare. (Carpe diem is Latin for “seize the day” = “Cs the Day”— get it?) You can hear the songs in the YouTube video at the bottom.

At the center of this program is Carl Czerny’s Sonata in C minor for piano four-hands. BDDS will suspend a camera over the keyboard so the audience can see how the hands of the pianists cross and interlock throughout this virtuosic masterpiece. (Below is a view of a similar set up six seasons ago.)

Cs the Day will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts on Friday, June 23, at 7:30 p.m.; and Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 25, at 2:30 p.m. 

The final program of the season, “R&B,” features “Rounds for Robin, a short work by Kevin Puts (below top) for flute and piano written in memory of comedian Robin Williams, and the Flute Quintet in G minor by Luigi Boccherini (below bottom).

The “Santa Fe Songs” for baritone and piano quartet by Ned Rorem (below, in a photo by Christian Steiner) features the mesmerizing voice of Timothy Jones in one of the great American song cycles.

The 26th season concludes with Johannes Brahms’ towering Piano Quintet in F minor.

R&B will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center, Madison, on Saturday, June 24, at 7:30 p.m.; and Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 25, and 6:30 p.m. 

Photos by Dick Ainsworth of BDDS performances and behind-the-scenes will be on exhibit in The Playhouse through Sunday, July 9.

Single general admission tickets are $43. Student tickets are always $10.

For tickets visit: http://www.overture.org/events/bach-dancing

For more information about the programs, performers, performances and background, visit www.bachdancinganddynamite.org or call (608) 255-9866.

Tickets can also be purchased at Overture Center for the Arts, (608) 258-4141, www.overturecenter.org (additional fees apply).

Tickets are also available at the door at all locations.


Classical music: The second week of programs by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society offers vocal and instrumental music that spans four centuries and includes a world premiere

June 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last weekend, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opened its 26th season with two programs in three venues that all proved highly successful.

Building on that success, the chamber music festival with top local and guest performers, now turns to vocal and instrumental music that ranges from the late 18th century up to today, including a world premiere.

As usual, the BDDS venues are suitably intimate for chamber music: The Playhouse (below top) at the Overture Center at 201 State St.; the jewel box historic Stoughton Opera House (below middle) at 381 East Main St.; and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside Theater (below bottom) at Taliesin on County Highway 23 in Spring Green.

Concerts are spiked with stories about the music, mystery guests and even door prizes.

This season’s theme is Alphabet Soup, because it’s BDDS’ 26th year and there are 26 letters in the alphabet. Each program is named after a combination of letters used in everyday language. Sometimes the musical interpretation of those letters is literal and sometimes it’s quite loose.

The second weekend of concerts features the San Francisco Piano Trio (below) Axel Strauss, violin; Jean-Michel Fonteneau, cello; and Jeffrey Sykes, piano).

They are joined by UW-Madison’s pianist Christopher Taylor, soprano Emily Birsan (another Madison favorite and a graduate of the UW-Madison and Lyric Opera of Chicago) and internationally acclaimed clarinetist Alan Kay.

TWO PROGRAMS

Two Bs or not Two Bs includes evocative songs by Maurice Ravel for soprano, flute, cello and piano and an entertaining bouquet of earthy cabaret songs by composers Benjamin Britten, William Bolcom and Arnold Schoenberg, sung by Emily Birsan.

The program also features Bela Bartok’s “Contrasts” for clarinet, violin and piano, a work commissioned by the legendary jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman (below), and Johannes Brahms’ epic Piano Trio in C Major, Op. 87. (You can hear a historic recording of Benny Goodman performing the Bartok work, with the composer playing the piano, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Two Bs or not Two Bs will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts, on Friday, June 16, 7:30 p.m., and at the Hillside Theater, Taliesin, Spring Green, on Sunday, June 18, 2:30 p.m.


Special K is a showcase for Alan Kay, principal clarinetist of the renowned Orpheus Chamber Ensemble.

It includes “The Shepherd on the Rock” for soprano, clarinet and piano by Franz Schubert; the hip tour-de-force “Techno Parade” by Guillaume Conneson (below) for flute, clarinet and piano; and the Midwest premiere of “Living Frescoes” for clarinet, violin, cello and piano by American composer Kevin Puts.

Many will remember that Kevin Puts (below) was the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer BDDS commissioned for the song cycle “In At The Eye” in its 25th season last summer.

The program is rounded out with Mozart’s Piano Trio in E Major and three songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (below) sung by Emily Birsan, accompanied by Jeffrey Sykes.

Special K will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts, on Saturday, June 17, 7:30 p.m., and at the Hillside Theater, Taliesin, in Spring Green, on Sunday, June 18, 6:30 p.m.

Photos by Dick Ainsworth of BDDS performances and behind-the-scenes will be on exhibit in The Playhouse through Sunday, July 9.

Single general admission tickets are $43. Student tickets are always $10.

For tickets visit: http://www.overture.org/events/bach-dancing

For more information about the programs, performers, performances and background, visit www.bachdancinganddynamite.org or call (608) 255-9866.

Tickets can also be purchased at Overture Center for the Arts, (608) 258-4141, www.overturecenter.org (additional fees apply).

Tickets are also available at the door at all locations.


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs Bach’s “Magnificat” and other music by Handel and Schütz this Friday night and Sunday afternoon in Madison and Whitewater

April 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat with full orchestra and additional works by Bach, George Frideric Handel and Heinrich Schütz on this coming Friday, April 28, at 7:30 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, in Madison.

There will be an additional concert on Sunday, April 30, at 2 p.m. at the Young Auditorium, UW-Whitewater, 930 West Main Street, in Whitewater.

 

The Baroque splendor of Bach’s Magnificat will be performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir with its professional orchestra, Sinfonia Sacra.

Featured soloists include trumpet virtuoso John Aley, oboist Marc Fink, violinist Leanne League, New York-based tenor (and former Madisonian) Alex Gmeinder (below top) and mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below bottom, in a photo by Michael Cooper.)

Sharing billing with the Bach is Handel’s impressive Utrecht Te Deum, which, like the Magnificat, exalts in the colors of voices, trumpets, timpani, oboes, flutes and strings.

Rounding out the program are Bach’s double-choir motet, Fürchte dich nicht (Be Not Afraid), and a work by Bach’s great predecessor Heinrich Schütz: Nun danket alle Gott (Now Thank We All Our God).

Inspired by Mary’s song of praise from the Gospel of Luke (depicted below), the Magnificat is one of Bach’s most glorious and varied pieces. Its music offers a sampling of every style of music in Bach’s repertoire as a composer.

Imposing, concerto-like movements crowned by brilliant trumpet fanfares highlight the full chorus, whereas solo arias, duets and trios deepen the mood of the text in counterpoint with constantly changing instrumental colors—from lush strings to playful flutes to the dolorous oboe d’amore. (You can hear the “Magnificat” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In the solo movements the professional singers share the stage with highly accomplished members of the choir including Christopher Eggers and Nicole McCarty; Madison Savoyards regulars Bill Rosholt and Natalie Falconer; and many others.

The members of Sinfonia Sacra are drawn from the rosters of the Madison Symphony, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, and the music faculties of UW-Madison, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres. Artistic Director Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who directs choral activities at the UW-Whitewater, has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

Advance tickets for the April 28 performance at Luther Memorial Church in Madison are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (all three locations).

Advance tickets for the April 30 performance at Young Auditorium in Whitewater are available from www.uww.edu/youngauditorium/tickets


Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians perform Bach’s “St. John Passion” this Friday night and Saturday night in authentic early music style

April 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians (below), which specializes in authentic period performances of early music, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” this coming Friday  and Saturday nights, both at 7:30 p.m., in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

On both nights at 6:45 p.m., MBM founder and music director Trevor Stephenson (below) will give a free pre-concert lecture on the “Structure and Performance History of the St. John Passion.” In his remarks, Stephenson said he will discuss the question of anti-Semitism in the famous work.

(NOTE: Stephenson and some of the players will also be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland TODAY at noon.)

At the end of Part I, the Rev. Michael Schuler of the Unitarian Society will give a talk focusing on “Theological Reflections on Bach and the St. John Passion.”

This is only the second time the work has been performed in historical style in the state of Wisconsin. For more information and explanation, see the story in the Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/st-john-passion-to-be-performed-on-all-historical-period/article_0e6e3d51-c03e-5803-9230-faed6a48ed1d.html

Tickets are $28-$33 and are available online, at Orange Tree Imports and at the door. Ticket information is at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Trevor Stephenson writes the following about the work and the performance:

Bach was 38 years old when he composed the monumental St. John Passion during his initial year of employment in Leipzig, 1723-24. The work was first performed at the Nikolai Church during the Good Friday service on April 7, 1724.

As was the custom, no concerted music had been played in church during the previous six weeks of Lent, and the airing of the St. John Passion ― music of unprecedented complexity, lasting for over two hours — must have had an overwhelming effect on the fresh ears and devoted souls of the parishioners.

From its outset—with the whirling gear-like figures in the strings beneath the moiling of the oboes—the St. John Passion has an otherworldly aura of a story that has been foretold. Bach’s genius is in how he balances this inevitability with a sense of forward dramatic thrust: the passion story must happen, has already happened, but it also must be played out in real-time by living people, step by painful step. Time is at once both linear and circular. (Below is the manuscript for the “St. John Passion.”)

I believe that the objective of Bach (below) in setting the St. John Passion was to tell as vividly as possible the story of Jesus’ cruel earthly demise while at the same time tempering this vividness with frequent textual reminders, as well as an overarching tone, that convey the firm belief that Jesus’ Passion had not only been prophesied long before his birth but that Jesus’ suffering and death on earth was the only solution for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins.

 

The Evangelist John is our guide for the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. John sings his narration in the dry and angular recitative style, addressing the audience directly. He summarizes some scenes and introduces others, which are then played out in present-tense tableau format by various characters: Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Court officers, the angry mob.

Bach uses two techniques to pause and comment upon the narrative: first, with arias for solo voices and instrumental obbligato, that employ freely-composed poetry to reflect upon the story in a personal way — like the thoughts of someone observing the action; and second, by chorales which use tunes and texts that would have been familiar to Bach’s parishioners to elicit a broader communal response to the passion story. Many of the chorales are like a spiritual balm, providing moments of much needed rest throughout the work.

For the upcoming April 14 and 15 concerts of the St. John Passion on Good Friday and Holy Saturday ― the Madison Bach Musicians has endeavored as much as possible to recreate the early 18th-century sound world of that first Leipzig performance in 1724. MBM will use a 17-member baroque orchestra, conducted by UW-Madison bassoonist and performance-practice specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill).

The orchestra will play entirely on 18th-century style instruments:

  • Gut-strung violins, violas, cellos, and bass played with baroque bows which facilitate articulation and phrase grouping
  • Early 18th-century single-keyed wooden traverso flutes and single-keyed wooden oboes―uniquely warm-sounding and clear-toned. Plus the baroque ancestor of the modern English horn, the tenor oboe da caccia
  • A baroque chamber organ with wooden pipes tuned in 18th-century Well Temperament
  • And specialty instruments—even by 18th-century standards. The viola da gamba, featured during the tombeau– or tomb-like Es ist vollbracht (It is fulfilled) aria heard after Jesus’ death; and two violas d’amore, delicate and velvet toned, replete with sympathetic strings for a haunting after-glow of sound. (You can hear that aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These instruments will join with 10 outstanding vocalists—specialists in singing both solo and choral baroque repertoire.

Internationally recognized, and Grammy Award winning tenor, Dann Coakwell (below, in a photo by Mary Gordon) will sing the part of John the Evangelist.

The Passion will be sung in its original German; but an English translation of the text will be projected in supertitles scene-by-scene throughout the performance.

MBM is thrilled to be presenting this masterwork in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a  photo by Zane Williams) at First Unitarian Society, a space beautifully suited to early music. The sightlines are superb, and the acoustics offer a great balance of clarity, crispness, and spaciousness.

Seating is limited, so advance ticket purchase is suggested.


Classical music: String quartets, African-American spirituals and a farewell faculty flute recital plus many graduate student recitals are FREE highlights this week at the UW-Madison

April 10, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Only about a month of classes remains in the academic year, so concerts by faculty members, guest artists and students are backing up at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

But quantity does NOT preclude quality — or variety.

Just take a look at the highlights this week:

TUESDAY

At 8:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, the Hunt Quartet will perform its spring concert.

Members of the graduate student ensemble are (below, from left, in a photo by Katrin Talbot): Kyle Price, cello; Vinicius “Vinny” Sant’Ana, violin; Blakeley Menghini, viola; and Chang-En Lu, violin.

The program is: String Quartet in G Major, Op. 77, No. 1 by Franz Joseph Haydn; String Quartet in F minor “Serioso,” Op. 95, by Ludwig van Beethoven; and the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 90, by Sergei Prokofiev. (You can hear the riveting Prokofiev quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Hunt Quartet is sponsored by Dr. Kato Perlman and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

For more information about the quartet and its individual members, as well as a SoundCloud audio sample of the Hunt Quartet playing a 1924 piece by Joaquin Turina, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/the-hunt-quartet-spring-concert/

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, guest artist Emery Stephens (below), faculty collaborative pianist Martha Fischer and UW students will perform African-American spirituals, songs and instrumental works.

For more about the visit by scholar-performer Stephens, see this blog posting done just before he cancelled the last date, which fell on a Tuesday rather than a Wednesday:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/03/13/classical-music-singer-scholar-returns-to-coach-students-about-and-perform-a-free-recital-of-african-american-songs-and-spirituals-on-tuesday-night-at-uw/

THURSDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, retiring professor of flute Stephanie Jutt (below) will perform her farewell faculty recital.

Jutt will be joined by faculty colleagues violist Sally Chisholm, clarinetist Amy McCann and pianist Christopher Taylor.

Sorry, no word about the program.

Jutt (below), who has been teaching and performing at the UW-Madison for 28 years, is also the principal flutist of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. Jutt says she will continue with MSO and BDDS after she retires.

This week also features a plethora of degree recitals by students, most held in Morphy Recital Hall (below). The Ear counts 11 in fields from voice to percussion. For more information, check out these links:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/

And for the full lineup for April, visit:

https://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com


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