The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera stages its first-ever production of Dvorak’s fairy tale opera “Rusalka” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A preview roundtable is this Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage its production of Antonin Dvorak’s luxurious masterpiece Rusalka on Friday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Running time is 3 hours with two intermissions, and will feature projected supertitles with English translations of the original Czech that will be sung.

Tickets are $18-$131 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

Inspired by the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story travels from a mythical forest to a palace and back again. Its lush score includes the famous “Song to the Moon.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing”Song to the Moon” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in a mythical realm, Rusalka is about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. She tells her father Vodnik that she wishes to become human and live with the Prince on land. Horrified, Vodnik tells her that humans are full of sin, but reluctantly suggests she enlist the help of Jezibaba, a witch. Jezibaba agrees to make her human, but cautions that Rusalka will lose her power of speech. Further, if the Prince betrays her, she will be cursed forever.

The Prince falls in love with Rusalka and plans to marry her, but her silence unnerves him, and a Foreign Princess interrupts the wedding festivities with evil intent. Rusalka returns to the lake as a spirit that lures men to their death – and the Prince follows her.

Rusalka is one of the most gorgeous operas in the repertoire,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with it when I first saw it over 20 years ago, and listening to the score is a pure pleasure. I am so delighted to share this opera with Madison, so that everyone can learn how brilliant an operatic composer Dvorak was, and experience an opera that is justifiably popular around the world.”

Rusalka’s story was inspired by multiple sources, including Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben, Hans Christian Andersen, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

The opera premiered on March 31, 1901 in Prague and quickly became a massive success, hailed as Dvorak’s masterpiece.

But it was not initially widely performed outside of Czech territories; the first U.S. performance was in 1975. But in recent decades, the opera by Dvorak (below) has become a regular part of the opera repertoire, due to its beautiful music and lovely story.

This production is not only a Madison Opera premiere, but also the company’s first-ever opera in Czech.

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

Soprano Emily Birsan (below) returns to Madison Opera in the title role, following successes here as Gounod’s Juliet and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Last month, she sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has praised her singing for her “amazing clarity of diction, accuracy of intonation and fineness of expression.”

Tenor John Lindsey (below) returns to Madison Opera as The Prince, after singing in last summer’s Opera in the Park.

Making their debuts with Madison Opera are soprano Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess, contralto Lindsay Amman as the witch Jezibaba and bass William Meinert as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik. Emily SecorSaira Frank and Kirsten Larson play the three wood sprites; Benjamin Liupaogo sings the Hunter.

The Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra round out the musical forces, all under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director.

Keturah Stickann (below) directs her first opera for Madison Opera; she has directed both traditional and contemporary repertoire across all of the U.S., most recently for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera.

This production originated at Minnesota Opera and features projections (below) by Wendall K. Harrington, who has been described as “the godmother of modern projection design.”

In reviewing the Minnesota production, theTwin Cities Arts Reader praised “the stunning visuals on display, which only serve to enhance and elaborate on the action and the music.”

Madison Opera’s production of “Rusalka” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kay & Martin Barrett, Millie & Marshall Osborn, Sally & Mike Miley, Kato Perlman, Charles & Martha Casey, John Lemke & Pam Oliver, and The Ann Stanke Fund.

RELATED EVENTS

You can learn more about “Rusalka” at the events leading up to the performances.

Opera Up Close will take place this Sunday, April 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center (below) 335 West Mifflin Street, $20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers.

This event features a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Rusalka. General director Kathryn Smith will discuss Antonin Dvorak and the history of his fairy-tale opera. Principal artists, stage director Keturah Stickann and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this masterpiece.

Pre-Show Talks by Kathryn Smith take place on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

Post-Opera Q&A’s are on Friday, April 26, and Sunday, April 28, immediately following the opera in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

More information — including cast biographies and a blog with Q&A interviews with some cast members — is available at https://www.madisonopera.org and https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/rusalka/.


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Classical music: Cellist-composer Steuart Pincombe performs music by Bach, Biber and Abel on this Thursday night at the Chocolaterian Cafe in Middleton

September 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about a special and unusual populist concert:

Cellist Steuart Pincombe (below) can regularly be found playing in some of the world’s more prestigious concert halls, premiering new compositions and soloing in major festivals.

On this coming Thursday night, Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m., Pincombe will perform music in a more intimate setting: the Chocolaterian Cafe (below), located at 6637 University Avenue in Middleton. Phone is 608 836-1156.)

The concert is part of an international movement called Music in Familiar Spaces, which is bringing the classical music experience at its highest level into homes, cafes, breweries, bookstores or any place where people feel comfortable.

One of the aims of the Music in Familiar Spaces is to make classical music accessible to a wide and varied audience. This is accomplished not only by performing in familiar, comfortable and untraditional spaces, but by designing programs that invite the audience to experience the music in a new and engaging way.

The program at the Chocolaterian is titled “Sweet Sorrow” and features music of some of the Baroque period’s most beloved composers: Karl Friedrich Abel (below top in a painting by Thomas Gainsborough), Heinrich Biber (below middle) and Johann Sebastian Bach (below bottom) plus an original composition by Pincombe.

Pincombe will be joined by local violinist and concertmaster of the Madison Bach Musicians Kangwon Kim (below) in a selection from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.

Here is the program:

Selections in D minor (From 27 Pieces for Viola da gamba) by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787)

Violin Sonata No. 10 in G minor, “Crucifixion” (From the Rosary sonatas) by Heinrich Biber (1644-1702)

Suite No. 5 in C minor for Solo Cello, BWV 1011, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). You can hear Mischa Maisky playing the Prelude to the Bach suite in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Psalm 56 for Voice and Viola da gamba by Steuart Pincombe (1987-)

In order to make the concert accessible to anyone, the audience is asked to name-their-own-ticket-price for the concert, paying what they can afford and what they deem the concert is worth.

The suggested ticket price is $15-30 per person, plus the cost of whatever food and drink you wish to purchase from the cafe.

Want to know more about Steuart Pincombe?

Here is a link to his home website: https://www.steuartpincombe.com

Steuart Pincombe’s career as a cellist has brought him to leading halls and festivals across North America and Europe and he has been named by the Strad Magazine as a “superb solo cellist” and a “gorgeous player [with] perfect intonation, imaginative phrasing” by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Highlights of Steuart’s recent concert seasons include being a featured soloist with Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop (Germany), festival appearances with Asko | Schönberg (Netherlands), Cello8ctet Amsterdam (Netherlands), Ensemble Ansonia (Belgium), Oerknal! (Netherlands), performing with Holland Baroque Society (Netherlands) for King Willem Alexander of The Netherlands, appearing as soloist at the Amsterdam Cello Bienalle (Netherlands), and recording Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw for All of Bach.

His concert “Bach and Beer” was selected by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as one of the Top 10 Classical Events of the Year and a concert in which he appeared as soloist with Rene Schiffer and Apollo’s Fire was numbered in London’s ‘5 Best Classical Music Moments of 2014’ according to The Telegraph (United Kingdom).

In 2015-2016, Pincombe toured North America for one year bringing classical music to new spaces and new audiences in a project he started called Music in Familiar Spaces.

He is currently visiting Teacher of Historical Performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.


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Classical music: Assistant conductor and chorus director Beverly Taylor explains her duties and discusses “Carmina Burana,” which the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus plus soloists perform this weekend. Plus, a FREE MSO hymn sing is Saturday at 11 a.m.

April 27, 2016
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ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) will offer a free hymn sing with Principal Organist Samuel Hutchison in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, in this Saturday, April 30, at 11 a.m. All ages are welcome to join in the singing with the Overture Concert Organ. No tickets or reservations are needed for the free Hymn Sing, which will last approximately 45 minutes.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will close out the current season this weekend with three performances of Carl Orff’s popular 1937 secular or profane oratorio “Carmina Burana” and Ottorino Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome.”

Also participating are Boychoir members from Madison Youth Choirs, Michael Ross, Artistic Director; soprano Jeni Houser, who was acclaimed for her role in the Madison Opera’s recent production of “The Tales of Hoffmann”; tenor Thomas Leighton; and baritone Keith Phares.

The concerts are in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

For more information, visit:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/carminaburana

Single tickets are $16 to $85 each, available on the MSO website; the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, www.madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Here is a link to program notes by Michael Allsen:

http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1516/8.AprMay16.html

Here is a link to translations of the Latin texts:

http://madisonsymphony.org/media/CarminaBuranaTextsTranslations.pdf

This season also marks the 20th anniversary of assistant MSO conductor Beverly Taylor, who also directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

The ever-busy Taylor agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear about her duties and the program:

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

You are the very busy director of choral activities at the UW-Madison. But this is your 20th anniversary directing the Madison Symphony Chorus and serving as assistant conductor of the MSO. Can you take us behind the scenes and tell us what your MSO duties are?

They are three-fold.

First, I’m a “cover” conductor, meaning I’m supposed to be prepared to take over for John DeMain on short notice in case he’s suddenly sick or injured. This hasn’t happened in 20 years, but I HAVE covered some rehearsals by schedule when he’s been out of town or we fear a delayed plane arrival.

Normally the cover conductor conducts the concert if the delay or injury occurs at the beginning of the concert. If it happens in the second half, orchestras often just end the concert—like calling a baseball game after the five official innings.

My second job is preparing the chorus to sing for John De Main. Our rehearsals are like any other chorus rehearsal at first. We focus on notes, intonation, rhythmic accuracy, pronunciation and diction, beautiful phrasing and appropriate tone and balance.

Then closer to the performance, I check with Maestro De Main (below, in a photo by Prasad) on any special markings or tempos he may want. During my early years he often came to our last chorus rehearsal, but we’ve worked together for so many years now that he trusts me to put his choices into the chorus’ training.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

In the long term, my duties also include programming and conducting our non-orchestral concerts, auditioning new singers and ensuring that returning singers keep their abilities high.

My third job is challenging, interesting and fun. It’s to give Maestro Demain information from the audience’s point of view. That means balances between guest soloist and orchestra, balances and rhythmic acuity between sections of the orchestra, and any other notes or opinions that he might find useful.

His own hearing is acute, but anyone who conducts can tell you that the instruments right in front of you make so much noise, that you can’t always judge the relative balances of the orchestra as they project outwards.

Depending on how much time is available in the rehearsal, I make fast notes as the orchestra plays, and give him the notes after the Maestro has done most of his rehearsing. If we’re out of time, I give him the notes backstage and occasionally am asked to pass these notes on to the players involved – for example, a little more triangle, less cello and bass on measures 45-48, etc.)

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

How has the chorus changed over the past two decades?

I think the biggest way in which the chorus has changed is that it sight-reads better and is more acute with a cappella intonation. The main point in having good sight-readers is that it is a HUGE time saver in rehearsal and allows us to get deeper into musical decisions and development. Having said that, we do still take some people with fast ears and good voices who can prove they can keep up.

MSO Chorus CR Greg Anderson

What do you think explains the immense popularity of “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff (below)? How does it compare in popularity to other choral works, especially modern ones?

I think the work is easy to understand. The rhythms are clear, pulsing, repetitive and engaging, and the melodies are memorable and singable. In many ways, it has the appeal of musical comedies. The use of percussion instruments also is appealing and is familiar to people used to bands or popular music. (You can hear the mesmerizing opening in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

While perhaps not the most profound work, it is well crafted. And who hasn’t heard the opening tune in commercial after commercial?

The “modern” style today can’t be well defined because so many composers do so many things. I giggle a bit when audiences say they don’t like dissonance when five minutes in a movie theater with eyes closed will make the listener aware of FAR more dissonant music than in most modern concerts.

Many modern works can be understood at first hearing. Others yield more with a little study. It’s not really different from sports. You may have one person go to a baseball game for the weather, popcorn and home runs who will be disappointed if they miss those. Others will go noticing bad calls for strikes and balls, the stance of the batter, and will quote statistics from past games. They may have a richer experience because they know more, but it doesn’t mean people can’t go and get what they want out of it. Just go to concerts with open minds!

Carl Orff

Are there special things you would like to point out to the public about “Carmina Burana” in general and about this performance in particular?

There are three basic sections to “Carmina,” with an introduction and ending. The opening is based mainly on the subject of Fortune (the introduction) and songs that come out of the monk’s life—some of them were obviously sent to the monastery without a vocation!

The second section is for tenors and basses only—“At the Tavern,” and it’s operatic in its depiction of the fun of mocking life at the monastery, concluding in the great drinking song sung by the men in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan — excuses to toast everyone of every shape and size, and listing who drinks, which is everyone!

The third section, known as the court of love, is beautiful and emotional as the women who know the off-duty monks think about love and if they should yield or not. We finish off with the monumental “O Fortuna” — if Frank Sinatra was singing it would be “sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down.”

There are techniques commonly and cheekily attributed to late Romantic works, especially Tchaikovsky: fast is good, loud is better, fast and loud is best. Orff follows this: his pacing builds steadily so that you are swept up in the excitement.

Carmina Burana Fortuna Wheel

Is there anything else you would like to say?

This isn’t the only thing on the program. Most people will adore the gorgeous “Pines of Rome” by Ottorino Respighi (below), full of color, majesty and the sound of trumpets all through the hall!

Ottorino Respighi profie

Plus, I give the pre-concert lecture this weekend. It’s free for all ticket-holders and is held in the hall an hour before the performance, lasting for half an hour. This means on Friday, it’s 6:30-7 p.m.; Saturday 7-7:30 p.m.; and Sunday 1:30-2 p.m.


Classical music: The UW-Madison Symphony Strings performs a forceful all-Beethoven program. Plus, the So Percussion ensemble performs Saturday night and the Edgewood College Chamber Orchestra performs on Sunday afternoon.

November 6, 2015
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ALERTS: First, a reminder that the acclaimed and innovative So percussion ensemble performs this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Here is a link with information about the program, which includes the minimalism of Steve Reich, and the performers as well as tickets:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season15-16/so-percussion.html

The Edgewood College Chamber Orchestra will perform this Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive. The orchestra, under the direction of Blake Walter, will perform the “Lucio Silla” Overture by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the Concertino for Horn and Orchestra in D major by Michael Haydn, featuring horn soloist Dafydd Bevil; “Three Pieces in the Old Style” by Henryk Gorecki; and the Symphony No. 2 in A Minor by Camille Saint-Saëns. Admission is $5, or free with Edgewood College ID.

By Jacob Stockinger

Don’t be fooled by the name.

The UW Symphony Strings Orchestra (below) is a lot more than string players who also belong to the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra. And it is NOT to be confused with the All-University String Orchestra, which is made up of amateur musicians and non-music students and is conducted by Janet Jensen.

UW Symphony Strings copy

Conductor Kyle Knox (below) explains:

During one concert cycle per year, the UW Symphony Orchestra performs at Music Hall with UW Opera.  Given the space limitations of the opera pit, not all of our 75 Symphony members will play the opera.

So during this period the Symphony is split into two ensembles – Opera Orchestra and Symphony Strings.  Professor James Smith conducts the Opera Orchestra and I conduct the Symphony Strings.

Symphony Strings is a good venue for our players to perform some of the core classical chamber orchestra repertory.  Given the reduced size of the ensemble and the stylistic demands of music from the late Classical period, the Symphony Strings provides a wholly different performance challenge as compared to what they will experience in the large orchestra works performed in other concert cycles.

Playing Mozart and playing Mahler are very different experiences.  Both are difficult, but in different ways.  Last year, we did Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 88. This year, we’ll do two of the lesser-performed Beethoven Symphonies, Nos. 1 and 4.

As its name suggests, Symphony Strings has traditionally been a “strings only’ group.”  When necessary, recruitment for winds, brass and percussion starts with players from the Symphony Orchestra roster who are not involved with the opera. Inevitably players from other ensembles are recruited as needed to ensure that all parts are covered.  It all works out one way or another.

Kyle Knox 2

True to Knox’s words, it does work out.

A week ago Wednesday night in Mills Hall the Symphony Strings did indeed perform two symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 4. (You can hear Symphony No. 1 performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under conductor Christian Thielemann in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

And sure enough, as well as strings, the orchestra included the required winds, brass and percussion.

The playing by all parties was very good. True, you could detect some unevenness. The cellos (below), for example, seemed especially polished and better in pitch or intonation than the violins, which were rough by comparison. Maybe that is because the cello section includes more accomplished undergraduates or more advanced graduate students or because the section is smaller in number or because the cello part is easier.

UW Symphony Strings cellos

Still, one has to make allowances. After all, these are students, not professionals. And it is still early in the season and school year. Most of all, Beethoven simply is not easy, not even early Beethoven.

And that was one of the highlights. The program included two lesser-known Beethoven symphonies and they went together extremely well.

Graduate student conductor Knox (below, center right), who is quite busy these days with many engagements — including the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Madison Opera — drew sharp attacks and clean quick releases, forceful accents, sudden and dramatic dynamic shifts in tempi and volume. Those are all hallmarks of exceptional Beethoven playing.

Kyle Knox conducting UW Symphony Strings

It was enough to make The Ear hope that the group does another program with Beethoven’s two other less well-known symphonies: Nos. 2 and 8. Maybe next semester, or maybe next year.

Then again, The Ear loves the same early Beethoven (below), influenced by the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart, that many other listeners skip over: the early symphonies, the early piano sonatas, the early piano trio, the early violin sonatas, the early cello sonata and the early string quartets.

young beethoven etching in 1804

And often a soloist pulls up the quality, so perhaps a faculty soloist would be a good addition.

But soloist or not, it is well worth hearing.

So The Ear highly encourages orchestral fans to go. The next performance is on Thursday, March 17, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. No program is listed yet. But write the concert into your datebooks. You’ll be happy you did.


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