The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions

November 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experienced Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/28/classical-music-the-madison-opera-performs-verdis-la-traviata-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-in-overture-hall/

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.


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Classical music: A busy week at the UW-Madison brings FREE concerts in new halls with an emphasis on new music for winds, chamber ensembles, orchestra and band

October 6, 2019
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ALERT: Tonight’s performance by the a cappella vocal group Chanticleer is SOLD OUT.

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s going to be a busy week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music and especially in its new Hamel Music Center (below), 740 University Ave., next to the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art.

On tap is a variety of FREE concerts, with an emphasis on new music, including compositions for winds, chamber ensembles, orchestra and band.

Earlier mistakes on dates and time have been corrected. To double check dates, times and venues as well programs, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/events/

Here is a schedule:

TUESDAY, OCT. 8

At 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble (below), conducted by director Scott Teeple and guest conductor Ross Wolf, will perform a FREE program of contemporary wind music.

The program includes works by Augusta Read Thomas (below top), Jake Runestad, Larry Tuttle, Xi Wang (below bottom) and Carlos Simon.

There will be one world premiere and two Wisconsin premieres.

For more information and the complete program, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-wind-ensemble-5/

THURSDAY, OCT. 10

At 8 p.m. in Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble will perform a FREE recital of new music, including two works — “Wet Ink” and ” Treetop Studio” — by the critically acclaimed UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger (below).

Also on the “Fall Notes” program are “Wing and Prayer” by Melinda Wagner (below top) and “Pentacle” by Irish composer Raymond Deane (below bottom) who will make his UW-Madison debut.

Performers for “Fall Notes” will feature UW-Madison musicians, including clarinetist Alicia Lee, cellist James Waldo, violist Sally Chisholm, pianist Christopher Taylor and student performers.

FRIDAY, OCT. 11

At 8 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) will open its season with a FREE concert under its new conductor Oriol Sans, a native of Catalonia, Spain, who studied at the Barcelona Conservatory and  who came to Madison from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

The program is: “aequilibria” by contemporary Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); “Death and Transfiguration; by Richard Strauss; and “Symphonic Dances” by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

For more information about conductor Oriol Sans (below), go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/oriol-sans/

For more information, from Wikipedia, about composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir (below), go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_S._Þorvaldsdóttir

SUNDAY, OCT. 13

At 2 p.m., in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, the University Bands will perform a FREE concert under conductor Darin Olson (below), the assistant director of bands at the UW-Madison.

No program is available.


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Classical music: The fourth annual Madison New Music Festival takes place this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It features Wisconsin composers and several world premieres

August 7, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The fourth season of the Madison New Music Festival (below, in a photo from 2017 by Max Schmidt) will take place this coming Friday, Aug. 9, through Sunday, Aug. 11.

The Madison New Music Festival is an annual, weekend-long celebration for the Madison community of classical works written by contemporary composers.

In four concerts – three with admission and one free — the festival will showcase Wisconsin-based composers and performers of new music, as well as world premiere performances by guest artists.

Tickets for each concert are $15 for adults and $5 for students. Subscriptions to all three concerts are available for $35. For more information, go to http://madisonnewmusic.org or to Facebook (@Madison New Music Festival) or Instagram (@madisonnewmusic).

Here is the line-up:

Concert 1: Music from Wisconsin – Friday, Aug. 9, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (227 State St.)

What: In anticipation of this fall’s Wisconsin Triennial and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, this concert spotlights all Wisconsin-born, -based, or -educated composers, curated by pianist Robert Fleitz (below, with a toy piano he often performs on), whom The New York Times called “mesmerizing.” Joined by young local musicians, Fleitz explores music created right here in their own backyard.

Concert 2: World Premieres – Saturday, Aug. 10, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Atrium Auditorium (900 University Bay Drive)

What: Internationally acclaimed violist Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti and Wisconsin-born pianist Karl Larson (below top) will give the world premieres of new viola sonatas from three of the world’s leading composers: Andrew Norman, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Scott Wollschleger. In addition, local cellist James Waldo will kick off the evening with a premiere of a work for solo cello by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Les Thimmig (below bottom).

Concert 3: SistaStrings – Sunday, Aug. 11, at 2:30 p.m.

Where: Robinia Courtyard (829 East Washington Avenue)

What: The concert features the Milwaukee-based sister duo SistaStrings (below, in a photo by Adam Ryan Morris). Violinist Chauntee Ross and cellist Monique LaDora Ross blend their training as accomplished classical instrumentalists with “R&B and a touch of gospel influence that culminates in a vibey, lush sound.” The sisters will play tracks from their new and acclaimed Extended Play recording in the cozy courtyard. (You can hear them in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Partner concert: Madison New Music Ensemble (FREE concert) – Sunday, Aug. 11, at 5 p.m.

Where: Memorial Union Terrace (800 Langdon Street, below)

What: Join the newly formed Madison New Music Ensemble (below top), led by UW-Madison composer Joseph Koykkar (below bottom), at the Memorial Union Terrace as part of their Summer Serenade series. The group will perform works by Koykkar, Ian Clarke, Gabriela Lena Frank, Gareth Farr and Kirsten Volness.


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Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: Two noteworthy concerts of Baroque chamber music, organ music and vocal music take place this Wednesday midday and Saturday night

February 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is another very busy week for classical music in the Madison area. If Baroque music interests you, there are two noteworthy concerts this week that should attract your attention.

JUST BACH

This Wednesday, Feb. 20. at 1 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, the February midday concert by Just Bach (below, at its September concert) will take place.

Admission to the all-Johann Sebastian Bach concert is FREE with a goodwill offering accepted.

Because it will be lunchtime, food and drink are allowed.

This month’s concert includes three diverse works.

Organist Mark Brampton Smith (below) will open the program with the first movement of the Concerto in D Minor BWV 596. This is Bach’s arrangement for organ of the popular Concerto for Two Violins by Antonio Vivaldi, and it comes off with dramatic effect when transcribed to the organ.

Violinist Leanne League will take the stage next, with the Sonata for Violin in A Minor, BWV 1003.

The program ends with the hauntingly beautiful Cantata 82 “Ich habe genug”(I have enough), scored for solo bass voice and oboe, strings and continuo. The vocal soloist will be UW-Madison bass-baritone Paul Rowe (below). You can hear the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing the aria in YouTube video at the bottom.) 

The orchestra of baroque period-instrument specialists will be led by concertmaster Leanne League, and will include oboist Claire Workinger (below), in her Just Bach debut.

Organizers and performers say the goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large. The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach would have conceived.

The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

The other Just Bach dates, all Wednesdays, this semester are March 13, April 24 and May 29.

WISCONSIN BAROQUE ENSEMBLE

The veteran Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble will perform a varied concert of vocal and instrumental chamber music this coming Saturday night, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street.

Tickets can be purchased only at the door. Admission is$20, $10 for students.

Performers are: Nathan Giglierano, baroque violin; Eric Miller; viola da gamba; Sigrun Paust, recorder; Charlie Rasmussen, baroque cello and viola da gamba; Consuelo Sañudo, mezzo-soprano; Daniel Sullivan, harpsichord; and Anton TenWolde, baroque cello.

The program is:

Nicolas Bernier – “Diane” Cantata for voice and basso continuo

Marin Marais – Pièces de violes (Pieces for Viola da Gamba), selections from Book 4

Louis Couperin – Pièces de clavecin (Pieces for harpsichord)

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier – Trio sonata, Op. 37, No. 2

INTERMISSION

Francesco Paolo Supriani – Sinfonia for cello and basso continuo

Georg Fridrich Handel – “Nel dolce dell’ oblio” (In Sweet Forgetfuness)

Tommaso Giordani – Duo for two cellos, opus 18 no 5

Georg Philipp Telemann – Quartet in G minor TWV 43 g4

Following the concert, there will be a reception at 2422 Kendall Ave., Apt. 2.

For more information, go to www.wisconsinbaroque.org


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