ALERT: Students in the Composition Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music will present their new music in a FREE recital this Wednesday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. The performances of original works feature UW-Madison music students and the composers themselves.
By Jacob Stockinger
University Opera will offer its first production of the season in three performances this weekend and early next week.
It is “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi. The work is the composer’s last opera and is often considered to be his greatest masterpiece.
In his first production since becoming the full-time and permanent director of University Opera, former interim director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) is re-imagining the opera as taking place in Hollywood of the 1930s, where Falstaff is a silent movie actor who is out of work with the advent of “talkies.”
“Falstaff” will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.
UW-Madison professor James Smith will conduct the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the opera’s finale from a Metropolitan Opera‘s traditional production under James Levine in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
UW-Madison professor and baritone Paul Rowe (below) will sing the title role. But the production, including the cast, sets, costumes and lighting, involves more than 90 UW-Madison students.
Performances in Music Hall, at the bottom of Bascom Hill, are on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. and next Tuesday night, Nov. 15, at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors; and $10 for UW-Madison students.
On Friday, there will also be a panel discussion at 6 p.m. before the performance.
For much more information about the production and the panel discussion, go to:
By Jacob Stockinger
Several years ago, artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) decided to use the season-opening concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra to spotlight the symphony and its first-chair players as soloists.
No big-name imported guest soloists were to be booked.
Such multimedia events increasingly seem to work as a way to build audiences and boost attendance by new people and young people. After all, a music director has to sell tickets and fill seats as well as wave a baton.
And it seems that, on both counts, DeMain’s strategy proved spectacularly successful.
All sections of the orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) — strings, brass, winds, percussion — played with energy, precision and subtlety. The MSO proved a very tight ensemble. Each year, you can hear how the MSO improves and grows increasingly impressive after 23 years of DeMain’s direction.
The public seemed to agree. It came very close to filling the 2,200-seat Overture Hall for all three performances with more than 6,100 audience members, according to Peter Rodgers, the new marketing director for the MSO. Especially noteworthy, he said, was the number of children, students and young people who attended.
In fact, so many students showed up for student rush tickets on Friday night that the performance was delayed by around 10 minutes – because of long lines at the box office, NOT because of the new security measures at the Overture Center, which Rodgers said worked smoothly and quickly.
But not everything was ideal, at least not for The Ear.
On the first half, the playing largely outweighed the music.
True, the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 by a very young George Enescu (below) received a sizzling and infectious performance. With its catchy folk tunes, dance rhythms and Gypsy harmonies, the fun work proved an irresistible opener – much like a starting with an encore, which is rather like eating a rich and tasty dessert before tackling the more nutritious but less snazzy main course.
The music itself is captivating and frequently played – although this was its surprising premiere performance by the MSO. Little wonder the Enescu got a rousing standing ovation. Still, it is hardly great music.
Then came the Chaconne for violin and orchestra by the American composer John Corigliano (below), who based the work on his Oscar-winning film score for “The Red Violin.”
Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) impressed The Ear and most others with her mastery of what appeared to be a very difficult score. The ovation was for her, not for the music.
That music also has some fine moments. But overall it seems a dull and tedious work, an exercise in virtuosity with some of the same flaws you find in certain overblown piano etudes by Franz Liszt. Once again the playing trumped the music.
Then came The Big Event: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” coupled with clear, high-definition photos of the planets taken by NASA that were projected on a huge screen above the orchestra. Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s and Venus’ clouds and Mars’ landscape (below) have never looked so impressive.
The orchestra again struck one with its exotic and “spacey” sound effects and with what must have been the difficulty of timing simultaneously the music and the images.
Yet ultimately Holst’s work became a sound track — music accompanying images rather than images accompanying the music. The Ear heard several listeners compare the admittedly impressive result to the movies “Fantasia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That says something.
At some moments the sound and images really matched and reinforced each other, especially in the dramatic opening section, “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Holst’s score also succeeds nicely with “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” and to a lesser degree with “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.”
But overall “The Planets” reminds The Ear of colorful and dramatic programmatic showpieces such as Ottorino Respighi‘s “The Pines of Rome” and “The Fountains of Rome.” (Earth, curiously, is not included in “The Planets.” Makes you wonder: What would Earth bring?) Enjoyable music, to be sure, but not profound fare.
The Ear’s extensive library of CDs has none of the three works on the program. And it will probably remain that way.
While Holst’s work does have great moments, it grows long, repetitive and finally uninteresting as it ends not with a bang but with an underwhelming whimper – which was beautifully enhanced by the atmospheric singing of the MSO Women’s Chorus. There are just too many planets!
Listen to the YouTube video at the bottom, played by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you will see: Mars rules!
Add it all up and despite three standing ovations, in the end The Ear found the concert less than fully satisfying. The music, however likable and appealing, was not, for the most part, great music. Moreover, it was mostly trumped first by the performances and then by the visuals.
So on a personal note, here is The Ear’s request to the MSO, which scored an undeniably brilliant success with this program: Keep the same all-orchestra and first-chair format for season-openers and use multimedia shows whenever appropriate. But please also include at least one really first-rate piece of music with more substance.
Is that asking for too much?
Is The Ear alone and unfair in his assessment?
Other critics had their own takes and some strongly disagree with The Ear.
Here is a link to three other reviews:
By John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:
By Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:
And by Greg Hettmansberger (below), who writes for WISC-TV Channel 3 and his Classically Speaking blog for Madison Magazine, and on his own blog, What Greg Says:
What did you think of the music, the performances and the visual show?
How well did they mix?
What did you like most and least?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Symphony Orchestra:
The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below), with Music Director John DeMain conducting, opens its 91st season – and its 23rd season under Maestro DeMain — with three works by 20th-century composers.
Science, music and stunning visuals come together with Gustav Holst’s The Planets accompanied by a spectacular, high-definition film featuring NASA imagery. (Below is a photo of Jupiter, “The Bringer of Jollity” to Holst. The musical depiction of Jupiter — performed by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — is in the YouTube video at the bottom.
The concerts are in Overture Hall on this Friday., Sept. 23, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 25, at 2:30 p.m.
A national hero in his homeland, Enescu rarely included hints of his Romanian heritage in his music, except when he composed the Romanian Rhapsodies as a teenager. Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 captures a series of Romanian folk songs, including melodies of increasingly wild Gypsy dances. This is MSO’s first performance of this work.
In the Chaconne, American composer John Corigliano (below) draws the audience in with a foreboding and haunting signature tune, which he wrote for the powerful film about music, The Red Violin. His film score for the movie earned him an Academy Award in 1999 for his original music. This will be the first time MSO has performed this Oscar-winning work, and features MSO Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz.
Greenholtz (below) has captivated audiences as Concertmaster of the MSO and the Quad City Symphony Orchestra. A Canadian violinist, Greenholtz was born in Kyoto, Japan, where she began her violin studies at age three.
Since her solo debut at 14, she continues to perform internationally, most notably with: the Oregon Symphony, Calgary Philharmonic, National Ballet of Canada, Omaha Symphony, and Memphis Symphony.
The Planets is known as Holst’s most popular work. The musical movements were inspired by characteristics connected with astrology’s seven planets. For instance, ominous sounding Mars, the Bringer of War, is followed by the calmly flowing Venus, the Bringer of Peace. (Below top is Mars and below bottom is Venus.)
The performances will be accompanied by a high-definition film projecting celestial images above the main stage.
According to New York Times senior critic Anthony Tommasini, the film shows “photographs from rovers and satellites, radar images and computer-generated graphics … combining to give the audience the impression of circling individual planets and sometimes flying over their awesomely barren landscapes.” (Below is a close-up of the surface of Mars.)
The Madison Symphony Women’s Chorus (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), under the direction of Beverly Taylor, will be part of the final movement of The Planets, and the Overture Concert Organ (below bottom) is featured at several moments in the piece.
This is the first time MSO’s performance of The Planets will be accompanied by the high-definition film.
One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum, the artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra Artistic, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.
For more background on the music, please view the Program Notes at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/1.Sep16.html or madisonsymphony.org/planets.
Before all of the concerts and at intermission, Friends of University of Wisconsin–Madison Astronomy will have an interactive display in the lobby concertgoers can experience.
The Symphony recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk and the astronomy exhibit (free for all ticket-holders).
Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each and are on sale now at madisonsymphony.org/planets, through 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, madisonsymphony.org/groups.
Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Center 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: madisonsymphony.org/studentrush.
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.
Major funding for the September concerts is provided by: NBC15, Diane Ballweg, Capitol Lakes, Friends of University of Wisconsin–Madison Astronomy, The Gialamas Company, Inc., and Nicholas and Elaine Mischler. Additional funding is provided by: Analucia and Mark Allie, for their beloved “Doc” Richard Greiner; Judith and Nick Topitzes, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.
By Jacob Stockinger
So now the question becomes: Who should succeed Levine?
Several names stand out.
But the smartest money seems to be on the relatively young conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin (below). The French-Canadian and openly gay conductor now leads the Philadelphia Orchestra and is closely attached to the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Netherlands.
A comprehensive profile of the charismatic and energetic conductor – who is known for his unique, subtle and powerful interpretations – with the pros and cons of an appointment to The Met was recently written by New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe.
Woolfe raves about his conducting but then goes on to raise several important points about the difference between being a conductor and a music director. (You can hear a lot of recorded performances of his conducting on YouTube. At bottom is the beginning of an insightful two-part interview with Nézet-Séguin.)
The Ear found the criticism relevant, if a little lopsided, and was impressed overall with the story.
So read it for yourself and decide:
Then leave word in the COMMENTS section and let The Ear and his readers know whether you think Nézet-Séguin should be the next music director of The Met?
Or would you suggest another name?
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear’s good friend, Sarah Schaffer, who works with composer John Harbison, writes:
Many Madisonians were among those who travelled to New York City in 1999 for the world premiere of John Harbison’s opera, “The Great Gatsby,” which is based on the iconic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in celebration of renowned conductor James Levine’s 25th anniversary there. (Below, from the original production, are the late tenor Jerry Hadley as Jay Gatsby and soprano Dawn Upshaw as Daisy Buchanan.)
The work has since been presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, in Boston and at Tanglewood by Emmanuel Music, and, in a reduced orchestra chamber version, by Opera Parallele in San Francisco and at the Aspen Music Festival.
And of course, John Harbison and his wife, violinist Rose Mary Harbison, are best known in Madison as the artistic directors of the fiercely imaginative annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, held in their refurbished barn near Sun Prairie just before Labor Day each summer.
Now, the first European performance of “The Great Gatsby” will take place at Semperoper (below) in Dresden, Germany from this Sunday, Dec. 6, through Dec. 21. It will be presented in English, with German surtitles.
Preceding the first performance, Semperoper is offering a preview event where two film versions of “The Great Gatsby” will be shown: the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow; and the 2013 Baz Luhrman version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan.
According to Semperoper, “The opera blends modern classical music with jazz and swing to paint a thrilling portrait of a debauched and decadent society, where double standards clash with idealism. European audiences can now enjoy this work for the first time.”
Wayne Marshall is music director, Keith Warner stage director, with dramaturgy by Stefan Ulrich, and set design by the late John Engels, whose stunning and evocative work was seen last spring in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of The Passenger, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s powerful opera about how the horrors of Auschwitz impact people’s lives in the present.
In making a new production of The Great Gatsby, Director Keith Warner does not adopt an “update” strategy, often seen in recent European productions. Instead he goes directly to the period, the American mid-1920s, making its excesses, its excitements, and its cloak of impending doom the essential color of the opera. (below is the party scene.)
In the upcoming Dresden production, tenor Peter Lodahl makes his Semperoper debut in the role of Jay Gatsby. For more information, visit: www.peterlodahl.co
Daisy Buchanan will be performed by soprano Maria Bengtsson. For more information, visit: www.mariabengtsson.com
A complete cast list and production personnel can be found at https://www.semperoper.de/en/whats-on/schedule/stid/Gatsby/60545.html
A brief video regarding the launching of Gatsby at Semperopera can be found at:
While not without its detractors, over the years and through its many productions Gatsby has garnered significant praise from some of the most respected critics and publications.
With such an iconic and thoroughly American novel, story and music as its origin and soundscape, it will be fascinating to see what kind of reception Gatsby’s eagerly anticipated European premiere will garner across the pond.
Europeans, very conversant with the Fitzgerald novel, tend to emphasize the role of class more than American readers. Warner uses a number of theatrical devices to starkly outline the attitudes and surroundings of the Wilsons, the working-class couple so crucial to conflicts within the story.
The racist and elitist rants of Tom Buchanan, perhaps more comfortably folded into his familiar character by American fans of the book, emerge in stark outline in Warner’s conception.
By Jacob Stockinger
This is the production that has made news because it is the first one in the history of The Met not to use blackface. (Below, in a photo by Ken Howard for The Metropolitan Opera, are the Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, right, as Otello and baritone Zjelko Lucic as Iago.)
This year marks the 10th season of the popular and innovative series of high-definition broadcasts that are beamed via satellite to 2,000 screens in 70 countries.
In Madison, the opera can be seen at the Point Cinemas on the city’s far west side and at Eastgate cinemas on the far east side.
Admission is $24 for adults and $22 for seniors 60 and over; and $18 for children 3 to 11. Tickets to the encore productions are $18.
The performance starts at 11:55 a.m. and will last about 2 hours and 45 minutes including an intermission. (Below center is the acclaimed Bulgarian soprano Sonja Yoncheva as Desdemona.)
Also drawing praise is the production’s firebrand conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin (below bottom), the acclaimed French-Canadian music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra who reportedly is a likely candidate to succeed the legendary James Levine as music director of The Met.
For information about the cast and a synopsis:
From NPR or National Public Radio, here is a story about The Met foregoing blackface in this production. It is especially interesting because the reporter talks to an African American tenor who does not object to the use of such makeup:
And here is a debate about the blackface issue in which the central question is: If you didn’t know the plot of the play or opera, would you realize the pivotal role that race plays in the story without blackface? Read it and decide for yourself. (In a YouTube video at bottom is part of the love duet between Otello and Desdemona.)
Finally, here is a positive review by Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times:
By Jacob Stockinger
Yesterday The Ear asked readers for suggestions about classical music that would be appropriate to post and play today, which is Independence Day or the Fourth of July.
I got some good answers.
Some of the suggestions were great music but seemed inappropriate like “On the Transmigration of Souls” by the contemporary American composer John Adams. It won the Pulitzer Prize. But it deals with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and strikes The Ear as a bit grim for this holiday.
So, here are four others for The Fourth:
Ann Boyer suggested the Variations on “America” by Charles Ives, who was certainly an American and a Yankee original. The original scoring for organ was transcribed for orchestra by the well-known American composer William Schuman and it is performed below in a YouTube video by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the famous composer-arranger Morton Gould, who seems to specialize in Americana:
Tim Adrianson suggested Aaron Copland’s great Third Symphony. It is long but the most famous part of the symphony is “Fanfare for the Common Man,” played here by Metropolitan Opera artistic director James Levine and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. And that seems a perfectly fitting piece of music to celebrate the birth of American democracy:
Reader fflambeau suggested anything by Howard Hanson, but especially Syphony No. 2 “Romantic.” Here is the famous slow movement — performed by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra — that is also the appealing theme of the Interlochen Arts Academy and National Summer Music Camp:
Finally, The Ear recently heard something that seems especially welcome at a time when there is so much attention being paid to matters military.
It is also by Aaron Copland and is called “A Letter From Home.” It was dedicated to troops fighting World War II but it strikes me for its devotion to the home front and to peaceful domestic life, which is exactly what the Fourth of July should be about. Be sure to look at the black-and-white photographs that accompany the music:
And The Ear reminds you that you can hear a lot of American composers and American music today on Wisconsin Public Radio.
Have a Happy Fourth of July and Independence Day, everyone!
By Jacob Stockinger
Our friends at Farley’s House of Pianos write to the blog with news of a noteworthy piano concert this Saturday night:
Renowned American pianist Peter Serkin (below top) and Julia Hsu (below bottom) will perform piano, four-hand pieces by Schumann, Bizet, Mozart and more, as part of the Salon Piano Series concerts held at Farley’s House of Pianos at 6522 Seybold Road on Madison’s far west side near West Towne.
The concert is at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday night, April 4 and will include an introduction by Karlos Moser (below), a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of music and former longtime director of the University Opera at the UW-Madison School of Music.
The program includes: Six Etudes in the Form of Canons for Pedal-Piano, Op. 56, by Robert Schumann; Three Pieces from “Jeux d’Enfants” (Children’s Games) by Georges Bizet; the Sonata in B flat Major, K. 358, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the Allegro ma non troppo in A minor (the dramatic and lyrical “Lebenssturme” or “Lifestorms” that you can hear in a live performance in a YouTube video at the bottom), D.947, and the Rondo in A Major, D.951, by Franz Schubert; and Four Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms.
Tickets are $45 and are expected to sell quickly. They are available online at www.salonpianoseries.org and http://www.brownpapertickets.com/profile/706809 or at Farley’s House of Pianos, (608) 271-2626.
For more information about the Salon Piano Series, visit: http://salonpianoseries.org
The distinguished American pianist Peter Serkin has performed with the world’s major symphony orchestras with such conductors as Seiji Ozawa, Daniel Barenboim, George Szell, Claudio Abbado, Eugene Ormandy and James Levine. A dedicated chamber musician, Serkin has collaborated with artists including violinist Pamela Frank and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
An avid exponent of the music of many contemporary composers, Serkin has brought to life the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Michael Wolpe, and others for audiences around the world. He has performed many world premieres written specifically for him, in particular, works by Toru Takemitsu, Oliver Knussen and Peter Lieberson. Serkin currently teaches at Bard College Conservatory of Music and the Longy School of Music. Serkin became friends with the Farleys in 1994 when he was in town for a concert and visited the Farley’s showroom (below).
Originally from Taiwan, Julia Hsu received scholarships to study at The Purcell School for young musicians at the age of 14. She has also studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London and at the Hannover Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Germany. Julia has collaborated with conductors Fabio Panisello, Lutz Koeler and cellist Ivan Moniguetti. She was a Festival Fellow at Bowdoin Music Festival, and a scholar at the Banff Centre, Canada before she became a Piano Fellow at Bard College Conservatory of Music in 2013.
The Salon Piano Series is a non-profit founded by Tim and Renée Farley to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos.
Upcoming concerts include the internationally acclaimed Czech pianist Martin Kasík (below top), who will play the “Moonlight” and “Les Adieux” Sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven and Sonata No. 3 by Sergei Prokofiev, on Saturday, April 18, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. Jazz pianist Dick Hyman (below bottom) will perform on May 30 and 31, 2015, at 4 p.m. both days.
For ticket information and concert details see www.salonpianoseries.org.
All events will be held at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, Madison, on Madison’s west side near the Beltline, and plenty of free parking is available. It is also easy to reach by bicycle or Madison Metro.
By Jacob Stockinger
That is the touchy question that was taken up last week by The New York Times senior music critic Anthony Tommasini in his opening night review of Domingo’s performance in the role of the King of Spain Don Carlo (below, in a photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times) in the opera by Giuseppe Verdi “Ernani,” which was based on the play “Hernani” by French writer Victor Hugo.
The production of “Ernani” is taking place at the Metropolitan Opera – hardly a strange stage to the veteran Domingo, who is now 74. James Levine led the orchestra. And Tommasini offered quite specific criticisms to back up his opinion about Domingo.
Here is a link to the review:
Read it and weigh in with your own opinion about whether it is time for the great Placido Domingo to retire.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
We have just come through Christmas and the holiday season where the instrument of choice – quite appropriately – is the human voice, both solo and in choruses.
Do you sing?
Can you sing?
She also explains why you should: Singing, she says, is healthy for your body and mind.
She may be 69, but Norman, who was born in Georgia but now lives in France, is not retiring from singing, even if she is cutting down on professional appearances. She is following her own advice and so continues to sing, as she recently did on The David Letterman Show in New York City.
The interview traces her career from her earliest years in Augusta, Georgia, through training at the famed Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It has samples of her fabulous voice, and also her remembrances of great voices she has admired in others, such as the great history-making African American contralto Marian Anderson (below, during her historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial).
She also names some favorite orchestral music and instrumental music, including a prelude from the opera “Lohengrin” by Richard Wagner, as conducted by James Levine (below top) of the Metropolitan Opera; a cello sonata by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma (below middle); and a Beethoven piano concertos performed by pianist Alfred Brendel (below bottom) and the conductor Simon Rattle along with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Norman also singles out American jazz composer Duke Ellington (below) for praise.
And the NPR interview includes some fine music audio samples.
Here is a link:
And here is one of my favorite and landmark or legendary performances by Jessye Norman: “Im Abendrot.” It is one of the “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss that was recently used in the movie “The Trip to Italy” to such great and repeated effect: