The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Oakwood Chamber Players take a “Journey” to explore neglected and oppressed German and Dutch composers this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

May 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The accomplished and acclaimed Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their exploration of neglected repertoire and end their “Journey” season with two performances of a concert titled Legacy on this Saturday night, May 19, at 7 p.m. and on Sunday afternoon, May 20, at 2 p.m.

The concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 general admission, $20 seniors and $5 students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon by Dutch composer Julius Röntgen (below) was written in 1917 and is neo-Classical in style. Röntgen was a classmate and lifelong friend of Edvard Grieg’s whom he met at the Leipzig Conservatory. He studied with Lachner and Reinecke, and collaborated with Brahms and Casals in concerts. His musical career spanned the roles of composer, teacher, and concert pianist. He was instrumental in the founding of the Amsterdam Conservatory and the world-famous Concertgebouw Orchestra.

A frequent participant in chamber music himself, he was a fine contributor to the genre. Röntgen’s Wind Trio in G Major shows his compositional facility: from a playful Haydn-influenced first movement (which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom) to an adagio melody in the second movement that is drawn from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” and to the final movement with a Danish folk melody at its heart that is enhanced by upbeat creative variations.

German composer Heinrich Kaminski (below) wrote his atmospheric String Quartet in F major. Written over the time period leading up to World War I, this four-movement piece encompasses moodiness contrasted with high energy. The scherzo movement has the feel of a driven dance, the adagio movement is emotionally charged, and Kaminski’s final movement recaps themes of the piece’s restless expressivity.

Recognition of his talent in Berlin was cut short when the Nazi Gestapo intercepted correspondence that revealed Jewish heritage. His music was deemed unsuitable for performance in Germany and banned in 1937. He fled to Switzerland yet his life was profoundly impacted by events. He died shortly after the war, having endured the dissolution of his marriage, declining health and loss of children. However interest in Kaminski’s unique composition style has led to resurgence in recent performances of his works.

Dutch composer Leo Smit (below) studied at the Amsterdam Conservatory and then lived in Paris for a decade before returning to Holland. He was greatly influenced by Ravel and Stravinsky’s innovations and exchanged ideas with fellow composers Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Arthur Honegger. He enjoyed jazz rhythms and they often are found in his works.

His three-movement Sextet for piano and wind quintet is full of variety, warm melodic lines and fascinating harmonies. With the German invasion during World War II Smit’s circumstances as a Jewish musician deteriorated and he was forbidden to continue as a professional musician. Despite the dire circumstances he continued composing, completing a Sonata for flute and piano in 1943 just prior to his transportation to and death in a concentration camp.

The program ends with a cleverly written piece by German composer Bernhard Sekles (below). The final movement from his Capriccio for violin, cello and piano is titled Yankee-Doodle with variations and a delightful way to conclude the concert. Based in Frankfurt, Sekles was an innovative composer and teacher, and in 1928 became the first European teacher of jazz.

Oakwood Chamber Players members are Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Amanda Szczys, bassoon; Anne Aley, horn; Leyla Sanyer, violin; and Maggie Darby Townsend, cello. They will be joined by guests Martha Fischer, piano; Elspeth Stalter-Clouse, violin; Shannon Farley, viola; Aaron Hill, oboe; and Bernard Parish, clarinet.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who play in other professional organizations such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

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


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Music education: Madison Youth Choirs perform their Spring Concert series “Seriously Funny” this Sunday

May 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

“This spring, the Madison Youth Choirs singers (below) are exploring the unexpected ways that elements of humor, from irony and incongruity to improvisation and timing, are reflected in a wide variety of classical and contemporary musical compositions.

“We’re learning that music, like humor, is a kind of language, operating with its own sense of logic, patterns, and conventions that composers can twist to surprise us and take our musical journey to new places.

“As we study the complexity of humor as a mode of creative expression, we are discovering the power of satire, wit, and misdirection to help us reexamine our assumptions, musical and otherwise.

“In our culminating concert series, our singers will present works including “No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi” by George Frideric Handel; Timothy Takach’s “I Will Howl” by Timothy Takach; the “Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls; and the second movement of Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein.”

The MYC Spring Concerts, “Seriously Funny: Musical Humor, Wit, and Whimsy” will take place this Sunday afternoon and evening, May 13, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., across from Camp Randall Stadium.

Performance are: 1:30 p.m. for Girlchoirs; 4 p.m. for Boychoirs; and 7 p.m. for High School Ensembles.

Tickets will be available at the door: $10 for general admission; $5 for students 7-18; and free for children under 7. A separate ticket is required for each performance.

This concert is supported by American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank, Dane Arts with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, The Evjue Foundation, Inc., charitable arm of The Capital Times, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation, and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. This project is also supported by the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the state of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

About the Madison Youth Choirs (MYC):

Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community.

Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self-confidence, personal responsibility, and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond.

For further information, go to www.madisonyouthchoirs.org or call (608) 238-7464.

Here is the Repertoire List for MYC 2018 Spring Concert Series, “Seriously Funny: Musical Humor, Wit and Whimsy”

1:30 P.M. CONCERT (FEATURING MYC GIRLCHOIRS)

Choraliers

“Bee! I’m expecting you!” by Emma Lou Diemer

“A Menagerie of Songs” by Carolyn Jennings

Con Gioia

“When V and I” by Henry Purcell

“The Fate of Gilbert Gim” by Margaret Drynan

“The Cabbage-Tree Hat,” traditional Australian folk song

Capriccio (below)

“Papageno-Papagena Duet” (from The Magic Flute) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

“Ich jauchze, ich lache” (from BWV 15) by Johann Sebastian Bach

“J’entends le Moulin,” French folk song, arr. Donald Patriquin

Combined Choirs

“Funiculi, Funicula” by Luigi Denza

4 P.M. CONCERT (FEATURING MYC BOYCHOIRS)

Combined Boychoirs

“Sumer is icumen in,” Anonymous, 13th century Middle English piece

Purcell Boychoir 

“When V and I” by Henry Purcell

“Modern Major-General” from The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan

“Weevily Wheat,” arr. Dan Krunnfusz

Britten Boychoir  (below)

“Gloria Tibi” by Leonard Bernstein

“The Plough Boy,” Traditional, arr. Benjamin Britten

Holst Boychoir

“Il est bel et bon” by Pierre Passereau

“Hopkinton” by William Billings

Ragazzi Boychoir

“I Will Howl” by Timothy Takach

“Rustics and Fishermen,” part V of Choral Dances from Gloriana by Benjamin Britten

“Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser

Combined Boychoirs

“Chichester Psalms” II. Adonai ro-i by Leonard Bernstein

7 P.M. CONCERT (FEATURING HIGH SCHOOL ENSEMBLES)

Cantilena

“A Girl’s Garden” from Frosting by Randall Thompson

“Love Learns by Laughing” by Thomas Morley

“Turn, Turn, Then Thine Eyes” from The Fairy Queen by Henry Purcell

“My Funny Valentine” from Babes in Arms by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

“Etude 1 pour les cinq doigts d’après Monsieur Czerny” by Claude Debussy

Ragazzi

“I Will Howl” by Timothy Takach

“Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser

Cantabile

“sam was a man” by Vincent Persichetti, text by e.e. cummings

“No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi” by George Frideric Handel

“Cruel, You Pull Away Too Soon” by Thomas Morley

“This Sky Falls” by Jocelyn Hagen

“Svatba,” Traditional Bulgarian, arr. H.R. Todorov

Cantabile and Ragazzi

Choral Dances from Gloriana by Benjamin Britten

 


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Music education: Suzuki Strings of Madison will perform its FREE all-school Spring Concert this Saturday afternoon in Middleton

May 9, 2018
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature  the Canzone for Flute and Piano, transcribed by Samuel Barber, from the second movement of his Piano Concerto, Op 38; and the Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano by Claude Bolling (1973) for flute, piano, drum set and bass. 

Performers are: Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Joseph Ross, piano; Bradley Townsend, double bass; and Thomas Ross, drums.

The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

On this Saturday, May 12, at 3 p.m. Suzuki Strings of Madison (below) will present a FREE all-school Spring Concert.

The performance runs about two hours, and will be at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, 2100 Bristol Street, which is attached to Middleton High School. The building is wheelchair-accessible. Doors open at 2:30 p.m.

This Suzuki Strings of Madison Spring concert will showcase the string orchestra; the Sonora Strings touring ensemble, which has done pre-concert performances at the Wisconsin Union  Theater); a presentation of the 2018 Twinkle class; and an all-school performance.

Featured selections include the Hungarian Dance No. 1 by Johannes Brahms; “On Wings of Song” by Felix Mendelssohn; the Minuet from the String Quartet, Op. 15, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and with favorite concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach.

In the spirit of the Suzuki violin tradition, the children will perform selections from the method volumes with the addition of lovely rich harmonies.

The grand finale invites our youngest performers on stage with the Variations on the theme of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” (You can hear the same finale, with teacher and director Diana Popowycz, from last year’s concert in the YouTube video at the bottom).

Suzuki Strings of Madison has been providing quality violin instruction to all ages since 1990.

For more information about Suzuki Strings, call (608) 695-4020 or visit: www.suzukistringsofmadison.org


Classical music: Greg Zelek closes out the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s organ recital season this Friday night with music by Bach, Schumann, Franck and Liszt

May 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) organist Greg Zelek (below) will perform a recital this Friday night, May 11, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St.

According to the MSO, “Zelek thrilled the Overture audience with his spellbinding debut recital in 2016, and then again with his appearances in 2017 and 2018 as the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s new Principal Organist and Curator of the Overture Concert Organ (below).”

This past weekend, Zelek played an impressively virtuosic organ passage in the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek and was warmly received by the audience.

This time, Zelek returns to close out the season’s concert organ series in a “Voices of Spring” program of music that includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Robert Schumann, John Weaver, Cesar Franck and Gioachino Rossini as well as the  monumental 30-minute Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem unjam” by Franz Liszt.

For the complete program and an audiovisual sample of Zelek’s playing Bach, go to: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/zelek

Zelek recently completed Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and an Artist Diploma at the Julliard School. Adds the MSP: “Greg continues to cultivate his reputation as one of the most exciting organists in the American organ scene.” (You can hear Zelek play Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D  minor in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Admission for each Overture Concert Organ performance is $20.

Tickets can be purchased at madisonsymphony.org/zelek, (608) 258-4141 or the Overture Box Office.

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 $10 tickets.

This performance is sponsored by Walter and Karen Pridham. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund.

With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Overture Concert Organ, which is the stunning backdrop of all MSO concerts.


Classical music: Kyle Knox is the new music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras

April 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Kyle Knox has been named the new music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO).

Knox (below), who was a clarinetist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestras and then studied conducting as a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, will assume his duties on July 1.

Knox, will also conduct the Youth Orchestra (below), the most senior performing group in WYSO.

The move is likely to please many disappointed fans of Knox, who has won praise for conducting the UW Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the University Opera and the Middleton Community Orchestra but who was passed over as the successor to UW Professor James Smith (below) when Smith retired.

Smith was also the acclaimed longtime music director of WYSO. For the past year Randal Swiggum (below), the music director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra, has been the interim music director of WYSO and conductor of the Youth Orchestra.

In the latest WYSO newsletter, Knox, a longtime Madison resident who is married to Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, writes:

“I am so looking forward to my first year as Music Director at WYSO, beginning July 1, 1918. Even in the short time I’ve spent at Saturday rehearsals, it is clear this is a first-rate youth orchestra program. Top to bottom, each ensemble offers a special opportunity for music-making and artistic growth. I am lucky to be joining such a vibrant artistic and administrative team.

“Our 2018-2019 season will feature great orchestral and chamber works from all eras. In addition to our stellar roster of sectional and chamber music coaches, the students may have the opportunity to work with world-class guest artists and soloists. It should be an exciting season of music-making.

“As a teenager, music had a transformational effect on my life. I owe much of my personal and professional development to my time playing in youth orchestra and the many wonderful teachers I met as a result.

“Even now, almost 20 years later, the relationships I formed during those years continue to be among the most meaningful in my life. Something about sharing a stage with other people, working toward a collective goal, leaves a special imprint on my mind. (Below is Kyle Knox conducting the UW Symphony Orchestra.)

“For the students, I hope that your time at WYSO is enriching and helps add meaning to your lives, both as artists and people. It is an honor for me to be a small part of that journey.

“I look forward to getting to know everyone in the WYSO family over the coming months.”

For more background and information about WYSO, which is more than 50 years old and has reached thousands of students from more than a hundred communities in south-central Wisconsin, and about the upcoming spring concerts in May, go to:

https://www.wysomusic.org


Classical music: UW Choral Union and soloists succeed impressively in Bach’s massive “St. Matthew Passion.” Plus, a FREE concert of Leonard Bernstein songs is at noon on Friday

April 25, 2018
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features two husband-and-wife teams. Singers bass-baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and pianists Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer will perform an all-Leonard Bernstein program in honor of his centennial. The program includes selections from Arias and Barcarolles,” “Mass,” “Peter Pan,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Songfest.” The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

It comes a bit late for this year’s Holy Week, but the UW Choral Union’s impressive mounting of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last Sunday was still a major contribution to our music this spring.

Running at almost three hours, this is Bach’s longest single work, and is regarded by now as one of the musical monuments of Western Civilization. But its length and its demands make it something performed only on special occasions.

No antiquarian, conductor Beverly Taylor, who directs choral activities at the UW-Madison, tried to follow carefully Bach’s elaborate specifications, which call for both a double chorus and a double orchestra, along with soloists.

A traditionally ample agency, the Choral Union this time fielded a total of 100 singers, plus a 12-member children’s choir, as against a pair of student orchestras numbering 14 and 12 respectively, all playing modern instruments.

This was hardly a balanced combination and Bach himself could never have assembled, much less managed, so huge a chorus as this. It certainly overwhelmed the orchestras, and quite drowned out the children’s group in their appearance at the beginning and ending of Part I.

Still, there is no denying the magnificence of such a large choral force. It was just a bit challenged by the turbae or crowd passages. Nevertheless, to hear such a powerful choir sing so many of the intermittent chorales in Bach’s harmonizations is to feel the glory of the entire Lutheran legacy in religious expression.

A total of 16 soloists were employed, in functions of varying consequence.

At the head of the list stand two. Tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below left) has a voice of more Italian than German character, to my taste. But he not only carried off the heavy duties of the narrating Evangelist, he also sang the tenor arias as well, with unfailing eloquence.  And faculty baritone Paul Rowe (below right) was truly authoritative as Jesus in the parts reserved for the Savior.

The arias were otherwise addressed by a double cast of singers, two each on the other voice parts. Of the two sopranos, Sara Guttenberg (if I have the identity correctly from the confusing program) was strong and splendidly artistic.

Talia Engstrom was more a mezzo-soprano than a true contralto, and not an equally powerful singer, but I did like her very engaging singing. (You can hear the lovely contralto and violin aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The sharing of the alto arias with a countertenor was, however, not a good idea. Of the two bass-baritones, Matthew Chastain (if I have his identity aright) sang with strong and rich tone.  The other singers, mostly singing the character parts in the Gospel text, were generally students, ranging widely in maturity and appeal.

Taken as a whole, though, this performance was an admirable achievement for Beverly Taylor (below). Her tempos were on the moderate side, accommodating especially the large chorus. Above all, her enterprise was obvious in tackling this massive work, while the choral singers obviously found a special thrill in participating in it.

Compliments should be given the program, which contained the full German text interlarded with the English translation. With full house lighting, this wisely allowed the audience to follow along closely.

But the performance was divided into two sittings, one for Part I at 4 p.m., the second for Part II at 7:30 p.m., with a break in between of over two hours — really too long, I found.


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Classical music: Madison Opera travels to the jungle for the local premiere of the Spanish opera “Florencia en el Amazonas” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

April 23, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Opera travels to the jungle to present the Madison premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas (with sets from the production by the Arizona Opera, below) by Daniel Catán on Friday night, April 27, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 29, at 2:30 p.m. in the Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State Street.

The opera will be sung in Spanish with English supertitles. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets are $18-$130 with discounts available for students and groups. For more information about tickets and the production, go to www.madisonopera.org

Mexican composer Daniel Catan’s lush and accessible orchestral soundscape brings the Amazon River to life in this magical and mystical journey.

Set in South America at the turn of the 20th century, the story begins when Florencia Grimaldi, a famous opera singer, embarks anonymously on a voyage down the Amazon River to sing a concert in Manaus, Brazil.

She is traveling to the concert incognito; her real hope for the journey is to be reunited with the lover she left behind, a butterfly hunter.

On the boat with her are a young journalist, Rosalba, who is writing a biography of Grimaldi; a couple feeling the strain of their long marriage, Paula and Alvaro; the boat’s captain; the captain’s restless nephew, Arcadio, who falls in love with Rosalba; and a man who is a rather mystical presence, Riolobo.

Over the course of the journey, the passengers encounter a storm, piranha, and ultimately cholera.

Florencia en el Amazons is simply gorgeous,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s General Director.  “I heard only wonderful things about it following its 1996 premiere, and when I saw the opera 10 years ago, I realized why audiences love it so much.

“The music is ravishing, the setting is physically beautiful, and the characters are fascinating. I am delighted to be presenting it in Madison, as part of our vision of sharing operas from all time periods and in all languages.”

Florencia was the third opera composed by Daniel Catán (below, in a photo by Gina Ferazzi for the Los Angeles Times) and the first Spanish-language opera to be commissioned by a major U.S. opera company. Houston Grand Opera premiered the work in 1996; it has since been performed across North America and Europe, with companies like Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle producing it multiple times due to audience demand.

The opera’s libretto, while an original story, was inspired by the writings of the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez (below) author of 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain was a protégé of Márquez; according to Catán, he and Fuentes-Berain would show García Márquez parts of the libretto as they were finished. Elements of the author’s trademark magic realism pervade many parts of the opera.

Catán’s music was acclaimed for its lush writing.  The New York Times said, “Mr. Catán’s writing for the voice is luxuriously lyrical; and he orchestrates with skill.” (You can hear the opera’s opening scene in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Catán wrote two more operas before dying at age 62 of a heart attack. At his sudden death in 2011, Plácido Domingo called him “one of the great opera composers of our time, beloved by audiences and especially by the musicians who had the privilege of performing his incredible work.”

“I am so happy to have the opportunity to perform this absolutely gorgeous opera,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), Madison Opera’s Artistic Director. “I had the pleasure of knowing Daniel Catán, and commissioned an orchestral suite from this opera for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which we performed in 2003.

“We all were struck by the power and sweep of the music. This story of the power of love and music in all of our lives will be sung by a great cast of singers, and the orchestral fabric will lift audiences out of their seats and transport them to the magical world of the Amazon. This is an opera written in our time, with a musical score that will leave audiences wanting to hear it again and again.”

Madison Opera’s cast features a number of returning favorites. For revealing 10-question interviews with cast members, go to the MadOpera blog at: http://madisonopera.blogspot.com

Elizabeth Caballero (below) sings Florencia Grimaldi, a role she has sung for New York City Opera and Nashville Opera. The Cuban-American soprano debuted with Madison Opera at Opera in the Park in 2007 and returned in Carmen, La Traviata,and Don Giovanni. Last month, she sang Mimì in La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera.

Rachel Sterrenberg sings the journalist Rosalba; she debuted in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird here last season.

Adriana Zabala (below), who sang in The Tales of Hoffmann and at last summer’s Opera in the Park, sings Paula, a role she has also sung at San Diego Opera and Arizona Opera.

Nmon Ford (below, in a photo by Guy Madmoni), who sang Scarpia in Tosca with Madison Opera in 2013, sings the mysterious Riolobo.

Mackenzie Whitney, who debuted as Rodolfo in La Bohème with Madison Opera in 2015, returns as Arcadio, the Captain’s nephew. Levi Hernandez, who debuted in The Magic Flute here in 2005, returns as Alvaro. Bass Ashraf Sewailam (below) makes his Madison Opera debut as the Captain of the El Dorado.

Kristine McIntyre (below) returns to direct this Madison Opera premiere. She has directed many successful productions for Madison Opera, including Dead Man Walking and The Tales of Hoffmann. Recent work includes productions at Pittsburgh Opera, Utah Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, and Kentucky Opera.

The production prominently features members of Kanopy Dance Company, playing spirits of the river.  Lisa A. Thurrell, co-artistic director of Kanopy, has created choreography for her dancers and this production.

The set (below) comes from Arizona Opera, with costumes designed by Madison Opera’s Karen Brown-Larimore, who designed the costumes for The Abduction from the Seraglio in February.

As always, the opera features the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Madison Opera’s production of “Florencia en el Amazons” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Thompson Investment Management, Inc., Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Thomas Terry, the Ann Stanke Fund, Kennedy Gilchrist and Heidi Wilde, and Charles Snowdon and Ann Lindsey.


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Classical music: Today is Earth Day 2018. Listen to a new one-hour symphony commissioned by National Geographic to mark the event in sound and pictures

April 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is April 22, 2018 – Earth Day.

A lot of classical music is appropriate to the occasion, from the sound paintings in oratorios by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Franz Joseph Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn to the chamber music and songs of Franz Schubert; from the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak and Gustav Mahler to the contemporary award-winning environmental music by John Luther Adams, much of whose work can be found on YouTube.

But of special interest this year is the one-hour “Symphony for Our World.” It is a five-movement symphony that was commissioned from two different composers – Austin Fray (below top) and Andrew Christie (below bottom) — by National Geographic to celebrate the planet.

The presentation premieres TONIGHT at 6 p.m. on the TV channel National Geographic WILD. (In the Madison area, the Spectrum/Charter cable channel is 147, 707 for HD.) Here is a link to a search engine that finds the channel where you live. Just plug in your ZIP code and your television provider:

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel_finder/wild/

The performance tonight also marks the beginning of a national orchestra tour with the music. (You can see and hear the first two minutes in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link to a story with more information, including a trailer, the dates and places of the world tour, and quotes from the composers about the composition and which instruments evoke which natural phenomena:

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/04/symphony-for-our-world-austin-fray-andrew-christie-culture-spd/

What composer or piece of classical music do you think best celebrates Earth Day?

Leave your answer with a YouTube link, if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: UW Choral Director Beverly Taylor talks about her life with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which she will conduct this Sunday afternoon and night

April 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” always ranks high on the short list of the greatest choral works ever composed.

And for good reason.

It represents a peak of Bach’s sacred music and his choral compositions.

This Sunday afternoon and night in Mills Hall, Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the assistant music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the UW Choral Union (below) — comprised of university and community singers — plus soloists and an orchestra, in a performance of the complete work.

At 4 p.m. they will do Part 1 and then at 7:30 p.m., Part 2.

Tickets (one ticket is good for both parts) are $15, $8 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Tickets will also be available at the door.

The Ear is always curious to learn more about the relationship between a professional musician and a towering masterpiece.

He found out more when Taylor (below) recently answered an email Q&A about her past and current experiences with the “St. Matthew Passion”:

When did you first hear the “St. Matthew Passion” and what was your reaction?

I never heard it until my late 20s, would you believe? I’d been through grad school and all its training, and learned German, knew a lot of Bach; and when Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony did it on Good Friday, I sat spellbound for over three hours.

I was shaken to the core by its beauty, and even though it was hardly an early music performance, it was well handled, and one of my favorite British singers, Robert Tear, was the Evangelist. I’ve never forgotten it!

Where do you place the “St. Matthew Passion” among Bach’s works and especially among his many choral works?

As with all masterpieces, it’s hard to choose. It’s the longest work, and its size and scope alone make it a frequent choice of many for favorite work.

It’s more dramatic than the breath-taking B Minor Mass and more meditative than the St. John Passion, but I also love the unbelievable variety of cantatas that Bach (below) produced.

Don’t make me choose!

What role has the “St. Matthew Passion” played in your personal and professional life?

I’d say it’s a pinnacle work. This is only my second time performing it, and I’m unlikely to have the chance again, although one hopes. So I’m invested in its beauty and in its core message of hope in the face of tragedy.

Are there things you would like audiences to know about your upcoming performance?

There are several things.

We have a wonderful cast of soloists, and the orchestra is not the usual student orchestra, since the UW Symphony Orchestra is committed to another program in the near future, but is instead a mixture of students, semi-pros and pros.

The work is set for the two choruses and two orchestras that play with them. Many of the choral movements are set for both orchestras, but Bach varies the texture of each movement by varying who plays in what.

If a listener hasn’t been to a Passion performance before, then you might want to know that:

The character of the Evangelist (sung superbly in this case by Wesley Dunnagan, below) is the narrator of the drama. He is accompanied by the continuo part—which is made up of a keyboard (usually organ with sacred works) and a low melody instrument, usually cello.

The chorus members sing sometimes in the character of Greek chorus commentary, sometimes as characters in the roles of Mob, Roman soldiers, Pharisees, and disciples. Most of this text comes from the book of St. Matthew. However, German theologians wrote commentary that is used for the beautiful Chorales-which basically are hymn-style settings of well-known Lutheran tunes. These chorales turn personal—for instance when Judas betrays Jesus, the chorus, after being a mob, turns around and says in repentance—It is I, I’m the one that killed you. (You can hear the final chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The text is so important, and Bach uses myriad details to bring it out. It is typical that when the text is about death, or evil, or sin, the writing is chromatic, or full of augmented fourth intervals (once nicknamed the devil’s interval). When Jesus has died and been buried, the chorus sings what feels like a lullaby, with the rocking cradle motion. When an earthquake follows Jesus’ death and the curtain of the temple is torn, the continuo cello breaks out of accompaniment mode and tears down the scale like lightning

Although this work presents Bach’s Christian view in the heart of the church year, the scope and issues of faithfulness and disloyalty, trust and fear, should resonate with listeners of all faiths.

We’ve chosen, as some other presenters have, to have a dinner/snack break between the two parts of the three-hour work. One ticket will get you into either or both halves. We do this to give singers and players a little rest, and a little movement to our listeners. Part I runs from 4 p.m. to about 5:15 p.m., and Part II runs from 7:30 p.m. to about 9:15 p.m.


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