The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Tonight is the opening of the Madison Savoyards’ production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operatic satire “H.M.S. Pinafore.” Seven performances will run through Aug. 6

July 28, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in UW Music Hall, on Bascom Hill, the Madison Savoyards will give the opening performance of their latest production of the popular operetta “H.M.S. Pinafore” by Gilbert and Sullivan (below).

The production, including two Sunday matinees at 3 p.m., will be performed on July 28, 29, 30 and August 3, 4, 5 and 6.

According to a press release, the production promises to be “visually stunning.”

Audrey Wax (below top), of Edgewood College, is the stage director, and Kyle Knox (below bottom), who studied at UW-Madison and has conducted for the Madison Opera, the University Opera and the Middleton Community Orchestra, is the music director.

The orchestra and cast are local.

SYNOPSIS

“Pinafore is the story of a lowly sailor in love with his Captain’s daughter, but she is betrothed to a wealthy officer of her own social class.

Political satire of the time (and today) permeates the story, making light-hearted fun of patriotism, party politics, and unqualified people reaching positions of power.

“Even though Pinafore premiered in 1878 skewering the “one percent” of its day, the class conflicts and romantic rivalry resonate with audiences of any generation. Rich orchestration and challenging vocal work make the music a joy to perform and to hear.” (You can hear the funny and popular song “I Am the Monarch of the Sea” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

ADDITIONAL OPPORTUNITIES

Grant funding supports the artists and underwrites the Children’s Pre-Show (1 p.m. on this Sunday, July 30, at UW Music Hall).

Children will meet members of the cast and crew, and learn about the show and its music, tour the theater, and create a show-centric craft for free.

American Sign Language service is available, by request, for the July 29 performance.

TICKETS

Tickets cost $40 for premium seats; $30 for general admission; $28 for seniors; $15 for students and young people under 18; and $5 for children 6 and under. Tickets can be purchased through UW Box Office at (608) 265-2787, www.arts.wisc.edu, or in person at the door.  Group sales of 10 or more available by telephone only. Some disocunts are available.

ABOUT MADISON SAVOYARDS LTD.

Since 1963, it has been the mission of the Madison Savoyards, Ltd. to preserve the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and other light opera by producing and promoting live performances; to develop the skills and talent of cast, crew and musicians of all ages; and to inspire, entertain, and educate the community through performances and other initiatives.

“More information can be found on our Facebook page along with behind the scenes insights to the production.”

For full information about the production and the cast, and for clips from other Savoyard productions, go to: http://madisonsavoyards.org


Classical music: University Opera’s “Turn of the Screw” is a completely satisfying production of a complex modern masterpiece by Benjamin Britten

March 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy filed this review, with photos by Michael R. Anderson, for The Ear:

By Larry Wells

I attended the opening performance of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 chamber opera “The Turn of the Screw” that was presented by University Opera and directed by David Ronis.

It was a completely satisfying theatrical experience of a complexly organized musical work.

The libretto is based on Henry James’ serial novella of the same name. Whereas the James work is an ambiguous, psychological tale, Britten’s opera is an eerie ghost story laden with suggestions of psychosexual mischief.

Musically the opera is based on a 12-tone theme with each of its scenes preceded by a variation of the theme. There are further structural complexities in this highly organized work, but the music is very accessible and was admirably performed by 13 musicians ably led by conductor Kyle Knox. Particular praise goes to the percussionist Garrett Mendlow.

The beautiful, minimalistic set and stunning lighting enhanced the creepiness of the tale.

As for the singing, the cast tackled the complex vocal lines with aplomb, and there were several exceptional performances.

Particular praise goes to Anna Polum for her outstanding portrayal of the ghostly Miss Jessell. She sang beautifully and acted convincingly. (Below, from left, are Katie Anderson as the Governess and Anna Polum as Miss Jessell.)

Dress Rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw"

Dress Rehearsal for “Turn of the Screw”

Likewise Emily Vandenberg as Flora was realistic in the role of a young girl. I have seen performances of this opera that were brought down by unconvincing portrayals of this difficult child role, but Vandenberg acted naturally and sang beautifully.

The other child role, Miles, was capably performed by Simon Johnson, a middle school student. Cayla Rosché adeptly performed Mrs. Grose, the enigmatic housekeeper. (Below are Amitabha Shatdal  as Miles, Cayla Rosché  as Mrs. Grose and Elisheva Pront as Flora.)

Dress Rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw"

Dress Rehearsal for “Turn of the Screw”

The two major roles are The Governess and the spectral Peter Quint. Erin Bryan was convincing as the increasingly confused and hysteric governess, and she played off Rosché’s Mrs. Grose to great effect. At one point I was thinking that these were two extremely flighty women. (Below, from left, are Cayla Rosché  as Mrs. Grose; Elisheva Pront as Flora; Katie Anderson as the Governess; and Amitabha Shatdal as Miles.)

Dress Rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw"

Dress Rehearsal for “Turn of the Screw”

Alec Brown (below) as Quint had the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of singers like Peter Pears who made Quint an evil, threatening, nasty fellow. Brown’s Quint came off as slightly laid back, and his perfectly fine tenor voice was just not a Britten voice in the style of Pears, Philip Langridge or Ian Bostridge.

Dress Rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw"

Dress Rehearsal for “Turn of the Screw”

I had a couple of minor problems with the evening. First, I did not understand why the doors to Music Hall didn’t open until 7:20 for a 7:30 performance, which then actually started at 7:45. And, I was disappointed that the piano, which is a major contributor to the music’s sonority, was swapped for an electronic keyboard.

Yet I left feeling once again that Britten was a true musical genius of the 20th century and that I was eager to go to the 3 p.m. performance this afternoon to experience it all over again.

“The Turn of the Screw” will also be performed one last time on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

For more information about the opera, including how to buy tickets — admission is $25 with $20 for seniors and $10 for students, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/01/31/university-opera-presents-benjamin-brittens-the-turn-of-the-screw/


Classical music: Chamber music for horn, jazz music for saxophone, a master class for pianists plus concertos for various instruments and a new composition are featured this week at the UW-Madison

February 7, 2017
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CORRECTION: In an early version of yesterday’s post, The Ear mistakenly said that performances by the Madison Opera of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” are on Saturday night at 8 as well as Sunday afternoon at 2:30. The first performance is FRIDAY NIGHT at 8 p.m. – NOT Saturday night. The Ear apologizes for the error.

Here are two links with more information about the opera and the production:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/02/06/classical-music-jazz-and-classical-music-are-not-so-different-says-composer-daniel-schnyder-he-discusses-his-score-to-charlie-parkers-yardbird-which-the-madison-opera-st/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/classical-music-madison-opera-will-present-the-midwest-premiere-of-charlie-parkers-yardbird-here-are-the-many-preparatory-events-for-the-public/

By Jacob Stockinger

This is a busy week with a wide diversity of music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Here is a run-down by day:

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW hornist Daniel Grabois (below, in a photo by James Gill) will be joined by fellow UW-Madison professor pianist Christopher Taylor for a concert of brass music that is FREE and OPEN to the public.

The program features works by Franz Strauss (Empfindungen am Meere), Paul Hindemith (Alto Horn Sonata), Maurice Ravel (Horn Sonata, originally Violin Sonata) and Jean-Michel Damase (Sonata).

Daniel Grabois 2012 James Gill

THURSDAY

At 7:30 p.m. (NOT 7, as mistakenly first stated in yesterday’s post)  in Morphy Recital Hall, saxophonist Daniel Schnyder will perform  music by American jazz titan Charlie Parker with the Blue Note Ensemble and also participate in a Q&A session. The event is FREE and open to the public.

Schnyder is the composer of the opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” that the Madison Opera will perform in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center on Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. See the above correction for links to more information about the opera.

daniel-schnyder-2017

FRIDAY

From 4:30 to 6 p.m. in Mills Hall, Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero will offer a FREE and PUBLIC master class. The Ear has no details about what will be featured.

Montero (below, in a photo by Shelley Mosman), who specializes in spontaneous improvisations but also performs standard repertoire, will perform at 8 p.m. on this Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear her live improvisations in Cologne, Germany on the aria theme of Johann Sebastian Bach‘s well-known “Goldberg” Variations.)

Here is a link with more information, including ticket prices, concert and recording reviews and audio-video clips, about her recital in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater:

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/gabriela-montero/

And here is a link to more information about Montero, who also has won awards for her playing, improvisations and her Piano Concerto No. 1:

http://www.gabrielamontero.com

gabriela-montero-2017-shelley-mosman

SUNDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall is the annual Symphony Showcase with the winners of the UW concerto competition and the world premiere of a student composition. The concert will be conducted by Professor James Smith and graduate student Kyle Knox.

Admission to the event costs $10 for adults; students and children get in for free. There is also a FREE post-concert reception at the nearby University Club.

For more information about the program (violin works by Ravel and Shostakovich, vocal works by Ravel and Gounod, a trumpet work by Oskar Boehme) and biographies of the five student performers (below) plus student composer (Nathan Froebe), go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-symphony-orchestra-showcase/

uw-symphony-showcase-performers-2017


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra excels in its holiday concert of great non-holiday music and shows why it is attracting bigger audiences

December 26, 2016
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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 89.9 FM. For many years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Last Wednesday night, in the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave what was billed as its “Holiday 2016 Concert.” Fortunately, it had no seasonal connection whatsoever—just a lot of good music.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

Opening the program was a sequence of three Slavonic Dances (Nos. 1,4 and 8) by Antonin Dvorak.  (You can hear the zesty and energetic first Slavonic Dance, performed by Seiji Ozawa and the Vienna Philharmonic, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The conductor this time, UW-Madison graduate student Kyle Knox (below), was able to point up lots of instrumental details that could be easily lost, and the orchestra played with a lusty vigor appropriate to the folk flavor of this music.

kyle-knox-2016

After that, Knox’s wife, Naha Greenholtz (below) — who happens to be the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, among other things—joined the MCO in Felix Mendelssohn’s beautiful and very popular Violin Concerto in E minor.

naha

Greenholtz played from the score, and some occasional technical blurrings suggested that she does not yet have the piece securely in her fingers.

Still, she clearly understands the work’s shape and contours, and I particularly appreciated her flowing tempo for the middle movement, not as slow as we too often hear it. Her overall effect with this concerto was handsome and colorful.

naha-greennholtz-and-kyle-knox-with-middleton-community-orchestra

The main work was the Second Symphony by Brahms, which you can hear n the YouTube video at the bottom. This is a challenging work, especially when the important exposition repeat in the long first movement is honored, as Knox did.

Knox showed a thorough grasp of the score, and brought out its structures superbly. I found myself appreciating anew the wondrous way the composer is able to make his themes evolve to reveal unexpected beauties.

Well done, this is a richly satisfying work, and Knox drew out of his players (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) a truly satisfying performance.

Middleton Community Orchestra strings CR Brian Ruppert

The Middleton Community Orchestra continues to develop and progress. Just now, it is rather violin-heavy with 14 firsts and 18 seconds against only 9 violas and 13 cellos. These fiddlers need to blend better, and experience in working together will doubtless move them in that direction.

In general, the orchestra sounded quite healthy, fully supportive in the concerto and really accomplished in the symphony. All that is clearly the result of hard work, and Knox deserves a good deal of the credit for it.

Notable also was the large audience turnout. Middletonians can clearly be proud of their orchestra, and more and more of the Madison public is learning that a trip to the west side can be most rewarding.

MIddleton Community Orchestra audience

The MCO is by now, in its seventh season, a valuable and appreciated component of our area’s musical life.


Classical music: Here are the best classical recordings of 2016 as chosen by critics for The New York Times. Plus, take a break from Christmas music when the Middleton Community Orchestra plays music by Dvorak, Mendelssohn and Brahms tomorrow night

December 20, 2016
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REMINDER: Had your fill of holiday music yet? The Ear sure has. Listening to too much Christmas music is a little like drinking too much eggnog or eating too much fruitcake.

So he is grateful to the Middleton Community Orchestra, a mostly amateur but very accomplished ensemble that performs tomorrow night, Wednesday, Dec. 21, at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School.

Happily, the MCO has a program that features conductor Kyle Knox and Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz. The music runs counter-intuitive to most seasonal programming and offers a break from all things Christmas except for beauty and joy: some Slavonic Dances by Antonin  Dvorak, the terrific Violin Concerto in E minor by Felix Mendelssohn and the sunny Symphony No. 2 by Johannes Brahms.

Admission is $15 (NOT $10 as mistakenly stated earlier); free to students.

For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/12/16/classical-music-the-mostly-amateur-middleton-community-orchestra-will-give-its-holiday-concert-of-works-by-mendelssohn-dvorak-and-brahms-on-wednesday-night-dec-21/

By Jacob Stockinger

There is still time for giving and getting this holiday season.

So here are The Best Classical Recordings of 2016, as chosen by critics for The New York Times.

nyt-best-of-2016-1

The Times listing has good discerning commentaries and even some audiovisual excerpts of the recordings named. And at least one of the recordings — a CD of Haydn and Ligeti by pianist Shai Wosner — has connections to Madison and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

One can also use this list as a starting point.

The Ear likes to package a recording with a book and even a ticket to a live performance. And these choices offer much food for thought. For example. the recording of the Symphony No. 1 by Edward Elgar, recorded by conductor Daniel Barenboim, will be performed at the Wisconsin Union Theater this spring by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under its outgoing director Edo de Waart.

nyt-best-of-2016-2

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/15/arts/music/best-classical-music-recordings-2016.html?_r=0

And here is a link to two other gift guides.

The first is the post-Thanksgiving guide, which includes books and DVDs, by The New York Times:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/11/27/classical-music-here-is-the-new-york-times-holiday-gift-guide-of-classical-music-for-2016/

The second is the list of nominations for the 2017 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/12/10/classical-music-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-2017-grammy-awards-they-make-a-great-holiday-gift-list-of-gives-and-gets/

Enjoy and leave word of your agreement or disagreement along with other selections in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

nyt-best-of-2016-3


Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players perform an unusual holiday program with a Wisconsin premiere twice this coming Sunday afternoon

November 22, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) will perform a concert titled Looking Back and Forward on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016 at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

Oakwood Chamber Players 2015-16

The performances will both be held at the Oakwood Village University Woods Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on the far west side of Madison near West Towne Mall.

An innovative recipe for A Christmas Carol is a perfect addition to the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Outstanding musical theater actor/singer baritone Bobby Goderich (below, seen on the right in Madison Opera‘s production of Stephen Sondheim‘s “Sweeney Todd”) will give a tour-de-force characterization of the entire cast of personalities for a rendition of Dickens’s tale in The Passion of Scrooge. A dozen musicians will give Goderich’s flair an abundant platform to show off his singing, humor, and dramatic effects.

bobby-goderich-in-madison-operas-sweeney-todd

The Passion of Scrooge by New York composer Jon Deak (below) is performed annually for holiday concerts at the Smithsonian, and the Oakwood Chamber Players are delighted to present the Wisconsin premiere of this memorable work.

Deak is known for weaving a variety of tales into “concert dramas,” turning words into music and giving instrumentalists the power to evoke speech through their sounds.

The Passion of Scrooge is laid out in two acts as the character struggles to come to grips with the past, present and future, to transform a life of avarice to one of human warmth.

jon-deak

Additionally, the Oakwood Chamber Players will perform music mentioned in the text of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

When the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge a celebration hosted by his employer, Mr. Fezziwig, the fiddler plays the tune Sir Roger de Coverley. (You can hear a chamber orchestra version of the work, played by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This traditional English country dance, set for string quartet by British composer Frank Bridge (below) in 1922, will provide an energetic introduction to The Passion of Scrooge. The musical pairing illustrates how creative expression can transform historic works to give fresh perspectives.

Frank Bridge

The Oakwood Chamber Players welcome guests Wes Luke, violin; Katrin Talbot, viola; Brad Townsend, bass; Mike Koszewski, percussion; Mary Ann Harr, harp; Bobby Goderich, baritone; and Kyle Knox, conductor (below).

kyle-knox-2016

This is the second of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players 2016-2017 season series entitled Perspective. Remaining concerts will take place on Jan. 21 and 22, March 18 and 19, and May 13 and 14.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

The program lasts about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors and $5 for students.

Also, conductor Kyle Knox will discuss the music on Norman Gilliland’s show, The Midday, on Wisconsin Public Radio, 88.7 FM WERN, on this Friday, Nov. 25, from noon to 1 p.m.

Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

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


Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra excels in difficult music by Wagner and Sibelius.

April 16, 2016
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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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

It was a short program — lasting under an hour — but an outstanding one, that the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave on Wednesday evening.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

There were only two works, but profoundly challenging ones, and associate conductor Kyle Knox (below) really put his amateur players’ feet to the fire.

Kyle Knox 2

The first work was the Prelude to Act I of the opera Lohengrin by Richard Wagner (below). This is music of spun silk, noteworthy for its use of divided violins most of the way through.

That creates a uniquely etherial sound, but one that takes great effort to bring off. The MSO has been developing a surprisingly fine string band. Its violinists met the demands of tone and balance beautifully, producing a performance of transcendent beauty.

Richard Wagner

The other, longer, work was a symphony heard far too rarely. This was the Symphony No. 3 of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (below).

I say quite frankly that it is my favorite among the symphonies of Sibelius. After the post-Tchaikovsky bombast of the First and Second, it was in this Third that the composer first found his own orchestral voice, establishing how to make his instruments and their ensembles work in ways that were totally his.

In its use of variations, and especially of thematic evolution, the Third also drafted the blueprint for the Fifth Symphony, which conductors and audiences adore, but to the cruel eclipse of the Third.

sibelius

This Third– which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom– is not an easy work to bring off. Its orchestral textures are full of tricky intricacies. No surprise that, here and there, one might hear quick moments in which the tension slackened. But Knox drew the players through a performance of beauty and power, finely honed and sonorously rendered.

The players clearly relish working under Knox. (The orchestra’s founding father, Steve Kurr, was sitting modestly in the viola section for this concert.) Knox’s own growth as a conductor is paired with his guiding of the orchestra to higher and higher achievements. Just for programming the Sibelius Third, I award him strong praise, but for bringing it off so well I must multiply my accolades.

I take this as a landmark event for the MCO—a genuine achievement. It is sad that the audience was not larger. Madison music-lovers, where are you when music and artistry like this is available to you?

I anticipate ranking this as my “concert of the year” when the final returns are in!


Classical music: University Opera will stage three performances of “Transformations” this Friday night, Sunday afternoon and next Tuesday night.

March 8, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Take children’s fairy tales – such as “Sleeping Beauty” (below) — and recast them through adult reinterpretations. You can get some pretty weird and dark and humorous results.

Henry Meynel Rheam painting Sleeping Beauty

That is not only the formula for Stephen Sondheim’s popular Broadway musical and later Hollywood movie “Into the Woods.”

It also worked for the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Anne Sexton, who grew depressed and killed herself at age 45. Her versions then became an opera.

anne sexton

The music, described as tonal and accessible, is by Conrad Susa (below), who taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The contemporary opera has been popular and widely staged.

Conrad Susa

This weekend and early next week, University Opera – the opera program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music – will give three performances in Music Hall of the work on Friday night at 7:30 p.m., Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. (NOT 3:30 as first posted here mistakenly) and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOTE: An ad on Wisconsin Public Radio erroneously lists the performance times on Friday and Tuesday nights as 7 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively.)

Admission is $25, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.

Members of the cast even posted an invitation video on YouTube:

For more information, visit the A Tempo blog of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, which features remarks from interim opera director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio), who is based in New York City, and details about the pre-concert discussion on Friday night from 6 to 7 p.m. (There will also be talk back sessions after each performance.):

https://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/university-opera-presents-spring-show-transformations/

David Ronis color CR Luke DeLalio

The music director is graduate student in conducting Kyle Knox (below), who recently conducted Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” for the Madison Opera and who conducts ensembles at the UW-Madison and the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Kyle Knox 2

For even more background, visit:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2016/02/12/university-opera-presents-transformations/

Here is a sample, a YouTube video of the “Hansel and Gretel” section of “Transformations”:


Classical music: Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” is a second-rate opera that got a first-rate production from the Madison Opera

February 12, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Rankin Utevsky. The young violist, baritone and conductor is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and conductor James Smith, plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra, and sings with the University Opera.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO – www.MAYCO.org), which will perform its sixth season this summer. He also directs a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of this past weekend’s performance of Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” by the Madison Opera.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Also, his latest venture was the successful recent launch of the Impresario Student Opera at the UW-Madison.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below) with production photos by James Gill for the Madison Opera:

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

By Mikko Rankin Utevsky

A great opera can be memorable in many ways. You might remember how you felt at the climaxes of the music, or walk out humming the Big Tune from the showstopper aria, or leave with an image fixed in your mind’s eye of the most dramatic moment in the first-act finale.

In an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Giuseppe Verdi or Giacomo Puccini, you might remember all of these. But in American composer Mark Adamo’s debut opera, “Little Women,” there’s nothing to remember — no great moving moments, no thrilling stage pictures, no hummable tunes.

There are motifs, certainly, and recurring lines. But “Things change, Jo” (song by acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the YouTube video at the bottom) can hardly hold a candle to “O soave fanciulla” in Puccini’s “La Bohème,” the first-act Trio in Mozart’s “Figaro,” the parents’ sextet in Jake Heggie‘s “Dead Man Walking,” or the quartet from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

It’s all technically correct, but it’s not great opera — neither great storytelling nor great music.

I left the Sunday performance by Madison Opera with the unshakeable feeling that Adamo’s score had been performed far better than it deserved.

Part of the problem is that Mark Adamo (below) is too clever for his own good. The libretto, from the classic 19th-century American novel by Louisa May Alcott, is stronger than the music — never quite moving, but full of evocative and witty phrases.

The music displays a clear command of naturalistic settings of the text, rising to peaks when it should and creating compelling atmosphere. But it always seems to pull back just when a lyrical melody might break forth, or when an emotional climax draws near.

Mark Adamo

Several times he uses the gambit of two conversations on stage at the same time, talking about the same things. But the pacing is never quite right, and the unison lines are predictable and trite rather than powerful. He lacks the confidence to let people talk over one another unless we’ve already heard half of the lines. (Whether the lack of trust is in the audience or stems from his own compositional skill is a matter of conjecture.)

The dramatic and musical tricks are all “correct” — Adamo knows his business — but none of them make an emotional impact, a point driven home by their success in last season’s “Dead Man Walking,” which employs all the same devices to far greater effect. When the opening scene came back at the end of the show, I was ready to walk out. Enough already!

It is a sad fact that the most moving part of the whole affair was only half Adamo’s — a setting of Goethe’s “Kennst du das Land” (Do You Know the Land) thrown into the second act that almost approached melody, and tugged at the heartstrings in a way no other scene of the opera managed to do.

Beth’s death scene – below top with Chelsea Morris Shephard as Beth (left) and Heather Johnson as Jo — was a close second, admittedly.

Little Women 143 Beth dies GILL

And the lovely wedding vow — below bottom with, from left, Alexander Elliott as John Brooke; Courtney Miller as Meg; Rick Henslin as Gideon March; Elizabeth Hagedorn as Alma March — was marred only by Rick Henslin’s intonation.

LIttle Women 101 wedding GILL

The minimal set cheated the opera out of the lush visual setting it deserved. If the realism of the story had been played up, with painted walls and structures, the human elements of the story might have been more believable in a setting that doesn’t feel as though a strong wind might knock it all down.

Little Women 58 GILL

Instead, a few flown-in flats with cheap-looking projections stood in for the occasional wall, and some rather cool shifting images on the scrim in front of the orchestra highlighted the apparent supernatural elements of the story — not that I thought there were supposed to be any in “Little Women.”

Little Women Jo 40 GILL

This is not to say the visuals were all misses — costumes, wigs, and makeup (Karen Brown-Larimore and Jan Ross) were excellent, particularly in establishing distinctive characterizations for the four sisters, who could easily have been hard to tell apart in a less careful production.

The ghostly vocal quartet that opens the opera — and haunts various scenes in the middle, although I’m told they were intended to be offstage — felt like nothing so much as discount Eric Whitacre: cascading clusters and whole-tone scales with no particular narrative purpose, illuminating nothing about the plot. I did find myself wondering if we were supposed to think Jo had gone insane, between that and the drifting projections on the set, but I’m sure that wasn’t the intended effect.

Despite all this, the voices themselves were superb, and married to strong acting skills to boot. Time and again Madison Opera has shown a knack for finding up-and-coming young singers with tremendous talent, and this cast was no exception.

The four Little Women themselves (below, from left, with Eric Neuville as Laurie; Courtney Miller as Meg, Heather Johnson as Jo; Chelsea Morris Shephard as Beth; Jeni Houser as Amy), aided by sure-handed direction from Candace Evans, mustered warm, credible camaraderie and sisterly love.

They, and their paramours, baritone Alexander Elliot and tenor Eric Neuville, all displayed rich and even vocalism, with clear and precise English diction rendering the supertitles mostly superfluous.

Litlle Women 22 GILL

As the aloof Aunt March and the mother Alma, Brenda Harris and UW-Madison guest professor Elizabeth Hagedorn were secure and confident in their roles as well.

As the German teacher Friedrich Bhaer (below left, with Heather Johnson as Jo), Craig Verm’s accent faded in and out, but his aria, the aforementioned setting of Goethe’s famous “Kennst du das Land,” was the highlight of the show despite this.

Little Women 130 GILL

Guest conductor Kyle Knox (below), a graduate student at the UW-Madison, led musicians of the Madison Symphony Orchestra capably through a score mired in complexity and made the result sound natural — not an easy feat.

Kyle Knox 2

I admire general director Katherine Smith (below) and the Madison Opera for taking a chance on contemporary American opera, and I dearly hope they do so again next season, and the season after that.

In a tremendously conservative industry, it takes guts to put on something by a living composer when everyone else is picking the safe options to sell out the house. And I’d rather see a contemporary opera and hate it than sit through a mediocre “Bohème” (though this fall’s “Bohème” by the Madison Opera was quite excellent).

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Modern opera is a gamble, both for the box office and for the musicians. Sometimes you find “Dead Man Walking.” And sometimes you don’t. I hope the next contemporary piece to grace the Capitol Theater stage is one for the ages, even if this one, well, wasn’t.

NOTE: For purposes of comparison, here are links to two other reviews of the Madison Opera’s production of “Little Women”:

This is the review John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/arts/stage/madison-opera-little-women/

And this is the review by Greg Hettmansberger, who writes for Madison Magazine and now has his own blog WhatGregSays as well as monthly appearances on WISC-TV:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/madison-opera-stands-tall-for-little-women/

And here is a  link to an interview with Mark Adamo:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/classical-music-it-always-starts-from-the-singing-line-composer-and-librettist-mark-adamo-talks-about-creating-his-popular-opera-little-women-which-will-be-perfo/


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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