The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: University Opera stages a compelling and fully engaging cabaret of Kurt Weill songs

October 29, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend and colleague, The Opera Guy, has filed the following review.

By Larry Wells

I attended a nearly full-house opening of University Opera’s “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” Friday night in Music Hall on Bascom Hill.

The 90-minute show was comprised of about 20 numbers from the body of works by Weill (below, in a photo from the German Federal Archive. The ensembles, solos and duets were arranged into three sections with a loose narrative structure linking the pieces.

Throughout the evening I was unaware of the passage of time, which is one of my acid tests for a good performance. Likewise, I felt fully engaged.

Many of the numbers will be familiar to Weill’s fans. The well-known “Whiskey Bar/Alabama Song” was the opening solo for Sarah Kendall, who performed it more as a Puccini aria than as the world-weary, boozy Jenny. It was a novel and strangely compelling interpretation.

(Kendall performing “Whiskey Bar” with the company, is below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson, who took all the performance photographs)

More convincingly conveyed was “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” performed by the sprightly and clear-voiced Emily Weaver. “My Ship” sung by Miranda Kettlewell (below right, singing the Ice Cream Sextet with Alec Brown) was perfectly enunciated and movingly sung.

Since there were no supertitles, clear enunciation was a problem in a couple of the performances.

Likewise, mention should be made of Emily Vandenberg’s haunting rendition of “Surabaya Johnny.” (You can hear the legendary Weill interpreter Lotte Lenya sing “Surabaya Johnny” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

My favorite performances of the evening included “‘Youkali” by Talia Engstrom. My notes simply said “Perfection.” And my perennial favorite Courtney Kayser (below) did not disappoint with “J’attends un navire” and “Denn wie man sich bettet.” She is an excellent actress, possesses outstanding musicianship, and commands a clearly focused voice.

The women singers seriously overshadowed the men’s solo performances. I was wondering why that might have been. One possibility is that the men, who are trained operatically, find that they need to scale back their vocal projection for lighter vocal fare and in doing so sound constrained.

(Below, from back to front and left to right, are: Alec Brown, Jeff Larson, Jake Elfner, Sarah Kendall, Talia Engstrom, Matt Chastain in the “Benares Song.”)

Having said that, I thought Matt Chastain’s “Oh the Rio Grande” from the not well-known “Johnny Johnson” was both well sung and amusing to watch.

My companion admired the voice and acting of Alec Brown, and we both believed that Tim Emery is a dead ringer for a young Jimmy Stewart.

Some of the most compelling moments were the ensembles from Weill’s heavier works. “The Benares Song” highlighted Weill’s gravitas as a composer as did “Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen” from “Das Berliner Requiem.”

The cast members’ acting and vocal skills came to the forefront in these ensembles. (Below is “Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen” with Matt Chastain, Miranda Kettlewell, Alec Brown, Tim Emery, Emily Weaver, Eliav Goldman and Jeffrey Larson in the foreground).

Daniel Fung (below top) heroically provided the piano accompaniment without slacking for even a moment. Kudos to him. He was joined by a string bass and drum all conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below bottom) with unflaggingly appropriate tempi and dynamics.

This was the seventh production by David Ronis (below in a photo by Luke Delallio) for University Opera at the UW-Madison, and his consistently novel approach to the productions has made each one a joy. His commitment to quality and novelty is admirable.

I am eager to see what Ronis has in store for us this coming spring with “La Bohème” to be staged at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

I highly recommend attending “A Kurt Weill Cabaret,” which will be repeated this afternoon at 3 p.m. and Tuesday evening (Halloween night) at 7:30 p.m. Admission for the general public is $25; $20 for seniors; and $10 for UW students.

For more background and information about getting tickets, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/10/23/classical-music-the-university-opera-performs-a-unusual-and-original-kurt-weill-cabaret-this-coming-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-and-next-tuesday-night/

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/09/27/university-opera-presents-a-kurt-weill-cabaret/

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Classical music: The University Opera performs an unusual and original Kurt Weill cabaret this coming Friday night and Sunday afternoon and next Tuesday night

October 23, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera is taking a short break from strictly operatic offerings – in the spring it will stage Puccini’s “La Bohème” — as it turns to the music of Kurt Weill (1900-1950).

No ordinary medley, A KURT WEILL CABARET is an organized pastiche of 21 solos and ensembles from many diverse works by Kurt Weill (below, in a photo from the German Federal Archive), and will be presented at Music Hall on the UW-Madison campus at the foot of Bascom Hill.

(One of the most famous and popular Kurt Weill songs to be performed, “Alabama Song,” once covered by the rock band The Doors in the 1960s, can be heard performed by Lotte Lenya in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances are this Friday, Oct. 27, at 7:30 p.m.; this coming Sunday, Oct. 29, at 3 p.m.; and next Tuesday night, Oct. 31, at 7:30 p.m.

University Opera director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio)  will direct the show.

Chad Hutchinson (below), adjunct professor of orchestras, will conduct.

Musical preparation will be by UW-Madison collaborative pianist and vocal coach, Daniel Fung (below bottom).

Tickets are $25 for the general public; $20 for seniors; and $10 for UW students.

Here is a link to a full-length press release from the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It has information about the performers and the program as well as historical background about Kurt Weill and how to purchase tickets.

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/09/27/university-opera-presents-a-kurt-weill-cabaret/

For more information in general about University Opera, got to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/opera/


Classical music: Bellini’s opera “Norma” opens the new season of “Live From the Met in HD” at movie theaters this Saturday and Wednesday

October 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

At a time when so many classical music programs are striving desperately for commercial success and popularity with the public, one program stands out as phenomenally successful: The Metropolitan Opera’s “Live From the Met in HD” broadcasts.

Those broadcasts reach hundreds of cinemas around the world in North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Here is a list of the international showings:

http://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/international-locations/

The new season of the live broadcasts by the Metropolitan Opera (below) opens this Saturday.

The broadcasts in Madison will take place at two Marcus Corporation cinemas: at the Point Cinemas on the far west side and the Palace Cinemas in Sun Prairie on the far east side.

The first of 10 operas in the season is a new production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Druid-based bel canto opera “Norma.”

The outstanding cast of singers and actors includes Sondra Radvanovsky, Joseph Callejo and Joyce DiDonato. Carlo Rizzi is the conductor. (You can hear a preview of this production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The running time is 3 hours 30 minutes.

Tickets are $18.

Here is a season trailer:

http://www.metopera.org/Season/In-Cinemas/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwjdLOBRCkARIsAFj5-GBXxKzE43SMmgIUAPUrx1p2YrxzvDPG4cMZZk_7JwaoFQOMy22lf_0aAl8xEALw_wcB

The live performance is this Saturday, Oct. 7, at 11:55 a.m.:

http://www.marcustheatres.com/movies/met-norma-live

Encore presentations and rebroadcast are on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at 1 pm. and 6:30 p.m.:

http://www.marcustheatres.com/movies/met-norma-encore

For this production of “Norma,” here are:

A link to a synopsis and cast list:

http://www.metopera.org/Season/In-Cinemas/SynopsisCast/norma/?performanceNumber=14827

Links to production notes and program notes:

http://www.metopera.org/Season/2017-18-Season/norma-bellini-tickets/

http://www.metopera.org/metoperafiles/season/2017-18/operas/norma/programs/100717%20Norma.pdf

Much of the upcoming season features standard tried-and-true operas by Mozart (“The Magic Flute” and “Cosi fan tutti“); Puccini (“Tosca” and “La Bohème”); Verdi (“Luisa Miller”)’ Rossini (“Semiramide”) and Donizetti (“The Elixir of Love”). But there is also a contemporary work, “The Exterminating Angel,” by Thomas Adès and a holiday production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.”

What do you think of the “Live From the Met” screenings?

What do you think most makes them so successful? The quality of the productions? The affordable price? The accessibility?

And what do you think of the choice of operas in the new season?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The annual showcase benefit for University Opera, with student performers and famed bass-baritone alumnus Sam Handley, is this Sunday afternoon

September 23, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Students in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opera program will present the annual “Showcase Concert” of songs and arias this Sunday, Sept. 24, at 3 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive.

They will be joined by bass-baritone Sam Handley (below top), a well-known alumnus now living in Chicago, and accompanist Daniel Fung (below bottom).

The program includes:

Samuel Handley in the “Calumny” aria from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and the song “Her Face” from Merrill’s show “Carnival”

John McHugh in “Donne mie” (Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte”)

Shaddai Solidum in “The Jewel Song” (Gounod’s “Faust”)

Grace Subat in “Far From the Home I Love” (Bock’s “Fiddler on the Roof“)

Sarah Kendall in “Mi chiamano Mimì” (Puccini’s “La Bohème“)

Benjamin Liupaogo (below) in the “Flower Song” (Bizet’s “Carmen”)

Liza Shapin in “I Walked in the Path Where Jesus Walked”

Matthew Chastain in “Questo amor” (Puccini’s “Edgar”)

Yanzelmalee Rivera in “Dondi lieta” (Puccini’s “La Bohème”)

Also the trio “Soave sia il vento” (from Mozart’s “Così fan tutti”) will be sung by Solidum, Subat and Handley; and the duet “Libiamo” (from Verdi’s “La Traviata“) will be sung by Rivera and Liupaogo.

Sam Handley has been praised for “his rich, burnished” voice and the “genuine emotional depth of his characterizations.” The Houston Chronicle has described his “vivid and polished singing” as “leaving the audience panting.”) You can hear him in the YouTube video at the bottom, where he sings the “Calumny” aria that he will also perform at this event.

A contribution of $30 at the door ($10 for students) is requested for this benefit concert.

A reception of chocolate, cheese, wine and punch will follow the concert and is included in the donation. (Below are the participants from last year with David Ronis, third from left in the back row, who is the director of the University Opera.)


Classical music: Broadcasts of operas from the Met and string quartets by the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet are featured on old media and new media this Saturday and Sunday. Plus, the 89th Edgewood college Christmas Concert is tonight and tomorrow afternoon.

December 2, 2016
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ALERT: Edgewood College will present its 89th Annual Christmas Concerts tonight at 7 p.m. and Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive.

Now expanded to two performances, the holiday concert features the Edgewood College choirs and Concert Band, along with audience sing-alongs, prelude music by the Guitar Ensemble, and a post-concert reception featuring the Jazz Ensemble.

Tickets are $10, and seating is limited for this very popular annual event. Tickets should be purchased online in advance.

By Jacob Stockinger

Classical music meets old media and new media this weekend through opera and chamber music.

SATURDAY

This Saturday marks the beginning of the LIVE RADIO broadcasts of operas from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City. This will be the 86th season for the radio broadcasts, which educated and entertained generations of opera lovers before there were DVDs, streaming and the “Live in HD From the Met” broadcasts to movie theaters.

Metropolitan Opera outdoors use Victor J. Blue NYT

Met from stage over pit

The performances will be carried locally on Wisconsin Public Radio, WERN-FM 88.7. This Saturday, the starting time for Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” with Russian superstar soprano Anna Netrebko (below, in a photo by Richard Termine for The New York Times), is 11:30 CST. Other operas will have different starting times, depending their length.

This season runs from Dec. 3-May 15.

Radio has certain strengths, The Ear thinks. For one, it allows the listeners to focus on the music, to be less distracted or less enriched – depending on your point of view – by sets, costumes, lighting, the physicality of the acting and other stagecraft that is left to the imagination.

This season, there will be lots of standard fare including: Verdi’s “La Traviata” and “Aida”; Puccini’s “La Boheme”; Bizet’s “Carmen”; Beethoven’s “Fidelio”; Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” and “The Flying Dutchman”; Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Salome”; and Mozart’s “Idomeneo.”

But you can also hear the new music and less frequently staged operas. They include the 2000 opera “L’amour de loin” (Love From Afar) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, which will receive its Metropolitan Opera premiere next week, on Dec. 10.

Here is a link to the complete season along with links to information about the various productions. Starting times are Eastern Standard Time, so deduct an hour for Central Standard Time or a different amount for your time zone:

http://www.metopera.org/Season/Radio/Saturday-Matinee-Broadcasts/

met-manon-lescaut-anna-netrebko-cr-richard-termine-nyt

SUNDAY

On this Sunday afternoon, the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), longtime artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, will wrap up the first semester of “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen,” which used to air weekly on Wisconsin Public Radio but now is presented once a month, on the first Sunday of the month, directly by the museum.

The program this Sunday features the “Italian Serenade” by Hugo Wolf; the String Quartet No. 3 in F Major by Dmitri Shostakovich; and the String Quartet in A-Flat Major, Op. 105, by Antonin Dvorak.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

The FREE concert takes place from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the Chazen Museum of Art and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Donors to the museum can reserve seats. Concerts by the Pro Arte Quartet, kind of the house quartet of the museum, are usually “sold out.”

But the concert can also be streamed live via computer or smart phone by clicking on the arrow in the photo and using the portal on the following website:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-12-4-16/

sal-pro-arte-12-4-16

You might also want to arrive early or stay late to see the historic and rare First Folio edition (below) of the plays by William Shakespeare that is on display at the Chazen Museum through Dec. 11 to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of the Bard.

First Folio


Classical music: Madison Opera stages Charles Gounod’s opera “Romeo and Juliet” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare

November 1, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera will present Charles Gounod’s “Romeo & Juliet” on this Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center.

It will be sung in French with English subtitles and will last about three hours with one intermission.

Tickets are $18-$130.

With soaring arias, impassioned scenes and plenty of sword fights, Gounod’s gorgeous opera brings the famous tragic tale of young love to vivid life.

Set in 14th century Verona, Italy, the opera follows the story of Shakespeare’s legendary star-crossed lovers. The Montague and Capulet families are caught in a centuries-old feud.

One evening, Romeo Montague and his friends attend a Capulet ball in disguise. The moment Romeo spots Juliet Capulet, he falls in love, and she returns his feelings. Believing they are meant for one another, they proclaim their love, setting in motion a chain of events that will change both their families.

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous love stories in Western literature,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of Madison Opera. “Gounod’s operatic version of it is equally beloved, and it’s exciting to present an amazing cast that brings such vocal and dramatic depth to their story.

“I’m also delighted that we are performing the opera the same weekend that Shakespeare’s First Folio goes on display at the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s Chazen Museum of Art, enabling our community to enjoy a very Shakespearean weekend.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Gounod’s operatic adaption of the tragedy of “Romeo & Juliet” premiered in 1867 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris. While Gounod is now better known for “Faust,” “Romeo and Juliet” was a bigger success at its premiere, and has stayed in the repertoire for 150 years due to its beautiful music, genuine passion mingled with wit, and exciting fight scenes.

“Having conducted Gounod’s Faust so often, I’m thrilled to finally have the opportunity to conduct his romantic masterpiece,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the artistic director of Madison Opera who will conduct the two performances.

“The vocal and orchestral writing is lyrical and downright gorgeous,” DeMain adds. “We have a glorious cast, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony.  What more could a conductor ask for!” (You can hear Anna Netrebko sing Juliet’s famous aria “Je veux vivre” — “I want to live” – in the popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

John DeMain full face by Prasad

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

John Irvin (below top) and Emily Birsan (below bottom) return to sing the title roles of Romeo and Juliet.  Irvin sang Count Almaviva in the 2015 production of The Barber of Seville, while Birsan returns from singing at Opera in the Park 2016 and Musetta in last season’s La Bohème.

john-irvin

Emily Birsan 2016

Sidney Outlaw, who sang at this past summer’s Opera in the Park, makes his mainstage debut as Romeo’s friend, Mercutio.  Liam Moran, who sang Colline in last season’s La Bohème, sings Frère Laurent, who unites the two lovers in the hope of uniting their families. Madisonian Allisanne Apple (below) returns as Gertrude, Juliet’s nurse.

Alisanne Apple BW mug

Making their debuts are Stephanie Lauricella as Romeo’s page, Stephano; Chris Carr as Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin; Philip Skinner as Lord Capulet; and Benjamin Sieverding as the Duke of VeronaFormer Madison Opera Studio Artist Nathaniel Hill returns as Gregorio, while current Studio Artist James Held sings the role of Paris.

Directing this traditional staging is Doug Scholz-Carlson (below), who directed Gioaccchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land” and Benjamin Britten‘s “The Turn of the Screw” for Madison Opera. Scholz-Carlson is the artistic director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival and has directed the original “Romeo and Juliet,” among many Shakespeare plays.

He will discuss the differences between staging “Romeo and Juliet” as a play and as an opera in another posting tomorrow.

douglas-scholz-carlson

For more information about the production, the cast and tickets, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/romeo-and-juliet/


Classical music: Wisconsin Public Radio will broadcast Madison Opera’s productions of “La Boheme” and “The Tales of Hoffmann” on two Saturday afternoons — May 14 and May 21

May 5, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following news alert:

Madison Opera partners with Wisconsin Public Radio to present recorded broadcasts of Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” on Saturday, May 14, and Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” on Saturday, May 21.

Both broadcasts begin at 1 p.m. and listeners can tune into WPR on 88.7 FM or stream online at www.wpr.org/listen-live.

Each spring, two operas from Madison Opera’s season are presented by Wisconsin Public Radio to let listeners re-live the season. These broadcasts cap off the end of the season of live radio broadcasts from The Metropolitan Opera that run from December through May on WPR’s News and Classical Music Network.

Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” (below top, in a photo by James Gill), the greatest love story in opera, opens the broadcast series on Saturday, May 14, at 1 p.m. Set to a ravishing score, Puccini’s classic opera tells of the lives, loves and losses of a group of young artists in a Bohemian quarter of Paris.

Critic William Wineke called Madison Opera’s November 2015 production “the best I’ve seen anywhere, including the high-definition broadcasts from the Met.”

Madison Opera’s cast features Eleni Calenos as Mimi, Mackenzie Whitney as Rodolfo, Emily Birsan as Musetta, Dan Kempson as Marcello, Alan Dunbar as Schaunard, Liam Moran as Colline and Evan Ross as Benoit/Alcindoro. John DeMain conducts, featuring the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The broadcast includes intermission features with cast members and DeMain, interviewed by WPR’s Lori Skelton (below bottom).

Boheme Madison Opera USE Mimi and Rodolfo GILL

Lori Skelton

On Saturday, May 21, at 1 p.m., the broadcasts conclude with Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” (below in a photo by James Gill).

As he sits in a tavern, the poet Hoffmann recounts the stories of his three loves: a doll, a singer and a courtesan.

Offenbach’s masterpiece moves in a fantasy world, with showpiece arias for the bravura cast, the gorgeous barcarolle, and a truly moving tribute to what it means to be an artist. Critic John W. Barker called Madison Opera’s April 2016 production “an absolute triumph.”

Madison Opera’s cast features Harold Meers as Hoffmann, Siân Davies as Antonia, Giulietta and Stella; Jeni Houser as Olympia; Morgan Smith as The Villains; Adriana Zabala as The Muse and Nicklausse; Jared Rogers as The Servants; Thomas Forde as Luther and Crespel; and Robert Goderich as Spalanzani. John DeMain conducts the production that features the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The broadcast includes intermission features with Meers, Davies, Smith and DeMain, interviewed by WPR’s Lori Skelton.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set CR James Gill

Madison Opera is a non-profit professional opera company based in Madison, Wisconsin. Founded in 1961, the company grew from a local workshop presenting community singers in English-language productions to a nationally recognized organization producing diverse repertoire and presenting leading American opera singers alongside emerging talent.

A resident organization of the Overture Center for the Arts, Madison Opera presents three productions annually in addition to the FREE summer concert Opera in the Park – in Garner Park on the city’s far west side this year on July 23 at 8 p.m.– and a host of educational programming.

Opera in Park 2012 crowd 2 James Gill

For more about Opera in the Park, visit:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2015-2016/park/


Classical music: Playing softly is the mark of great music-making

April 5, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Like so many young pianists, when The Ear was young he wanted to project strength. He wanted to play BIG virtuosic pieces and play them FAST and LOUD — even though they were usually way beyond his ability.

Pieces such as the “Appassionata” Sonata and “Emperor” Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, and Prelude in C-sharp minor (“Bells of Moscow”) by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Peter Tchaikovsky.

The “Great Gate at Kiev,” from “Pictures at an Exhibition,” by Modest Mussorgsky.

The ”Military” Polonaise and the “Revolutionary” Etude by Frederic Chopin.

You know, the kind of piece that can easily descend into pounding and banging, but that makes an impression on listeners and people who don’t play — and on the player too!

Back then, doing that kind of muscular music-making seemed the task of a real virtuoso.

But no longer.

Maturity brings an appreciation of subtlety and softness, which are much better hallmarks of musicality. Softness is definitely NOT weakness. In fact for The Ear, softness has become a kind of test of mature musicianship.

The past year or so has been a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that the mark of a really great and mature virtuoso artist is the ability to play softly.

The most recent example came this past Sunday afternoon when The Ear heard pianist Garrick Ohlsson (below) play the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, by Johannes Brahms with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the baton of MSO’s longtime music director and conductor John DeMain.

Garrick Ohlsson

To be sure, the MSO performed absolutely superbly on its own in the 2011 Symphony by Steven Stucky and the tone poem “Don Juan” by Richard Strauss.

But the second half of the concert, devoted to the concerto, was both ear-opening and heart-rending.

The first concerto is a product of Brahms’ youth and is dramatic. Ohlsson, who possess both power and great technique, has no problem getting a huge sound out of the piano when he wants to or playing the most virtuosic passages with absolute fluidness and complete command.

But here is what really mattered: Ohlsson took away the bombast and bluster you so often hear in this early work. You felt as if you were hearing the concerto for the first time or at least hearing it anew.

What emerged was a uniquely convincing and beautifully poetic reading of this famous work – and not just in the slow movement but also in various interludes during the first and third movements. Plus, Ohlsson was joined by DeMain and the MSO whose accompaniment bought into his interpretation and also emphasized subtlety. It was complemented perfectly by the quietly songful encore, which was the lyrical Nocturne in D-flat major by Chopin.

There have been other occasions like that over the past year or so.

Here are just a few.

The duo-pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung (below) at Farley’s House of Pianos played an all-Schubert recital and proved how seductive quiet and restrained playing can be.

Lucille Chung and Alessio Bax 2015

UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) can compete with the best when it comes to forceful playing. But what lingers in The Ear’s mind is hearing Taylor’s seductive playing of the slow movement from the Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5, by Johannes Brahms as a great example in how playing softly draws in listeners but requires great virtuosity and control.

Christopher Taylor Recital

Christopher Taylor Recital

Pianist Emanuel Ax (below), who played the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Beethoven with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, also demonstrated an uncanny ability to play softly with deep tone.

Emanuel Ax portrait 2016

There were other examples in various kinds of music. The Ear recalls beautifully soft singing in some songs by Franz Schubert during the Schubertiade (below) at the UW-Madison in late January.

Schubertiade 2016 Shepherd on the Rock

He also remembers some fantastic quiet playing of Johann Sebastian Bach and Brahms in the debut recital by UW violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt).

Soh-Hyun Park Altino CR caroline bittencourt

There are many other examples from other individuals and groups, including the violinist Benjamin Beilman with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; the UW Choral Union in the Gloria by Francis Poulenc; the Madison Opera’s productions of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Mark Adamo’s “Little Women”; pianist Joyce Yang at the Wisconsin Union Theater; and the Pro Arte Quartet among others.

But you get the point.

It isn’t easy to play softly. In fact, it can be downright hard.

But it makes music so beautiful.

So moving.

So unforgettable.

As listener or player, try it and see for yourself.


Classical music: It’s Valentine’s Day 2016. What do you think is the most romantic piece of music ever written? Plus, this afternoon is the last performance of the Valentine program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra

February 14, 2016
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ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the Valentine’s Day program of works by Peter Tchaikovsky, Maurice Ravel and Ludwig van Beethoven performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Daniel Hegge and guest soloist violinist Alina Ibragimova. The opening night performance received fine reviews.

Here is a link to the review by Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/concert-review-madison-symphony-dedicates-valentine-s-weekend-to-love/article_21d106c8-1011-5f6c-9346-f17c3d07b2e3.html

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Valentine’s Day.

Cupid

That makes it a good occasion to talk about romantic music – not necessarily Romantic music (with a capital R) since there is plenty of Baroque, Classical era and modern music that fits the bill.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak, Giuseppe Verdi, Gustav Mahler, Gabriel Faure, Maurice Ravel, Peter Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev – all of them, and many other composers, wrote some deeply moving romantic music.

And it comes in so many different forms: symphonies and concerto; sonatas and suites; orchestral music; choral music and songs; solo works for piano; chamber music for strings, winds and brass.

The Ear loves listening to and also playing romantic music. He thinks probably the most consistently romantic composer was the German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856, below with his wife). So many of his greatest pieces — in so many different genres — were inspired by his steadfast and often thwarted, but finally victorious, love of his wife Clara Wieck Schumann.

An outstanding concert pianist, the much younger Clara outlived the mentally troubled Robert, and edited the publication of his works and popularized them through performing them.

Schumann_Robert_and_Wieck_Clara

But if you asked The Ear to pick the single most romantic piece of music he knows, it would have to be the opening arias from the opera “La Bohème” by Giacomo Puccini.

Every time he hears Rodolfo and Mimi sing to each other and fall in love at first sight, the little hairs on his neck stand up and often his eyes tear up.

You can hear that sung in the YouTube video at the bottom. It features the late superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti. He could not  read music, but he sure could sing. And his voice has a special quality that adds to the romance and poignancy.

What do you think is the most romantic piece of music? What romantic music would you play for someone special or have played for yourself on Valentine’s Day?

Leave your choice – preferably with some personal background or commentary or even a dedication to your Valentine plus, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance – in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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
5 Comments

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/


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