The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: If a perfect debut concert exists, new UW-Madison faculty violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino gave it last Friday night. Plus, a concert of music for two harpsichords takes place Saturday night.

November 19, 2015

ALERT: On this Saturday night at 7 p.m. in the Madison Christian Community Church, 7118 Old Sauk Road, on Madison’s far west side, Northwestern University music Professor Stephen Alltop and Madison Bach Musicians’ artistic director Trevor Stephenson will present a program of masterworks for two harpsichords including: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto in C major (BWV 1061); selections from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s elegant “Pièces de clavecin en concerts“; and a very zingy transcription of Luigi Boccherini’s famous “Fandango.” Plus, Stephen Alltop will perform selections from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” and Trevor Stephenson will play three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Tickets are $20 and are available at the door.

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Friday night saw the bloody terrorist attacks and murders in Paris, France. And we were all understandably preoccupied then with those events.

That would not have seemed an auspicious time for a new music faculty member to make a debut.

Yet that is exactly what the new UW-Madison violin professor Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt) did. And it turned out to be a remarkable event: a pitch-perfect concert for the occasion.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino CR caroline bittencourt

Let’s start by saying that Park Altino is a complete violinist and has everything: pitch, tone, speed, depth and stage presence. But hers is the quiet and self-effacing kind of virtuosity. There were no show-off works by Paganini or Sarrasate on the program.

The concert opened in dimmed lighting, as she played (below) the Solo Sonata No. 3 in C Major by Johann Sebastian Bach. She dedicated the opening movement –- which you can hear played by Arthur Grumiaux in a YouTube video at the bottom –- to the people of Paris and said that the slow movement reminded her of a mysterious prayer or meditation.

She was right.

Simultaneously alone and together: Is there a better summing up of how we were feeling that night? And her mastery in voicing the difficult fugue was impressive as well as moving.

Let others play and hear once again Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” or “La Marseillaise.” The Ear will long remember that Bach played in that context. Thank you, Professor Park Altino.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino playing solo Bach

Then she turned effortlessly from grave seriousness and talked about the Sonata No. 2 by Charles Ives (below) and how it borrows from hymn tunes and songs from popular culture. And with laughs she then related all that background to herself when she was growing up in Korea and forming her image of America from popular culture and TV shows such “The Little House on the Prairie,” “Anne of Green Gables” and from cartoons such as “Popeye.”

She was both informative and charming as she Ives-ified Korea and Koreanized Ives. And she totally connected with the audience. If you were there, you could tell. You felt it.

Charles Ives BIG

After intermission came a charming and relatively unknown miniature: the Romance in A Major, Op. 23, by the American composer Amy Beach (below). How refreshing it was to hear an immigrant musician enlighten us natives about our own musical history. It is all about new perspectives. Are you listening, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and other isolationists, anti-immigrationists and xenophobes?

Amy Beach BW 1

And then came a masterpiece by Johannes Brahms.

She chose the Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100. It is not as dramatic as the other two violin sonatas, but relies instead on slow tempi to convey the geniality of its beautiful melodies and harmonies.

It proved the perfect ending to the perfect recital on that dreadful night of massacres and loss, fear and terror. It proved what so much music can do and should be doing, especially these days: offering a balm for the heart and soul.

Her program and playing brought to mind the inspiring words of Leonard Bernstein, who had to conduct a program right after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which happened 52 years ago this Sunday:

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

It must be also be said that Park Altino had the perfect partner in Martha Fischer, who heads the collaborative piano program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Even during the most difficult and thorny piano parts, such as in the Ives sonata, Fischer never upset the balance, never departed from the right dynamics, never lost a sense of transparency and always saw eye-to-eye with the violinist in interpretation. She possessed complete technical and interpretive mastery.

The two musicians really proved to be co-equal partners. They make a great pairing or partnership, and it was clear from their stage presence that they like performing with each other and are on the same wavelength.  With their seamless playing, they showed exactly the difference between accompanying and collaborating.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Martha Fischer

That makes The Ear very happy. He loves the combination of violin and piano, and now he hopes he has a lot more of it to look forward to from these same two performers -– works he once hoped to hear from the outstanding partnership of Pro Arte Quartet first violinist David Perry and UW-Madison virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor, which started but never fully materialized.

So many works come to mind. The violin and keyboard sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli and Tartini. (The Ear admits it: He prefers the piano to the harpsichord in Baroque works.) The violin sonatas, perhaps even in complete cycles, of Mozart and Beethoven. The various violin works by Schubert, perhaps in the annual Schubertiades. Sonatas by Schumann and Brahms. Sonatas by Faure, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. Sonatas and rhapsodies by Bartok. Sonatas by Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

And then there are the possibilities of her performing violin concertos with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (apparently its music director, Andrew Sewell, is a close friend of hers) and the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The possibilities make The Ear swoon with anticipation.

So when you see that Soh-Hyun Park Altino will play again, be sure to mark your calendars and datebooks. You do not want to miss her.



Classical music: Cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio talks about the human quality of French music. She performs Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 on an all-French program with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

November 16, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

The award-winning cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio (below) makes her solo debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) in an all-French program this coming weekend.

sara sant'ambrogio 1

Sant’Ambrogio will solo in Camille Saint-Saëns’ stormy Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, a first-time performance of the work by the MSO under its music director and conductor John DeMain.

The opening piece, Maurice Ravel’s sensuous Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, showcases the classical simplicity and ultimate decadence of the waltz, and the colors of all the instruments in the orchestra.


Finally, the MSO will perform the groundbreaking Symphonie Fantastique by Romantic composer Hector Berlioz (below). It is an unorthodox five-movement work that vividly captures an artist’s tortured infatuation and the haunted hallucinations of an opium trip.


The concerts are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Sara Sant’Ambrogio is an internationally-renowned soloist and founding member of the Eroica Trio (below). She launched her international career when she was a winner at the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Violoncello Competition in Moscow, Russia. She holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and The Juilliard School, and won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for Leonard Bernstein‘s “Arias and Barcarolles.” She last appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 2001 as part of the Eroica Trio.


Written in 1872, Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 was instantly regarded as a masterpiece by the Paris public. Saint-Saëns rejected the standard concerto form in this work by interlinking the piece’s three movements into one continuous musical expanse, held together by the rich lyrical power of the cello.

The composer found the Cello Concerto No.1 difficult to write, so much so that he vowed never to compose for cello again; Saint-Saëns broke this vow 30 years later with his Cello Concerto No. 2.

One hour before each performance, John DeMain, music director and principal conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will lead a FREE 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

More background on the music can also be found in the Program Notes at

Single Tickets are $16 to $85 each, available at and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25 percent by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit,

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: Students can receive 20 percent savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20 percent savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts cannot be combined.

Find more information at

Major funding for the November concerts is provided by Barbara Ryder, DeEtte Beilfuss-Eager and Leonard P. Eager, Jr., in memory of Karen “Lovey” Johnson, and Rosemarie Blancke. Additional funding is provided by Martha and Charles Casey, Sunseed Research, LLC, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sara Sant’Ambrogio (below) recently agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:

sara sant'ambrogio

Could you briefly bring readers up to date on your career since 2001 when you last appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra as part of the Eroica Trio and performed the Triple Concerto for piano trio? What are current and future major plans and projects?

Wow, a lot has happened since 2001! I had a son, Sebastian, who just turned 11. I’ve recorded for solo CDs, the complete Bach solo suites, the Chopin collection and “Dreaming,” which has had a number of tracks used in movie soundtracks such as the HBO movie “A Matter of Taste.” I’ve recorded another Eroica Trio CD, “An American Journey,” which was nominated for a Grammy award.

I’ve toured China and all over Asia, and also the Arabian peninsula, which was amazing and mind-blowing. Petra in Jordan was like being in an Indiana Jones movie. It has been a truly amazing 14 years!

There seems to be a revival or rediscovery going on of the works of the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Why do you think that is?

Saint-Saens (below) has been grossly underrated in my view. His music has a wonderful mix of gorgeous melodies that speak to the human condition, sparkling virtuous pyrotechnics and a joie de vivre, which is just infectious! What’s not to love!

camille saint-saens younger

You are performing on an all-French program with Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” and Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.” What elements or traits do identify as being typically French in classical music, and does Saint-Saëns fit the mold?

I think there is a lushness to French music that Saint-Saens shares. There is also a very human quality to the best of French music.

What would you like to say about the piece you will be performing in Madison, the Cello Concerto No. 1? What is typical or unusual about it?  What in particular would you like the public to listen to and notice?

Just to have a blast! The Saint-Saens starts with a bang and never lets up till the joyous end! (Note: You can hear it played by the late Russian cellist, conductor and human rights activist Mstislav Rostropovich in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

What else would you like to say?

I can’t wait to come back and play in Madison again. I had such a fantastic time playing there last time with my trio that the town loomed so large in my imagination, I had no idea until this interview that it had been 14 years since I was last there.


Classical music: Playing musical chairs in The Big Apple: The New Yorker magazine gives you the dirt on who might succeed James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera and Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic.

October 4, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

They are two of the most high-profile jobs in the world of classical music and they are both in New York City: the music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the music director of the New York Philharmonic.

And right now candidates are being examined as possible successors to their current heads, James Levine and Alan Gilbert respectively.

According to a story in The New Yorker magazine, one major player reportedly is the acclaimed firebrand and openly gay French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin (below, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for Getty Images), who currently heads the Philadelphia Orchestra. Guess which post he is a candidate for?


Another major candidate seems to be the conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (below). Can you guess for which post?


The Ear asks: Whatever happened to American candidates?

Are we going backwards from the Leonard Bernstein achievement of putting American maestros on a par with European or other foreign conductors?

To be fair, though, some report that Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop, currently music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, could be a contender for the New York Philharmonic post.

Anyway, the recent New Yorker magazine had a very good take on the game of musical chairs being played around the two major vacancies.

The story shows careful research and excellent deep sourcing. But it also reads a bit like an engagingly conversational gossip column.

Maybe that is because it is written not by music critic Alex Ross but by Russell Platt, who is the classical music editor for the Goings On About Town column that starts the magazine.

Here is a link to an excellent read and what seems to be a pretty good crystal ball about the future leaders of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

It’s great reading for a Sunday afternoon. Enjoy!

Music education: This coming Friday night, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) opens its 50th anniversary celebration with a FREE reception for a retrospective art display at Dane County Regional Airport. On this Monday night, mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple sings a FREE recital.

September 20, 2015
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ALERT: This Monday night, Sept. 21, mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple (below) and pianist Jane Peckham will present a FREE concert with the theme of  “Home/Travels/Longing/Return” that features songs by Leonard Bernstein, William Bolcom, Aaron Copland, Hugo Wolf and others. The recital is at 7 p.m. in the Oakwood Village West Auditorium, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side.

Alisanne Apple BW mug

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has been asked to distribute the following public invitation from Bridget Fraser, the executive director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO).

He is happy to do it in the belief that there is no better local investment in music education or in the future of classical music than WYSO, which has educated and trained thousands of area students and their parents over the past half-century.

WYSO Logo blue

Fraser writes:

“This coming Friday, Sept. 25, from 5 to 7 p.m. opens the year-long celebration of our 50th anniversary.

“I hope our friends, former conductors and staff, alumni and faithful supporters will join us as we pay tribute to the amazing impact that WYSO has had and continues to have on hundreds of young musicians each season.

“Local artist and devoted WYSO board member, Andree Valley has captured the true essence and importance of WYSO in a stunning visual display.

“You are invited to attend the opening celebration of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras retrospective exhibit, featuring 50 years of compelling history, captivating photographs and intriguing Art of Note painted violins (below) in an extensive display at the Dane County Regional Airport.

WYSO AoN violins 2015

Here is WYSO founder Marvin Rabin conducting the Youth Orchestra during the 1966-67 season:

WYSO Youth Orchestra Marvin Rabin conducting 1966-7

And here is UW-Madison professor and current WYSO music director James Smith conducting the Youth Orchestra in 2015:

WYSO Youth Orchestra James Smith conducting 2015

And at bottom is a YouTube video of the WYSO Youth Orchestra playing the rousing opening of Georges Bizet‘s Overture to his opera “Carmen.”

“The opening reception will feature music by WYSO’s premier quartet and light refreshments and hors d’oeuvres. Please join us in this tribute to the first 50 years of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

This exhibit was organized by Tandem Press, in collaboration with WYSO.
 For more information, click on our reception invitation, or  contact WYSO at (608) 263-3320 or

Classical music: New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini recalls his summer as a teenager listening to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” under conductor Leonard Bernstein – with Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony thrown in for good measure.

September 13, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

The New York Times has come up with a terrific idea.

It is a series of essays called “Virgin Eyes.” It asks critics to recall a first experience with art or culture that they wish they could experience again, so powerful and formative and long-lasting was the first impression they received from it.

The series covers art and pop music, movies and television shows.

But it also features classical music and opera.

One of the more recent essays -– it should really be called Virgin Ears — was written by senior music critic Anthony Tommasini (below). You may recall he came to Madison several years ago as part of the centennial celebration of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet.


In his essay, Tommasini — who is a composer as well as a critic — recalls the formative summer of 1966 he spent listening to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in the hands of conductor Leonard Bernstein and the New York Phiharmonic.

That experience forever changed what Tommasini saw as radical music-making. (You can get a taste of Bernstein’s electrifying interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Virgin Eyes Stravinsky

It is a delightful and informative read that echoes our own first experiences – in my case, the first piano recitals I heard by Arthur Rubinstein, Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz and Rudolf Serkin.

Read and see if you don’t agree – and if it doesn’t make you think of your own experiences that you would like to re-live with virgin eyes and ears.

Here it is:

Classical music: Meet Marin Alsop, the pioneering American maestra who will conduct the closing concert of the BBC British Proms concerts this Saturday night.

September 11, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you listen regularly to NPR, or National Public Radio, you will often hear stories featuring the American conductor Marin Alsop (below) and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra she leads on Saturday mornings. That is when Scott Simon interviews her about her latest projects for Weekend Edition.

Marin Alsop big

And you may know Alsop’s name as a student and protégée of the legendary Leonard Bernstein and as the music director and conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil.

Marin Alsop marching

You might also know that Alsop thinks classical music has become elitist and so she works hard for educational programs and community outreach.

But you may not know that in 2013 Alsop was the first woman chosen to conduct the mammoth closing night of the popular Proms concerts (below) in London’s Royal Albert Hall for the BBC in England. (You can hear the rousing and popular speech she gave then in a YouTube video at the bottom. And be sure to read some of the sexist and homophobic reader comments.)

BBC Proms

This Saturday night she returns to the United Kingdom to conduct the closing concert of this summer’s Proms, which will have a huge audience of over 40 million listeners worldwide via TV, radio and the Internet.

Here is a link to the portal for listening to the concert:

Thanks to a story and a Q&A interview in The Economist, here is a chance to meet Marin Alsop and learn more about this impressive musician:



Classical music education: For 75 years, here is how the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival, where composer John Harbison teaches, emphasizes new music and teaches young composers and student performers.

August 29, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is the closing weekend of this summer’s Token Creek Festival.

The closing “Buoyant Baroque” program, featuring the Lydian Quartet and others performing music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Arcangelo Corelli and Georg Frideric Handel among others, will be performed tonight at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. (The Ear sees that Sunday’s performance is sold out, but you should check for yourself. Sometimes spots open up form cancellations.)

Here is a link to find out more:

American composer John Harbison (below top) is the co-founder and co-artistic director of the festival along with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison (below bottom).



Harbison is a very accomplished man and musician. He has played the piano this summer for the festival, and he is also a preeminent contemporary composer who teaches at MIT. He has won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur genius grant among his many honors. And at the Token Creek Festival, he is the most enlightening commentator on composers and specific works that The Ear has ever heard.

So it seemed a good time to bring to your attention a story done by NPR or National Public Radio about the Tanglewood Festival of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since it features John Harbison as a major source and interview. This summer the festival turned 75.

Harbison is, after all, the co-director – with fellow composer Michael Gandolfi — of the composing program at Tanglewood Music Center, which is where he often premieres his own new works and where he was busy working just before he came to Madison for the Token Creek Festival.

The Ear finds it interesting to hear how, ever since the festival’s beginning, the creativity of young composers and young performers has always been cultivated and encouraged, with an emphasis on creating new music and keeping the classical music world vibrant and current.

Below is a photo of this summer’s world premiere of a new work by Michael Gandolfi, with famed soprano Dawn Upshaw (on the far right in purple) working with student performers.

Tanglewood at 75 dawn upshaw

Classical music: FREE choral concert by the “People’s Chorus” on Monday night to benefit the homeless.

August 16, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friends at Edgewood College write:

Edgewood College Professor Sergei Pavlov (below) is bringing his talent to a unique stage.

He is one of two conductors for the “People’s Chorus,” a performance to bring awareness to the problem of homelessness in Greater Madison.

Sergei Pavlov

This special concert is at 7:30 p.m. on this coming Monday, Aug. 17, at the Orpheum Theater, 216 State Street, in Madison.

Orpheum Theatre Madison EXT

Orpheum Theatre INT

The concert is FREE to attend, but there will be a freewill offering in support of Porchlight.

Here is a link to the performers — some from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music — the sponsors and the program that will include music by Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein.

Some of the performers in the People’s Chorus are homeless themselves.

“Music can be one of the ways to address challenges in society, and to hopefully make compassionate choices to meet those challenges,” Pavlov says. “Of course it is our way.”

The concert benefits Porchlight (below), a social services organization in Madison that seeks to decrease the homeless population by providing shelter, housing, supportive services and a sense of community in ways that empower residents and program participants to positively shape their lives.

porchlight 1



Classical music: On the eve of Opera in the Park, Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith recaps the last season and previews the next.

July 23, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park marks its 14th anniversary this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Garner Park on Madison’s far west side.

The annual FREE concert of opera and Broadway favorites closes the company’s extraordinary 2014-15 season and provides an appetizing preview of the 2015-16 season that celebrates writers and their inspirations.

Typically, Opera in the Park attracts over 14,000 people every year.

Opera in Park 2012 crowd 1 James Gill

This year, Opera in the Park stars soprano Eleni Calenos, contralto Meredith Arwady, tenor Harold Meers and local bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, and features former Madison Opera Studio Artist Anna Laurenzo.

Here is a link to Kyle Ketelsen’s Q&A with The Ear:

Artistic Director John DeMain conducts the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra. The evening will be hosted by Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith and by WKOW TV’s 27 News “Wake-Up Wisconsin” anchor Brandon Taylor.

Opera in Park 2012 stage

“I love Opera in the Park,” says Smith, in a prepared statement. “It is by far the most important performance Madison Opera gives. The magic combination of thousands of people sitting under the summer night sky and our singers and orchestra performing beautiful music on stage creates something truly inspiring. It is a testament to Madison’s love of music – and love of being outdoors – that we have the highest per capita attendance of any such concert in the country.”

The program for Opera in the Park 2015 includes arias and ensembles from Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” which opens the 2015-16 season in November; Mark Adamo’s “Little Women,” which will be performed in February; and Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” which will be performed in April.

The concert will also offer arias and ensembles from such classic operas as Antonin Dvorak‘s “Rusalka,” Charles Gounod’s “Faust,” Arrigo Boito‘s “Mefistofele” and Georg Frideric Handel‘s “Semele.” Broadway hits from “The Music Man,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Wonderful Town” will round out the evening of music, which always includes one number conducted by the audience with light sticks.

Garner Park is located at 333 South Rosa Road, at the intersection of Mineral Point Road, west of Whitney Way. Parking is available in the CUNA Mutual Group and University Research Park lots. Attendees are encouraged to bring picnics, blankets and chairs. Alcohol is permitted, but not sold in the park.

On the day of the concert, Garner Park will open at 7 a.m. Audience members are not allowed to leave items in the park prior to this time. The rain date for Opera in the Park is Sunday, July 26, at 8 p.m.

Here are two links to help you find information about Opera in the Park.

For general information, go to:

And for more information about the cast, go to:

For information about the next season, go to:

On the eve of the outdoor event, Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) – who is the general director of the Madison Opera – agreed to revisit the past season and talk about the upcoming season with The Ear.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

What kind of artistic and financial shape did the Madison Opera emerge from for the past season?

Our fiscal year doesn’t end until the end of August, but overall it has been a great year on all fronts. From the triumphant music of our first staged Fidelio (below, the prisoners’ chorus in a photo by James Gill) to the sold-out Sweeney Todd and the joyous The Barber of Seville, it was an immensely satisfying season.

Audience and critical response to each opera was strong, and often included some surprise that the individual enjoyed that particular show more than he or she had expected. It feels like we have proved in the past few seasons that we can produce consistently great opera across the spectrum. I am also encouraged by the new audiences we attract and the diversity of age range I see in our lobbies.

Fidelio prisoners' chorus James Gill

Can you rank each show in terms of popularity? Did you learn anything special from the season?

It’s difficult to rank this season’s shows, because we know they drew very different audiences. For example, the audience at Sweeney Todd was definitely younger than the audience at Fidelio — the non-subscription performance in particular seemed to have an average age of 30 — and a number of people brought their young children to The Barber of Seville for their first opera.

In absolute numbers, the order would be Barber (below, in a photo by James Gill), Sweeney Todd and Fidelio, but there was not a wide gap between them.

The main thing I’ve learned with each successive season is that we are doing the right thing by having such a mix of operas. Some of our patrons love Beethoven, some only like comedy, and some were only interested (or very much un-interested) in Sweeney Todd.

By doing such a range, we serve a much wider audience than if we focused on only one segment of our audience. Hopefully this adds to the growing understanding that opera is not a monolithic art form.

Madison Opera barber of seville cast action

How and why did you choose the operas for next season? Why Puccini’s “La Boheme”? Why Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”? Does “Little Women” represent something of a departure for Madison Opera? Is there an umbrella concept or unifying theme to the season?

Choosing a season’s operas is a question of balancing the classic, the rare and the new; picking a range of composers and languages; and in general coming up with the “mix” that defines us.

We have not performed La Bohème in eight years, so it was time to bring back the greatest love story in opera. While some long-time opera-goers may have seen it many times, we also have many in our audience who have only come to opera recently, so this will be their first Bohème.

la boeme banner

Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is a brilliant piece that is both scarily large and immensely exciting to produce, packed with beautiful music and special effects. It happens to be a personal favorite opera not only for me, but also for John DeMain and Kristine McIntyre, our stage director. We look forward to sharing this literally fantastic work on the Overture Hall stage, as we have not performed it in 20 years.

tales of hoffmann banner

Little Women came out of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, to some extent. After the success of Dead Man Walking, many people — particularly those who were surprised by how much they enjoyed a 21st-century opera — asked me what we were doing next. I did not want another nine years to go by before we did another major American opera, but I also wanted a completely different story, so that it would not be a literal comparison.

Mark Adamo’s Little Women has been one of the most-performed American operas since its 1998 premiere; its basis in a story that has been beloved for generations makes it the perfect way to keep growing our American repertoire.

As is often the case, the season theme emerges after I’ve picked the operas. Next season turned out to be a season of writers: Rodolfo is a poet; so is Hoffmann. Jo March writes stories for magazines and is in fact the only writer we see succeeding in her craft during the opera.

That said, the unifying theme is the same one I strive for every season: Great operas that tell wonderful stories with enthralling music.

little women banner

What role did the new Madison Opera Center play in the past season’s productions? Has it lived up to expectations?

Over the past two years, the Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center (below) has played a major role in defining who we are. On a basic level, it is where we rehearse, fit costumes and have our offices. It is also where the singers hang out, give press interviews, do their laundry, cook the occasional meal, work on music for their next gig and bump into our trustees in the common areas.

Having our own space has enabled us to add programs like the free Opera Novice series and hold more workshops with our high school apprentices.

On a financial level, revenue from the parking ramp in particular is an increasingly important part of our budget, as it is not dependent on donors or ticket sales. On a community level, having our rehearsal hall regularly used by groups such as CTM, Theatre Lila, and Capital City Theatre shows that we truly are part of the larger artistic fabric of Madison. The Center was designed to be a home on many levels, and we are well on the way to achieving that dream.

Madison Opera Center interior

What else would you like to say or add about the past season, the next season and perhaps also the Opera in the Park?

I am always grateful for the enormous number of people who make Madison Opera possible. Opera has never been cost-effective, and our patrons, volunteers, artists, production teams, and staff are all committed to sharing this glorious art form with everyone from the 2,000 teenagers at our student matinees to the 15,000 people at Opera in the Park.

Our season ends with this summer’s Opera in the Park this Saturday, which is always the perfect way to finish the year. This summer is the concert’s 14th year – which means that 2016 will be the 15th year, a milestone that was perhaps unthinkable when we started in Garner Park in 2002.

We have the highest per capita attendance for such an event in the U.S., which is a strong testament to the greater Madison community’s love for what we do. I won’t reveal the repertoire for this summer’s concert yet, but we have four amazing soloists and plenty of light sticks (below), so I hope everyone has the date on their calendars.

Opera in the Park 2014 light sticks

Classical music: Tell The Ear what music he should post on the Fourth of July?

July 3, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Today, the stock markets, banks and many businesses are closed in observance of the Fourth of July.

American Flag


But Saturday is the real Independence Day for the United States of America.

Now, The Ear has some ideas about what classical music to celebrate the event -– and the choices do NOT include the “1812 Overture” by Peter Tchaikovsky or the “Marseillaise,” the French national anthem that started during the French Revolution. Maybe one of the overtures by Ludwig van Beethoven or an aria by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Giuseppe Verdi would do. Try and see if you can convince me.

But the Ear thinks it would be much more patriotic to have something by an American composer – say Charles Ives (below top) or Aaron Copland (below bottom), William Schuman or Samuel Barber.

Charles Ives BIG

aaron copland

Or maybe Roy Harris or Leonard Bernstein, Joan Tower (below top) or Jennifer Higdon (below bottom) -– would be appropriate and a good choice.


Higdon-and-Beau-Candace DiCarlo

But here is your choice to play DJ.

Leave your choice -– with a YouTube link, if possible -– in the COMMENT section.

Then I will decide which choice is most appropriate and best, and post a YouTube video of the work on Saturday to mark the real Fourth of July, the real Independence Day.

Thanks for your help.

I know I have some very knowledgeable readers, so I am looking forward to the seeing and hearing their suggestions.



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