By Jacob Stockinger
Jazz and classical music are not so different, says Swiss-born composer Daniel Schnyder.
For Schnyder, it is more than an academic matter. He puts his point of view into action in his acclaimed chamber opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” which deals with the life of the bebop saxophone player and jazz giant. (You can see the YouTube trailer for the productions by Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the bottom.)
The Madison Opera will offer the work’s Midwest premiere when it stages the chamber opera this Friday night (NOT Saturday night, as first mistakenly posted here) at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Both performances are in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. (Performances photos below are from the world premiere at Opera Philadelphia.)
Here is a link to more general information about the opera, tickets, the cast and the production:
Daniel Schnyder (below) — who will perform a FREE concert of the music of Charlie Parker and do a question-and-answer session on this Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOT 7 p.m. as mistakenly first stated here) in Morphy Hall on the UW-Madison campus — also agreed to an email interview with The Ear:
What was the work’s genesis and what gave you the idea for “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird”? Are you a big jazz fan and did you see the work as a way to meld the jazz and classical styles of music?
I am a jazz fan. I am also a jazz musician and I love to compose, play and improvise in the jazz idiom. I have recorded more than 30 jazz CDs.
I love to combine jazz and classical music. I just finished a symphony for orchestra and big band, a commission by the Temple University in Philadelphia.
The idea from the very beginning was to write an opera for Lawrence Brownlee, the great African-American tenor. Opera Philadelphia asked me to write a work for him and we tried several libretto options. After hearing a recital by Larry singing gospel songs, I came up with the idea to write an opera about Charlie Parker’s life.
How would you describe the musical style of the opera in terms of tonality and melody, and its accessibility to the general public? What were the audience reactions in Philadelphia and New York City?
In both places, the audiences were very moved by the story and the music. The topic hit a nerve, something our society has to reflect upon, a general issue that concerns us all as a nation.
The music itself is not hard to listen to and moves swiftly. For the orchestra and singers, the opera is rather challenging, since Charlie Parker (below) was a virtuoso. The music moves fast and often in off-beat rhythms that are unusual for classical musicians. There are also a lot of odd meters and tricky patterns that sometimes connect to Parker’s music and sometimes relate to the music that came after him.
The audience will have a ball. There are 12-tone music passages reflecting on new music and opera — mostly in Nica’s parts — but there are a lot of R&B influences and jazz and Latin music grooves.
It would be false to see the opera as a patchwork of different musical sequences and styles. It is my music that is based on all these influences. The opera can be described as a modern music carpet with lots of colors of today’s music, rather than a quilt.
In what ways do you see the characters and the story as offering lessons and being relevant to today?
I guess this is obvious: Our society has to understand that different cultures and different ethnic backgrounds enrich America and are fundamental to its culture and success.
If we go down the path of segregation, divisiveness and disrespect, we all will lose. Jazz is the great coming together of different heritages, the roots of America, and it conquered the world.
We still erect barriers in society and music that are detrimental to growth and innovation. Other contemporary issues are also important in the opera, such as being a single parent, drug addiction and faith.
The opera also highlights that jazz musicians at the time could not earn money from recorded music, something that is true again today. The stealing of royalties from Parker and Dizzie Gillespie were different from today’s issues of streaming, but the problem of jazz musicians not receiving money for their creative works stays the same.
In the opera, Parker discusses the very nature of music, its volatility and the fact that you cannot physically possess it. This is one of the reasons why he wants to write the music down on paper. He wants to make it abstract, but realizes that he loses some of the essence of what he wants to say. That is the dilemma of the composer.
He also reflects on the notation system, which was not designed for jazz. He sings: “How can I put down these black dots on white paper, how can I capture these sheets of sound?”
The opera reflects on American history, but it simultaneously relates to today’s world. This is not just some nice story about the past; it is about us.
Quite a few other productions have been planned. What do you think explains the work’s popularity? Do you think it attracts new audiences to opera?
There might be many different reasons for that:
1) There are very few operas using the modern jazz idiom.
2) There are very few operas in which the leading roles are African-American.
3) The opera is flexible; it can be produced with a moderate budget in a lot of different venues. It is mobile, which is similar to L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) by Igor Stravinsky. It also has a length of just over 100 minutes.
4) As mentioned above, the opera hits a nerve; it is about our time and about us.
5) Charlie Parker is a legend, but very few people really know about him and his music. People are intrigued.
6) The music is very accessible; it can be played on the radio without getting boring or incomprehensible. Some modern operas rely a lot on light, staging and special visual effects. This opera works more like Carmen or a Verdi opera, told through the music.
7) It is an opera, not a musical. It only uses a song format in a few instances. The opera is composed in an open and evolving format, connected by leitmotifs similar to Wagner’s operas.
The music definitely has a lot of jazz influences, but the format is mostly one not used in jazz music. That creates a new experience. It does not fit into one of the known “drawers” of music, so it can be tempting to try to compare it to their pieces but it sticks out as musically different.
8) The opera is composed very close to the sound and rhythms of the words. Hence you can understand a lot. The language is very direct and clear, close to spoken language. That helps. You can actually understand a lot of the lyrics without reading the supertitles.
I tried to avoid the Strauss or Wagner effect of creating something where the mix of complex language and complex music creates something beautiful but often incomprehensible. French and Italian operas are better in this regard. “Yardbird” has a message that needs to be understood.
9) There are many riddles in the opera – musical riddles, but also hidden messages and references in the text – that can be explored. The opera plays in a twilight zone between death and life. This is also intriguing.
Is there something else you would like to say about yourself and the opera?
I enjoyed writing the opera very much. It was a great pleasure and an honor to reflect on one of the great music geniuses in American history.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has received the following information to post about a local opera production that is both exciting and an inspired choice to mark February as Black History Month:
For more information about the cast and the production as well as about purchasing tickets ($25-$114), go to:
With music by Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder (below top) and a libretto by writer and poet Bridgette A. Wimberly (below bottom), the acclaimed opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” tells of the legendary jazz musician and the people closest to him.
The opera, which melds jazz and opera, is set on the day that saxophone great Charlie Parker died in 1955. As his body lies unclaimed in a New York City morgue, Parker returns in spirit to the jazz club Birdland, determined to compose a final masterpiece. Family and friends blend in and out of his memories, including his three wives, his mother, his friend Dizzy Gillespie and even his drug dealer.
Charlie Parker’s Yardbird premiered in June 2015 at Opera Philadelphia (below is tenor Lawrence Brownlee, in a photo by Dominic Mercier, in the title role of Charlie Parker in the Philadelphia production) and was subsequently presented by the company at the Apollo Theater in New York City in April 2016. (You can hear an excerpt in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The New York Times praised it for its “pulsing, jazz-infused score,” while the Wall Street Journal said, “its rhythms snap and swing, its melodies – including real arias – seize the ear, its ensembles crackle with energy.”
Madison Opera will be only the second company to present this work, which is sung in English with projected text and runs 90 minutes without an intermission.
“I saw Charlie Parker’s Yardbird when it premiered in Philadelphia and instantly knew it would be a perfect opera for Madison,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “The very American story and the exciting jazz-inflected music fit perfectly into our ever-expanding range of repertoire.”
She adds, “It’s not a straightforward narrative of Parker’s life, but rather elements of his life as refracted through his memories and imagination, and particularly his relationships with the women in his life.”
Madison Opera’s cast includes both debuts and returning favorites, as well as a number of singers who created their roles in the world premiere.
Joshua Stewart (below), a young American tenor who has sung at La Scala, Bayerische Staatsoper, and Opera de Lausanne, debuts in the tour de force role of Charlie Parker.
Angela Brown (below) returns following her performance at Opera in the Park 2016 as Addie Parker, Charlie’s mother, a role she created in Philadelphia.
Will Liverman, who sang Figaro in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville here in 2015, sings jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, a role he created in Philadelphia.
Krysty Swann debuts as Rebecca Parker, Charlie’s first wife. Angela Mortellaro, who sang Galatea in Handel’s Acis and Galatea in 2013, returns as Doris Parker, Charlie’s third wife, a role she created in Philadelphia.
Rachel Sterrenberg debuts as Chan Parker, his final wife, a role she created in Philadelphia. Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, in whose hotel suite Parker died, is sung by Julie Miller in her Madison Opera debut.
Directing this production is Ron Daniels (below), who staged the world premiere and was the opera’s dramaturge, involved in the creation and workshop process.
John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) conducts, with members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra in the pit.
DeMain says: “I am so happy to be a part of Madison Opera’s Midwest premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. Parker was consumed with music, breathing it day and night. All of us who are passionate about performing and listening to music can identify with this phenomenal musician and will not want to miss this jazz-infused opera, the perfect expression of Parker’s range and depth as a musician.”
Composer Daniel Schnyder will attend the opening night performance and join Smith for the Pre-Opera Talk that evening at 7 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio.
In addition to the performances, Madison Opera and its community partners are hosting a series of related events, collectively known as “Extending the Stage,” which culminate in a concert of Charlie Parker’s music with composer Daniel Schnyder and the UW-Madison’s Blue Note Ensemble.
These events include Opera Novice; community previews; Opera Up Close; discussions of the life and music of Charlie Parker (below); and presentations of rare jazz films.
All events are open to the public and the majority are free of charge.
RELATED EVENTS: EXTENDING THE STAGE
Opera Novice: Jazz Opera? Friday, Jan. 20 | 6-7 p.m. The Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, 335 W. Mifflin Street. FREE and open to the public
New to opera? Passionate about Puccini, but not sure about a jazz opera? Join General Director Kathryn Smith for a short, fun, and informative evening exploring the history of jazz and opera, including a live performance of an aria from Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. With plenty of time to ask questions, it’s the perfect jump-start for the opera-curious.
Community Preview of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, Tuesday, Jan. 24 | 7-8 p.m. Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 W. Main St. FREE and open to the public
Join a Madison Opera staff member for a multimedia look at Charlie Parker’s life, the history of the opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, and some insights into Madison Opera’s production.
Opera Up Close, Sunday, Feb. 5 | 1-3 p.m. The Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street. Admission: $20; free for full-season subscribers and full-time students with ID; $10 for two-show subscribers. Tickets available at the door.
Come even closer with a behind-the-scenes preview of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. A multimedia presentation on Charlie Parker and the history of this opera will be followed by a roundtable discussion with the leading artists of Madison Opera’s production. There is no better way to get “up close” to this acclaimed new opera.
A Charlie Parker Concert and Discussion with Daniel Schnyder and the Blue Note Ensemble Thursday, Feb. 9 | 7:30 p.m. Morphy Recital Hall, UW-Madison. FREE and open to the public
Composer Daniel Schnyder joins UW-Madison’s Blue Note Ensemble for an evening featuring music by Charlie Parker, with solos performed by both Schnyder and UW-Madison saxophone students. The evening includes an aria from Charlie Parker’s Yardbird and a discussion about Parker and the opera with Schnyder, UW-Madison Professor of Saxophone Les Thimmig, and General Director Kathryn Smith.
Pre-Opera Talks: Friday, Feb. 10 |7 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 12 | 1:30 p.m. Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center. FREE to ticket holders
Attend an entertaining introduction to Charlie Parker’s Yardbird one hour prior to curtain. On Friday night, composer Daniel Schnyder will join General Director Kathryn Smith to talk about the piece. Be sure to arrive early, as space is limited.
An Evening of Rare Jazz Films: Alicia Ashman Library. Friday, Feb. 3 | 7 p.m.; Goodman South Madison Library. Tuesday, April 11 | 6 p.m. FREE and open to the public (Below is footage of Charlie Parker playing and of people discussing the man and his artistic achievement.)
Jazz archivist Gary Alderman will present and explain films of the historically significant innovators of modern jazz, including the only two known existing videos with sound of Charlie Parker.
Among the other musicians shown will be those relevant to Parker’s music and career, including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
The Life and Music of Charlie Parker: DeForest Area Public Library: Monday, Feb. 13, 6:30 p.m.; Alicia Ashman Library: Friday, Feb. 24, 7 p.m.; Fitchburg Public Library: Sunday, Feb. 26, 2 p.m.; Oregon Public Library: Friday, March 10, 6:30 p.m. FREE and open to the public
UW-Madison Professor of Saxophone Les Thimmig (below) will talk about Charlie Parker’s life and music, as well as the history of bebop.
More information is available at www.madisonopera.org/education.
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. He also took the performance photos.
By John W. Barker
The mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) finished its fifth season with a concert on Wednesday night that was a kind of brass sandwich—that is, a brass filling between two noisy slices of bread.
The opener was the popular “Carnival” Overture by Antonin Dvorak, the closest this composer ever came to producing a cheap crowd-pleaser.
(I wish that the enterprising conductor Steve Kurr (below), had chosen instead one of the other two overtures in Dvorak’s trilogy of “Nature, Life and Love,” which are much more substantial.)
The orchestra gave the overture a lusty performance, revealing some interesting wind details that one does not often hear.
There were two sandwich fillers.
The first was a concerto for tuba, dating from 2015. The composer, local musician and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music alumnus Pat Doty (below), was also the soloist.
Of its three movements, the first was clearly in the idiom of music for marching band, in which Doty has had long UW experience. The second movement was an attempt at a waltz, while the finale had Latin American odors and featured a prominent part for marimba. What to say? The program bio made the sensible point that Doty’s music “never takes itself too seriously.”
A more substantial score was the other filling, the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, Op. 91, by Russian late-Romantic Reinhold Glière, also in three movements. (Sadly, the program booklet failed to list the movements for each concerto.)
While this score may not be really great music, it is a splendid, if difficult, vehicle for the soloist.
Another UW-Madison grad, Paul Litterio (below), a player in many area orchestras including both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (and with a sideline in handbells), was the soloist. Playing with perfect technique, an elegant style and just a touch of teasing vibrato, Litterio gave a fascinating demonstration of his instrument in a solo capacity that we do not often hear.
The closing bread for the sandwich was another example of near-vulgar bombast by one of its masters: Tchaikovsky (below). If that was the kind of music to be written, he was the one to do it, and still make you admire him.
The Capriccio Italien, Op. 40, was the composer’s reaction to a visit to Rome. He evoked his neighborhood and, above all, the riotous sounds and songs of a Roman Carnival. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Tchaikovsky’s capacity for making bombast sound like fun creates a really delightful score, and the Middleton players poured all their energies into it.
(An interesting footnote: Tchaikovsky’s other musical product of his visits to Italy is a very different work, the gorgeous string sextet Souvenir de Florence (Memory of Florence), which is less about Italy itself and more a picture of the composer’s homesickness. As it happens, that masterpiece will be played on July 8 by the Willy Street Chamber Players.)
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has received the following notice:
The final SoundWaves event of the year will be on this Friday, April 29, at 7:30 p.m. at the Town Center of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discover (WID), 333 North Orchard Street, across from the Union South.
SoundWaves events explore a broad theme through different lenses from the sciences and the humanities, ending with a related performance.
The title of Friday’s event is “Let’s Start at the Very Beginning: Origins in Science and Music.”
The presenters are John Yin, speaking about the COOL (Chemical Origins Of Life) Project; Clark Johnson speaking about the first billion years of the Earth’s history; Elizabeth Hennessy on the interaction of man and animal in a pristine environment (the Galapagos) and about Darwin; and the School of Music’s own composer Laura Schwendinger (below), speaking about the inspiration for the creation of new works.
Then, SoundWaves Curator Daniel Grabois (below, in a photo by James Gill), horn professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Music, will speak about the process of creating a new CD recording.
The event will conclude with a performance by School of Music pianist Christopher Taylor (below). He will be playing a dual-manual piano (a piano with two keyboards).
This is an instrument that creates whole new possibilities in piano performance, and Professor Taylor will be performing selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations as well as his own arrangement of Liszt’s “Paysage” (“Landscape” from the Transcendental Etudes) made for this instrument.
(You can hear the haunting opening Aria from Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, from the second recording made by Glenn Gould, in a popular YouTube video at the bottom that has almost 1.9 million hits.)
Admission is free.
Cash bar opens at 7 p.m.
Registration is suggested at www.discovery.wisc.edu/soundwaves