The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


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Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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Classical music: Saturday afternoon, Live From the Met in HD closes this season with an acclaimed production of “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Here is a background story, two rave reviews, and next season’s 10 operas

May 10, 2019
2 Comments

ALERT:The Brass Choirs of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras will present an afternoon of brass music this Saturday afternoon, May 11, at 2:30 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall, 455 North Park Street, in Madison. Directed by Tom Curry, the program features brass musicians from WYSO’s Concert, Philharmonia and Youth Orchestras. The concert is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLC. Music to be played is by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Giovanni Gabrieli, Charles Gounod, Edward Elgar, Paul Hindemith, Alan Hovahaness and Karel Husa.

CORRECTION: The Madison Youth Choirs will perform its “Legacy” concerts this weekend in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center on Saturday and Sunday — NOT Friday, as mistakenly listed and then corrected in the original post, which is below: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/05/08/classical-music-the-madison-youth-choirs-will-explore-the-theme-of-legacy-in-three-concerts-this-saturday-and-sunday-in-the-capitol-theater-of-the-overture-center/

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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday afternoon, May 11, the last production of this season’s “Live From the Met in HD” series, broadcast worldwide via satellite to cinemas, is Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”

By all accounts, it would be hard to end on a higher, stronger or more darkly dramatic note, given the outstanding music and performance of the score as well as the superb acting. (There is a brief preview of short scenes in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The world premiere of the opera took place in 1957 at La Scala in Milan, Italy. One of the most successful operas of the later decades of the 20th century,  “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is a rare case of a modern work that is equally esteemed by audiences and experts, according to program notes from the Metropolitan Opera.

The opera focuses on a young member of the order of Carmelite nuns, the aristocratic Blanche de la Force, who must overcome a pathological timidity in order to answer her life’s calling. The score reflects key aspects of its composer’s personality: Francis Poulenc (below) was an urbane Parisian with a profound mystical dimension, and the opera addresses both the characters’ internal lives and their external realities.

The opera takes place between 1789 and 1794 in Paris and in the town of Compiègne in northeastern France, the site of the Carmelite nuns’ convent.

Its historical basis is the martyrdom of a group of 16 Carmelite nuns and lay sisters from Compiègne, who chose to offer themselves as victims for the restoration of peace to France during the French Revolution.

The Met uses the classic John Dexter production of Poulenc’s devastating story of faith and martyrdom.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard (below right) sings the touching role of Blanche and soprano Karita Mattila (below left), a legend in her own time, returns to the Met as the Prioress.

The conductor for the performance is the Met’s highly acclaimed new music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who also leads the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Orchestra of Montreal.

The high-definition broadcast of the live performance from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City starts at noon and runs until 3:10 p.m. with two intermissions. (It will also air at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

The encore HD showings are next Wednesday, May 15, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

The opera will be sung in French with supertitles in English, German and Spanish.

Tickets for Saturday broadcasts are $24 for adults and $22 for seniors and children under 13. For encore showings, all tickets are $18.

The cinemas where the opera can be seen are two Marcus Cinemas: the Point Cinema on the far west side of Madison (608 833-3980) and the Palace Cinema (608 242-2100) in Sun Prairie.

Here is a link to the Marcus website for addresses and more information. You can also use them to purchase tickets:

https://www.movietickets.com/movies

Here is a link to the Metropolitan Opera’s website where you can find the titles, dates, casts, production information and video clips of all 10 productions this past season — PLUS an announcement, with dates and titles, for next season’s 10 productions (which feature five new productions but no Verdi):

https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/

Here is a background story that focuses on the French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who leads the orchestra in this production and is the new music director of the Metropolitan Opera:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/arts/music/met-opera-dialogues-des-carmelites.html

Here is a rave review of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” by senior classical music critic Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/05/arts/music/dialogues-des-carmelites-met-opera-review.html

And here is another rave review from New York Classical Review:

http://newyorkclassicalreview.com/2019/05/met-closes-season-with-a-riveting-devastating-carmelites/

Here are links to a synopsis and program notes:

https://www.metopera.org/discover/synopses/dialogues-des-carmelites/

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/dialogues-des-carmelites/

And here is a Wikipedia history of the hi-def broadcast series that gives you more information about how many cinemas it uses, the enormous size of the worldwide audience – now including Russia, China and Israel — and how much money it makes for The Met.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Opera_Live_in_HD


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


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Classical music: The 13th season of “Live from The Met in HD” opens this Saturday with Verdi’s opera “Aida” starring Anna Netrekbko

October 5, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like It”) IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

This Saturday, Oct. 6, the new 10-opera season of the series “Live From the Met in HD” starts with Giuseppe Verdi’s popular late masterpiece and epic opera “Aida.” 

The hi-definition broadcast of a live performance from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City – which is a revival production with the superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko — starts at 11:55 a.m. and runs until 4:13 p.m. The encore showings are on next Wednesday, Oct. 10, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

The opera will be sung in Italian with supertitles in English, German, Spanish and Italian.

Tickets are for Saturday broadcasts are $24 for adults and $22 for seniors. For encore showings, all tickets are $18.

The cinemas where the opera can be seen are two Marcus Cinemas: the Point Cinema on the west side of Madison and the Palace Cinema in Sun Prairie.

Here is a link to the Marcus website for address and more information:

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

Get out your datebooks!

Here is a link to the Metropolitan Opera’s web site where you can find the titles, dates, casts, production information and video clips of all 10 productions in the 2018-19 season, which include operas by Bizet, Wagner, Donizetti, Saint-Saens, Puccini, Cilea and Poulenc plus a new work, “Marnie,” by Nico Muhly. (You can also see and hear the season trailer in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/

Here is a link to a very positive review of “Aida” — Anna Netrebko as Aida is on the left in the photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times — by senior music critic Anthony Tommasini that appeared in The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/27/arts/music/anna-netrebko-aida-met-opera-review.html

Here is a link to a synopsis and cast list, which can be printed out:

https://www.metopera.org/globalassets/season/in-cinemas/hd-cast-sheets/aida_1819_hdsynopsis_global_nodates.pdf?performanceNumber=15145

Here is a link to other information about the production of “Aida,” including photos and audiovisual clips:

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/aida/

And here is a Wikipedia history of the successful broadcast series that gives you more information about how many cinemas it uses, the size of the worldwide audience – now including Russia, China and Israel — and how much money it makes for The Met.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Opera_Live_in_HD


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