The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera stages its first-ever production of Dvorak’s fairy tale opera “Rusalka” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A preview roundtable is this Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage its production of Antonin Dvorak’s luxurious masterpiece Rusalka on Friday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Running time is 3 hours with two intermissions, and will feature projected supertitles with English translations of the original Czech that will be sung.

Tickets are $18-$131 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

Inspired by the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story travels from a mythical forest to a palace and back again. Its lush score includes the famous “Song to the Moon.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing”Song to the Moon” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in a mythical realm, Rusalka is about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. She tells her father Vodnik that she wishes to become human and live with the Prince on land. Horrified, Vodnik tells her that humans are full of sin, but reluctantly suggests she enlist the help of Jezibaba, a witch. Jezibaba agrees to make her human, but cautions that Rusalka will lose her power of speech. Further, if the Prince betrays her, she will be cursed forever.

The Prince falls in love with Rusalka and plans to marry her, but her silence unnerves him, and a Foreign Princess interrupts the wedding festivities with evil intent. Rusalka returns to the lake as a spirit that lures men to their death – and the Prince follows her.

Rusalka is one of the most gorgeous operas in the repertoire,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with it when I first saw it over 20 years ago, and listening to the score is a pure pleasure. I am so delighted to share this opera with Madison, so that everyone can learn how brilliant an operatic composer Dvorak was, and experience an opera that is justifiably popular around the world.”

Rusalka’s story was inspired by multiple sources, including Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben, Hans Christian Andersen, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

The opera premiered on March 31, 1901 in Prague and quickly became a massive success, hailed as Dvorak’s masterpiece.

But it was not initially widely performed outside of Czech territories; the first U.S. performance was in 1975. But in recent decades, the opera by Dvorak (below) has become a regular part of the opera repertoire, due to its beautiful music and lovely story.

This production is not only a Madison Opera premiere, but also the company’s first-ever opera in Czech.

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

Soprano Emily Birsan (below) returns to Madison Opera in the title role, following successes here as Gounod’s Juliet and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Last month, she sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has praised her singing for her “amazing clarity of diction, accuracy of intonation and fineness of expression.”

Tenor John Lindsey (below) returns to Madison Opera as The Prince, after singing in last summer’s Opera in the Park.

Making their debuts with Madison Opera are soprano Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess, contralto Lindsay Amman as the witch Jezibaba and bass William Meinert as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik. Emily SecorSaira Frank and Kirsten Larson play the three wood sprites; Benjamin Liupaogo sings the Hunter.

The Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra round out the musical forces, all under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director.

Keturah Stickann (below) directs her first opera for Madison Opera; she has directed both traditional and contemporary repertoire across all of the U.S., most recently for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera.

This production originated at Minnesota Opera and features projections (below) by Wendall K. Harrington, who has been described as “the godmother of modern projection design.”

In reviewing the Minnesota production, theTwin Cities Arts Reader praised “the stunning visuals on display, which only serve to enhance and elaborate on the action and the music.”

Madison Opera’s production of “Rusalka” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kay & Martin Barrett, Millie & Marshall Osborn, Sally & Mike Miley, Kato Perlman, Charles & Martha Casey, John Lemke & Pam Oliver, and The Ann Stanke Fund.

RELATED EVENTS

You can learn more about “Rusalka” at the events leading up to the performances.

Opera Up Close will take place this Sunday, April 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center (below) 335 West Mifflin Street, $20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers.

This event features a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Rusalka. General director Kathryn Smith will discuss Antonin Dvorak and the history of his fairy-tale opera. Principal artists, stage director Keturah Stickann and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this masterpiece.

Pre-Show Talks by Kathryn Smith take place on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

Post-Opera Q&A’s are on Friday, April 26, and Sunday, April 28, immediately following the opera in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

More information — including cast biographies and a blog with Q&A interviews with some cast members — is available at https://www.madisonopera.org and https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/rusalka/.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served 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

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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Classical music: Sonata à Quattro celebrates early music and the importance of the viola in concerts this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

November 1, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

As far as The Ear can tell, Marika Fischer Hoyt has two big professional passions: early music, especially the music of Johann Sebastian Bach; and the viola, which she plays, teaches and champions in the Madison Bach Musicians, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Bach Around the Clock (which she revitalized and directs) and now Sonata à Quattro (which she founded last summer, when it made its impressive debut as an adjunct event to the Madison Early Music Festival).

Those two passions will come together in Madison this Friday night, Nov. 2, and in Milwaukee this Sunday afternoon, Nov. 4,  in concerts by the new Baroque chamber music ensemble Sonata à Quattro (below) with the theme “Underdog No More – The Viola Uprising.”

Here are the two dates and venues:

Friday, Nov. 2, at 7:30 p.m. at the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, in Madison; tickets are $15 and available at the door, and also online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3660161

Sunday, Nov. 4, at 4 p.m. at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, 2220 North Terrace Avenue, in Milwaukee; tickets are $20 for general admission, $10 for students at the door, and online at www.violauprising.brownpapertickets.com

Fisher Hoyt (below) has this to say this about the theme of “The Viola as Underdog”:

“A caterpillar turning into a butterfly – that was the violin in the 17th century. In the early 1600’s the violin evolved almost overnight from dance band serf into the rock star of the musical family.

But the viola’s larger size, heavier weight, more slowly responding strings and darker timbre kept it in the shadows, consigned to rounding out harmonies under the violin’s pyrotechnics. (Indeed, vestiges of this status remain to the present day, in the form of the omnipresent viola joke).

Composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven played the viola (below is Marika Fischer Hoyt’s baroque viola made in Germany in the 1770’s) themselves, and gave it challenging melodic and soloistic opportunities in their works. But these were the exception rather than the rule; the viola’s main role in the 17th century was that of filler in an ensemble.

But if agile violins and cellos serve as the arms and legs of a musical texture, the viola’s rich dark voice gives expression to the heart and soul. This added dimension is enhanced when, as happened frequently in France, Germany and Italy, two or more viola lines are included.

Our program presents works from 1602-1727 that explore those darker, richer musical palettes, culminating in Bach’s ultimate exaltation of the underdog, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6.” (You can hear the Bach work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performers in the group for these performances are Consuelo Sañudo, mezzo-soprano; Christine Hauptly-Annin and Anna Rasmussen, violins; Micah Behr and Marika Fischer Hoyt, violas; Ravenna Helson and Eric Miller, violas da gamba; Charlie Rasmussen, cello; and Daniel Sullivan, harpsichord.

The program includes:

Fuga Prima, from Neue Artige und Liebliche Tänze (New-styled and Lovely Dances(1602) by Valentin Haussmann (1565-1614)

Sonata à 5 in G Minor, Op. 2 No. 11 (1700) by Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751)

Mensa Sonora, Pars III (1680) by Heinrich Biber (1644-1704)

Sonata à 5 in E Minor, TWV 44:5 by Georg Friedrich Telemann (1681-1767)

Sinfonia from Cantata 18 Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee (Just as the Rain and Snow) (1714) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

INTERMISSION

Sonata à Quattro II in C Major  “Il Battista” (The Baptist) (1727) by Antonio Caldara (1670-1736)

Lament:  Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte (O, that I had enough waters) by Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703)

Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major, BWV 1051 (1718) by J.S. Bach

Here is a link to the Facebook page of Sonata à Quattro with videos and photos as well information about the players and upcoming concerts: https://www.facebook.com/sonataaquattro/

The Madison concert will be followed by a reception of dark chocolate, mocha and cappuccino.


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Classical music: The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet delivers a perfect program of superb music by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert

February 5, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

While snow may have restricted the audience attending the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) on Saturday night, those who came were amply rewarded with a virtually perfect program of superb music.

The program brought together three Austrian works, two by those Classical-era titans, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the third by the Austrian early Romantic Franz Schubert.

The combination of the first two was particularly stimulating, an opportunity to reckon how different from each other were these composers who are so often bracketed together.

The E-flat Quartet is No. 3 in the Op. 50 set that some commentators have viewed as the response by Haydn (below) to the set of six quartets that Mozart had recently published in Haydn’s honor.

Deliberately, Haydn chose to avoid matching Mozart’s lyricism and rich imagination, turning instead to statements of strength in austere textures.

Composed in 1790, a year before his death and only three years after the Haydn work, the Quartet in B-flat, K. 589, by Mozart (below) was his penultimate quartet, part of a series to be written for the King of Prussia who played the cello, which is featured prominently in the quartet.

Here we have a Mozartian style that is expansive and exploratory. Amid music of great lyric beauty and even vivacity, we have a Menuetto third movement whose Trio, or midsection, is remarkably dark and ambiguous. (You can hear a period-instrument performance of the third movement in the YouTube video at the bottom)

The Pro Arte players brought out the individuality of the two different styles quite beautifully. To my ears, the viola lines were delivered with notable strength and color by Sally Chisholm.

The final work, and the longest, was one of Schubert’s amazing late quartets. The No. 13 in A minor, D. 804), from 1824 is known as the “Rosamunde” Quartet because the second movement is the elaboration by Schubert (below) of the lovely melody in the well-known interlude in his incidental music for the play of that title.

Despite a somewhat moody first movement, the work as a whole is suffused with Schubert’s very special, very personal lyricism. Analyses of it can be instructive, but ultimately this remains music for the soul, not just the brain, I think.

The Pro Arte understands that well, and gave a generous demonstration of its beauties.

It proved such a wonderful concert, for which we can only give warm thanks to the UW-Madison’s Mead-Witter School of Music where the Pro Arte Quartet has been an artist-in-residence since World War II.


Classical music: The UW’s fifth annual Schubertiade traced the composer’s entire career with lovely singing and beautiful playing

January 31, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The annual “Schubertiade” has become not only a firm tradition but also invariably one of the highlights of each season. And so it was again on last Sunday afternoon on-stage at the UW-Madison’s Mills Hall.

These programs have been organized, run and performed by that magnificent couple (below), Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes.

Each plays the piano and Martha also sings (below).

For this year’s fifth annual Schubertiade, the program was not just a replica of the musicales that Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and his friends would enjoy. It was instead an extra-long venture (running almost three hours) in chronological comprehensiveness, offering one or more selections from each successive year of the composer’s creative span (1812-28). It was funded this year, by the way, by the generous Ann Boyer.

The result was a mixture of 21 solo songs, three vocal ensembles, two chamber works and three pieces for four-hand piano duo—the last played, of course, by our founding couple.

There was one guest singer, mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below), a sensitive artist who teaches at UW-Whitewater, but whose vibrato was somewhat excessive. Otherwise, the performers were faculty members or students at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, and all of them were simply wonderful.

Of the two instrumental ensemble pieces, one was an adaptation of Schubert’s Sonatina written for violin and piano but played in an adaptation for cello by Parry Karp (below).

The other was the superb Quartettsatz (Quartet Movement), played with mature power by the Hunt Quartet (below), made up of graduate students.

The three ensemble items were delightful novelties. The first was Schubert’s rewrite of a trio, Die Advokaten (below), in which two lawyers squeeze their fees out of a rich client.

Another was a charming soprano duet. The third was a vocal quartet with piano, Des Tages Weihe (Consecration of the Day), rich in ensemble beauty. (You can hear the piece on the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The songs were also a mix of very familiar and rarely heard, so many of them rich experiences. It is daunting to single out exceptional ones, for there was so much lovely singing and there were so many masterpieces. Personally, I found myself particularly moved by the absolutely gripping performance of Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) by soprano Claire Powling (below).

And I really admired the beautiful singing of young soprano Talia Engstrom and veteran tenor Benjamin Liupiaogo. Beyond the solo performances, though, was an interesting expansion of the Erlkönig done by four singers cast in distinct “roles” in the text.

After the whole company took bows (below), there was the customary finale in the song An die Musik (To Music) in which the audience joined the singers.

Long may this wonderful Schubertian tribute that the founding couple has created continue!


Classical music: Here are the Final Forte winners. Mosaic Chamber Players concludes its season this Saturday night with piano trios by Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff and Charles Ives. Plus, a FREE concert of Latin American bassoon music is Friday at noon

March 30, 2017
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NEWS: In case you missed it last night on Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio, here are the winners of the  Madison Symphony Orchestra’s high school concerto competition, which featured a lot of fine music and excellent performances.

First prize went to violinist Julian Rhee of Brookfield, who performed Tchaikovsky; second prize went to pianist Michael Wu of Sun Prairie, who performed Saint-Saens; and the two runners-up were violinist Yaoyao Chen of Menasha, who played Sibelius, and harpist Naomi Sutherland, who performed Ravel.

For more information about the annual event, including links to video biographies of the contestants, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/03/25/classical-music-education-watch-it-on-public-television-or-radio-stream-it-live-or-hear-it-in-person-the-final-forte-free-finalists-concert-with-the-madison-symp/

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature bassoonist Juliana Mesa-Jaramillo in works for solo bassoon by 20th-century Latin American composers. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed Mosaic Chamber Players will conclude its 2016-2017 season with a program of piano trios.

Members of the Madison-based Mosaic Chamber Players are Wes Luke, violin; Kyle Price, cello; and Jess Salek, piano.

The program features the “Elegy” Trio in D Minor, Op. 9, by Sergei Rachmaninoff; the Trio, Op. 86, by Charles Ives; and the Trio in D Minor, Op 49, by Felix Mendelssohn. (You can hear the opening of the lovely and darkly dramatic Rachmaninoff Trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The concert will be this Saturday, April 1, at 7 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of First Unitarian Society of Madison.

Tickets are $15 for general admission; $10 for seniors; and $5 for students. Cash or checks only will be accepted.

Pianist Jess Salek (below), who graduated from the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton Wis., and who runs his own piano studio in Madison and also works with the Madison Youth Choirs.

Violinist Wes Luke (below) plays with many regional orchestras and ensembles, including the Madison-based Ancora String Quartet.

Here is an informative and engaging story about cellist Kyle Price (below), a UW-Madison student, and how he started a music festival and ended up studying with Professor Uri Vardi at the UW-Madison.

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2015/12/02/kyleprice_cello/


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