The Well-Tempered Ear

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: Why does Pavarotti – the man and now the movie – fascinate us?

June 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend a lot of people nationwide will go see the movie “Pavarotti,” the documentary by Ron Howard about the legendary Italian tenor who died 12 years ago.

Luciano Pavarotti (below) was and remains a superstar, a major cultural phenomenon, which is why Decca Records is cashing in by releasing not only the soundtrack to the documentary film but also a new 3-CD compilation of Pavarotti’s best singing.

It’s all so curious, especially if you compare Pavarotti’s artistic accomplishments against those of, say, Placido Domingo.

Pavarotti couldn’t read music.

He couldn’t act very convincingly.

The roles he learned were relatively limited in number.

He made major personal and professional missteps.

Yet we remain deeply drawn to Pavarotti.

Why?

It certainly has to do with his extraordinary voice, the tone and power of which could make your neck hairs stand on end, give you goosebumps, bring tears to your eyes and make you sob out loud.

Just listen to his singing of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” the crowd-pleasing signature aria from “Turandot” that Pavarotti performed over and over again in concerts, operas and at the famous “Three Tenors” stadium concerts. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But there is more to Pavarotti as a cultural phenomenon, much more, that tells us about ourselves and about the appeal of opera in general.

Without question, the best cultural analysis of Luciano Pavarotti that The Ear has ever seen or heard came recently from the critic Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times.

As Woolfe deconstructs “this hulking, sweaty man with stringy hair, a patchy beard and an unforgettable sound,” you learn much about the popular appeal – both high and low — of opera as well as the commercial and artistic appeal of Pavarotti.

Here is a link to Woolfe’s “Critic’s Notebook” analysis, which is well worth reading on its own or either before or after you see the new film.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/arts/music/pavarotti-ron-howard.html

And here is the official trailer for the film, with comments from many of his colleagues, which gets mixed reviews:

What do you think of Zachary Woolfe’s analysis of Pavarotti?

Why do you think the singer was so popular?

What is your favorite performance of his?

And if you saw the film, what did you think of it? Do you recommend seeing it?

Leave a comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Madison Opera will stage its first-ever production of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

February 7, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Opera presents The Abduction from the Seraglio by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on Friday, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 11, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State Street.

According to a press release, the opera — below is a mock-up of the locally designed and constructed set — will be sung in German with English used for dialogue and in the translated supertitles above the stage. Running time is about 2-1/2 hours with one intermission.

Tickets are $25-$114 with student and group discounts available. Call the Overture Box Office at (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org

With some of the most virtuosic vocal writing by Mozart (below), the opera is an adventure story of love, danger, humor and humanity.

Set in the 17th-century Ottoman Empire, the opera begins when Belmonte, a Spanish nobleman, arrives at Pasha Selim’s palace to rescue three people who had been captured during a shipwreck: his fiancée, Konstanze, and their servants, Blonde and Pedrillo.

A simple escape proves no easy task, and Mozart’s masterpiece weaves together comedy, quiet reflection and youthful optimism, with a happy ending brought about by an Enlightened ruler.

Abduction is a simply marvelous opera,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director who will give free pre-performance talks in the third-floor Wisconsin Studio at 7 p.m. on Friday night and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. “It’s the opera with which Mozart started to reinvent opera, with not only the expected arias, but also brilliant ensemble work. The very real humanity of the piece – its funny parts, its moving parts and the universal truth of the ending – is extraordinary.”

The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) was Mozart’s first major success. Written for the National Singspiel in Vienna – a pet project of Emperor Joseph II – it premiered in 1782 and was an immediate hit. (You can hear the familiar and captivating Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Like all singspiels, the opera uses spoken dialogue; indeed, the critical role of Pasha Selim is entirely spoken, perhaps one of the few instances of a major opera character not singing a note. In Madison, the dialogue will be performed in English, with the music sung in German (with projected English translations).

With a libretto by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger – an unauthorized adaptation of a libretto by Christoph Friedrich Breztner – Abduction was one the first successful German-language operas.

It was immortalized in the film Amadeus, and is famous for a possibly apocryphal story in which Emperor Joseph II criticized the work, saying to Mozart, “Too many notes,” and Mozart responded, “Exactly as many as needed.”

Abduction would go on to become Mozart’s most popular opera during his lifetime, but it has been a comparative rarity in the United States. This is Madison Opera’s first production of the opera in the company’s 57-year history.

“Mozart’s music for Abduction is a delight from start to finish,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), Madison Opera’s artistic director and conductor. “Great – and at times excitingly challenging – arias are enhanced by beautiful duets, trios and quartets. It has always been a favorite opera of mine, and I’m so looking forward to Madison Opera’s first production of this masterpiece with an absolutely knockout cast of great young singers.”

Mozart’s phenomenal vocal writing requires a strong team of five singers, and Madison Opera’s cast features a number of returning favorites.

Amanda Woodbury (below) sings the Spanish noblewoman Konstanze, whose aria “Martern aller Arten” is one of the most challenging arias ever written. Woodbury debuted with Madison Opera as Pamina in The Magic Flute last spring, and has recently sung leading roles for the Metropolitan Opera and Los Angeles Opera.

Tenor David Walton (below) sings Belmonte, Konstanze’s fiancé; he debuted at Opera in the Park this past summer, has sung many leading roles for Minnesota Opera, and sings at the Glimmerglass Festival this summer.

Matt Boehler (below) returns as Osmin, the palace overseer with some devilishly low bass notes. He sang Rocco in Fidelio and Leporello in Don Giovanni for Madison Opera, and more recently has sung with Minnesota Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and the Canadian Opera Company.

Konstanze and Belmonte’s servants, Blonde and Pedrillo, are sung by Ashly Neumann(below top) in her Madison Opera debut and Wisconsin native Eric Neuville (below bottom), who sang Laurie in Little Women for Madison Opera.

Alison Mortiz (below) directs this new production in her debut with Madison Opera. Moritz has directed at opera companies around the United States, including Central City Opera, Tulsa Opera and Tri-Cities Opera.

The sets and costumes (below) are locally made specifically for this production.

The scenery and lighting are designed by Anshuman Bhatia, also in his Madison Opera debut, with costumes designed by Karen Brown-Larimore. As always, the opera features the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Madison Opera’s production of The Abduction from the Seraglio is sponsored by Kay and Martin Barrett, Fran Klos, Sally and Mike Miley, and the Wisconsin Arts Board.


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