The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear names The Willy Street Chamber Players as “Musicians of the Year” for 2016

December 30, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

It can’t be easy to start a new classical music group in a city that already has so many outstanding classical music groups and events.

Yet that is exactly what The Willy Street Chamber Players (below) have done – and with remarkable success.

Willy Street Chamber Players 2016 outdoors

To be honest, The Ear thought of awarding the same honor to them last year.

But that was their inaugural year. And launching a new enterprise is often easier than continuing and sustaining it.

But continue and sustain it they have – and even improved it.

The main season for The Willy Street Players is in July,, usually around noon or 6 p.m.

But they also usually offer a preview concert in the winter, and will do so again at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21, and Sunday, Jan. 22, when they will perform string quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Astor Piazzolla and Daniel Bernard Roumain at A Place to Be, 911 Williamson Street. Admission is $20.

Willy Street Chamber Players string quartet cr JWB

For tickets and more information about that concert as well as the group in general, go to: http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

The Ear finds so much to like about The Willy Street Chamber Players.

To start, the quality of the playing of the mostly string players and pianists — most of whom are products of the UW-Madison — is unquestionably superb. So are their guest artists such as Suzanne Beia. They have never disappointed The Ear, and others seem to agree. 

Willy Street audience

The programming is ideal and adventurous, combining beloved classics, neglected works and new music from contemporary composers. And it all seems to fit together perfectly.

The ensemble’s repertoire ranges from the Baroque era through the Classical, Romantic and modernist eras to today. They have performed an impressively eclectic  mix of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johannes Brahms, Peter Tchaikovsky, Pietro Mascagni, Arnold Schoenberg, George Crumb, Philip Glass, Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw and UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger

The concerts are very affordable.

The concerts are short, usually running only about an hour or 75 minutes. That allows you both to fully focus or concentrate on the performance but then also to do something else with your precious leisure time.

The group of sonic locavores stays true to its name and mission, playing at various venues on or near Williamson Street on Madison’s near east side – including the Immanuel Lutheran Church (below) on Spaight Street and at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center on Jenifer Street. But they have also collaborated with the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Willy Street Mozart Ave

At the post-concerts receptions, they even offer outstanding snack food from local purveyors in the Willy Street area. And it’s there that you can also meet the performers, who are fun, informative and congenial whenever they talk to the public, whether before and after a performance.

Willy Street snacks 2016

Most of all, The Ear has never heard anything dull or second-rate from the Willy Street Chamber Players. They are a fantastic breath of fresh air who invest their performances of even well-known works, such as the glorious Octet by Mendelssohn, with energy and drive, zest and good humor.

They are exactly what classical music – whether chamber music or orchestral music, choral or vocal music –needs to attract new and younger audiences and well as the usual fans. They have just the right balance of informality and professionalism.

The many musicians, all of them young, work hard but make the results seem easy. That is the very definition of virtuosity. Small wonder that many of them play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Madison Bach Musicians among other groups. But this group seems special to them, and it shows.

If you don’t already know the Willy Street Chamber Players, you should get to know them. You should attend their concerts and, if you can, support them. They are a new gem, and constitute an outstanding and invaluable addition to Madison’s music scene.

NOTE: The Ear offers one piece of advice to The Willy Street Chamber Players: Since he can’t find a sample of you in action, please post some of your outstanding performances, which have been recorded by radio host Rich Samuels and broadcast on WORT-FM 89.9, on YouTube. The public needs a way to hear them and whet its appetite for your live performances.

Willy Street Chamber Players logo

In any case, The Ear wishes them well and hopes that, despite the inevitable personnel changes that will surely come in the future, The Willy Street Chamber Players stay on the Madison music scene for many years to come.

The Ear sends his best wishes for the New Year and another great season, the group’s third, to The Willy Street Chamber Players as Musicians of the Year for 2016.

 


Classical music: UW-Madison opera students are on display at a concert this Sunday afternoon along with guest professional and UW opera graduate Lindsay Metzger

September 15, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from UW Opera Props, the support organization for University Opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

We invite you to attend a benefit concert showcasing the University of Wisconsin-Madison opera program’s talented students, along with special guest artist, distinguished alumna and mezzo-soprano, Lindsay Metzger (below top) who will be accompanied by pianist Daniel Fung (below bottom).

lindsay-metzger-1

daniel-fung

Please join us for a program of songs and arias, followed by a reception. Enjoy conversation with the singers, faculty and other musical friends, along with light refreshments including artisanal cheeses, fruit, wine, juices and chocolatier Gail Ambrosius’s delicious creations.

The concert is this Sunday, Sept. 18, at 3 p.m. followed by light refreshments and conversation. Sorry, no word about the composers or works to be sung.

The concert will take place in the Landmark Auditorium at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society of Madison Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, Madison

Admission is a contribution of $25 in advance ($30 at the door), and $10 for students. All proceeds go to UW Opera student scholarships.

For more information, visit:

https://www.facebook.com/events/1838139499750385

http://www.uwoperaprops.org/uw-opera-props-student-showcase-concert/

Lindsay Metzger (below) hails from Mundelein, Illinois. She spent two summers as an apprentice artist with Des Moines Metro Opera and was a studio artist in 2014-15 with Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera (Gannett in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore).

lindsay-metzger-2

Among her other recent portrayals have been Daphne/Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s La descente d’Orphée aux enfers (Chicago’s Haymarket Opera Company), Cherubino in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (La Musica Lirica in Novafeltria, Italy), Nella in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (DuPage Opera Theatre), the title role in Handel’s Ariodante, Béatrice in Berlioz’ Béatrice et Bénédict, and Beppe in Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz (all at the University of Wisconsin-Madison).

With Lyric Unlimited’s community-engagement program “Opera in the Neighborhoods,” Metzger was heard in the title role in Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

A soloist featured frequently in numerous Chicago-area venues, Metzger debuted with the Grant Park Symphony singing the soprano solo in Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem.

She was awarded the Paul Collins Fellowship from University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Virginia Cooper Meier Award from the Musicians’ Club of Women, and an Encouragement Award from the Metropolitan Opera National Council District Auditions.

Metzger is an alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and DePaul University. Last season at Lyric she was featured in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (debut) and Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. In the 2016-17 season the mezzo-soprano will perform in Massenet’s Don Quichotte and Bizet’s Carmen.


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players open their second promising season with another dazzling concert of music by Mascagni, Tchaikovsky and Caroline Shaw.

July 12, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

You had to be there to believe it.

That’s just how good the Willy Street Chamber Players are. (Actually, this season the music is being streamed live, so you don’t have to be there, and Rich Samuels of WORT-FM 89.9 recorded this concert for later airing.)

The Willys, as critic John W. Barker of Isthmus likes to call them, set themselves a high bar to clear, given the spectacular debut they made last summer in a series of July concerts that propelled them to the top of the list of classical music news in the area for the entire season.

The Ear is happy to report that in last Friday night’s opening concert of their second season, the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) met and surpassed that bar.

Willy Street Chamber Players 2016 outdoors

There was really only one small disappointment: Despite promises to bring the concert in with enough time to allow people to get over the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition at the UW-Madison, they ran late.

But at least they tried. And an effort at cooperation seems in perfect keeping with the nature of this outstanding ensemble. So do the local post-concert treats of food and sweets they offer.

Willy Street snacks 2016

The concert started with a piece that reminds one how a beautiful melody sticks in the ear and is never out of date, no matter what some modernists say.

In this case, it was the Intermezzo from the Romantic opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1880) by Italian composer Pietro Mascagni, as arranged for string sextet by Beth Larson (below, front left), the group’s own violist and violinist. As a welcoming opener and mood-setter, it proved a sheer delight.

Willy Steet Mascagni 2016

Let’s jump to the end, which was a stupendous reading of the Big Work: the “Souvenir de Florence” (Memory of Florence) by Peter Tchaikovsky that featured guest violinist Suzanne Beia (below, front left).

Beia, you may recall, is a concertmaster with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra as well as member of the Pro Arte Quartet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. And this summer, she sizzled in her virtuosic reading of “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi for the closing concerts of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. And boy, can she fiddle!

Willy Street Tchaikovsky 2016 with Suzanne Beia left

In the Tchaikovsky, there was plenty of lyricism. But the force and energy of the brisk, upbeat tempi kept the work from becoming the kind syrupy and repetitive sentimentalism that inferior Tchaikovsky playing can produce.

It was an exciting and dynamic, even thrilling, performance. The audience leapt to its feet with good reason.

But for The Ear, the standout piece was the centerpiece: the “Entr’acte” for string quartet (below) by the young American composer Caroline Shaw.

Willy Street Caroline Shaw 2016

This is The Ear’s kind of new music. Inspired by a minuet from an Op. 77 string quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn, Shaw’s work quietly pulsed and throbbed with a hypnotic rhythm. (You can hear a different performance of the work in a the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were some dissonances and some strange sounds made by rubbing strings as well as plucking and snapping strings. But overall this was new music that had melody, rhythm and harmony, and it proved accessible on the first hearing. Plus it was short and possessed both emotion and elegance. Eat your hearts out, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen!

The Ear hopes that the Willy Street Chamber Players continue their exploration of works by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Shaw (below) in future summer seasons and prove to be her ambassador to Madison audiences.

Caroline Shaw CR DASHON-BURTON

In any case, based on last season and now this concert the Ear has no reluctance in recommending the four concerts by the Willys that remain, three on Friday nights at 6 p.m. and one at noon.

NOTE: A word of warning is in order. Give yourself extra time to get there. Construction downtown plus major construction and street repairs on the streets around the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight St., pose obstacles.

Here is a link to the rest of the season:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

All The Ear can add is that last summer’s success was no fluke.

So let’s hear a Big Bravo for the fact that the Willys are Winners!


Classical music: The Opera Student Showcase concert this Sunday afternoon will introduce David Ronis as the new director of University Opera and spotlight University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate soprano Shannon Prickett.

September 12, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a the press release for the University Opera’s Student Showcase that will take place this coming Sunday afternoon and will preview the talent and productions of the upcoming season:

“A concert of favorite melodies by Vincenzo Bellini, Giuseppe Verdi and others -– mostly operatic but one clearly comic -– will be presented by students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music’s opera program.

The concert will take place this Sunday afternoon, September 14, at 3 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Landmark Auditorium (below) at 900 University Bay Drive.

FUS1jake

Directing the concert and this year’s University Opera program will be David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio), currently on leave from the Aaron Copland School of Music at City University of New York, and Hofstra University. He is serving as the interim successor to longtime director William Farlow, who retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison last spring. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the work that the versatile Ronis recently did at Queens College with an early music version of Luigi Rossi’s opera “Orfeo.”)

Here is a link to a press release, issued by the UW-Madison School of Music when David Ronis was chosen from a nationwide search last spring, with Ronis’ impressive background:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2014/07/11/school-of-music-announces-david-ronis-as-visiting-director-of-opera/

David Ronis color CR  Luke DeLalio

Most of the singers will appear in this year’s productions of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring this fall and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute in the spring.

Here is a link to information about the upcoming season of the University Opera:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/opera/

But one singer -– soprano Shannon Prickett (below top) – is an alumna returning from her current work as Resident Artist at the Minnesota Opera.

While in Madison from 2011 to 2013 and working on her Master’s of Music degree, Prickett performed lead parts in Puccini’s La Bohème, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Luigi Cherubini’s Medea, Pietro Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, and Verdi’s Requiem.

In the Showcase concert, she will sing arias from Verdi’s I Lombardi, Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, and a dramatic duet from Verdi’s Aïda with new mezzo-soprano doctoral student Jessica Kasinski, below bottom. (The Ear has no word on specific works to be performed.)

Shannon Prickett head shot

Jessica Kasinski

Other singers will take on arias by Mozart, Donizetti, Bellini, Richard Strauss and even Flanders and Swann: That number requires good humor as well as pianistic skill from the accompanist, and will provide a treat for fans of the multi-talented and critically acclaimed Thomas Kasdorf (below), another graduate of the UW-Madison.

Thomas Kasdorf

The concert is a benefit for the University Opera that sponsored by Opera Props, which supports the University Opera. Admission is a contribution of $25 per person, $10 for students. A reception follows.


Classical music: Fresco Opera Theatre lands a body slam and puts a submission hold on opera and wrestling this Friday and Saturday in its production of “Opera Smackdown” at the Overture Center. And the audience will get to choose the winner!

March 13, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Opera is rarely just opera when the creative talents behind Fresco Opera Theatre decide to do it. Invariably, the Fresco folks come up with some creative and new or unexpected take that combines self-deprecating humor with serious singing and acting talent.

Take the latest project.

Is professional wrestling real competition? Or is it a staged, even faked, competition? And what does real opera’s theatrical qualities have in common with professional wrestling?

But then what does it really matter as long as the participants and fans have fun?

To launch its fourth season, Fresco Opera Theatre’s latest production — called “Opera SmackDown” –- is this coming weekend. It will be held on Friday, March 14, at 8 p.m. and on Saturday, March 15, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the Promenade Hall in the Overture Center. 

Fresco Opera Theatre logo

Here is one description from the preview video that sounds exactly like a Ring Announcer’s hype if you read it out loud:

From all over the country, from all “fachs” (that’s opera lingo for voice categories such as Coloratura, Lyric, Dramatic Soprano), bringing a fresh take on opera for a good portion of the 21st century, Fresco Opera, the worldwide leader in live entertainment brings you Opera SmackDown.

“The SmackDown Champion is the most coveted title in the opera world. There is no parallel, no bigger accolade in the genre. It is the dream of every competitor who ever stepped out on stage. From young artists to seasoned vets, eight singers will endure vocal battles they have trained years to prepare for.

“Who will outperform to seize the spotlight in this collision course with destiny? ONLY the studio audience can, and will, decide. Their vote determines the winner in this live internet broadcast, spanning the globe for all to see!

“These singers will battle each other, sacrifice their bodies, betray colleagues, and embrace the soulless ally that is desperation. To the victor goes the spoils. To the winner, a once in a lifetime chance to become the next heir apparent to the Fresco Opera SmackDown throne!”

Does the winner get to wear one of those really outrageously big and blingy belt buckles too?

wrestling belt

Here is how Jeff Turk, the president of the group’s board of directors who can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom, describes the production and its novel concept:

“SmackDown is a take on the traditional vocal competition, with elements of pro-wrestling thrown in. We came upon this concept given the cut-throat nature and over-the-top presentations of both competitions and wrestling.

“Another twist is that the AUDIENCE will choose the winner. And the winner will receive a cash prize!

“Our goal here is to introduce the masses to opera. We have demonstrated over the years that performing classical music using familiar pop culture references makes it less intimidating for people who may not have any experience in the concert hall.

“I am proud of the fact our organization has inspired countless numbers of people who have had no experience with classical music to embrace it — which is good for all classical performers and organizations in the Madison area.

Tickets are $20.

Here are some links.

To the Fresco Website and preview video:

http://www.frescooperatheatre.com

http://www.frescooperatheatre.com/upcoming-productions.html

To the Overture Center for tickets:

http://overturecenter.com/production/opera-smackdown

And here are mini-bios of the contestants, with their nom-de-wrestling, vying for the championship:

Fresco Opera Theatre cast for Opera SmackDown

Mezzo Soprano Allison Waggener (Primal) recently won praise from reviewers for her “fine legato” and “strength and vocal beauty” as Annio in dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s New York production of Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito.”   Other highlights from her 2012-2013 season include the roles of Miss Pooder in the Texas premiere of “The Hotel Casablanca” with Abilene Opera and Hansel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” with Opera Oggi.

Diana Kelly Eiler (The Valkyrie) majored in vocal performance at Heidelberg College, where she received the Ohl Prize and Hoernemann academic awards, as well as making her professional debuts with the Toledo Opera in “Babes in Toyland” and Findlay Light Opera in “The Gondoliers” and “Die Fledermaus” while still a student. She was a N.A.T.S. Great Lakes Regional winner, Jessye Norman Award recipient, and semi-finalist in the Friedrich Schorr Opera Star Search.

George Abbott (Canto Libre) has 20 years of singing performance experience starting with the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio at age nine. His credits include singing with: Madison Bach Musicians, Fresco Opera Theater, University Theater, Music Theater of Madison, Middleton Players Theater, Madison Opera Chorus, and Madison Choral Project.

J. Adam Shelton (The Gladiator), lyric tenor, recently performed as the Leading Man Ghost in Fresco Opera’s Paranormal Playhouse. During this season, he will finish his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin where his dissertation, “The Singing Dream: A 21st Century Critical Edition of Tauberlieder”, explores the compositions of the great Austrian tenor, Richard Tauber.

Madison native Rachel Edie Warrick (Vox) is thrilled to be singing her second show with Fresco Opera. Rachel is a versatile performer who has sung with Madison Opera, Opera for the Young, Madison Choral Project and the Madison Bach Musicians. Rachel has also been a soloist throughout the Midwest in Handel’s “Messiah” and “Alexander’s Feast,” J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass, Magnificat, and “St. Matthew Passion,” the Mozart Vespers, and Haydn’s “The Creation.”

Soprano Erin Sura (Toxin) has recently been seen performing the role of Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni” with East Side Chamber Players, and in the Skylight Opera Theatre’s production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” in addition to appearing as a soprano soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Concord Chamber Orchestra, and Vivaldi’s Gloria with the South Shore Chorale.

Soprano CatieLeigh Laszewski(Asylum) is currently completing a Master of Music degree at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. With UW Opera, she has performed the role of Caterina in Mascagni’s “L’amico Fritz” and scenes from “Die Fledermaus” (Rosalinda), Bizet’s “Carmen” (Frasquita), “Hansel and Gretel” (Gretal), and Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” (Melisande) in Opera Workshop.

Caroline Wright (The Boss), Soprano, received her vocal training at Illinois Wesleyan University and the University of Wisconsin – Madison. While studying, Caroline performed roles such as Lauretta from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” the title role from Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” and Donna Anna from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J37IEOXiRGI

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