The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: “Into the Woods” proved a complete, first-rate theatrical experience

February 26, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog  – attended two performances of “Into the Woods” at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and filed this review. (Photos are by Beau Meyer for the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.)

By Larry Wells

The University Theatre and University Opera’s recent joint production of “Into the Woods” was a feast for fans of Stephen Sondheim (below). It was a complete theatrical experience with excellent singing, a nuanced orchestral accompaniment, skilled acting and enchanting staging.

The nearly three-hour work is an amalgamation of several well-known fairy tales exploring themes such as parent-child relationships, loss of innocence, self-discovery, the consequences of wishes being fulfilled, and death – but all in an amusing, literate, fast-paced kaleidoscope of witty dialogue, catchy music and sophisticated lyrics.

The production employed an attractive, ever-changing set, designed by John Drescher, that was vaguely reminiscent of Maurice Sendak.

Stage director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) utilized the large cast and what had to be an equally large number of backstage crew members in a captivating succession of ensemble pieces and solo numbers. I was never aware of the passing of time. Not looking at my watch is my acid test of a production’s success.

Among the many standout performances, Bryanna Plaisir (below) as the Witch was comical in her delivery and quite amazing in the physicality of her performance. There were a number of times when she flew, and each time I was taken by surprise at her effortlessness. Her initial song, accompanied mostly by percussion, was mesmerizing.

There were two roles that were double cast: Elisheva Pront and Miranda Kettlewell (below) as the Cinderellas; and Meghan Stecker and Zoe Bockhorst as the two Little Red Riding Hoods.

Both Pront and Kettlewell possess excellent voices.

Stecker was the more girlish of the two Red Riding Hoods, whereas Bockhorst (below left) portrayed a slightly more canny character.  Both were very funny in their encounter with Cobi Tappa’s Wolf (below right).

Tappa is a physical actor whose tall lankiness conveyed the Wolf’s lupine nature flawlessly. He also portrayed the Steward, and I was completely captivated by his performance, as was the appreciative audience.

Joshua Kelly (below) was the narrator and also played the baker’s father.  His was a professional quality performance from beginning to end – enunciating so clearly that he was completely understandable throughout.

Jack was played by Christian Michael Brenny. His portrayal of a simple-minded boy was touching, and his singing was outstanding.

Emily Vandenberg (below left) as the wife of the baker (played by Michael Kelley, below right) was another outstanding performer – an excellent comic actress and an accomplished vocalist.

Mention must also be made of Rapunzel and Cinderella’s princes, Tanner Zocher  and Jacob Eliot Elfner. Their two duets, “Agony” and “Agony Reprise,” were enthusiastically received by the audience not only for their delivery but also for such lyrics as “…you know nothing of madness ‘til you’re climbing her hair…”.

Sondheim’s way with words continues to amaze me. In describing a decrepit cow, Jack’s mother gets to sing “…while her withers wither with her…”.  The Wolf gets to sing the line “…there’s no possible way to describe what you feel when you’re talking to your meal…”

Chad Hutchinson (below) conducted the orchestra in a finely shaded performance – never overpowering and always supportive.

There were many other excellent performances and memorable moments. Suffice it to say that altogether cast, crew, artistic and production staff created a show that I enjoyed on two consecutive evenings. In fact I was completely entranced both times.

Postscript: The first evening I sat in front of a person who coughed more or less continually the entire first act.  Mercifully she left at the intermission. Next to me was a woman who alternated between audibly clearing her throat and blowing her nose — when she wasn’t applying moisturizer to her hands — throughout the entire show. Stay home if you’re sick. And remember that you are not at home watching your television.  You are in a theater.

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Classical music news: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) is expanding its second season to two summer concerts and performs Copland, Faure and Haydn plus opera arias this Friday night.

June 12, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison may already be saturated and have more classical music that any city its size has a right to expect. But the classical scene here just keeps expanding.

Friday night marked the debut of the Sound Ensemble Wisconsin, a new chamber music group.

This Friday night will mark the opening of the expanded two-concert second summer season by the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO), pictured rehearsing below in a photo by Steve Rankin.

I asked the founder and conductor of MAYCO, Mikko Utevsky (below), an East High School graduating senior, to tell us about it. Here are his notes:

“The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra is a student-directed summer festival ensemble dedicated to providing an intensive small orchestra experience for high school and college students. The orchestra prepares a full program over the course of each one-week summer session.

“The first concert is “Bombast and Beauty” and takes place next Friday night at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Admission is $5; students get in for free or by donation.

“MAYCO’s second season opens with a bang, with Aaron Copland‘s heroic “Fanfare for the Common Man” (featuring our brass section). After a delightful potpourri of salon music by the grandfather of the Impressionist movement, Gabriel Fauré in his suite “Masques et Bergamasques,” we are joined by critically acclaimed soprano Shannon Prickett for a selection of bel canto opera arias. We conclude with “Papa” Haydn‘s final symphony, the vivacious and riotously fun “London” Symphony in D major.

Here are some personal notes by conductor Utevsky on the repertoire:

“We will be presenting two concerts this season, on two Fridays — June 15 and August 18 – at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall. It is a tradition I hope to continue in future years.

“As I will be attending the UW-Madison this fall, the orchestra will remain, and I hope to be able to bring a few more undergraduate players into our sections to give them opportunities to lead, and to give the younger musicians the experience of working closer to a collegiate level — something that has been incredible for me to experience, having joined the UW Symphony a year early.

“I’m perhaps most excited to work with another outstanding soloist this season (continuing last year’s tradition), soprano Shannon Prickett (below).

“Readers here will be familiar with Shannon, who played Mimi in the University Opera’s production of “La Boheme” this season, as well as receiving critical acclaim on this blog and elsewhere for her singing in Verdi’s Requiem with the UW Choral Union. She’ll be singing works by both of those composers with us this concert, including excerpts from “La Boheme.”

“I also look forward to performing Haydn’s “London” Symphony at this concert, one of the master’s most-played works for good reason. So many young musicians have this idea that Haydn (below) is easy – or worse, boring! – and I’m hoping that we can correct that perception and discover as an orchestra how exciting and intricate his music is.

“For that, I think, the 104th symphony is perfect – he’s writing for Salomon’s orchestra in London, so it uses the full wind section, and in this particular symphony he really does make full use of the clarinets and the brass, which is more fun for the whole orchestra when nobody has to stay silent or stop playing  for half the piece.

“The “Masques et Bergamasques” Suite by Gabriel Faure (below) is a lovely little work, very much neglected in the repertoire, although Madison audiences may remember that the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra recorded it (beautifully, I might add) back in 2005.

“Rounding out the program we have famous “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland (below), which seemed a fitting piece for the times. We all need to be reminded to celebrate the Common Man, for all the power and credence given to the rich and famous today. Whatever your political leanings, occupation, or income level, music is for everyone.

MAYCO’s second concert will be “A Celebration of Youth” on August 18 at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall.

“We have an unusual program for our second concert this season (our first time presenting two in a summer!), beginning with a world premiere by local composer Nate Levy.

“In memory of the late children’s author Maurice Sendak (below), we delve into the fairy-tale realm of Maurice Ravel‘s “Mother Goose” Suite next, a shimmering, gossamer sound-world bursting with color and beauty.

“To cap the evening, we offer Schubert‘s delicate, Mozartian Symphony No. 5, written when Schubert (below) was only 19! A charmingly witty work, the Fifth lacks none of the young composer’s famed lyricism. We hope you enjoy it.”

Here are some biographical notes about Mikko Utevsky:

Mikko Utevsky (below, shown conducting MATCO in a photo by Rosebud) is a violist and conductor starting his undergraduate studies on a full-tuition scholarship at the UW-Madison, having performed in the UW Symphony Orchestra and in the viola studio of Prof. Sally Chisholm for his senior year of high school.

He was also named the first-ever Assistant Conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra at his high school, where he was also a perennial featured soloist, and has performed for several years as principal viola in the top ensemble of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), under the baton of UW-Madison director of orchestras, James Smith.

He currently serves as the music director of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, a summer festival orchestra for high school and undergraduate musicians, which he founded in 2010.

The orchestra has been joined in the past by UW-Madison Artist-in-Residence Suzanne Beia, with whom Mr. Utevsky has studied chamber music for four years. His other mentors in conducting include Prof. David Becker, Thomas Buchhauser, Prof. James Smith, Prof. Tonu Kalam, and Kenneth Woods; on the viola, Diedre Buckley.

Classical music news: Maurice Sendak loved classical music, especially Verdi and Mozart, and, yes, he was gay.

May 12, 2012
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ALERT: Just a reminder that today 2-6 p.m. is the FREE and PUBLIC “Curtain Down Party” and Open House at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Here are links to news releases and stories about the event. My own thoughts about the WUT’s history and future were in yesterday’s posting:

By Jacob Stockinger

Ever since he died this week at 83 of complications from a stroke, the famed children’s book writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak (below) has been featured in many tributes in the old and new media — and rightfully so.

I love listening to his voice, his articulate conversation and quick thinking. Just listen to the hour that Terry Gross and “Fresh Air” on NPR devoted to old interviews he did.

And The Huffington Post compiled some of Sendak’s most memorable and self-effacing quotes:

But other sources, with less of a high-profile, also discussed other aspects of Sedak and his art.

One is the famed classical music radio station WQXR in New York City, where Sendak was born and lived his whole life.

Sendak told a blogger at WQXR how much he loved classical music, especially Mozart and Verdi. He even collaborated on various musical projects including one with contemporary British composer Oliver Knussen.

Here is a link:!/blogs/wqxr-blog/2012/may/08/classical-music-fueled-maurice-sendak-muse/

And the question I kept hearing was whether Maurice Sendak was gay.

Well, it took him a long time to make a public statement, but he did it recently on The Colbert Report. Take a listen not only to Sendak’s wit and humor but also to absolute candor.

Here is a link to Be sure to listen to the blog but especially to listen to the clip from the Colbert Report at the bottom:

That kind of emotional honesty, I am convinced, was also one of the qualities that permeated Sendak’s own books and accounted for his popularity and prestige.

We adults are The Wild Things and we are sad at his passing,

Even more than children, it is adults who will miss Maurice Sendak.  He embodied the kind of cosmopolitan intelligence and tolerant creativity that we see too rarely in our increasingly anti-intellectual society.

In honor of Sendak and his musical taste, here is the finale from Verdi’s opera “Falstaff,” a character who seems as lusty for life and as larger-than-life as Sendak himself:

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