The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A FREE concert of songs and piano music by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg will be given this Saturday afternoon at the UW-Madison

September 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has always liked Claude Debussy’s quote that the “both strange and delightful taste” of the music by Edvard Grieg is like “a bonbon filled with snow.”

And there is certainly much more to Grieg (1843-1907, below), Norway’s first internationally renowned composer, than the popular Piano Concerto in A minor and “Peer Gynt” Suite.

Here is a link to his biographical entry in Wikipedia

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

To help spread the word about this original but accessible composer who mastered melody and harmony as he incorporated Norwegian folk songs and folk dances into his work, the Edvard Grieg Society of the Great Lakes was formed last year.

This semester’s meeting will be on Saturday afternoon at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

It will start with a master class at 1 p.m. that is FREE and open to the public.

Then at 4 p.m., in Morphy Recital Hall is a FREE recital of piano works, especially many of the Lyric Pieces, and songs by Grieg, whose wife was a singer. (The lyric piece “Evening in the Mountains” will be performed and you can hear Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes play it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The host is UW faculty member soprano Mimmi Fulmer (below), a champion of Scandinavian music who sits on the board of directors of the Grieg Society. She talked about Grieg and the event in an interview this past week with Norman Gilliland on Wisconsin Public Radio’s program “The Midday.” You can hear that interview, with music, here: https://www.wpr.org/shows/mimmi-fulmer-1

Here is a link to more information about the performances and the complete program, which unfortunately doesn’t translate many of the song titles from Norwegian into English.

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/concert-with-the-edvard-grieg-society-of-the-great-lakes/

And if you wish to know more about or get involved in or support the Grieg Society, here is a link to its home web page:

http://greatlakesgrieg.weebly.com

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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players open their new “Vignettes” season with concerts on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

September 14, 2018
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A CORRECTION: The Ear wants to apologize for and correct an error he made in yesterday’s blog post. The correct time and address for the all-Schubert concert by the Mosaic Chamber Players is on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the chapel of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) will begin their 2018-2019 season series “Vignettes” with concerts on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 16, at 2 p.m.

The concerts will both be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors 62 and over; and $5 students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com or call (608) 230-4316 for more information for individual and season tickets.

Once again, the group will explore largely new or unknown composers and neglected music.

Each program of the 2018-19 series will focus on how composers create specific themes to tell stories, and represent emotions, places or characteristics to enhance the listening experience.

Central to the program is poetry and narration paired with music that will feature Boston-based guest soprano Mary Mackenzie (below). She has been described by The New York Times as “a soprano of extraordinary agility and concentration,” and the Boston Globe as “sensational.”

Mackenzie is a passionate performer of contemporary vocal music, and has appeared with the Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston, Collage New Music, the Da Capo Chamber Players, Fulcrum Point New Music Project, and The Knights.

American composer Byron Adams (below) was commissioned by renowned American clarinetist Yehuda Weiner to set Nightingales, a poem by British Victorian poet Robert Bridges, as a memorial to his brother. The composer chose a quartet of soprano, clarinet, cello and piano to evoke the breathtaking beauty of the natural world that is overlaid with a sense of loss and longing.

By contrast, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Jennifer Higdon (below, in a photo by Candace DiCarlo) set four poems that have titles that reference roses by James Whitcomb Riley for the combination of flute, soprano and piano.

Bentley Roses was written as a surprise tribute for the retirement of her former music teacher, Judith Bentley. The settings are sunny and accessible, the music weaves around the words with swirling energy, coy interactions, and graceful interplay.

The yearning Vocalise by conductor, composer and pianist Andre Previn conveys emotion using the voice without words as a chamber instrument. The combination of soprano, cello and piano carries the shifting harmonies and sinuous melodic line through a series of subtle yet powerful transformations. (You can hear Previn’s beautiful “Vocalise,” with soprano Barbara Bonney and the the composer at the piano, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A second piece by Previn (below) piece puts the cello and soprano in conversation with his setting of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison’s poem Stones.

American film composer and bassoonist Charles Fernandez (below) wrote Quatuor Parisienne (Parisian Quartet) for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. It consists of three movements: a tongue-in-cheek march; a gracefully flowing reflection: and a farcical musical conversation with a dash of merriment.

Budapest-based clarinetist and composer Endre Szervanszky (below) wrote his Quintet No. 1 in 1953. Audiences will hear some characteristics similar to the writing of Kodaly and Bartok. It is a pleasing four-movement work that shows his strong understanding of each of the instruments, demanding both melodic expressiveness and technical panache.

The program concludes with poetry by British writer Roald Dahl, known for his darkly humorous children’s stories. Composer Martin Butler (below, in a photo by Katie Vandyck) incorporated The Pig, The Tummy Beast, and The Crocodile into his piece Dirty Beasts for narrator, piano and woodwind quintet. Butler mirrors the acerbic wit of the text with clever effects, closing out the program with some unexpected twists and turns.

Guest performers are soprano Mary Mackenzie, pianist Joseph Ross (below top) and oboist Laura Medisky (below bottom).

They join Oakwood Chamber Players members Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Nancy Mackenzie, clarinet; Amanda Szczys, bassoon; Anne Aley, horn; and Maggie Darby Townsend, cello.

This is the first of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2018-19 season series entitled Vignettes. Remaining concerts will take place on Nov. 24 and 25; Jan. 12 and 13; March 2 and 3; and May 18 and 19. For more information about the Oakwood Chamber Players and their new season, go to: https://www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


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Classical music education: The all-student Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) performs music by Mozart and Aaron Copland this coming Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

August 1, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO, below in a photo by Steve Rankin) performs “Interplay,” featuring music by Mozart, Copland and Grieg.

There will be two performances.

The first is on Saturday, Aug. 4, at 7:30 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church (below), 203 Wisconsin Avenue, off the Capitol Square.

Then on Sunday, Aug. 5, MAYCO will perform at 12:30 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery 3 at the UW-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art as part of the monthly “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen” series, which can be STREAMED LIVE by going to: https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-8-5-18/

Admission for the Saturday performance is $10 at the door; students by donation. The Sunday performance is FREE, and reservations can be made by going to the above link.

For more information, visit www.mayco.org or www.facebook.com/madisonchamberorchestra.

ABOUT THE ORCHESTRA

MAYCO is a free summer festival ensemble dedicated to providing an intensive small orchestra experience for advanced high school and college musicians.

Founded in 2010 by music director Mikko Rankin Utevsky, the orchestra prepares a full program over the course of each one-week summer session, culminating in a public concert (below is a photo by Dennis Gotowksi of the concert this past June).

For The Ear, Utevsky (below top) and his general manager and concertmaster-wife Thalia Coombs (below bottom) answered some questions about the concerts:

WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE PROGRAM?

The orchestra will be joined by guest soloist Trevor Stephenson (below), who is the artistic director and keyboard player of the Madison Bach Musicians. On fortepiano, he will solo in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271, sometimes nicknamed the “Jeunehomme” Concerto. (You can hear the lively, tuneful and infectious last movement of the Mozart concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Stephenson has led workshops on historical performance practices with the orchestra in past seasons, and we’re delighted to work with him to bring one of Mozart’s weirdest and wildest youthful masterpieces to life.

The ballet suite from “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland (below) is one of the defining works of his classic American sound, juxtaposing the pastoral beauty of the countryside with his trademark rhythmic vitality. We are performing the original chamber version, in which the clarity of texture illuminates the intricate internal structure of the piece.

Two high school students from our Conducting Apprenticeship Program will lead Grieg’s affecting miniature, “Last Spring,” for string orchestra. Cellist Elizabeth Strauss and violinist Monona Suzuki (below, in 2013) are this year’s Apprentices.

WHY IS THE CONCERT CALLED “INTERPLAY”?

We wanted to highlight the sense of conversation and interaction present in the two major works on this program.

The Mozart concerto is remarkable for the degree of interplay between soloist and orchestra. From the opening bars they are constantly interrupting each other, finishing each other’s sentences. It’s what gives the piece its unique sense of drama.

There’s a truism that Mozart made everything he wrote into an opera, and it’s certainly evident here: the melodies could have been lifted straight out of “The Marriage of Figaro.”

In the Copland work, it’s more about the intricacy of texture and the sense of playfulness in the way the various parts interact.

This project is funded in part by a grant from the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board; and by Dane Arts, with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, The Evjue Foundation, Inc., charitable arm of The Capital Times, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation, and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation.


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Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players conclude this summer season on such a high note that one already hungers for next summer

July 30, 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

At Immanuel Lutheran Church last Friday night, the Willy Street Chamber Players ended the 2018 summer season – their fourth — with a concert full of fascinating variety.

Four works were performed, each introduced by one of the players. Personnel shifted according to the scorings.

To begin, a core group of the organization (below, from left) — violinists Eleanor Bartsch and Paran Amirinazari, cellists Lindsay Crabb and Mark Bridges, and violist Beth Larson — played Luigi Boccherini’s Cello Quintet in C major (G. 324), which has the Italian title translatable as “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid.” (The piece, which has military or martial aspects to it, was featured in the soundtrack to the popular film “Master and Commander,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Typical of the composer’s prolific writing for string quintets, it is unique in offering in its seven movements a dusk-to-dawn evocation of Madrid’s street life in Boccherini’s day. This delightful work was performed with relish.

Next came a contemporary work by American composer Andrew Norman (below top). Written in his 20s, Night Screens (2002),for flute and string quartet, is a playful work inspired by the asymmetrical stained glass windows designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The music is quite tonal, but very episodic in its succession of tempos and rhythms. For this work, Amirinazari, Larson and Crabb were joined by a friend of the composer, flutist Timothy Hagen (below), now a faculty member of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Rarely heard in concert, but a really fascinating novelty is Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34. This was composed in 1919, during the composer’s stay in the U.S. It is based on two melodies whose actual Jewish origins are in doubt, but their juxtaposition and elaboration are fascinating to follow.

The colorful scoring is for clarinet, piano, and string quartet, so this drew other guest artists, Alicia Lee (below top) also of the UW faculty, and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) to join Bartsch, Amirinazari, Larson and Bridges.

Finally came a rare opportunity to encounter Johann Strauss II collaborating with Arnold Schoenberg, or rather vice-versa. For a fund-raising concert on behalf of his radical atonal ensemble in Vienna in 1925, Schoenberg made a chamber arrangement of the great waltz master’s Kaiser-Walzer or “Emperor Waltz.”

He scored it for flute, clarinet, piano and string quartet — perfectly allowing seven of the eight performers (less Crabb) to offer a triumphant grand finale. Even in such a lean and reduced format, Schoenberg faithfully conveyed Strauss’s melodic genius, and brought the large audience enthusiastically to its feet.

The Willys continue to match great enterprise in programming with superb artistry in playing, all in a summer season that leaves us hungering for the next one.


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Classical music: Tonight’s Concert on the Square features an 11-year-old cello prodigy and the Middleton High School Choir in an all-Russian program. It will be repeated on Wisconsin Public Television this Saturday night at 6 p.m.

July 11, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight’s Concert on the Square promises to be a special event on several scores.

The “Slavic Dances” concert starts at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell, will perform an appealing all-Russian program.

It features a Concert Waltz by Alexander Glazunov; the beautifully melodic and very accessible “Variations on a Rococo Theme” for cello and orchestra by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (heard with Yo-Yo Ma in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the Intermezzo and Women’s Dance by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Adding to the appeal is the appearance of Miriam K. Smith (below) in the Tchaikovsky. Smith, who played and was interviewed on Tuesday’s edition of “The Midday” on Wisconsin Public Radio, is an 11-year-old prodigy on the cello who already has an impressive history of concert appearances.

As a kind of preface or program note to read if you are at the concert, here is a link to Smith’s interview and appearance on “The Midday”: https://www.wpr.org/programs/midday

For more biographical information about Smith and about the concert, in general including rules (blankets can go down starting at 3 p.m.), etiquette and food vendors, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-3-3/

Also joining the WCO is the Middleton High School Choir (below).

NOTE: If you can’t make the concert tonight in person, you can take consolation in the fact that the concert will be videotaped and then broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television on this coming Saturday night at from 6 to 7 p.m. on Channel 21 (Cable Channel 600).


Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra, with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, closes its eighth season impressively by shining new light on music by Schumann and Brahms

June 2, 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

The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its eighth season with another program of mainstream works. Maestro Steve Kurr clearly likes to challenge his players not only with demanding music, but also with works so familiar that audience expectations are extra high.

Of the two works presented, the first was the beloved Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. He wrote it for his wife, born Clara Wieck and an acclaimed pianist, to show off her talents. The soloist was the ubiquitous Thomas Kasdorf (below), a Middleton native and UW-Madison graduate who finds the MCO a wonderful platform in which he can have experience with a range of concertos.

Kasdorf is clearly working to make this concerto his own. He strove to integrate the polarities of melodiousness and showiness in the first movement, and seemed to have settled nicely into the extravagance of the final movement.

But it was the middle movement that intrigued me. (You can hear that movement, played by Sviatoslav Richter, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Usually treated as a simplistic interval between the other movements, it emerged here as music of true delicacy, much of it a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. I daresay Kasdorf (below) will be able to make even more of this work as he grows in it, but he is off to a persuasive start.

The other warhorse — if you will — on the program was the Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms. Kurr was the more daring in tackling it since the Madison Symphony Orchestra had already performed it just this past February. It is a deliberately monumental work, an ostentatious demonstration by Brahms that he had truly arrived as symphonist. Consequently, the composer made his players work hard to bring this off.

Though it sounds unfair, my initial grading would be an “incomplete”: a performance in the making. This was true certainly in the first movement, which did not yet have full coordination and coherence.

A major problem was the orchestra’s horn section. Brahms certainly wrote strong music for them in this work, but these players were occasionally inaccurate and, most damaging, far too loud and out of balance with the full ensemble. That distorted or undercut the performance all the way.

On the other hand, the string choir (below) continues to mature, and it delivered a very satisfying sound in the passages featuring it.

Most important of all, however, was Kurr’s interpretative approach, particularly in the second and third movements. These are usually presented as bits of superficial repose between the big flanking movements. But Kurr almost made them the genuine center of the work.

Taking much slower tempos than we usually hear, Kurr (below) turned the slow movement into a flow of beautiful sound, the third movement a subtly clever piece of whimsy. And the introduction to the finale, again taken more slowly than usual, unfolded with a powerful eloquence of its own, the more to pave the way for the Big Tune in the remaining body of the movement.

I am not sure I would advocate always treating Brahms’s First this way. But I salute Kurr for making me think anew about a score I had assumed I already knew well. He was able to lead his players, despite any shortcomings, in a performance of genuine artistic perceptions—an achievement in which this orchestra can take great pride.


Classical music: Oakwood Chamber Players take a “Journey” to explore neglected and oppressed German and Dutch composers this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

May 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The accomplished and acclaimed Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their exploration of neglected repertoire and end their “Journey” season with two performances of a concert titled Legacy on this Saturday night, May 19, at 7 p.m. and on Sunday afternoon, May 20, at 2 p.m.

The concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 general admission, $20 seniors and $5 students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon by Dutch composer Julius Röntgen (below) was written in 1917 and is neo-Classical in style. Röntgen was a classmate and lifelong friend of Edvard Grieg’s whom he met at the Leipzig Conservatory. He studied with Lachner and Reinecke, and collaborated with Brahms and Casals in concerts. His musical career spanned the roles of composer, teacher, and concert pianist. He was instrumental in the founding of the Amsterdam Conservatory and the world-famous Concertgebouw Orchestra.

A frequent participant in chamber music himself, he was a fine contributor to the genre. Röntgen’s Wind Trio in G Major shows his compositional facility: from a playful Haydn-influenced first movement (which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom) to an adagio melody in the second movement that is drawn from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” and to the final movement with a Danish folk melody at its heart that is enhanced by upbeat creative variations.

German composer Heinrich Kaminski (below) wrote his atmospheric String Quartet in F major. Written over the time period leading up to World War I, this four-movement piece encompasses moodiness contrasted with high energy. The scherzo movement has the feel of a driven dance, the adagio movement is emotionally charged, and Kaminski’s final movement recaps themes of the piece’s restless expressivity.

Recognition of his talent in Berlin was cut short when the Nazi Gestapo intercepted correspondence that revealed Jewish heritage. His music was deemed unsuitable for performance in Germany and banned in 1937. He fled to Switzerland yet his life was profoundly impacted by events. He died shortly after the war, having endured the dissolution of his marriage, declining health and loss of children. However interest in Kaminski’s unique composition style has led to resurgence in recent performances of his works.

Dutch composer Leo Smit (below) studied at the Amsterdam Conservatory and then lived in Paris for a decade before returning to Holland. He was greatly influenced by Ravel and Stravinsky’s innovations and exchanged ideas with fellow composers Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Arthur Honegger. He enjoyed jazz rhythms and they often are found in his works.

His three-movement Sextet for piano and wind quintet is full of variety, warm melodic lines and fascinating harmonies. With the German invasion during World War II Smit’s circumstances as a Jewish musician deteriorated and he was forbidden to continue as a professional musician. Despite the dire circumstances he continued composing, completing a Sonata for flute and piano in 1943 just prior to his transportation to and death in a concentration camp.

The program ends with a cleverly written piece by German composer Bernhard Sekles (below). The final movement from his Capriccio for violin, cello and piano is titled Yankee-Doodle with variations and a delightful way to conclude the concert. Based in Frankfurt, Sekles was an innovative composer and teacher, and in 1928 became the first European teacher of jazz.

Oakwood Chamber Players members are Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Amanda Szczys, bassoon; Anne Aley, horn; Leyla Sanyer, violin; and Maggie Darby Townsend, cello. They will be joined by guests Martha Fischer, piano; Elspeth Stalter-Clouse, violin; Shannon Farley, viola; Aaron Hill, oboe; and Bernard Parish, clarinet.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who play in other professional organizations such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

# # #

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” took listeners on an enchanting and moving voyage into love and fine singing of Puccini-like lyricism

May 1, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I looked forward enough to Madison Opera’s premiere production of Daniel Catán’s Spanish-languageFlorencia en el Amazonas” that I attended both performances at Overture Hall this past weekend.

Based on repeated hearings of the recording and numerous favorable reviews of other productions, I was fairly certain that I would be in for a treat. I was not disappointed.

The action takes place on a boat on the Amazon heading for Manaus where the title character Florenica (below), an opera singer of high repute, is to perform.

Other passengers (below), unaware of her presence onboard, also have the opera house as their destination in order to hear her sing.

Rosalba, her unauthorized biographer, and Paula and Alvaro, a bickering older couple, are joined onboard by the Captain, his nephew Arcadio, and a Puckish character Riolobo, who acts as narrator and supervises the magic in this tale of magical realism.

Below, starting at the top and moving clockwise, are: Kanopy Dancers, Ashraf Sewailam (The Captain), Mackenzie Whitney (Arcadio), Rachel Sterrenberg (Rosalba), Elizabeth Caballero (Florencia Grimaldi), Adriana Zabala (Paula), Levi Hernandez (Alvaro) and Nmon Ford (Riolobo)

The boat (our life) floats along the Amazon (life itself) in this parable of longing, regret, the fickleness of love, love lost and regained, and transformation.

Aiding in the unfolding of the tale are water sprites, referred to at times as Amazons. Six willowy dancers from the Kanopy troupe did not seem particularly Amazonian, but their waving of billowy fabric evoked the river and their retrieving twice from the water careless Rosalba’s precious manuscript added to the magic.

Riolobo and the sprites also bring Alvaro back to life after he appears to drown during a storm.  (We should be attentive to water sprites since Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” which also features these denizens, is on the schedule for next year’s season.)

And, in the end, just when you think that all conflicts have been resolved and love is at hand, the boat reaches Manaus only to find it impossible to make landfall due not only to cholera but also to rabies, scurvy, leprosy and beriberi. Florencia’s transformation into a butterfly (below) ends the voyage.

This odd but magical plot is a vehicle for lush, rhapsodic music by a Mexican composer whose life ended too soon. The orchestral and vocal writing featured soaring melodies, which at times reminded me of Puccini had his life extended further into the 20th century. The orchestral writing continually evokes the river and flowing water, reminding me of music of the Impressionists.

John DeMain ably led the wonderfully sounding Madison Symphony Orchestra.  He once again proved himself to be a master of pacing, tempo and dynamics.

The opera was very evenly cast. Nmon Ford (below top on right), as Riolobo, had a rich baritone voice and an impressive physicality. His transformation at the end of the first act into a feather-clad river spirit (below bottom) was hypnotic.

As Rosalba, Rachel Sterrenberg (below, top right), who made a memorable appearance last season as the wife Chan in “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” was a soprano of great flexibility who rendered her character’s opulent melodic lines with mounting ecstasy. Hers was a thrilling performance.

Her foil, full-voiced tenor Mackenzie Whitney (below, bottom left) as Arcadio, produced some of the most Puccini-like moments of sheer soaring lyricism.

Their duets, including a rather dark anti-love duet, were  highlights of the work. Catán’s writing for mixed voices is inspired, and all of the ensemble numbers – duets, a quintet, a septet – are entrancing.

Baritone Levi Hernandez as Alvaro and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala as his wife, Paula, had moments of bickering and moments of tenderness. His robust vocalization perfectly complemented the creamy richness of hers. Zabala’s second act lament was very touching.

Bass Ashraf Sewailam, in his debut appearance with Madison Opera, produced some of the best singing of the show. He was both profound and lyrical with a total lack of affectation. His acting was subtle, and his outstanding performance demands his return.

Elizabeth Caballero as the diva Florencia Grimaldi was impassioned, focused yet fluid, sumptuous and rapturous. Her ravishing singing, particularly during her metamorphosis — heard in another production in the YouTube video at the bottom — was truly moving.

The set, lighting, projections and costumes were all understated and perfectly blended. The only false step was what appeared to be coffins flying through the air out of Manaus. It took me a moment to realize they were intended to be floating in the river.

The audience seemed enchanted and moved by the opera. I was, too. Let’s have more works like this.


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Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players close out their season with great performances of great piano trios by Beethoven and Brahms

April 30, 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

On Saturday evening at the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, the Mosaic Chamber Players closed their season with a superlative program offering two of the greatest trios for piano and strings.

The players this time (below) were violinist Wes Luke and cellist Kyle Price, together with the group’s guiding spirit, pianist Jess Salek.

The first of the two works was the grand Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, known as the “Archduke,” by Ludwig van Beethoven. This is an expansive work, full of bold ideas and adventurous spirit, while demanding much of its players.

Of its four movements, the flanking ones are full of exuberance. The scherzo has double trios or mid-sections, and is full of tricks. The third movement is a noble set of variations on a broad, hymn-like theme. (You can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The second work, following an intermission, was the Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms. Though composed and published very early in his output, it was revised by the composer into a distinctly new version some 35 years later. It thus offers the passion of youthfulness as tempered and given better focus by age and experience.

Also cast in four movements, it is infused with full-blooded melody, especially in the first one, but the whole piece is worked out in a richness of texture typical of the composer.

Each of the two works was given a performance of unrestricted commitment and power, in the process demonstrating the contrasts in their styles. Each was introduced by violinist Luke (below), whose comments spoke to the works and their history but also to his own feelings about them.

This in fact pointed up the degree of personal involvement these performances conveyed. It was as if the three musicians were playing as much for their own delight as for the audience’s.

That quality illustrated why this Mosaic series of programs has been so very satisfying. This is chamber music playing of the highest quality and character, some of the very best to be had in Madison.

The more reason for these Mosaic concerts to be publicized widely and broadly supported by our musical public. Few cities in our country could offer better.


Classical music: UW Choral Director Beverly Taylor talks about her life with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which she will conduct this Sunday afternoon and night

April 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” always ranks high on the short list of the greatest choral works ever composed.

And for good reason.

It represents a peak of Bach’s sacred music and his choral compositions.

This Sunday afternoon and night in Mills Hall, Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the assistant music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the UW Choral Union (below) — comprised of university and community singers — plus soloists and an orchestra, in a performance of the complete work.

At 4 p.m. they will do Part 1 and then at 7:30 p.m., Part 2.

Tickets (one ticket is good for both parts) are $15, $8 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Tickets will also be available at the door.

The Ear is always curious to learn more about the relationship between a professional musician and a towering masterpiece.

He found out more when Taylor (below) recently answered an email Q&A about her past and current experiences with the “St. Matthew Passion”:

When did you first hear the “St. Matthew Passion” and what was your reaction?

I never heard it until my late 20s, would you believe? I’d been through grad school and all its training, and learned German, knew a lot of Bach; and when Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony did it on Good Friday, I sat spellbound for over three hours.

I was shaken to the core by its beauty, and even though it was hardly an early music performance, it was well handled, and one of my favorite British singers, Robert Tear, was the Evangelist. I’ve never forgotten it!

Where do you place the “St. Matthew Passion” among Bach’s works and especially among his many choral works?

As with all masterpieces, it’s hard to choose. It’s the longest work, and its size and scope alone make it a frequent choice of many for favorite work.

It’s more dramatic than the breath-taking B Minor Mass and more meditative than the St. John Passion, but I also love the unbelievable variety of cantatas that Bach (below) produced.

Don’t make me choose!

What role has the “St. Matthew Passion” played in your personal and professional life?

I’d say it’s a pinnacle work. This is only my second time performing it, and I’m unlikely to have the chance again, although one hopes. So I’m invested in its beauty and in its core message of hope in the face of tragedy.

Are there things you would like audiences to know about your upcoming performance?

There are several things.

We have a wonderful cast of soloists, and the orchestra is not the usual student orchestra, since the UW Symphony Orchestra is committed to another program in the near future, but is instead a mixture of students, semi-pros and pros.

The work is set for the two choruses and two orchestras that play with them. Many of the choral movements are set for both orchestras, but Bach varies the texture of each movement by varying who plays in what.

If a listener hasn’t been to a Passion performance before, then you might want to know that:

The character of the Evangelist (sung superbly in this case by Wesley Dunnagan, below) is the narrator of the drama. He is accompanied by the continuo part—which is made up of a keyboard (usually organ with sacred works) and a low melody instrument, usually cello.

The chorus members sing sometimes in the character of Greek chorus commentary, sometimes as characters in the roles of Mob, Roman soldiers, Pharisees, and disciples. Most of this text comes from the book of St. Matthew. However, German theologians wrote commentary that is used for the beautiful Chorales-which basically are hymn-style settings of well-known Lutheran tunes. These chorales turn personal—for instance when Judas betrays Jesus, the chorus, after being a mob, turns around and says in repentance—It is I, I’m the one that killed you. (You can hear the final chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The text is so important, and Bach uses myriad details to bring it out. It is typical that when the text is about death, or evil, or sin, the writing is chromatic, or full of augmented fourth intervals (once nicknamed the devil’s interval). When Jesus has died and been buried, the chorus sings what feels like a lullaby, with the rocking cradle motion. When an earthquake follows Jesus’ death and the curtain of the temple is torn, the continuo cello breaks out of accompaniment mode and tears down the scale like lightning

Although this work presents Bach’s Christian view in the heart of the church year, the scope and issues of faithfulness and disloyalty, trust and fear, should resonate with listeners of all faiths.

We’ve chosen, as some other presenters have, to have a dinner/snack break between the two parts of the three-hour work. One ticket will get you into either or both halves. We do this to give singers and players a little rest, and a little movement to our listeners. Part I runs from 4 p.m. to about 5:15 p.m., and Part II runs from 7:30 p.m. to about 9:15 p.m.


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