The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera scores a big artistic and commercial success with the Midwest premiere of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.” How about seeing and hearing more new music and new operas?

February 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest review by The Opera Guy, who is himself a senior and who has followed opera for many decades and across several continents, including North America, Europe and Asia. Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.

By Larry Wells

On Sunday afternoon I attended the second, and final, of two sold-out performances of Daniel Schnyder’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” presented by Madison Opera, which gave the Midwest premiere of the new work.

Although it is a chamber opera featuring only 16 instrumentalists and running a little over 90 minutes, it was an engaging, satisfying and often hypnotic operatic experience.

The orchestral and vocal music were readily accessible.  As a compliment to the composer, I was reminded of the later work of the great British composer Michael Tippett.

The plot features Charlie Parker’s mother, three of his wives, his friend Dizzy Gillespie and his current patroness, the fascinating Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, as they confront Parker’s spirit after his death but before his removal from the morgue and burial.

madison-opera-charlie-parker-body-cr-james-gill

(Below, standing in front of the photo-portrait set of the Birdland jazz club, are the major cast members, many of whom were in the original world premiere productions at Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater of Harlem in New York City. From the left, they are: Angela Brown as Addie Parker; Will Liverman as Dizzy Gillespie; Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan Parker; Angela Montellaro as Doris Parker; Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker; and Krysty Swann as Rebecca Parker.)

madison-opera-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-will-liverman-as-dizzy-gillespie-rachel-sterrenberg-as-chan-parker-angela-montellaro-as-doris-parker-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-krysty-swann

A pioneer and innovator of bebop in the world of jazz, saxophonist Parker died young and dissolute, destroyed by drugs and alcohol. Portrayed by Joshua Stewart (below), Parker is unsympathetic and weak, desperate to create but distracted. Stewart is a fine, convincing actor. His singing was often compelling, but his voice was too thin in the higher reaches demanded by the score.

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-cr-james-gill

The other characters were ably portrayed and consistently strong vocally. Will Liverman’s Dizzy Gillespie was a standout – lyrical and touching.

Likewise, Krysty Swann (below center with a baby) was solid vocally and emotionally convincing as Parker’s abandoned first wife Rebecca Parker.

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-krysty-swann-and-rebecca-parker-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-cr-james-gill

Rachel Sterrenberg was moving and gripping vocally as Parker’s final wife Chan.

Julie Miller as Baronness Nica commanded the stage whenever she appeared, perhaps because of her bright red dress in a sea of black garments but also because of her powerful portrayal and expressive singing.

Whenever Angela Brown (below right, with Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker) was onstage as Parker’s mother, Addie, she was the focus. She owned the role, she sang beautifully, and she had some of the best material to sing.

(You can hear Angela Brown, who has appeared here before with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera, in the world premiere production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-cr-james-gill

One of the finest moments in the opera was an orchestral interlude followed by a vocalise by another of Parker’s wives, Doris, sung by Angela Mortellaro (below). I was totally captivated, as I was by the quintet toward the end with Dizzy, the three wives and Parker’s mother.

madison-opera-angela-mortellaro-as-doris-parker-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-cr-james-gill

Such are the moments for which an opera aficionado waits – several minutes of total aural delight.

Maestro John DeMain was, as always, in full command of the score as he led members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. I was in a position to watch him conduct, and he was always totally involved in the moment. I repeat what I have said before: Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) is a treasure for which Madison should be constantly grateful.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

I personally like newer music and always welcome the chance to hear something other than the tired Brahms overtures, Tchaikovsky symphonies and Mozart piano concertos.

The argument in Madison seems to be that to fill seats, you have to give the audience what it wants; and the belief is that it wants music that is tried, true and safe.

The fact that this new work sold out both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center and that the audience was not entirely made up of seniors seems to suggest that the halls can be filled if the programming is more adventurous.

I say let’s hear more music of the 20th and 21st centuries, draw in a new audience and give the seniors a little thrill.

What do you think?


Classical music: The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival provides a thought-provoking and ear-delighting look into the intersection of Shakespeare’s plays and classical music.

August 29, 2013
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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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has long-established a reputation for unusual programming, combining seemingly distinct genres, and exploring rare or unconventional material within them.

This season, the Festival seems to have become even more adventurous. There is the usual balancing of jazz and classical music, with more investigation of improvisatory techniques. The tiptoe into Shakespeare (below) made last year has this time has been expanded into a full and quite adventurous program, called “Shakespeare: The Bard in Songs and Scenes.”

shakespeare

The program opened with the premiere of a new composition by John Harbison (below), the co-director of the Festival who is also an award-winning composer. Called “Invention on a Theme by Shakespeare,” it takes as its “theme” a sequence of six solmization pitches (notes in a scale that are equated to syllables)  talked of by a comic character in “Love’s Labours Lost — a piece of music by the poet, if you will.  Written for solo cello with string quartet, it begins with a long solo monologue and then develops into a sequence of more animated ensemble episodes.

Thereafter, the program developed into a series of nine sets, each built around one of the plays.  In each case, a passage from the given play was recited by actor Allison Schaffer, while the songs around it were sung by soprano Mary Mackenzie), with pianist Molly Morkoski (below) accompanying stylishly.

molly morkoski

The pattern worked very well, with song composers ranging from Thomas Morley, a contemporary and friend of Shakespeare, to John Harbison himself, our contemporary and friend.

What was most engaging was the frequent pairing of settings by different composers of the same texts. This practice was brought to a peak by the presentation of three of the song texts from “The Tempest,” first as set by Henry Purcell (2) and Pelham Humfrey (1), and then all by Michael Tippett. It provided fascinating insights into the varied possibilities and aesthetics of musical word treatment.

For me, though, at least as fascinating was the unit devoted to “Hamlet,” and to the sad character Ophelia. Framing Queen Gertrude’s famous description of Ophelia’s death were two complete song cycles, each setting the words of the demented songs that the poor girl sings in her madness.

One cycle, using five of those song cycles was a rarely heard and posthumously published set by Johannes Brahms (below top). The other, using only three of the texts, was a set published as his Op. 67 by Richard Strauss (below bottom).  (And not by Johann Strauss, as the program erroneously claimed, and as carefully corrected by Harbison in his astute spoken commentary.)

brahms3

richard strauss

These texts were set by each composer in German translations, which itself highlighted the Bard’s important cultural outreach beyond the English language.  (And that point was furthered by inclusion of two Shakespeare songs by Schubert, in German; as well as one by Haydn, if in English.) The Brahms settings were in a direct and rather simple style, perhaps reflecting his extensive activity in treating German folksong.

By contrast, Strauss used them to venture into almost experimental writing, in treatments that emphasized dramatic and powerfully tragic sensibilities. I wondered when anyone else would have the enterprise to put these two cycles together for comparison.

It was a measure of their total commitment that both actress and singer delivered their work totally from memory.

Allison Schaffer (below) is just beginning a career in theater, but she demonstrates a firm sense of textual integrity, vocal clarity, and stage instincts.  She will be a local product to watch for.

Allison Schaffer

Mary Mackenzie (below) has a full, ripe soprano voice of great power and beauty. She put it to use, with effective utilization of facial expression, body movement, and even gestures, to make each song an individual piece, with its own distinct mood.  This is a superb artist of whom I want to hear more.

Mackenzie

The usual printed program was supplemented this time by a set of notes by Harbison himself, giving a concise and helpful roadmap through the plays and the selections offered.

There was, alas, one fly in the ointment. Each of the spoken selections was “accompanied” by improvisations for violin and cello devised by guest composer and violinist Andrew Waggoner (below).

Everyone I spoke to afterwards agreed with me that these improvisations were intrusive, distracting, and often downright unpleasant–certainly a serious injustice to Ms. Schaffer’s work.  I know that Harbison himself is most interested in the art of improvisation, and it deserves its space; but this was not the space into which to impose it.

Andrew WaggonerThat was the one miscalculation in an otherwise splendidly artistic and thought-provoking presentation.

The Festival concludes on this Saturday, Aug. 31, at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, Sept. 1, at 4 p.m. with a program called ‘The Old and the Unfamiliar,” which features unfinished Mozart works completed by Harvard University scholar and pianist Robert Levin and by festival co-director and composer John Harbison. As always, it will take place in “The Barn” (below) off Highway 19.

For more information and tickets, call (608) 241-2525 or visit: http://tokencreekfestival.org

TokenCreekbarn interior


Classical music: The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival opens this Wednesday and runs through Sept. 1. It will feature members of Boston’s Open End Ensemble as artists-in-residence; the music of Andrew Waggoner and John Harbison; music about and readings of Shakespeare; and the world premiere of completed versions of unfinished works by Mozart. Plus, retired UW-Madison singer and teacher Ilona Kombrink has died.

August 19, 2013
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ALERT: Singer and Edgewood College voice teacher Kathleen Otterson writes: “It is with sadness that I announce the death of Emeritus Professor Ilona Kombrink (below) on Friday, August 9, in Stoughton, Wisconsin.  She passed away after being in poor health for the last several years. There has been no obituary posted yet, and no plans for a service that I am aware of. She was my teacher and one of my primary vocal and musical influences. Ilona was a longtime member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison voice faculty, and counted among her students hundreds of singers and teachers – many of us in Wisconsin — working all over the world today.  A native of St. Louis, Missouri, her natural vocal gifts were evident at an early age, and she entered the Curtis Institute at age 17, where among her classmates were Samuel Barber and Giancarlo Menotti. She loved to retell stories of her arrival in the big city of Phildelphia – “just a country girl from ‘St. Louie‘” – and the establishment there of friendships which would last through her life.  She came to the UW in the late 1960s, seeking a more stable life than that of a touring singer for herself and daughter, Nancy, retiring in 2003. She performed frequently with the Madison Opera, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and UW ensembles as well as in recital alone or with her UW faculty colleagues. As an artist, she was uncompromising in her search for vocal artistry and honesty. In her teaching, she never stopped encouraging her students to seek and find the same.

Ilona Kombrink

By Jacob Stockinger

The rustic yet sophisticated Token Creek Chamber Festival, which is now about 25 years old, has become the traditional closing of the local summer concert season that offers the last major events before the new fall season gets underway after Labor Day.

The festival -– which is co-directed by the husband-and-wife team of composer-violist John Harbison and violinist Rose Mary Harbison (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) -– features talented local artists and imported guest artists, and the programs are more unusual than the typical concert fare.

John and Rose Mary Harbison Katrin Talbot

This year is no exception.

Here is a list of events. More information can be found by calling (608) 241-2525 or visiting www.tokencreekfestival.org

Program I: Jazz – Music of Harry Warren (below) with the Vocal Jazz Ensemble on Wednesday August 21, at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.; Thursday, August 22, at 5 p.m. (sold out) and 8:30 p.m.

This summer the Festival’s jazz program surveys composer Harry Warren, an especially appropriate choice for a 10th anniversary celebration.  The program includes some of his best-known hits (“I Only Have Eyes for You,” “At Last,” “Lulu’s Back In Town”), while also – as always – offering some choice little-known treasures like “I Want to be a Dancing Man,” “You’re Gettin’ to be a Habit” and “This Heart of Mine.”

harry warren

The Vocal Jazz Ensemble (below) was formed at MIT in the spring of 2011, and has been coached since its inception by Institute Professor John Harbison. The 10 singers, each of whom passes a rigorous audition process by peers, have quickly risen to notoriety not only on campus but throughout Boston.

Recent performances include an appearance in May with the Boston Pops at Boston’s Symphony Hall, and a professional recording with the Festival Jazz Ensemble. Five members of the VJE will perform at Token Creek with the house band, made up of John Harbison (piano), John Schaffer (bass), Todd Steward (drums), Tom Artin (trombone), and Rose Mary Harbison (violin).

MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble

Performances take place at the Festival Barn (below), on Highway 19 near the hamlet of Token Creek, with ample parking available. The venue, indoors and air-conditioned, is invitingly small, and early reservations are recommended. For the jazz program the barn is transformed into an authentic jazz club, complete with small tables, candles, dim lighting, and refreshments served during sets.

TokenCreekbarn interior

The jazz concert is offered on Wednesday, August 21 at 8:30 p.m. (a waiting list is being compiled for a possible added performance that day at 5 p.m.), and on Thursday August 22 at 5 p.m. (sold-out) and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 for café seating, and $35 for balcony seats. A limited number of student tickets are available for $10.

More information about the Token Creek Festival and this event can be found at the website, www.tokencreekfestival.org.  Tickets can be reserved by phone at 608-241-2525, by email at info@tokencreekfestival.org, or by U.S. mail at P.O. Box 55142, Madison WI, 53705.  

TokenCreekentrance

Program II: Open End Ensemble – New Works & Improvisations on Sunday, August 25, at 4 p.m.

“Improvisations on a Theme” is the watchword that shapes the 2013 Token Creek Festival:  in the opening jazz program; in incidental music to accompany Shakespeare scenes; and in the completions of unfinished works of Mozart.

But perhaps nowhere is it more baldly and boldy evident than in the concert presented by guest ensemble from New York, Open End (below and in a YouTube video at the bottom), three of whose members will be in residence for a week at this summer’s Token Creek Festival.

Open End Ensemble BW

Essential to the Open End mission is the reclaiming of improvisation as the birthright of all musicians. Audiences at Open End concerts come to think of spontaneous creation as being part of a natural, ongoing dialogue between performers creating in the moment and a written body of work that continues to expand, to transform. At home in venues from galleries and living rooms to concert halls, Open End seeks nothing less than to engage audiences in an experience that is wonderful, intimate, challenging and beautiful.

On Sunday August 25 at 4 p.m. Open End members Andrew Waggoner (violin), Caroline Stinson, (cello) and Molly Morkoski (piano) will present a program of recent works and improvisations in a program including music of Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Anna Weesner, Andrew Waggoner, and Johann Sebastian Bach, concluding with the premiere of a new work by Waggoner (below).

Waggoner has been characterized by The New Yorker  as “the gifted practitioner of a complex but dramatic and vividly colored style” His new piano quintet, inspired by the acclaimed Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, was written this summer for the 2013 Token Creek Festival and is  dedicated to Artistic Directors John and Rose Mary Harbison.

Andrew Waggoner

Program III: Shakespeare – The Bard in Songs and Scenes will be presented on Tuesday, August 27, at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, August 28, at 8 p.m.

Open End members (see Program 2) participate in one of the Festival’s most unusual programs ever offered: William Shakespeare (below) in scenes and songs. The program opens with the premiere of John Harbison’s “Invention on a Theme of Shakespeare” (solo cello and small ensemble), followed by scenes from Shakespeare plays accompanied by new incidental music, and songs and arias on texts from the same plays set by to music by composers from the Renaissance to the present day. The plays include “As You Like It,” “Hamlet,” “Cymbeline,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “The Tempest.”

shakespeare BW

The two principal performers for the evening both were born and raised in Madison and return for this Token Creek Event: Guthrie Theatre-trained actor, Allison Schaffer (below) will dramatize the play excerpts, and New York soprano Mary Mackenzie (below), together with pianists Molly Morkoski, will offer songs by composers including Morley, Arne, and Purcell; Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf; and Poulenc, Bridge, Tippett and Harbison.

Allison Schaffer

Mackenzie

All performances take place at the Festival Barn, on Highway 19 near the village of Token Creek, with ample parking available. The venue, indoors and air-conditioned, is invitingly small, and early reservations are recommended.

Concert tickets ($30, and $10 for students) can be reserved by phone at 608-241-2525, by email at info@tokencreekfestival.org, or  by U.S. mail at P.O. Box 55142, Madison WI, 53705.

More information about the Token Creek Festival can be found at the website, www.tokencreekfestival.org.

Program IV: Finale – “The Old and Unfamiliar” will be performed on Saturday, August 31, at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, September 1, at 4 p.m.

It’s not a contradiction. In a program titled “The Old and Unfamiliar,” the Token Creek Festival will offer world premieres, both of a new work and of completions of old works never heard before.

What composer is more beloved and performed than Mozart (below)? Yet he was in the habit of leaving pieces unfinished, to be taken up later. He was above all practical and pragmatic — if he was working on a violin sonata when a commission for a wind piece came in, he’d suspend work on the sonata, planning to return to it later.

mozart big

There is now conclusive evidence that some of his pieces lay unfinished for 10 years.  His early death prevented the completion of many of them.  Can they be recovered, “new” Mozart works that add to our sense of his prolific variety?  The Token Creek musicians think so.

Three Mozart completions anchor the last concerts of the Festival:

• The violin sonata in C, K. 403 (1784-85), in which Mozart composed the first two movements and the first 20 measures of the last; the final movement was completed by John Harbison (below) in 1968.

• The Allegro in A major (K. Anh. 48), the opening 35 measures of this violin sonata first movement written by Mozart, the remainder completed in 2012 by Harvard University scholar and classical period keyboard expert and improviser Robert Levin (below), who is a frequent guest at Token Creek.

• The Allegro in G Major (K. Anh. 47), another sonata first movement begun by Mozart (the first 31 measures), also completed by Levin last year.

“Revisiting these pieces I think is interesting,” says Levin. “The idea of course is not to suggest to people whom you’re going to write something which is as audacious, as inspired, as pleasurable to listen to as what Mozart would surely have done had he lived to complete these pieces but it gives you an idea. It’s like an artist’s conception of an idea before the building is actually constructed.”

“And of course there is this combustible attitude of improvisation in which one realizes that no text that Mozart wrote was really sacrosanct,” Levin adds. “He did not write pieces down so that people would play exactly what he wrote and nothing else. This was not the way music was done in the 18th century, and in the early 19th century it wasn’t done that way either. That is, just the way every performance invited improvisation so, in a sense, the score was a blueprint.”

Levin with piano

In addition to the completion premieres, the program also includes the premiere of John Harbison’s Violin Sonata No. 2 (2013), some rare old things — Purcell sonatas for two violins – and Mozart’s infrequently heard and bizarrely scored Horn Quintet (for two violas, one violin, and cello.

All performances take place at the  Festival Barn, on Highway 19 near the town of Token Creek, with ample parking available. The venue, indoors and air-conditioned, is invitingly small, and early reservations are recommended. Arrive early and tour the beautiful setting and farm fields (below in a photo by Jess Anderson).

Token Creek Land 1 Jess Anderson

More information about the  Token Creek Festival can be found at the website, www.tokencreekfestival.org.

Concert tickets are $30, and a limited number of student tickets are available for $10. Tickets can be reserved by phone at 608-241-2525, by email at info@tokencreekfestival.org, or by U.S. mail at P.O. Box 55142, Madison WI, 53705.

More information about the Token Creek Festival and all events can be found at the website, www.tokencreekfestival.org or by calling 608-241-2525.


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