The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Tucson celebrates the Leonard Bernstein centennial. Why not Madison?

February 17, 2018
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Editor’s note: Larry Wells, better known as The Opera Guy who writes for this blog, recently spent time in Tucson, Arizona, where he attended many events celebrating the Leonard Bernstein centennial.

Tucson isn’t alone. This fall has seen many similar celebrations, including those in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee. But curiously there has been little in Madison.

Perhaps that will change next season. At least this week will see a FREE concert by the UW-Madison Wind Ensemble this Wednesday night, Feb. 21, in Mills Hall. The mixed program with other composers features “Profanation” from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1.

Here is a link with more information and the program:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wind-ensemble-2/

And here are observations about the Tucson celebration:

By Larry Wells

I recently spent a few weeks in Tucson. Part of that time happily coincided with the annual Tucson Desert Song Festival which this year commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell).

I was able to attend 13 of the performances and was struck by the consistently intelligent programming, large audiences, and high performance standards.

Many of the events were held at the Fred Fox School of Music at the University of Arizona. Some of these involved talented student and faculty singers performing Bernstein’s Broadway songs as well as his more serious vocal works. The venue also hosted outstanding recitals by Metropolitan Opera veterans Jennifer Johnson Cano (below top) and Lisette Oropesa (below bottom).

One of the highlights was a recital by dual pianists Steven Bleier (below top, on right) and Michael Barrett (below top, on left), founders of the New York Festival of Song. Their program included Bernstein’s final song cycle “Arias and Barcarolles” featuring the very talented Joshua Jeremiah (below middle) and Rebecca Jo Loeb (below bottom).

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra (below), under the direction of its new conductor José Luis Gomez,  filled the cavernous Tucson Music Hall for two performances of Bernstein’s underperformed Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish.” Joined by the symphony’s outstanding chorus, the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, and soprano Kelley Nassief this monumental work was electrifying. The many percussionists were given a good aerobic workout, and the audience seemed hypnotized.

The only flaw was the narration rewritten and delivered by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie. The original narration by the composer is a monologue between a man and his god. Ms. Bernstein’s narration changed the tone to that of a daughter speaking about her father.

For someone familiar with the work, I felt somewhat cheated that I was not hearing the work as it had been composed. Still it was a total delight to hear a live performance of a work that should be heard far more often than it is.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra offered a second program which featured a sparkling performance of Bernstein’s opera “Trouble in Tahiti” with the widely-praised, and rightly so, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (below in a photo by Dario Acosta).

Ballet Tucson offered a somewhat strange program featuring Bernstein songs beautifully performed by Cadie Jordan (below top) and David Margulis (below bottom, in a photo by Kristin Hoebermann). Sometimes they were accompanied by dancers and sometimes not.

Then, after a number of these songs, a recording came on of portions of the suite from Bernstein’s score for the film “On the Waterfront” with dancers performing a sort of “Romeo and Juliet” narrative. It didn’t seem to make any cohesive sense, but it was fun to watch and the quality of the music never faltered.

Two other large events were the Arizona Opera’s “Candide” and Tucson’s resident chorus True Concord’s MASS.

I attended the premiere of “Candide” (below) which was also performed in the vast Tucson Music Hall. I had only seen it performed once before, and that was the charming, witty, and intimate Harold Prince version. The Tucson version was one of the overlong operatic versions that featured additional musical numbers, which was a good thing, but wordy spoken dialogue that was unfortunately under-amplified. Therefore, unless someone was very familiar with the work, the production was a long string of seemingly unrelated musical numbers linked by incomprehensible spoken dialogue.

The dialogues themselves are very witty, but since they were not accompanied by supertitles as was the singing, the performance was seriously flawed. Still the singing was excellent, with special praise for Katrina Galka’s Cunegonde, and the staging was colorful and often amusing. Hopefully the sound issues were rectified for the following four performances. (You can hear the famous Overture to “Candide”– conducted by the composer —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

MASS (poster with scenes is below) was performed in what is termed as the ‘Chamber Version.’ I was apprehensive that somehow the musical content would be diminished, but my worries turned out to be unfounded and the performance was uniformly dynamic and engaging. True Concord is an outstanding choral group, and its leader Eric Holtan led a thoroughly engaging and moving performance of this monumental work. I was so taken by the first performance that I attended the second as well. Both performances filled the huge Centennial Hall.

Besides the orchestra and chorus the work features a celebrant, in this case the appropriately named Jubilant Sykes, an ensemble of vocal soloists, a boys chorus and dancers. The choreographers decided to add an additional layer of complexity to an already complex work by having some of the dancers portray Rose, Jacqueline and Caroline Kennedy as well as what I think was supposed to be the spirit of JFK. This was not part of the original work, and I felt it was superfluous to an already multifaceted work. But the audience loved it all, and it turns out that Madison is not the only city that seems to give everything a standing ovation.

The takeaway moment of the festival occurred during a discussion involving composer Dan Asia, the festival director and conductor George Hanson, and Jamie Bernstein. When asked how younger audiences can be lured into concert halls, all three of them immediately concurred that the answer is to program 20th-century music. They claim that any time 20th-century music is programmed, ticket sales increase. My experience at this festival was that large venues were consistently filled with audiences of all ages.

This is something for Madison to think about.

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Classical music: Today is the winter solstice. What music best captures or celebrates winter?

December 21, 2017
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Winter Solstice.

Winter arrives at 10:28 a.m. Central Standard Time.

That means we are turning the corner. Starting today, nights will get shorter and days will get longer.

But there is still plenty of the year’s most blustery and bone-chilling weather ahead of us.

Lots of classical music celebrates winter.

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is a popular choice.

So is the “Winter Dreams” symphony by Tchaikovsky.

Here are links to two compilations of winter music, lasting for a total of more than two hours, on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNMIgZAx2gQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2jAweLVLRk

But no music is more wintry than the celebrated song cycle “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey” by Franz Schubert (below).

Every year, The Ear uses the solstice and the coming of winter to listen once again to this deeply moving and surprisingly modern song cycle.

Many excellent recordings exist. Famed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (below left, with pianist Gerald Moore) made multiple recordings over many years.

In recent years Matthias Goerner, Thomas Quasthoff, Mark Padmore, Jonas Kaufmann and many others have already made acclaimed recordings, always with distinguished pianists including Gerald Moore, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Daniel Barenboim and Paul Lewis.

Yet I always find the most satisfying version to be the one made by English tenor Ian Bostridge with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andnes.

Bostridge’s tenor voice lends a lightness that has a certain clarity and almost speech-like quality to it.

And Bostridge, who wrote the excellent book “Schubert Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession” – a song-by-song analysis of the cycle — knows the texts and contexts of the songs inside and out. His are well-informed and thoroughly thought-out interpretations.

The whole cycle takes about 70 minutes to listen to.

This year The Ear might do one of the 24 songs in the cycle each day and then the entire cycle in one sitting at the end.

The different approach might yield some new insights and new pleasure.

Anyway, choose your own artists and your own way of listening.

But it is a great and timely choice.

Here is “Good Night,” the first song of “Winterreise”:

And here is “The Organ Grinder,” the last song and a favorite of writer Samuel Beckett who found a shared sensibility in the lean austerity of the music of the music and the text:

What winter music would you listen to or recommend to mark the solstice and the coming of winter?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Grammy winners Takacs Quartet and pianist Garrick Ohlsson perform a MUST-HEAR concert of Mozart, Brahms and Shostakovich this Sunday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Plus, you can hear a FREE performance of string music by Johan Halvorsen and Philip Glass this Friday at noon

November 30, 2017
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features the Passcaglia Duo of Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen and String Quartet No. 5 by American contemporary composer Philip Glass.

Performers are violinists Kaleigh Acord, Elspeth Stalter and Ela Mowinski; violist Shannon Farley; and cellist Morgan Walsh. The concert, which runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m., will be streamed live on the Facebook page of Noon Musicales.

By Jacob Stockinger

Separately and together, The Ear loves piano and strings.

So you can imagine the appeal of a concert that will take place this Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

That’s when the veteran and venerable Takacs Quartet (below) and acclaimed pianist Garrick Ohlsson will join forces in a terrific all-masterpiece program.

The concert has all the makings of a MUST-HEAR event for chamber music fans.

The award-winning Takacs Quartet, founded 42 years ago in Hungary and widely recorded and honored, will play two string quartets.

The late String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below), is the first of the composer’s three so-called “Prussian” quartets.

Known for a more relaxed style than the earlier “Haydn” quartets by Mozart, the Prussian quartets were composed for the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II (below), who was a talented amateur cellist.

The Takacs will also perform the seven-movement String Quartet No. 11 in F minor by Dmitri Shostakovich (below). It is one of The Ear’s very favorite of the 16 quartets written by the Russian composer who endured the torments and treacheries of the Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union.

Then Garrick Ohlsson (below) will join in for the Piano Quintet in F Minor by Johannes Brahms. It is one of the four or five crowning quintets for piano and string quartet.

The Ear loves the playing of both artists and the program should be deeply interesting and moving. The Takacs possesses a mastery of many styles and has recorded numerous quartets by Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Smetana, Janacek and, more recently, by Dvorak as well as a terrific complete cycle of the 16 Beethoven quartets.

But the Takacs has recorded little Mozart (two string quintets) and little Shostakovich (one quartet and a piano quintet), so The Ear looks forward to hearing the quartet’s take on those composers.

The Takacs has recorded the Brahms Piano Quintet, but with British pianist Stephen Hough and Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff, but that work too should be a memorable performance with Ohlsson, the only American ever to win the International Chopin Piano Competition. (You can hear the energetic and lyrical opening movement from the Takacs-Hough recording in the YouTube video at the bottom, which has an intriguing and colorful bar graph to emphasize the structure.)

Tickets are $10-$47. For more information about purchasing tickets plus a video and more background about the artists, go to:

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/takacs-quartet-with-garrick-ohlsson/


Classical music: A busy week at the UW spotlights choral and vocal music with some wind, brass and guitar music included

November 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s going to be a busy week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

And especially if you are a fan of choral music, there is much to attract you.

Here is run-down by the day:

TODAY

At 3 p.m. in Mills Hall is a FREE concert of Combined Choirs that features the Women’s Chorus (below), the University Chorus and the Masters Singers.

Sorry, no word about the program, but the groups’ past record suggests excellent programs are in store.

TUESDAY

From noon to 1:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, William Buchman (below), who is assistant principal bassoon of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a faculty member at DePaul University in Chicago, will give a master class that is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

At 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall on Bascom Hill, University Opera a FREE Fall Opera Scenes program with UW student singers (below form last year).

Featured are excerpts from four operas and one Broadway musical: “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Jacques Offenbach; “Der Freischuetz” (The Marksman or Freeshooter) by Carl Maria von Weber; and “Carousel” by Rodgers and Hammerstein,

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) will give a FREE concert.

Members of the faculty ensemble are Alex Noppe and Matthew Onstad, trumpets; Mark Hetzler, trombone; Tom Curry, tuba; and Daniel Grabois, horn.

The program includes: Johann Schein: Three Psalm Settings; Peter Maxwell Davies, arr. Matthew Onstad: “Farewell to Stromness” (1980), from The Yellow Cake Review; Jan Radzynski: Take Five (1984); Gunther Schuller’s Music for Brass Quintet (1961); and Alvin Etler’s Quintet for Brass Instruments (1966).

For more information, go to http://www.wisconsinbrassquintet.com

THURSDAY

From 10 a.m. until noon in Morphy Recital Hall, the acclaimed Grammy Award-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin (below), who will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this coming weekend, will give a FREE master class that is OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Madrigal Singers (below top), under conductor Bruce Gladstone (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), will present Part 2 of “Israelsbrünnlein” (Fountains of Israel) by the Baroque composer Johann Hermann Schein.

According to program notes, “Johann Hermann Schein’s collection of 26 motets from 1623 has long been considered the most important set of motets in the early 17th century. Schein (below), frustrated that there wasn’t a true counterpart of the Italian madrigal to be found in German music, set out to marry the expressiveness of the madrigal to German texts.

“In this case, he chose to set sacred and mostly biblical texts, rather than the secular poetry found in most madrigals. His set of spiritual madrigals display both moments of pure joy and exultation as well as heartbreaking sadness and longing.

“Last fall, the Madrigal Singers presented the first 13 of these motets, and this fall, we finish out the collection with motets 14-26.

“This music is incredibly moving and remarkably fresh, revealing a marked sensitivity to the texts and a mastery of musical expression.” (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

SATURDAY

At 8 p.m., in Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue, the Low Brass Ensemble will give a FREE recital. No word on composers or pieces on the program.

At 8 p.m. in Mils Hall, the group Chorale, under conductor Bruce Gladstone will present “Songs to Live By.”

Programs notes read: “Music has always had a way to touch our souls the way other things cannot. When paired with poetry that speaks honestly to the human condition, it can lift us out of the merely abstract, touching our souls and offering insight on how we can be better at being human and humane.

“The Chorale offers a choral song-cycle by composer Gwyneth Walker (below) on autobiographical poems by Virginia Hamilton Adair, as well as three works by Elizabeth Alexander:  “How to Sing Like a Planet”; “If You Can Walk You Can Dance”; and “Finally On My Way To Yes.”

“Also on the program is Joshua Shank’s “Rules To Live By,” a heartfelt and moving piece whose text was written by the commissioning ensemble.

SUNDAY

At 5 p.m., in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Wind Ensemble (below top) and Winds of Wisconsin will give a FREE joint concert.

Scott Teeple will conduct with guest violinist, Professor Soh-Hyun Altino (below bottom, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt) soloing.

Here is the program:

UW-Madison Wind Ensemble:

“Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, #2,” by Joan Tower

Concerto for Violin and Wind Ensemble, by Robert Hutchinson with the violinist Park Altino

Winds of Wisconsin:

“Chester Overture for Band,” by William Schuman

“A Child’s Embrace” by Charles Rochester Young

“Vesuvius,” by Frank Ticheli

Combined UW Wind Ensemble and Winds of Wisconsin:

“Folk Dances,” by Dmitri Shostakovich


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