The Well-Tempered Ear

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

February 17, 2018
5 Comments

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: University Opera stages a compelling and fully engaging cabaret of Kurt Weill songs

October 29, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend and colleague, The Opera Guy, has filed the following review.

By Larry Wells

I attended a nearly full-house opening of University Opera’s “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” Friday night in Music Hall on Bascom Hill.

The 90-minute show was comprised of about 20 numbers from the body of works by Weill (below, in a photo from the German Federal Archive. The ensembles, solos and duets were arranged into three sections with a loose narrative structure linking the pieces.

Throughout the evening I was unaware of the passage of time, which is one of my acid tests for a good performance. Likewise, I felt fully engaged.

Many of the numbers will be familiar to Weill’s fans. The well-known “Whiskey Bar/Alabama Song” was the opening solo for Sarah Kendall, who performed it more as a Puccini aria than as the world-weary, boozy Jenny. It was a novel and strangely compelling interpretation.

(Kendall performing “Whiskey Bar” with the company, is below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson, who took all the performance photographs)

More convincingly conveyed was “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” performed by the sprightly and clear-voiced Emily Weaver. “My Ship” sung by Miranda Kettlewell (below right, singing the Ice Cream Sextet with Alec Brown) was perfectly enunciated and movingly sung.

Since there were no supertitles, clear enunciation was a problem in a couple of the performances.

Likewise, mention should be made of Emily Vandenberg’s haunting rendition of “Surabaya Johnny.” (You can hear the legendary Weill interpreter Lotte Lenya sing “Surabaya Johnny” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

My favorite performances of the evening included “‘Youkali” by Talia Engstrom. My notes simply said “Perfection.” And my perennial favorite Courtney Kayser (below) did not disappoint with “J’attends un navire” and “Denn wie man sich bettet.” She is an excellent actress, possesses outstanding musicianship, and commands a clearly focused voice.

The women singers seriously overshadowed the men’s solo performances. I was wondering why that might have been. One possibility is that the men, who are trained operatically, find that they need to scale back their vocal projection for lighter vocal fare and in doing so sound constrained.

(Below, from back to front and left to right, are: Alec Brown, Jeff Larson, Jake Elfner, Sarah Kendall, Talia Engstrom, Matt Chastain in the “Benares Song.”)

Having said that, I thought Matt Chastain’s “Oh the Rio Grande” from the not well-known “Johnny Johnson” was both well sung and amusing to watch.

My companion admired the voice and acting of Alec Brown, and we both believed that Tim Emery is a dead ringer for a young Jimmy Stewart.

Some of the most compelling moments were the ensembles from Weill’s heavier works. “The Benares Song” highlighted Weill’s gravitas as a composer as did “Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen” from “Das Berliner Requiem.”

The cast members’ acting and vocal skills came to the forefront in these ensembles. (Below is “Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen” with Matt Chastain, Miranda Kettlewell, Alec Brown, Tim Emery, Emily Weaver, Eliav Goldman and Jeffrey Larson in the foreground).

Daniel Fung (below top) heroically provided the piano accompaniment without slacking for even a moment. Kudos to him. He was joined by a string bass and drum all conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below bottom) with unflaggingly appropriate tempi and dynamics.

This was the seventh production by David Ronis (below in a photo by Luke Delallio) for University Opera at the UW-Madison, and his consistently novel approach to the productions has made each one a joy. His commitment to quality and novelty is admirable.

I am eager to see what Ronis has in store for us this coming spring with “La Bohème” to be staged at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

I highly recommend attending “A Kurt Weill Cabaret,” which will be repeated this afternoon at 3 p.m. and Tuesday evening (Halloween night) at 7:30 p.m. Admission for the general public is $25; $20 for seniors; and $10 for UW students.

For more background and information about getting tickets, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/10/23/classical-music-the-university-opera-performs-a-unusual-and-original-kurt-weill-cabaret-this-coming-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-and-next-tuesday-night/

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/09/27/university-opera-presents-a-kurt-weill-cabaret/


Classical music: Piano sensation Daniil Trifonov plays the “Fantaisie-Impromptu” by Chopin and makes it his own

October 27, 2017
14 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Take a world-class young pianist who is a global sensation and on his way to being a superstar who specializes in Chopin – Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov (below).

Add in one of the best-known, most popular works by Frederic Chopin – his “Fantaisie-Impromptu.”

Blend in a warehouse loft and a ghostly, pop-like video with a dance-like narrative, all designed to promote Trifonov’s new CD – a budget double-disc set called “Chopin Evocations” (below).

The recording also features both piano concertos with some new orchestral touches by Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev as well as Chopin-influenced solo pieces by Robert Schumann, Edvard Grieg, Samuel Barber, Peter Tchaikovsky and Federico Mompou.

The result may well be the most original, individual and persuasive versions of the famous piece you have ever heard of the almost clichéd piece.

Here is a link to the performance with the video, along with some fine background material from Tom Huizenga who writes the “Deceptive Cadence” blog for NPR (National Public Radio):

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/10/04/555327012/a-young-lion-tamed-by-chopin-s-fantasy

What do you think of Trifonov’s playing in this and other works?

And what do you think about the video, which The Ear finds a bit over-the-top, both precious and schmaltzy, not at all in keeping with Chopin’s more austere and classical kind of Romanticism.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Madison Opera will present the Midwest premiere of ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.’ Here are the many impressive preparatory events for the public that start this Friday

January 17, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information to post about a local opera production that is both exciting and an inspired choice to mark February as Black History Month:

Madison Opera will present the Midwest premiere of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” on 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 10, and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 12, in the Capitol Theater at Overture Center for the Arts.

charlie-parkers-yardbird-logo-for-maidson-opera

For more information about the cast and the production as well as about purchasing tickets ($25-$114), go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/charlie-parkers-yardbird/

With music by Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder (below top) and a libretto by writer and poet Bridgette A. Wimberly (below bottom), the acclaimed opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” tells of the legendary jazz musician and the people closest to him.

daniel-schnyder-2017

bridgette-wimberly

The opera, which melds jazz and opera, is set on the day that saxophone great Charlie Parker died in 1955. As his body lies unclaimed in a New York City morgue, Parker returns in spirit to the jazz club Birdland, determined to compose a final masterpiece. Family and friends blend in and out of his memories, including his three wives, his mother, his friend Dizzy Gillespie and even his drug dealer.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird premiered in June 2015 at Opera Philadelphia (below is tenor Lawrence Brownlee, in a photo by Dominic Mercier, in the title role of Charlie Parker in the Philadelphia production) and was subsequently presented by the company at the Apollo Theater in New York City in April 2016. (You can hear an excerpt in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The New York Times praised it for its “pulsing, jazz-infused score,” while the Wall Street Journal said, “its rhythms snap and swing, its melodies – including real arias – seize the ear, its ensembles crackle with energy.”

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee in Charlie Parker's Yardbird CR Dominic Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

Madison Opera will be only the second company to present this work, which is sung in English with projected text and runs 90 minutes without an intermission.

“I saw Charlie Parker’s Yardbird when it premiered in Philadelphia and instantly knew it would be a perfect opera for Madison,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “The very American story and the exciting jazz-inflected music fit perfectly into our ever-expanding range of repertoire.”

She adds, “It’s not a straightforward narrative of Parker’s life, but rather elements of his life as refracted through his memories and imagination, and particularly his relationships with the women in his life.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Madison Opera’s cast includes both debuts and returning favorites, as well as a number of singers who created their roles in the world premiere.

Joshua Stewart (below), a young American tenor who has sung at La Scala, Bayerische Staatsoper, and Opera de Lausanne, debuts in the tour de force role of Charlie Parker.

joshua-stewart-2017

Angela Brown (below) returns following her performance at Opera in the Park 2016 as Addie Parker, Charlie’s mother, a role she created in Philadelphia.

Angela Brown 2016

Will Liverman, who sang Figaro in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville here in 2015, sings jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, a role he created in Philadelphia.

will-liverman-2017

Krysty Swann debuts as Rebecca Parker, Charlie’s first wife. Angela Mortellaro, who sang Galatea in Handel’s Acis and Galatea in 2013, returns as Doris Parker, Charlie’s third wife, a role she created in Philadelphia.

Rachel Sterrenberg debuts as Chan Parker, his final wife, a role she created in Philadelphia. Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, in whose hotel suite Parker died, is sung by Julie Miller in her Madison Opera debut.

Directing this production is Ron Daniels (below), who staged the world premiere and was the opera’s dramaturge, involved in the creation and workshop process. 

ron-daniels-opera-director-2017

John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) conducts, with members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

DeMain says:  “I am so happy to be a part of Madison Opera’s Midwest premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. Parker was consumed with music, breathing it day and night. All of us who are passionate about performing and listening to music can identify with this phenomenal musician and will not want to miss this jazz-infused opera, the perfect expression of Parker’s range and depth as a musician.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Composer Daniel Schnyder will attend the opening night performance and join Smith for the Pre-Opera Talk that evening at 7 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio.

In addition to the performances, Madison Opera and its community partners are hosting a series of related events, collectively known as “Extending the Stage,” which culminate in a concert of Charlie Parker’s music with composer Daniel Schnyder and the UW-Madison’s Blue Note Ensemble.

These events include Opera Novice; community previews; Opera Up Close; discussions of the life and music of Charlie Parker (below); and presentations of rare jazz films.

All events are open to the public and the majority are free of charge.

charlie-parker-1

RELATED EVENTS: EXTENDING THE STAGE

Opera Novice: Jazz Opera?
 Friday, Jan. 20 | 6-7 p.m. The Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, 335 W. Mifflin Street. FREE and open to the public

New to opera? Passionate about Puccini, but not sure about a jazz opera? Join General Director Kathryn Smith for a short, fun, and informative evening exploring the history of jazz and opera, including a live performance of an aria from Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.  With plenty of time to ask questions, it’s the perfect jump-start for the opera-curious.

Community Preview of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,
 Tuesday, Jan. 24 | 7-8 p.m. Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 W. Main St. FREE and open to the public

Join a Madison Opera staff member for a multimedia look at Charlie Parker’s life, the history of the opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, and some insights into Madison Opera’s production.

Opera Up Close, Sunday, Feb. 5 | 1-3 p.m. The Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street. Admission: $20; free for full-season subscribers and full-time students with ID; $10 for two-show subscribers.  Tickets available at the door.

Come even closer with a behind-the-scenes preview of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.  A multimedia presentation on Charlie Parker and the history of this opera will be followed by a roundtable discussion with the leading artists of Madison Opera’s production.  There is no better way to get “up close” to this acclaimed new opera.

A Charlie Parker Concert and Discussion with Daniel Schnyder and the Blue Note Ensemble Thursday, Feb. 9 | 7:30 p.m. Morphy Recital Hall, UW-Madison. FREE and open to the public

Composer Daniel Schnyder joins UW-Madison’s Blue Note Ensemble for an evening featuring music by Charlie Parker, with solos performed by both Schnyder and UW-Madison saxophone students. The evening includes an aria from Charlie Parker’s Yardbird and a discussion about Parker and the opera with Schnyder, UW-Madison Professor of Saxophone Les Thimmig, and General Director Kathryn Smith.

Pre-Opera Talks: Friday, Feb. 10 |7 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 12 | 1:30 p.m. Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center. FREE to ticket holders

Attend an entertaining introduction to Charlie Parker’s Yardbird one hour prior to curtain. On Friday night, composer Daniel Schnyder will join General Director Kathryn Smith to talk about the piece. Be sure to arrive early, as space is limited.

An Evening of Rare Jazz Films: Alicia Ashman Library. Friday, Feb. 3 | 7 p.m.; Goodman South Madison Library. Tuesday, April 11 | 6 p.m. FREE and open to the public (Below is footage of Charlie Parker playing and of people discussing the man and his artistic achievement.)

Jazz archivist Gary Alderman will present and explain films of the historically significant innovators of modern jazz, including the only two known existing videos with sound of Charlie Parker.

Among the other musicians shown will be those relevant to Parker’s music and career, including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.

The Life and Music of Charlie Parker: DeForest Area Public Library: Monday, Feb. 13, 6:30 p.m.; Alicia Ashman Library: Friday, Feb. 24, 7 p.m.; Fitchburg Public Library: Sunday, Feb. 26, 2 p.m.; Oregon Public Library:  Friday, March 10, 6:30 p.m. FREE and open to the public

UW-Madison Professor of Saxophone Les Thimmig (below) will talk about Charlie Parker’s life and music, as well as the history of bebop.

More information is available at www.madisonopera.org/education.

Les Thimming


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