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.
(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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
By Jacob Stockinger
Pianist Gabriela Montero (below, in a photo by Shelley Mosman) will perform in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater on this Saturday night, Feb. 11, at 8 p.m. Montero last performed in Madison with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and wowed the house at the Overture Center.
On this Friday, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in Mills Hall, Montero will also hold a master class, FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.
Here are ticket prices for her recital: UW-Madison students are $10; Union members and non-UW students are $42, $38 and $25; UW-Madison faculty and staff are $44, $40 and $25; the general public is $46, $42 and $25; and young people 18 and under are $20.
The first half of Montero’s program features the first set of Four Impromptus, Op. 99, D. 899, by Franz Schubert and the playfully Romantic “Carnival” by Robert Schumann.
After intermission, the former prodigy will perform the spontaneous improvisations – usually on themes suggested by the audience – that she is acclaimed for.
According to The New York Times, “[Gabriela] Montero’s playing has everything: crackling rhythmic brio, subtle shadings, steely power in climactic moments, soulful lyricism in the ruminative passages and, best of all, unsentimental expressivity.”
Here she is performing the third Schubert impromptu, in G-flat major, in the set of four that she will play here:
Montero was born in Venezuela and gave her first performance to a public audience at the age of five. When she was eight, she made her concerto debut in Caracas, which led to a scholarship for private study in the United States.
She has been invited to perform with the world’s most respected orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Liverpool Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony and more, performing in the Kennedy Center, Avery Fisher Hall and Wigmore Hall, among others.
Celebrated for her ability to brilliantly improvise, compose and play new works, Montero is an award-winning and best-selling recording artist.
She has received the Bronze Medal at the Chopin Competition, two Echo Klassik Awards in 2006 and 2007, and a Grammy nomination for her Bach and Beyond follow-up Baroque work in 2008.
She participated in the 2013 Women of the World Festival in London and spoke at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. She has also been recognized as a composer for her Piano Concerto No. 1.
This performance is presented by the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Performing Arts Committee and was supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. Media sponsors are WORT 89.9 FM and the UW-Madison student station WSUM 91.7 FM.
By Jacob Stockinger
Jazz and classical music are not so different, says Swiss-born composer Daniel Schnyder.
For Schnyder, it is more than an academic matter. He puts his point of view into action in his acclaimed chamber opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” which deals with the life of the bebop saxophone player and jazz giant. (You can see the YouTube trailer for the productions by Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the bottom.)
The Madison Opera will offer the work’s Midwest premiere when it stages the chamber opera this Friday night (NOT Saturday night, as first mistakenly posted here) at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Both performances are in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. (Performances photos below are from the world premiere at Opera Philadelphia.)
Here is a link to more general information about the opera, tickets, the cast and the production:
Daniel Schnyder (below) — who will perform a FREE concert of the music of Charlie Parker and do a question-and-answer session on this Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOT 7 p.m. as mistakenly first stated here) in Morphy Hall on the UW-Madison campus — also agreed to an email interview with The Ear:
What was the work’s genesis and what gave you the idea for “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird”? Are you a big jazz fan and did you see the work as a way to meld the jazz and classical styles of music?
I am a jazz fan. I am also a jazz musician and I love to compose, play and improvise in the jazz idiom. I have recorded more than 30 jazz CDs.
I love to combine jazz and classical music. I just finished a symphony for orchestra and big band, a commission by the Temple University in Philadelphia.
The idea from the very beginning was to write an opera for Lawrence Brownlee, the great African-American tenor. Opera Philadelphia asked me to write a work for him and we tried several libretto options. After hearing a recital by Larry singing gospel songs, I came up with the idea to write an opera about Charlie Parker’s life.
How would you describe the musical style of the opera in terms of tonality and melody, and its accessibility to the general public? What were the audience reactions in Philadelphia and New York City?
In both places, the audiences were very moved by the story and the music. The topic hit a nerve, something our society has to reflect upon, a general issue that concerns us all as a nation.
The music itself is not hard to listen to and moves swiftly. For the orchestra and singers, the opera is rather challenging, since Charlie Parker (below) was a virtuoso. The music moves fast and often in off-beat rhythms that are unusual for classical musicians. There are also a lot of odd meters and tricky patterns that sometimes connect to Parker’s music and sometimes relate to the music that came after him.
The audience will have a ball. There are 12-tone music passages reflecting on new music and opera — mostly in Nica’s parts — but there are a lot of R&B influences and jazz and Latin music grooves.
It would be false to see the opera as a patchwork of different musical sequences and styles. It is my music that is based on all these influences. The opera can be described as a modern music carpet with lots of colors of today’s music, rather than a quilt.
In what ways do you see the characters and the story as offering lessons and being relevant to today?
I guess this is obvious: Our society has to understand that different cultures and different ethnic backgrounds enrich America and are fundamental to its culture and success.
If we go down the path of segregation, divisiveness and disrespect, we all will lose. Jazz is the great coming together of different heritages, the roots of America, and it conquered the world.
We still erect barriers in society and music that are detrimental to growth and innovation. Other contemporary issues are also important in the opera, such as being a single parent, drug addiction and faith.
The opera also highlights that jazz musicians at the time could not earn money from recorded music, something that is true again today. The stealing of royalties from Parker and Dizzie Gillespie were different from today’s issues of streaming, but the problem of jazz musicians not receiving money for their creative works stays the same.
In the opera, Parker discusses the very nature of music, its volatility and the fact that you cannot physically possess it. This is one of the reasons why he wants to write the music down on paper. He wants to make it abstract, but realizes that he loses some of the essence of what he wants to say. That is the dilemma of the composer.
He also reflects on the notation system, which was not designed for jazz. He sings: “How can I put down these black dots on white paper, how can I capture these sheets of sound?”
The opera reflects on American history, but it simultaneously relates to today’s world. This is not just some nice story about the past; it is about us.
Quite a few other productions have been planned. What do you think explains the work’s popularity? Do you think it attracts new audiences to opera?
There might be many different reasons for that:
1) There are very few operas using the modern jazz idiom.
2) There are very few operas in which the leading roles are African-American.
3) The opera is flexible; it can be produced with a moderate budget in a lot of different venues. It is mobile, which is similar to L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) by Igor Stravinsky. It also has a length of just over 100 minutes.
4) As mentioned above, the opera hits a nerve; it is about our time and about us.
5) Charlie Parker is a legend, but very few people really know about him and his music. People are intrigued.
6) The music is very accessible; it can be played on the radio without getting boring or incomprehensible. Some modern operas rely a lot on light, staging and special visual effects. This opera works more like Carmen or a Verdi opera, told through the music.
7) It is an opera, not a musical. It only uses a song format in a few instances. The opera is composed in an open and evolving format, connected by leitmotifs similar to Wagner’s operas.
The music definitely has a lot of jazz influences, but the format is mostly one not used in jazz music. That creates a new experience. It does not fit into one of the known “drawers” of music, so it can be tempting to try to compare it to their pieces but it sticks out as musically different.
8) The opera is composed very close to the sound and rhythms of the words. Hence you can understand a lot. The language is very direct and clear, close to spoken language. That helps. You can actually understand a lot of the lyrics without reading the supertitles.
I tried to avoid the Strauss or Wagner effect of creating something where the mix of complex language and complex music creates something beautiful but often incomprehensible. French and Italian operas are better in this regard. “Yardbird” has a message that needs to be understood.
9) There are many riddles in the opera – musical riddles, but also hidden messages and references in the text – that can be explored. The opera plays in a twilight zone between death and life. This is also intriguing.
Is there something else you would like to say about yourself and the opera?
I enjoyed writing the opera very much. It was a great pleasure and an honor to reflect on one of the great music geniuses in American history.
By Jacob Stockinger
It’s no secret that the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music is strapped for money, especially for hiring staff and funding student scholarships — if less so for the construction of new buildings that are financed by selling naming rights.
Certain events, such as the UW Choral Union, have always charged admission. And most UW-Madison musical events, especially faculty and student performances, remain, thankfully, FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.
But under increasing financial pressure, a few years ago the UW started charging admission to more events: the UW Brass Festival, the UW Concerto Competition Winners’ Concert and the annual Schubertiade to name a few.
So one can well imagine the temptation to “monetize” — charge admission to – concerts by the popular Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), which typically draws both critical acclaim and large audiences.
Yet The Ear thinks that would be a mistake, even if the purpose or intent is the best.
The Pro Arte Quartet, which ended up here from its native Belgium when it was exiled here on tour during World War II when Hitler and the Nazis invaded and conquered Belgium, is a primary example of The Wisconsin Idea in action.
The Wisconsin Idea – under siege now by the governor and many legislators — is that the boundaries of the UW are the borders of the state and that the UW should serve the taxpayers who support it.
No single musical group at the UW does that job that better than the hard working Pro Arte Quartet, which has done it for many decades.
The quartet practices for three hours every weekday morning. It tours and performs frequently in Madison and elsewhere in the state, including Door County. It has played in Carnegie Hall in New York City and toured Europe, South America and Asia. It has commissioned and premiered many new works. It has made numerous outstanding recordings. It is a great and revered institution.
The Pro Arte Quartet is, in short, a great ambassador for the state of Wisconsin, the UW-Madison and the UW System. It has given, and will continue to give, countless listeners a start on loving chamber music.
If you are unfamiliar with the history of the Pro Arte Quartet, which is now over 100 years old and is the longest lived active quartet in the history of Western music, go to this link:
And you might consider attending or hearing one of the three FREE PUBLIC performances this week in the Madison area:
From 7 to 9 p.m., the Pro Arte Quartet will perform FREE at Oakwood Village Auditorium, 6209 Mineral Point Road on Madison’s far west side near West Towne. The program is the same as the one listed below on Saturday.
The Oakwood Village concert is OPEN to the public.
Here is a link to more information:
At 8 p.m., in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte Quartet, joined by University of Maryland guest pianist Rita Sloan (below top), will perform a FREE program that features the Fuga in E-flat Major, (1827) by Felix Mendelssohn; the String Quartet No. 20 in F major, Op. 46, No. 2 (1832-33) by the prolific but neglected 19th-century French composer George Onslow (below bottom); and the rarely heard Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84, (1919) by Sir Edward Elgar. (You hear the lovely slow movement from the Elgar Piano Quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
For information, go to:
At 12:30 p.m. in the Brittingham Gallery III (below) of the Chazen Museum of Art, the Pro Arte Quartet will perform for “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen,” where over the years it has become the chamber music ensemble in residence.
The program is the same as the one on Saturday night.
Here is information about reserving seats and also a link for streaming the concert live via the Internet:
Do you have an opinion about the Pro Arte Quartet?
Should admission to Pro Arte concerts be started? Or should the quartet’s performances remain free?
Leave a COMMENT below with the why and your reasoning.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
The weekend always seems like a good time for a reader survey or poll.
So this week, here is what The Ear wants to know:
What was the first piece of chamber music that you loved and that really hooked you on chamber music?
There are so many pieces to choose from in such a rich repertoire that covers all instruments and the human voice as well.
There are sonatas and duos for violin and cello with piano, for example, and songs for voice and piano or other accompaniment, There are piano trios and string trios. There are string quartets and piano quartets. There are wind quintets, string quintets and brass quintets as well as piano quintets. And there are even wonderful sextets, septets and octets. (Below are UW faculty members pianist Christopher Taylor and violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino.)
So what pieces or performers or qualities hooked you on chamber music?
And what pieces or performers or qualities keep you listening?
The “Trout” Quintet or the string quartets or the piano trios by Franz Schubert? For The Ear it was a magical and entrancing performance of the beautiful Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major by Schubert, performed outdoors. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Was it the Baroque trio sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel? Or various Classical-era sonatas and string quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Ludwig van Beethoven? Maybe more Romantic string quartets by Antonin Dvorak and Johannes Brahms. Or more modern ones by Sergei Prokofiev or Dmitri Shostakovich? Perhaps even contemporary string quartets by Philip Glass? (Below are the Willy Street Chamber Players, who regularly program new music.)
Leave word in the COMMENT section with link to a YouTube performance if possible.
Maybe your choices will even help win over new converts to chamber music.
And be sure to tell us what appeals to you about chamber music versus other music genres such as operas and orchestral works.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Is there a better way to greet the New Year than to take a look back at the past year?
2016 was a year of big losses: composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (below top), conductor Sir Neville Marriner (below middle) and early music pioneer and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt (below bottom) among the many whose names you might recognize.
What better way to start 2017 than to recall the figures we lost and hope that the coming year is kinder.
And here is an entry from, of all places, Wikipedia that includes an exhaustive and detailed list of important events, performances and compositions as well as of classical musicians who died.
It seems as good a summing up as any that The Ear has seen, and demonstrates just how prolific the composers of new classical music are:
We remember and we revere.
Which is why The Ear has included the Funeral March movement from the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven on a YouTube video below that features an intriguing graphic arts representation of the music.
We are lucky: We have the music even when we no longer have the musicians.
By Jacob Stockinger
Got a Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa gift card to spend?
Want to take advantage of post-holiday and year-end and New Year sales?
It emphasizes unknown performers – like soprano Barbara Hannigan (below in a photo by Elmer Haas) and contemporary or new music. But it features piano music, orchestra music, chamber music and opera. And it has generous sound samples from the chosen recordings:
Here is a link:
Over the past month, The Ear has featured several other Best of 2016 lists. So here they are for purposes of comparison and crosschecking.
For example, on several lists you will find conductor Daniel Barenboim‘s recording of the Symphony No. 1 by Edward Elgar and pianist Daniil Trifonov‘s two-CD recording of the complete piano etudes by Franz Liszt — and justifiably so. (You can hear the trailer for Trifonov’s Liszt etudes in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Here is the post-Thanksgiving guide from The New York Times:
Here is a list of nominations for the 2017 Grammy Awards:
And here is a link to a list by the critics of The New York Times:
ALERT: The week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features pianist Bill Lutes in a solo recital. The program includes the “Papillons” (Butterflies) by Robert Schumann and the final Sonata in B-Fat Major, D. 960, by Franz Schubert. The program runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.
For more information about Bill Lutes and his series of recitals, go to:
By Jacob Stockinger
This weekend, the Madison Choral Project (below top), Madison’s professional choir under the direction of Albert Pinnsoneault (below bottom), a former Edgewood College professor who now teaches at Northwestern University, will present two performances of its fourth annual Holiday-themed program “I Was Glad.”
The performances are on Friday, Dec. 16, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday Dec. 17, at 3 p.m. Both performances will be held at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
Tickets are available in advance at www.themcp.org, or at the door.
(Preferred Seating is $40, General Admission is $24/$28 and Students are $10)
The concerts feature a carefully curated selection of vocal music and readings, with the intent to lead the listener along a sublime journey of music and text.
Madison Choral Project is will partner again with Wisconsin Public Radio’s news editor Noah Ovshinsky (below), who will perform readings from works of Tim O’Brien, Billy Collins, William Wordsworth and others.
The Madison Choral Project will sing an eclectic mix of holiday-themed music in four sets, ranging from the 17th century to brand new compositions.
The program features two exciting world premieres by Eric Barnum (below top), the choral director at UW-Oshkosh, and MCP’s Composer in Residence, Jasper Alice Kaye (below bottom).
The first set of pieces, “Welcome to the Holy Space,” includes A Child’s Prayer by James MacMillan, Sanctus from Mass in G by Francis Poulenc and Our Father by Alexandre Gretchaninoff.
The second set, “Winter Comforts,” features two new commissions written for Madison Choral Project. Winter by Eric William Barnum will be followed by The Invitation by Jasper Alice Kaye. Lux Aurumque by Eric Whitacre will finish the set.
The third set, “Glad Tidings,” includes the concert’s titular piece, I Was Glad by C.H.H. Parry (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom), as well as beautiful works by Matthew Culloton, William Dawson and Jan Sandstrøm.
The final set, “Gathering and Blessing,” contains joyous settings of familiar texts set by Francis Poulenc, Ludwig van Beethoven, and arranger John Ferguson.
For more information or tickets, go to www.themcp.org.
By Jacob Stockinger
A lot of holiday gift lists suggest recordings, videos and books related to classical music.
The Ear recently posted a link to the holiday gift guide by critics of The New York Times:
The Ear also offered the 2017 Grammy nominations for gift suggestions:
But The Ear thinks the best gift by far is LIVE music – a ticket to one or more of the many concerts that take place in the Madison area. You can’t beat live music for excitement, insight and enjoyment.
There may be more, but at least two major arts presenters in Madison are offering holiday discounts to make your gift-giving easier and more affordable.
MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Through Dec. 24, the Madison Symphony Orchestra is offering a special deal — two levels of tickets for $20 and $49. That includes values up to $89. Concerts in the next semester include two outstanding pianist soloists (Stephen Hough, below top, playing the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saens and Philippe Bianconi playing the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, or “The Rach 3”) as well as the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms, the “Beyond the Score” performance about Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” (with actors from American Players Theatre in Spring Green) and Norwegian trumpet virtuoso Tina Thing Helseth (below bottom).
Here are two relevant links:
WISCONSIN UNION THEATER
Through Jan. 8, at the Wisconsin Union Theater will forego the $4 per ticket handling fee for any event, including the classical pianist and improviser Gabriela Montero (below top), the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra with its famous outgoing music director Edo de Wart conducting (below bottom).
Here is a link to shows for the second semester:
And of course discounts are not the only reason to choose a certain program or performer.
Whatever you are looking for — early music or new music, chamber music or orchestral music, art song recitals or choral music — you can find it in Madison, and usually at a very affordable price.
Lots of specific concerts at the UW-Madison and elsewhere are either free or low in price, as is the Middleton Community Orchestra.
Here are two links:
And you can find numerous other sites by Googling the organization’s name.
Combine a ticket to a live performance with a recording of a work or an artist, and maybe even include an invitation to be a companion, and you have a fine gift package that promises to be truly memorable.
Are there any other holiday deals the Ear hasn’t heard about?
Any suggestions or ideas for giving live music?
Leave word and links in the COMMENT section.
The Ear wants to hear.