By Jacob Stockinger
That is the touchy question that was taken up last week by The New York Times senior music critic Anthony Tommasini in his opening night review of Domingo’s performance in the role of the King of Spain Don Carlo (below, in a photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times) in the opera by Giuseppe Verdi “Ernani,” which was based on the play “Hernani” by French writer Victor Hugo.
The production of “Ernani” is taking place at the Metropolitan Opera – hardly a strange stage to the veteran Domingo, who is now 74. James Levine led the orchestra. And Tommasini offered quite specific criticisms to back up his opinion about Domingo.
Here is a link to the review:
Read it and weigh in with your own opinion about whether it is time for the great Placido Domingo to retire.
The Ear wants to hear.
1) In case you don’t already know them, here are the results of last night’s Final Forte: First Prize went to violinist Julian Rhee; Second Prize went to pianist Vivian Wilhelms; and Honorable Mentions went to harpist Maya Pierick and pianist Isabella Wu.
Here is a link to a complete story about the high school concerto competition:
2) This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, to be held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison at 900 University Bay Drive, will feature soprano Consuelo Sanudo (below) and pianist Jeff Gibbens who will perform music by Henri Duparc, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schubert.
By Jacob Stockinger
It has really been a busy past couple of weeks, with so many concerts that The Ear couldn’t even preview all of them. So it’s time to catch up and offer some critical appraisals of what I heard.
Let me begin with some background.
The supremely gifted, articulate and critically acclaimed American pianist Jeremy Denk, who has performed two solo recitals in Madison for the Wisconsin Union Theater, is fond of saying the he strives to make music sound as radical today as it was when it was first composed and first heard.
There is wisdom in that approach, which balances out the other great movement of the 20th-century that opened up our ears to another kind of difference. I am referring to the use of period instruments and historically informed performance practices to recapture how the music originally sounded.
But lately I had two examples that showed me just how exciting such an established “museum” composer as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below) can be if made to sound and look contemporary and radical to our modern ears without going backwards.
The two examples I have in mind are from recent performances of late works, when Mozart was in full command of his art: The opera “The Magic Flute” as presented by University Opera under the guest stage director David Ronis, who hails from New York City and teaches at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and the City University of New York as well as at Hofstra University; and the well-known penultimate Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, as performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell.
THE MAGIC FLUTE
The award-winning David Ronis did several things to The Magic Flute that The Ear really liked and found effective.
He made some judicious cuts in an otherwise overlong work.
He used surtitles for the German text.
He used spoken contemporary vernacular English for the dialogue. That not only made the opera understandable, but also lent drive to push it along and give it momentum as well as contemporaneity.
Most of all, Ronis also used cinematic Bollywood-like dance gestures and choreography (below, in photos by Michael R. Anderson) – along with the bright fusion of East-West hybrid costumes and sets that added such movement and energy, color and humor, to the score.
I mean, don’t we see enough of opera singers just standing still, arms outstretched, with only their mouths moving?
Of course, some people and critics did not like the changes, and found them downright treasonous and disrespectful or just plain wrong.
Silly them. The Ear says the updating worked just fine. Great art is there to experiment with, not just depict. Art lives in time. It is why director Peter Sellars is such a forceful and creative influence in the world of classical music. If only classical music could be less classical and more musical! Entertainment is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, after all, why the performing arts exist.
I also think the changes are one reason why there were four sold-out performances -– not just the usual three -– and why I saw so many young people in the audience. It was, in short, a fun production.
To my eyes and ears, this production — coupled with his production of Benjamin Britten‘s “Albert Herring” in the fall — showed what a smart move it would be to hire David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) full-time to lead the University Opera. He clearly knows how to get the best out of students, has a very personal artistic vision and is willing to shake things up – which both we and The Great Artists such as Mozart can use.
THE BIG G-MINOR SYMPHONY
As for the Mozart symphony – the big late one in G minor not the little early one — it was just part of an outstanding concert turned in by Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the impressive guest cellist Amit Peled (below) and his unbelievably resonant cello that belonged to and was played by Pablo Casals. Together, man and instrument justifiably brought down the house.
But other parts of the program, which included works by Frank Bridge and David Popper, should not be overlooked or underestimated.
Conductor Andrew Sewell (below) has long demonstrated his ability to work with such Classical-era composers as Franz Joseph Haydn and Mozart as well as Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven. And here, in a very familiar work, you could hear why.
While Mozart was one of music’s great melodists, Sewell’s interpretation emphasized tempo, rhythm and repetitive motifs even as he brought out the various voices, counterpoint and melodic lines.
This Mozart had drive and pep. (You can hear the familiar first movement, with an interesting abstract graph profile, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
In fact, the third Minuet movement sounded downright modern – a kind of percussive precursor to minimalism.
This was exciting Mozart, far from the genteel and primly elegant and blandly pleasant Mozart that The Ear refers to as Music-Box Mozart.
This playing by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) was precise and dramatic. It made you sit up and take notice. It engaged you.
It also showed why Mozart was such an exception to his age –- why his contemporaries and those who followed him so revered his talent and music. He was a radical in his day but we often overlook how he pushed the boundaries of music closer to modernism.
So The Ear offers shout-outs and hearty thanks to both David Ronis and Andrew Sewell for helping us to hear Mozart once again as a contemporary — not just a statically beautiful blast from the past.
Both cases proved to be an exciting and unforgettable experience. The Ear hopes we are in for more of them, particularly in Mozart’s symphonies and piano concertos.
Did you hear the opera and/or the symphony?
What did you think of the approaches to Mozart?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Pulitzer Prize-winner George Crumb (below, b. 1929) is one of America’s foremost composers and one of the most influential and innovative composers of the latter half of the 20th Century.
UW-Madison composer and professor Laura Schwendinger, who is the Artistic Director of the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, designed the 2015 CRUMB FESTIVAL – to take place from this Friday, March 20, through Monday, March 23, at the UW-Madison School of Music — to celebrate his 85th birthday.
“We wish to celebrate this unique and singular voice,” says Schwendinger. She describes Crumb’s influence in this way: “He is one of the most important, and influential composers of our time. He simply makes us listen to sound in a new way, and there are very few composers who can do that.”
The Festival will feature four concerts and nine works by Crumb.
Here is a schedule of events by each day.
On Friday, March 20, at 8 p.m. in Music Hall, “Lakeshore Rush,” which features three all-star UW alumni, will be performing Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale).
On Saturday, March 21, at 7:30 p.m. and also in the Music Hall, the UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (below top) will be presenting a concert featuring the Pro Arte String Quartet’s Parry Karp (below bottom) in Crumb’s Solo Cello Sonata and saxophonist Steve Carmichaelin’s Quest.
UW graduate student, conductor Kyle Knox will be conducting University of Southern California professor Donald Crockett’s “Whistling in the Dark” and Les Thimmig will be leading his saxophone quartet in a work by University of California-Davis professor Laurie San Martin, in her Miniatures for Saxophone quartet; a work by University of California-Berkeley Music Department Chair Cindy Cox will round out the program.
Schwendinger adds “none of these works could have been composed without Crumb’s influence, yet are distinctive examples of their composers’ individual styles.”
On Sunday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, Nunc (below top, Latin for “now”), a New York-based music ensemble will perform, headed by the star violinist Miranda Cuckson (below middle), called “superb,” “deeply satisfying,” and “prodigiously talented” by the New York Times.
The program includes Eleven Echoes of Autumn, and the Four Nocturnes for violin and piano as well as works by Augusta Read-Thomas, Sebastian Currier, and Laura Schwendinger’s The Violinists in My Life, a work for which the third movement is dedicated to Cuckson. Schwendinger (below bottom) adds that “this work of hers, is much influenced by the drama of the Crumb’s Solo Cello Sonata.”
Finally, on Monday, March 23, at 8 p.m. in Morphy Hall, Due East (below), the flute and percussion duo of Erin Lesser and Greg Byer, lauded as “superb” (New York Times) and “brilliant” (New York Concert Review), will be joined by NYC-based harpist, Jacqui Kerrod, vocalist Amanda deBoer and bassist Mark Buchner, will be performing George Crumb’s colorful and enticing Madrigals (1-4) in a stunning multi-media presentation, which presents a “triptych video montage” that becomes a “magical and powerful environment,” along with works written for them by the Chicago Composers Consortium and also inspired by the works of Crumb.
The consortium has been a staple of Chicago’s New Music scene for 25 years now and has counted as part of its membership some of Chicago’s best-known composers.
In addition to the four concert offerings, Miranda Cuckson, Blair McMillen, Erin Lesser and Greg Beyer will all be offering master classes, and Nunc will be reading works by student composers as part of a composer workshop.
Schwendinger says “the festival is a fantastic opportunity for the next generation of composers to be exposed to Crumb and learn from the performers who play his music.”
Susan C. Cook (below), music historian and director of the UW-Madison School of Music, is currently teaching a course focusing on George Crumb. An expert in contemporary and American music of all kinds, Cook singles out Crumb as central to her own desire to study modern music.
“As an undergraduate at Beloit College, I first heard Crumb’s ‘Ancient Voices of Children,’ then less than a decade old, in a music theory course,” Cook says. “It simply grabbed hold of me, and I knew I wanted to understand how it came to be and share it with others.”
All events are open to the public.
Nunc and Due East are ticketed events. Visit the Events Calendar at www.music.wisc.edu for more information.
Here are some online resources, including YouTube videos:
Crumb: Vox Balanae
Crumb: Eleven Echoes of Autumn
Links to other works on the concerts:
Donald Crockett Whistling in the Dark
“Violinists in My Life” with violinist Eleanor Bartsch and pianist Thomas Kasdorf performing with the UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble in Mills Hall in 2014
Sebastian Currier, Verge:
Featured performers in other works:
By Jacob Stockinger
For tenors, High C’s are the brass ring on the carousel of opera.
The late great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the very busy Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez both earned fame and fortune with their singing of the astonishing nine high C’s in Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera “La Fille du Regiment.”
In fact, Florez repeated the same nine high C’s as an encore and it brought down the house.
But it seems there may be another King of the High C’s in the making.
He is a native of New Orleans (isn’t that fitting?) and he is America tenor Bryan Hymel (below, in a photo by Dario Acosta for Warner Classics), who was recently featured on the terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence” for NPR (National Public Radio).
You will surely be hearing more about him. The 35-year-old Hymel has already made his debut at the famed Metropolitan Opera, where he has sung in “Les Troyens” by Hector Berlioz — a role he also sang at the Royal Opera House in London. And he will open the Met’s 2018 season in “Samson and Delilah” by Camille Saint-Saens.
Here is a link to that story by Tom Huizenga. It is complete with sound samples from Hymel’s debut album “Héroïque” — in particular the difficult aria “Asile héréditaire” from the opera “William Tell” by Giachino Rossini — and the CD features a total of 19 high C’s. That led Huizenga to proclaim: “This is why we listen to opera!”
The Amazon.com reader reviews of the new all-French album (below, with an audiovisual clip of the behind-the-scenes recording process) not only praise Hymel for his high C’s – and C-sharps and even D’s — but single out the quality of his singing.
You can hear that strong, pitch-accurate and seemingly effortless quality in one of The Ear’s favorite tenor arias: “Nessun dorma” from “Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini, which Hymel signs with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom.
By Jacob Stockinger
Last weekend brought a lot of conflicting classical music concerts to Madison.
The program featured the supremely gifted but much under-publicized pianist Shai Wosner (below, in a photo by Marco Borggreve). He performed two contrasting keyboard concertos by Joseph Haydn — No. 4 in G Major and the better known No. 11 in D Major.
It was simply a sublime use of a modern instrument to make older music that was originally composed for the harpsichord. Never was the witty music by Haydn overpedaled or overly percussive or distorted for virtuosity’s sake. In every way, Wosner served Haydn — not himself.
The concert was also noteworthy because it featured the longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell. He led the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) to shine in an eclectic program that included the Samuel Barber-like neo-Romantic and neo-Baroque Prelude and Fugue by the 20th-century Italian-American composer Vittorio Giannini and especially the youthful Symphony No. 2 by Franz Schubert.
Plus, Sewell (below) proved a perfect accompanist in the Haydn concertos. Clearly, chemistry exists between Sewell and Wosner, who have also performed together concertos by Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with the WCO.
It was, in short, a program that was beautifully planned and beautifully played – even down to Wosner playing an encore by Schubert (the late Hungarian Melody, a lovely bittersweet miniature) that set up the second half with the Schubert, whose musical attractions Wosner explains so insightfully in a YouTube video at the bottom.
For his part, Sewell brought out balance and voicing, along with the expressive, but not excessive, lyricism that befits the ever-songful Schubert. As he has proven many times with his readings of Haydn and Mozart symphonies and concertos, Sewell is a master of the Classical style.
Wosner’s subtle and suitably quiet playing — he always puts virtuosity at the service of musicality — was also a model of clarity and restraint, perfectly suited to Haydn. But it left me with only one question:
When will we in Madison get to hear Shai Wosner in a solo recital?
Three of Wosner’s four acclaimed recordings are solo recitals of difficult works. They feature the music of Johannes Brahms, Arnold Schoenberg, the contemporary American composer Missy Mazzoli and especially Franz Schubert, with whom Wosner obviously feels, and shows, a special affinity. The fourth CD is a violin and piano duo done with the gifted young violinist Jennifer Koh.
I don’t know what presenter, besides the Wisconsin Union Theater, would bring Wosner back — and benefit from the WCO audiences that already have heard him. Or maybe the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra could sponsor a solo recital as a sideline. But we could use more solo piano recitals in Madison — especially if they offer playing of the scale of Wosner’s.
I don’t know how it would happen, but I sure hope it does happen.
Shai Wosner is a great pianist who deserves a wider hearing in a wider repertoire.
By Jacob Stockinger
Perhaps you have read about the rapidly escalating cost of great musical instruments.
That puts a lot of younger or less well-known, cash-strapped players in a difficult spot.
For quite a while, banks and other financial institutions as well as museums and historical institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution have been putting the investment-quality instruments on loan to younger players whose playing deserves the instrument.
But individuals can do so too.
Take the case of the pioneering conductor Marin Alsop (below), a protégée of Leonard Bernstein who now heads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo State Symphony in Brazil, and who is being mentioned as a prominent candidate to follow Alan Gilbert when he steps downs from the podium of the New York Philharmonic in 2017.
When both her parents, who were distinguished professional musicians, died last year, they left behind valuable string instruments — a violin and a cello.
Alsop didn’t want to sell the instruments.
But she also didn’t want them to lie unused and defeat their original purpose.
So Alsop (below, in a photo by Gabriella Dumczek of The New York Times) decided to turn the violin and cello into living memorials by placing them on loan with players in her Baltimore orchestra -– a move that has benefitted everyone and the instruments as well.
Here is a story from The New York Times:
It gives you ideas about what might be done on the local level, where some very fine instruments – including pianos — could benefit some very young but very fine local players who otherwise couldn’t afford to have them.
By Jacob Stockinger
This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater on the Overture Center, pianist Shai Wosner returns for a third time to perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell.
The program is largely from the Classical era. Wosner will perform two piano concertos by Haydn – No. 4 in G Major and No. 11 in D major – and the orchestra will perform the Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major by Franz Schubert. In addition, a 1955 Prelude and Fugue by the accessible, 20th-century neo-Romantic composer Vittorio Giannini (below) will be performed.
Tickets are $15-$75. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.
The critically acclaimed Wosner, an Israeli native who studied at the Juilliard School with Emanuel Ax and who is now based in New York City, has previously performed Classical-era concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven with the WCO.
Wosner recently agreed to a Q&A about this new program.
The prize-winning American composer John Harbison has said that Haydn is the most underappreciated and most under-performed of the great composers. If you agree with that, why do you think that is and how do you feel about Haydn?
It is probably true. I can only guess what the reasons might be. Perhaps, over the centuries, his name has been eclipsed by that of Mozart (below), as the two are often lumped together in spite of the profound differences in their biographies and their music.
Where Mozart has irresistible melodies all over to disarm you at first hearing, with Haydn sometimes you have to get into the “groove” of the music first — perhaps a remnant from earlier music — and then once you do, you can find both great melodies as well as all kinds of twists and turns that can be just as gripping.
Humor, of course, is central to Haydn’s world and one can sometimes mistake that for lightheartedness. But the fact is that it is often just one layer of meaning and by all means not the only one.
If you open up to it, you quickly realize the depth and sincerity with which Haydn (below) speaks — just like spending time with a really great person who likes to tell jokes a lot, but whose immense life experience and understanding of the world soon comes through as well.
What are your plans for performances and recordings? Do your plans include performing or recording more Haydn, maybe concertos, sonatas and chamber music works?
Yes, I hope to record concertos along with a few other pieces as well in the near future.
What would you like the public to know about the two piano concertos by Haydn — who always composed at the keyboard — that you will perform here and their individual character? How do they compare to each other?
The G Major concerto is somehow the more “earthy” one — perhaps it’s the association of the key itself, which tends to relate to all things “rustic.” (For example, Mozart’s peasants and servants tend to sing in G Major). It seems to have a rough edge to it, a certain naughtiness.
The popular D Major concerto, on the other hand, is more patrician — even with the Hungarian finale. It shimmers with golden light like the interior of some idyllic palazzo in midday. (In a YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the D Major concerto performed by famed pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, who was an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music in the 1960s, and conductor Frans Bruggen.)
How does Schubert go with Haydn? On your program, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will also perform Schubert’s early Symphony No. 2 and you have recorded two CDs for the Onyx label that feature the music of Schubert. Clearly you feel a strong affinity with Schubert and have a point of view about him.
Schubert and Haydn are an interesting combination because early Schubert was very much influenced by Viennese Classicism, before Beethoven’s influence became much more dominant in his music.
At the same time, while Schubert (below) was using the same forms as Mozart and Haydn, they tend to come out very different under his hands, as if he couldn’t help it.
Most noticeable, I think, is the difference in energy.
In Haydn, to go back to the “groove,” there is a lot of raw rhythmic energy in fast movements and it helps to give shape to those movements as well.
In Schubert, on the other hand, even in fast movements, the overall shape tends to be much more contemplative, no matter quickly the notes go by.
This is your third appearance with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, with whom you have performed concerts by Mozart and Beethoven. What would you like to say about Madison audiences and the WCO?
I have been fortunate to meet very interesting people in Madison, and clearly the audiences are very dedicated and comprised of real music-lovers.
It is a wonderful thing that the city supports not only a symphony orchestra but also a chamber orchestra (below is a photo of the WCO) as well, which is, of course, a very different animal and unfortunately not a very common one any more.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I look forward to visiting Madison, of course!
By Jacob Stockinger
This past week -– on Tuesday to be exact -– we celebrated the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born in 1756 and died in 1791.
It was his 259th birthday.
For all his fame, familiarity and popularity, Mozart is a curiously underestimated composer. His best work is so sublimely beautiful that it is easy to overlook how different and revolutionary it was in its day. Mozart changed music, and we don’t always appreciate that fact.
But one of the most interesting celebrations that The Ear saw came from BBC Music Magazine. It asked 10 celebrated Mozart performers — including pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, conductor Sir Neville Marriner, pianist Dame Mitsuko Uchida, conductor Sir Roger Norrington and singer Barbara Bonney — to name their favorite work.
It covered the range of Mozart’s enormous output: piano music, string quartets, operas, symphonies, violin works, operas and of course choral works. And the website provided generous sound samples of the works.
Here is a link:
At the bottom is a YouTube video of one of my favorite Mozart works — the Piano Sonata in C minor, played by Daniel Barenboim. It was also a favorite of Ludwig van Beethoven who seemed to use some of it in the slow movement of the familiar “Pathetique” Sonata.
What is your favorite Mozart work?
What else do you want to say about Mozart?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Talk about living a life that sounds like an opera.
Take opera diva Deborah Voigt (below).
Voigt is supremely talented.
And now it turns out that the opera star is also supremely honest. And boy, does she have some great stories to tell — stories that don’t always reflect well on the opera world, let alone herself.
In her new memoir, “Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva,” the opera star talks about her childhood, her career, her gastric by-pass weight-loss surgery in 2004 and other problems including her abuse of alcohol, her dangerous relationships with men she met online and of course her relationships with food and music.
Here is pre-surgery Fat Debbie:
Voigt also comes off as a thoughtful woman who does not shun her own individual responsibility for her problems, but who sees them in a social and even sexist context, such as the double standard in opera for heavy men like the legendary and obese tenor Luciano Pavarotti (below) and heavy women like herself.
The Ear offers you a roundup of reviews and interviews about the new book.
Here is a piece from The Wall Street Journal with a Q&A interview:
Here is the take in the popular People magazine:
And here is a nitty-gritty account in The New York Post:
But let’s not forget the talent and great voice that make all these other things noteworthy. So here is Deborah Voigt’s most popular video on YouTube: