By Jacob Stockinger
You probably don’t know the name Ethel Smyth (pronounced smaith, below).
The Ear certainly didn’t.
But then he came across this fascinating account of her life and work.
An early feminist leader for same-sex equality, she fell in love with the much younger writer Virginia Woolf.
And her muscular music and politically charged operas reminded people of Richard Wagner.
Now she has been resurrected thanks to Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College who also directs the American Symphony Orchestra and the Bard Music Festival. He staged her 1904 opera “The Wreckers.” (At bottom, you can hear a YouTube performance of the Overture to “The Wreckers.”)
By Jacob Stockinger
First it was a best-selling and prize-winning novel.
Then it became a popular Oscar-winning Hollywood movie.
Now it is an opera that received its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera this past week and is proving so popular with audiences that an extra performance has been added and regional premieres are already booked around the country. (The Minnesota Opera will give the Midwest premiere.)
It is “Cold Mountain,” a Civil War story about a Confederate soldier’s return home that is loosely based on Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.”
Here is a review, posted on Facebook, by our own John DeMain, the music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera, who attended the world premiere performance. DeMain came to Madison, by the way, from his post as director of the Houston Grand Opera, where he gave the world premiere of John Adams’ “Nixon in China.” So he is a fan of new operas.
DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) writes:
“How wonderful “Cold Mountain” was last night at its world premiere in Santa Fe. Jennifer Higdon is simply a wonderful composer and her piece with Gene Scheer‘s compelling libretto, soared to great heights. Great directing from Leonard Foglia, with a brilliant design concept, and a great cast. Emily Fons was magnificent as Ruby. Fabulous orchestral writing, beautiful choral work, and compelling duets and ensembles. A very sad, grim piece given a dynamic treatment by all involved.”
Such discerning enthusiasm makes you wonder if DeMain and the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith might not be looking to bring “Cold Mountain” to Madison in a couple of seasons. (The male lead Nathan Gunn has already sung in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater and with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, by the way.) One can hope! (Below are the leads mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as Ada and baritone Nathan Gunn as Inman in a photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.)
You can hear the creators of the opera discuss it in a YouTube video at the bottom.
Here are some other sources for previews and reviews:
Here is a story from NPR or National Public Radio:
The PBS NewsHour aired a lengthy feature by Jeffrey Brown that includes lots of video and interviews with the cast; with Charles Frazier (below right), who wrote the best-selling novel; and with Jennifer Higdon (below left), the composer of the opera who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia:
And here is a short news story and a longer, more negative or critical review from Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times:
By Jacob Stockinger
Despite the emphasis on cultural diversity these days, have you heard much of his music in concerts halls, on recordings and on the radio? (You can hear his Symphony No. 2 in a YouTube video at the bottom. Furthermore, YouTube has quite a lot of the music written by Carlos Chavez.)
Judging from The Ear’s own experience, probably not.
But that may be about to change.
Once again the Bard Music Festival -– under the direction of Bard College president Leon Botstein (below) who also directs the American Symphony Orchestra -– is known for taking on neglected composers or neglected aspects of well-known composers.
This year is no different.
Starting this weekend and continued next weekend, the Bard Music Festival will explore the world and music of Carlos Chavez, who was the foremost Mexican modernist.
Like his American colleague Aaron Copland, Chavez (below) helped to free the classical music of both North America and South America from the grip of European music and especially the excesses of late German Romanticism.
Here is a link to the website of the festival, the center of which is the concert hall (below) designed by architect Frank Gehry. Looking at the schedule will give you some idea of the range and quality of the events and concerts that are planned.
Perhaps the best preview appeared in The New York Times:
By Jacob Stockinger
The concert starts at 8 p.m. in Garner Park, on Madison’s far west side where Mineral Point Road and Rosa Road intersect. (The rain date is this Sunday.)
There will be many treats, from the music and light sticks to ice cream cones and picnic dinners, to enjoy at the popular event that now draws up to 15,000 people. (Garner Park opens at 7 a.m. the day of the concert. Blankets, chairs, food and beverages are allowed.)
But one of the big draws this year is the chance to see and hear bass-baritone native son Kyle Ketelsen (below, in a photo by Dario Acosta). Ketelsen – who sang with the Madison Opera early in his career and who continues to make his home in Sun Prairie — has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and many other major opera companies in Europe and elsewhere.
This will be the first time Ketelsen returns to Opera in the Park since 2008.
Here is a link to general information about the event, which features the vocal soloists, the Madison Opera Chorus and members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, all playing under the baton of John DeMain the music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera:
And here is a link to biographies of the guest soloists:
Ketelesen, who just returned from a month-long stint out-of-town, kindly agreed to a Q&A with The Ear:
How have you seen Opera in the Park develop since you appeared in the inaugural one 14 years ago?
It has developed from a relatively small, enterprising venture from Madison Opera, into a destination event that people really count on and look forward to. Any more growth, and they’ll have to relocate to the Kohl Center!
What music will you be singing this year?
I will sing arias from “Mefistofele” and “Faust,” both as the devil (below). Then I will do a trio from “The Tales of Hoffmann,” as the devil again. They are some of my favorite roles. On the lighter side, a duet from “Kiss Me Kate” and a famous tune from “Guys and Dolls.” We’re mixing it up quite a bit. I always enjoy singing musical theater, but rarely get a chance.
What are the best parts of singing outdoors and what are the most difficult or challenging parts of doing so? What do you most enjoy about it?
You get to “cheat” a bit with the microphone. Indoors, opera singers are very rarely amplified, so every crescendo and decrescendo is all you. This way, I can play pop singer, and just fade away from the mic for a nice diminuendo.
The roar — hopefully! — of that crowd of 15,000 is an absolute rush as well!
Sometimes we get the urge to push to be heard in an outdoor concert, which is of course entirely wrong. We’re accustomed to hearing our own reverb from an opera house or concert hall. But outside, it’s an entirely different feel, acoustically. You need to trust the microphone and the sound guy, and know that you’ll indeed be heard. (Below is a photo — not of Kyle Ketelsen — from a past Opera in the Park by James Gill.)
What role did the Madison Opera play in fostering your now international career?
Certainly regional opera is a starting point for nearly all U.S. singers, no matter where their career eventually takes them. The Madison Opera offered me the opportunity to sing a number of roles at a very early stage in my career. My first Leporello (below, at the Metropolitan Opera) in “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, was in Madison.
I was able to lay the groundwork for what has become a calling card of mine, which I’ve sung at the Met, Covent Garden, Chicago Lyric Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Madrid, Munich and others. It was a nurturing environment to test-drive such an amazingly intricate, complex role.
You perform in Europe and around the US. Why do you continue to base your career in Sun Prairie, a suburb of Madison? Does it put you at a professional disadvantage not to live in New York City or Chicago?
My wife and I are from small towns in Wisconsin and Iowa, so it’s felt like home from the beginning. We absolutely prefer the slower, easy-going approach to life. Not to mention quiet! Trees, grass, open spaces and elbow room we hold at a premium.
I work enough in big cities. There is no desire, or necessity, to make my home there. Thankfully, I’ve never needed to be in the middle of things, professionally, in order to start my career.
I feel living in the Midwest gives me an advantage, actually. When I’m home, I’m refreshed. It renews me, and gives me the strength to then go back out when it’s time. (Below is Ketelsen in Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Chicago Lyric Opera. At bottom is a YouTube video of Keletsen singing the role of Escamillo and the famous Toreador Song from “Carmen” in Los Angeles under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel.)
What else would you like to say about yourself, about Opera in the Park or about major highlights of your career since you last sang in Opera in the Park and in upcoming seasons?
It’s especially fulfilling singing in the Madison area. It draws a truly unique, incredibly appreciative, gracious audience. See my website KyleKetelsen.InstantEncore.com for more information.
By Jacob Stockinger
Last Thursday night, The Ear attended the annual Handel Aria Competition.
And once again, he found himself in Handel Himmel.
This was the third year in a row for the competition, which was founded by local merchants and music patrons Dean and Orange Schroeder (below).
Here is a link to a Q&A post in 2013 with Dean Schroeder discussing the genesis of the competition:
And it sure seems that, with more incremental improvements yet again this year, this third time could prove the charm in establishing the competition as a permanent event.
Here is a link to the competition’s home website with news of the winners soprano Sarah Brailey (first, below center), countertenor Andrew Rader (second, below right) and mezzo-soprano Margaret Fox (third and audience prize, below left), the last of whom did graduate work at the UW-Madison School of Music:
For one, the attendance seemed bigger and applause sounded louder than in the past two years. The word is out.
Also, the competition returned to Mills Hall, which has better seating, better sight lines and better acoustics — to say nothing of better restrooms — than Music Hall, where it was held last year.
Here are some other things The Ear especially liked about this year’s Handel Aria Competition:
The Madison Bach Musicians — with harpsichord, two violins, cello, viola and especially an oboe — accompanied the singers.
That felt much more authentic for opera and oratorios than the solo harpsichord the first year or the small group last year. It sounded great and added a depth that allowed you to really hear how Georg Frideric Handel bounced parts back and forth.
One organizer told me she hopes that the ensemble will return next year. The Ear hopes so too. Everybody hopes so. They did an outstanding job and added a lot.
There were only seven contestants (below). Even so, the event started at 7:30 and ran until almost 10 p.m. That makes for a long night. Splitting them into four and three, then adding in time at the end for judging by the judges and the audience, made it more manageable than in previous years. But The Ear would like to see the finalists whittled down to five or six.
This year also saw more unusual repertoire offerings. I heard less from such well-known works as, say, “Messiah” — which should be banned from the competition — and more from unusual works such as “La Resurrezione,” “Siroe Re di Persia,” “Orlando” and “Teseo.”
That helped me to appreciate the range of Handel’s music. (Listen to the lovely aria “Ferma l’ali” from “La Resurrezione” in a YouTube video at the bottom. It was the opening piece sung by winner Sarah Brailey.)
The contestants also seem to get more evenly matched and more professional every year, showing greater ease and better stage presence. That is probably only to be expected as news of the competition spreads among early music enthusiasts.
BUT: There was one sour note. I did hear some very strong complaints from quite a few very knowledgeable listeners that soprano Kristen Knutson (below) did not receive any prize.
Yet she seemed to possess the complete package. She demonstrated a strong and expressive voice, with great pitch and diction plus terrific ornamentation, and she showed a fine stage presence.
Was she shut out — or robbed, as one listener bluntly put it — because she went first? Whatever the reason, she deserved much better recognition than she got. The Ear hope she returns next year and does as well as she deserves to.
What did you think of this year’s competition?
Of the performances and of the judging?
By Jacob Stockinger
Ear Friends and local merchants Dean and Orange Schroeder, who sponsor a lot of local classical music, write about an event they created and that is being held in conjunction with this week’s Madison Early Music Festival, which is exploring early Eastern European music:
We are hoping that you might help us promote this year’s third annual Handel Aria Competition (below, in 2013). It takes place on this Thursday, July 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall at the UW-Madison School of Music. (Chelsea Morris, who won last year’s competition can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
Tickets are $10, general admission, and are available in advance at Orange Tree Imports, 1721 Monroe Street, and online through Brown Paper Tickets (see www.handelariacompetition.com for the link).
There should also be tickets available at the door.
We have seven wonderful finalists coming to perform. And we are particularly excited that, this year, the accompaniment will be more than a harpsichord and will be provided by the Madison Bach Musicians with Trevor Stephenson (below).
We asked each of our seven finalists to answer the question “Why I love to sing Handel,” and I thought your readers would enjoy their answers.
Handel Aria Competition Finalists for 2015
Sarah Brailey, soprano (a finalist in 2014), NY, NY
Corrine Byrne, soprano, NY, NY
Margaret Fox, mezzo-soprano, Chicago
Kristin Knutson, soprano, Brookfield, WI
Andrew Rader, countertenor, Bloomington, IN
Jacob Scharfman, baritone, Boston
Here are their answers:
“Handel’s is “perfect music,” as Joyce DiDonato joked in a recent master class, music he whipped up almost thoughtlessly. Some composers slave over their works, but Handel—like Mozart—captured the pacing, moods and nuances of his characters immediately.
“It’s for this immediacy that I love to sing Handel. His genuine showmanship has enthralled audiences for centuries, and I commend the Handel Aria Competition for sustaining that legacy.”
Jacob Scharfman (below)
“Why I love singing Handel: This is so hard to answer briefly, because I basically spent my doctorate pondering the joys and intricacies in the vocal works of Handel. His writing is like a puzzle, where I can dive into the subtle meanings of every elegant gesture to create the most meaningful interpretation I can.
“When I’m singing a Handel aria, I get to become not just a vehicle for his music, but a composer myself as well as a researcher and a historian. There’s nothing more exciting than ornamenting Handel, because the music is ever-changing and alive!”
Corrine Byrne (below)
“I love to sing Handel because his music encapsulates the simplest and most complex of emotions, simultaneously, just like real life!”
Margaret Fox mezzo-soprano (below)
“Handel is one of my favorite composers to sing. From a personal standpoint, Handel will always hold a special place in my heart because my first breakthrough in my vocal studies was achieved with a Handel aria, and many of my subsequent vocal successes were accomplished with his arias.
“I love to sing Handel because his music is incredibly expressive and evocative, and so very exciting and stimulating to sing.”
“High on my list of “Great Singing Fears”– along with forgetting my audition dress, or running out of breath mid-vowel–is the fear of being boring. What is the point of all the effort to be a good singer if the audience leaves feeling cold and un-moved?
“Put simply, Handel’s music gives me something real and heartwarming to say. He wrote to persuade the listener, at a deep level, of what the text expressed, and is therefore an easy friend to any singer looking to relate story and emotion effectively. What a privilege to share his music with an audience!”
Kristin Knutson (below)
“I love to sing Handel because of the great variety and flexibility it allows us as singers. Name an emotion and there is a fantastic, dramatic, exciting Handel aria that explores it.
He was so prolific–we truly have a treasure trove at our disposal, especially as sopranos! And how often do we get the opportunity to improvise or compose as classical singers? Ornamenting Handel stretches my brain in a way that few other things do in my career. It’s a very gratifying challenge.”
Sarah Brailey (below)
“For me, Handel’s music is like coming home. No matter what other repertoire I explore, his scores (whether operas, oratorios, cantatas, what have you) can be opened, set on the stand, and they just speak themselves as self-evident. With far fewer exceptions than other composers, not much must be added to bring their magic to the fore.”
Andrew Rader (below)
Adds Andrew Rader:
“I would like to thank you for sponsoring this event. Handel’s music deserves a wider audience than it has in this country, and these scores need support from people like yourselves if they are ever to become more well-known gems in the public spheres of music.
“Regardless of who officially places first in the competition, we are all successful in being winners, due to the experience of putting together this type of performance.”
By Jacob Stockinger
It is a famous story about writer’s block –- or, in this case, composer’s block.
The young Russian Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) was so devastated by bad reviews of his first symphony in 1897 that he fell into a deep depression and couldn’t compose music for three years.
But then he sought the help of a hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl who kept repeating, “You will write a great piano concerto.”
And eventually he did.
Now that legendary incident has been depicted in a new play called “Preludes.”
It makes The Ear hope that one of the local theater companies will produce it, much as they did with the play about music education called “Master Class,” written by famed playwright Terrence McNally about the temperamental opera diva Maria Callas and some students.
“Preludes” is a chamber drama in which actors play multiple parts, many of the other famous artistic figures of the day such as the singer Fyodor Chaliapin (below right, played by Joseph Keckler in a photo by Tina Fineberg for The New York Times) and the writer-playwright Anton Chekhov.
It also involves two Rachmaninoffs (below in a photo by Tina Fineberg for The New York Times): one, called Rach, is the composer, portrayed by Gabriel Ebert, left; the other, called Rachmaninoff, is the pianist played by Or Matias.
Those of us who are not creative artists find it endlessly fascinating to try to get inside the head of important artistic figures.
Moreover, the drama gets a rave review that whets one’s appetite to see this play about a composer who was once dismissed as hopelessly sentimental but whose gorgeously melodic and stirringly harmonic music has had remarkable staying power and appeal – and continues to do so.
See what you think and whether the play stimulates your own curiosity.
Here is a link to the review:
By Jacob Stockinger
Yes, the literary program moved beyond writers to musicians and other artists, scientists and historical events long ago.
Here is what Keillor (below) said:
Gustav Mahler, who was a famous and highly respected opera and orchestra conductor as well as a major composer, said, “If you think you are boring the audience, go slower -– not faster.”
Hmm. Food for thought.
Now, that seems just the opposite of the experience so many of us have during practicing. That’s when slow repetition grinds us down and bores us and makes us long to speed up and hear the music up to tempo as it sounds in a real performance – as if we have already mastered the notes and can turn them into music.
So here is my question:
What do you think Mahler meant by what he said and why did he think playing more slowly works to relieve boredom?
And also: Do you agree with what Mahler said and can you think of a good example where slower is better and can you say why it is better?
A REMINDER: Today at 12:30 p.m., the early music choral group Eliza‘s Toyes (below) will perform “Music as Medicine” at the Chazen Museum of Art. The concert is FREE to attend. It will also be streamed LIVE as a replacement (first Sunday of the month) for the weekly Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen that Wisconsin Public Radio cancelled last season after 36 years.
Here is a statement: “Music has been an integral part of our well-being. To this date, many listen to music for its power in relaxation, excitement, and even catharsis. The development of music therapy as a medical profession, as well as increasing research in the physiological and psychological effects of music, signifies our ongoing interest to understand and utilize music. As scientists continue to examine music in an utilitarian light, it is worthwhile for us to rediscover how human beings have historically viewed music and its connection with health.”
Here is a link for streaming the concert:
By Jacob Stockinger
But every once on a while, an important discovery is made. Here is one to read about. It is “Voodoo,” an opera from the Harlem Renaissance that was composed by Harry Lawrence Freeman (below, in a photo from Columbia University in New York City). It was recently rediscovered and revived for a couple of performances.
It was featured on NPR or National Public Radio:
And here is a trailer preview or sampler, with some great photos, on YouTube:
By Jacob Stockinger
Yesterday The Ear asked readers for suggestions about classical music that would be appropriate to post and play today, which is Independence Day or the Fourth of July.
I got some good answers.
Some of the suggestions were great music but seemed inappropriate like “On the Transmigration of Souls” by the contemporary American composer John Adams. It won the Pulitzer Prize. But it deals with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and strikes The Ear as a bit grim for this holiday.
So, here are four others for The Fourth:
Ann Boyer suggested the Variations on “America” by Charles Ives, who was certainly an American and a Yankee original. The original scoring for organ was transcribed for orchestra by the well-known American composer William Schuman and it is performed below in a YouTube video by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the famous composer-arranger Morton Gould, who seems to specialize in Americana:
Tim Adrianson suggested Aaron Copland’s great Third Symphony. It is long but the most famous part of the symphony is “Fanfare for the Common Man,” played here by Metropolitan Opera artistic director James Levine and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. And that seems a perfectly fitting piece of music to celebrate the birth of American democracy:
Reader fflambeau suggested anything by Howard Hanson, but especially Syphony No. 2 “Romantic.” Here is the famous slow movement — performed by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra — that is also the appealing theme of the Interlochen Arts Academy and National Summer Music Camp:
Finally, The Ear recently heard something that seems especially welcome at a time when there is so much attention being paid to matters military.
It is also by Aaron Copland and is called “A Letter From Home.” It was dedicated to troops fighting World War II but it strikes me for its devotion to the home front and to peaceful domestic life, which is exactly what the Fourth of July should be about. Be sure to look at the black-and-white photographs that accompany the music:
And The Ear reminds you that you can hear a lot of American composers and American music today on Wisconsin Public Radio.
Have a Happy Fourth of July and Independence Day, everyone!