By Jacob Stockinger
They are two of the most high-profile jobs in the world of classical music and they are both in New York City: the music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the music director of the New York Philharmonic.
And right now candidates are being examined as possible successors to their current heads, James Levine and Alan Gilbert respectively.
According to a story in The New York magazine, one major player reportedly is the acclaimed firebrand and openly gay French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin (below, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for Getty Images), who currently heads the Philadelphia Orchestra. Guess which post he is a candidate for?
Another major candidate seems to be the conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (below). Can you guess for which post?
The Ear asks: Whatever happened to American candidates?
Are we going backwards from the Leonard Bernstein achievement of putting American maestros on par with European or other foreign conductors?
To be fair, though, some report that Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop, currently music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, could be a contender for the New York Philharmonic post.
Anyway, the recent New Yorker magazine had a very good take on the game of musical chairs being played around the two major vacancies.
The story shows careful research and excellent deep sourcing. But it also reads a bit like an engagingly conversational gossip column.
Maybe that is because it is written not by music critic Alex Ross but by Russell Platt, who is the classical music editor for the Goings On About Town column that starts the magazine.
Here is a link to an excellent read and what seems to be a pretty good crystal ball about the future leaders of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.
It’s great reading for a Sunday afternoon. Enjoy!
By Jacob Stockinger
Now in his 15th year with the WCO, music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below) continues to demonstrate his knack for creating appealing programs that are masterful in the way they combine the expected and the unpredictable.
This opening concert, like so many others, features a mix of a young or up-and-coming soloist, standard masterpieces and unusual repertoire. Tickets are $15 to $80.
A New Zealander who is now an American citizen, Sewell has programmed “Landfall in Unknown Seas” by his fellow Kiwi, composer Douglas Lilburn. The work was written in 1940 by Douglas Lilburn to mark the centenary of New Zealand. Sewell personally knew Lilburn during his formative training.
The work is for strings with a text that is read aloud by a narrator, who in this case will be actor James Ridge (below) of American Players Theatre in Spring Green.
Then comes the standard concerto with the non-standard soloist. It is the glorious Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven with the boyish-looking 25-year-old American violinist Ben Beilman (below), who has won critical acclaim as well as major prizes and awards, and who plays a violin built in 2004. He has been praised for his virtuosic technique and his strong, beautiful tone.
His honors include winning the Montreal International Violin Competition at age 20, with a searing performance of the Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius; receiving an Avery Fisher Career Grant; and being invited to perform with the prestigious Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. (You can hear him in a profile of Beilman in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
For more information about Beilman (below), including a sound and video sample, and about the performance with a link to tickets, go to:
Rounding out the program is the Symphony No. 2 by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921, below), a rarely heard work that is overshadowed by the Symphony No. 3, the “Organ” Symphony. Few people know that Saint-Saens was one of the great musical prodigies of all time, on a par with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Felix Mendelssohn.
Recent scholarship suggests that Saint-Saens was a closeted gay man. For more about the life and personality of Saint-Saens, check out this site:
A revival of the orchestral works and chamber music by Saint-Saens has been under way in recent years.
ALERT: Today at 2:30 p.m in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the season-opening program of music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Aaron Copland and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The performance won acclaim from local critics.
Here is a review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:
And here is a review by Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:
And here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine:
By Jacob Stockinger
Next weekend sure is a train wreck for local music. Not that this past weekend wasn’t or that future weekends won’t be.
So much is happening that The Ear sometimes gets discouraged rather than excited. You begin to think not about what you will see or hear, but about what you will miss!
And then there are the major non-local events.
One such big one is the opening this coming Saturday, Oct. 3, of the 10th season of the series of “Live From the Met in HD,” the broadcast of live opera performances that are broadcast via satellite to thousands of cinemas around the globe.
Here in Madison, you have a choice of two locations: Eastgate cinemas on the far east side and Point Cinemas on the far west side.
Here is a link to the Marcus Theatres web site where you can find out about other locations in the area, state and region:
The opening production is Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour, 1853) with the famous Anvil Chorus (heard from a previous production at the bottom in a YouTube video). The staging and production of the opera with a Spanish theme is the dramatic and disturbing art of Francisco Goya.
The show will start on Saturday at 11:55 a.m. Running time, with one half-hour intermission, is about 2 hours and 45 minutes. Admission is $24 for adults and $22 for seniors 60 and over; and $18 for children 3 to 11. Tickets to the encore productions are $18.
Here is a link with the title of the 10 other productions – including works by Richard Wagner, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gaetano Donizetti, Richard Strauss, Giacomo Puccini, Alban Berg and Georges Bizet for this season.
And you can follow links to plot synopses, cast notes and other information.
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.”