The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What music is helping you get through the Coronavirus by staying home? Help create a Pandemic Playlist

March 25, 2020
9 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting today, Wisconsin joins other states and countries in proclaiming a stay-at-home emergency condition to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

That means non-essential businesses and schools are closed; restaurants can only deliver food and do pick-up; and residents must stay at home except for essential services and travel such as buying food, seeing a doctor and getting medicine.

For a couple of weeks, many of us have already been spending almost all our time hunkering down at home.

And the Internet and other mass media are full of helpful hints about how to handle the loneliness, fear and anxiety that can come with self-isolation and self-quarantining.

For many, music proves a reliable coping strategy.

Since there are no live concerts to preview or review, now seems like a good time for The Ear to ask readers: What music helps you deal with the isolation of staying at home?

Is listening to music a part of your daily schedule, structure or routine?

Maybe you are using the time to discover new music or neglected composers, works and performers.

Maybe you are using the time to revisit old favorites by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Maybe you prefer darker and deeper, more introverted works such as symphonies by Mahler, Bruckner and Shostakovich?

Maybe you prefer the stories and drama of operas by Verdi and Puccini, oratorios by Handel and songs by Schubert?

Maybe, like The Ear, you find the music of Baroque Italian composers, such as the violin concertos by Vivaldi and Corelli, to be a great, upbeat way to start the day with energy and a good mood.

One more modern but neo-classical work that The Ear likes to turn to — a work that is rarely heard or performed live – is the beautiful “Eclogue” for piano and strings by the 20th-century British composer Gerald Finzi (below).

Finzi wrote it as a slow movement to a piano concerto, but then never finished the concerto. The “Eclogue” — a short pastoral poem — was never performed in his lifetime. So it continues to stand alone.

But like so much English pastoral music, the poignant Eclogue feels like sonic balm, some restorative comfort that can transport you to a calmer and quieter place, put you in a mood that you find soothing rather than agitated.

Hear it for yourself and decide by listening to it in the YouTube video at the bottom, then let The Ear know what you think.

Perhaps you have many other pieces to suggest for the same purpose.

But the series of reader suggestions is meant to be ongoing.

The idea is to build a collective “Pandemic Playlist.”

So right now and for this time, please post just ONE suggestion – with a YouTube link, if possible — in the Comment section with perhaps what you like about it and why it works for you during this time of physical, psychological and emotional distress from COVID-19.

What do you think of the idea of creating a Pandemic Playlist?

The Ear hopes that you like his choice, and that he and other readers like yours.

Be well and stay well.

Let’s get through this together.

 


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Classical music: With live concerts cancelled, what will you do for music? The Ear has some suggestions but wants to hear your ideas

March 16, 2020
6 Comments

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ALERT 1: It’s official. The Madison Symphony Orchestra has cancelled its performances of Dvorak’s Requiem on April 3, 4 and 5. Sometime this week, according to the MSO website, the administration will inform ticket holders about what they can do.

ALERT 2: The Mosaic Chamber Players have cancelled their performance of Beethoven Piano Trios on March 21 at the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

By Jacob Stockinger

Now that live concerts and performances have been cancelled for the near future – thanks to the threat of the pandemic of the coronavirus and COVID-19 — music-lovers are faced with a problem:

What will we – especially those of us who are isolated at home for long periods of time — do to continue to listen to music?

Perhaps you have a large CD collection you can turn to. Or perhaps you subscribe to a streaming service such as Apple Music, SoundCloud, Amazon Music or another one.

Don’t forget local sources such as Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT-FM 89.9, both of which generously broadcast classical music, from the Renaissance to contemporary music, and often feature local performers.

Here is a link to Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR): https://www.wpr.org

Here is a link to WORT 88.9 FM: https://www.wortfm.org

There are also many other choices.

Happily, there is YouTube with its mammoth collection of free musical performances and videos. You can surf YouTube for new music and classic music, contemporary performers and historic performers, excerpts and complete works.

Here is a link: https://www.youtube.com

Those who are students or amateurs might use the time to sing – like those marvelous, uplifting Italians making music from their balconies during the crisis – or practice and play an instrument at home.

But other organizations – solo performers, chamber music ensembles, symphony orchestras, opera houses – are also trying to meet the challenge by providing FREE public access to their archives.

And it’s a good time for that.

Music can bring us together in this crisis.

Music can help us relax, and fight against the current panic and anxiety.

It’s also a good time to have a music project. Maybe you want to explore all the many symphonies or string quartets of Haydn, or perhaps the 550 keyboard sonatas by Scarlatti, or perhaps the many, many songs of Franz Schubert.

Here are some suggestions offered as possible guidance:

Here is what critics for The New York Times, including senior critic Anthony Tommasini (below) who likes Van Cliburn playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, will do: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/arts/music/coronavirus-classical-music.html

If you are an opera lover, you might want to know that, starting today, the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City will be streaming for FREE a different opera every day or night.

The productions are video recordings of operas that have been broadcast over past years in the “Live in HD” program. The titles are listed by the week and here is a link:

https://operawire.com/metropolitan-opera-to-offer-up-nightly-met-opera-streams/

If you like orchestral music, it is hard to beat the Berlin Philharmonic – considered by many critics to be the best symphony orchestra in the world — which is also opening up its archives for FREE.

Here is a background story with a link: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/coronavirus-concerts-the-music-world-contends-with-the-pandemic

Here is another link, from Norman Lebrecht’s blog “Slipped Disc,” to the Berlin Philharmonic along with some other suggestions, including the Vienna State Opera: https://slippedisc.com/2020/03/your-guide-to-the-new-world-of-free-streaming/

And if you like chamber music, you can’t beat the FREE performances being offered by the acclaimed Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, some of whom recently performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater and with the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra: https://www.chambermusicsociety.org/watch-and-listen/

But what about you?

What will you listen to?

Where will you go to find classical music to listen to?

Do you have certain projects, perhaps even one to recommend?

How will you cope with the absence of live concerts?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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Classical music: This Sunday afternoon at Farley’s, pianist Shai Wosner performs sonatas by Beethoven, Schubert, Scarlatti and Rzewski. On Saturday afternoon, he gives a FREE public master class

February 18, 2020
1 Comment

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ALERT and CORRECTION: Earlier this week, The Ear mistakenly said the concert by UW Concert Band is Wednesday night. He apologizes for the error.

It is TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave. In addition, the School of Music website has updated information about the program to be played under director and conductor Corey Pompey. Go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-band-3/

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, one of the today’s most interesting and creative concert pianists will return to Madison to make his solo recital debut.

His name is Shai Wosner (below, in a  photo by Marco Borggreve) and he is an Israeli-American who is acclaimed for his technique, his tone and his subtle interpretations.

But what also makes Wosner especially noteworthy and one of the most interesting musical artists performing today is his eclectic, thoughtful and inventive approach to programming.

For more information about Wosner, go to his home website: http://www.shaiwosner.com

Wosner returns to Madison to perform his first solo recital here at 4 p.m. this coming Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, at 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Born in Israel and now teaching in Boston while touring, Wosner will play sonatas by Beethoven, Scarlatti, Rzewski and Schubert.

He has performed with orchestras throughout the U.S. and Europe, and records for Onyx Classics. “His feel for keyboard color and voicing is wonderful,” said The Washington Post.

The Madison program is: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D Major (“Pastoral”), Op. 28; Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 141, Allegro, with Rzewskis’ Nanosonata No. 36 (“To A Young Man”); Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 9, Allegro, with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 38 (“To A Great Guy”); Scarlatti’s Sonata in C minor, K. 23, with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 12; and Schubert’s last Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960.

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

Tickets are $45 in advance (students $10) or $50 at the door. Service fees may apply. Tickets are also for sale at Farley’s House of Pianos. Call (608) 271-2626.

Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event.

To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/706809

For more information about Wosner’s FREE public master class at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22, including the names of local students and their teachers plus the titles of works by Mozart, Debussy and Ravel to be played, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

Wosner (below) recently did an email Q&A with The Ear:

In concerts and recordings, you like to mix and intersperse or alternate composers: Brahms and Schoenberg; Haydn and Ligeti; Schubert and Missy Mazzoli; and Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, Ives and Gershwin. Why do you pair sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) and the American composer Frederic Rzewski (1938-) in this program?

I like to pair together composers from very different periods in ways that, hopefully, bring out certain things they have in common in spite of the differences.

Perhaps it is a way of looking for the underlying principles that make music work, for the ideas that go beyond styles and time periods and that stimulate composers across centuries.

In the case of Scarlatti (below top) and Rzewski (below bottom), it is the extreme conciseness of their sonatas and also their almost impulsive kind of writing with ideas and twists and turns kept unpredictably spontaneous, almost in the style of stream-of-consciousness.

Their sonatas are closer to the literal meaning of the word – “a piece that is played” as opposed to sung (which was more common in Scarlatti’s time perhaps). They are also very much about treatment of the keyboard and gestural writing rather than the more essay-type sonatas that were the dominant idiom for Beethoven and Schubert.

Why did you pick these particular sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert to bookend the program?

The sonata by Beethoven (below top) is quite unusual for him, without many contrasts and very lyrical, which perhaps is a certain parallel with the Schubert sonata. (You can hear Wosner playing an excerpt from another Beethoven sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But they are also very different. Beethoven’s sonata looks around it and is about idyllic nature — the title “Pastoral” isn’t by Beethoven but it is written in that kind of style — and the sonata by Schubert (below bottom) is more introspective, perhaps about human nature.

What would you like the public to know about specific works and composers on your Madison program?

I think it’s always stimulating to challenge preconceptions we have about composers.

Beethoven is often associated with a certain “heroic” style and bold, dramatic gestures while this piece is quite understated in many ways.

Schubert’s last sonata is often seen as a farewell to the world. But at the same time Schubert himself may not have been aware of his impending death as much as we think – he made some plans right near the end that may suggest otherwise.

I prefer to let everyone find in this music what they will, of course. But I think these works reveal other aspects of these composers that we don’t always think of. Is Schubert’s piece really about his own tragedy? It is probably much broader than that.

Now that your acclaimed Schubert project is completed, what are your current or upcoming projects?

I am currently working with five other composers on a project that is a collection of five short pieces written as “variations” for which the theme is a quote from a 1938 speech by FDR: “remember, remember always, that all of us… are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

Each composer chose a figure of an immigrant — some famous, some not — to write about. The composers are Vijay Iyer, Derek Bermel (below top), Anthony Cheung, Wang Lu and John Harbison (below bottom).

These “variations” will be paired with Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations.

What else would you like to say about your career and, after several concerto appearances with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, about your solo recital debut in Madison?

Madison has a lovely audience that I was fortunate to meet in the past, and I certainly look forward to being back there!

 


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Classical music: A busy week brings FREE concerts of violin, orchestra, percussion, band, cello and bassoon music to the UW-Madison

February 16, 2020
2 Comments

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ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear John DeMain lead the Madison Symphony Orchestra with guest soloists violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth in music by Brahms, Berlioz and Copland. Here is a positive review from Michael Muckian for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/music/masterful-sounds-on-a-miserably-cold-night/ 

For more information about the program, soloists and tickets, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/02/10/classical-music-this-weekend-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-celebrates-valentines-day-with-violinist-pinchas-zukerman-and-cellist-amanda-forsyth-in-the-romantic-double-concerto/

By Jacob Stockinger

The coming week at the UW-Madison will be busy with FREE concerts of violin, orchestral, percussion, band, cello and bassoon music.

Here is the lineup:

MONDAY

At 6:30 p.m. in the Collins Recital Hall at the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., you can hear a FREE performance of the popular Violin Concerto by Beethoven.

It is a student performance of the entire Beethoven Violin Concerto with the orchestra. The conductor is doctoral candidate Ji Hyun Yim (below) who is studying with UW conducting professor Oriol Sans. It is a concert of friends who enjoy playing together. The violinist soloist is Rachel Reese.

Then at 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, the Chamber Percussion Ensemble (below) – formerly the Western Percussion Ensemble – will give a FREE concert of contemporary music.

The conductor is director and UW-Madison percussion professor Anthony DiSanza, who is also the principal percussionist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The program is “A Forest from a Seed.” Featured is post-minimalist music by composers not named Steve Reich. No specific works or composers are named.

Says DiSanza (below, in a photo by Katherine Esposito): “From the seed of minimalism (1964-1972), a deep and exhilarating repertoire has blossomed. Join us as we explore 40 years of diverse and engaging post-minimalist percussion chamber music.”

The Chamber Percussion Ensemble, he adds, “is dedicated to the performance of significant and engaging works for the Western percussion ensemble tradition, emphasizing core repertoire and works by emerging composers.”

TUESDAY (not Wednesday, as originally and incorrectly posted)

At 7:30 in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, the UW Concert Band (below) will give a FREE concert under director and conductor Corey Pompey. For the complete program, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-band-3/

THURSDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Collins Recital Hall, UW cello professor Parry Karp (below), who plays in the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet, will give a FREE recital.

Piano accompanists are Bill Lutes; Martha Fischer; Frances Karp, the mother of Parry Karp; and Thomas Kasdorf.

The program is:

Robert Schumann: “Five Pieces in Folk Style” for Piano and Cello, Op. 102 (You can hear the first of the five pieces in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Johannes Brahms: Sonata in F Minor for Piano and Clarinet, Op. 120 No. 1 (arranged for piano and cello by Parry Karp)

Robert Kahn (below): Three Pieces for Piano and Cello, Op. 25

Richard Strauss: Andante from “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (The Bourgeois Gentleman), Op. 60

Ernest Bloch: “Schelomo” – a Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. in Collins Recital Hall, UW-Madison bassoon professor Marc Vallon (below) and friends – fellow faculty members and students — will perform a FREE concert of chamber music.

Joining Vallon, who plays in the acclaimed UW Wingra Wind Quintet, are: pianist Satoko Hayami; percussionist Todd Hammes; bassoonist Midori Samson; flutist Iva Ugrcic, clarinetist Alicia Lee; trumpeters Jean Laurenz and Gilson Luis Da Silva; trombonist Cole Bartels; and Travis Cooke.

Composers to be performed are: Robert Schumann; Alexander Ouzounoff; Sophia Gubaidulina (below); and Igor Stravinsky. No word about titles of specific works on the program.

 


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Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The timing and political climate could not be more relevant for seeing the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

February 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall from a previous blog posting that this weekend, the Madison Opera will present its production of the 2016 opera “Fellow Travelers.”

(A preview from the Minnesota Opera’s production, which featured the same sets and many of the same singers at the Madison Opera’s production, can be seen in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances are this Friday night, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 9, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Here is a link to more background and details about American history, the production, the cast and tickets.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/01/14/classical-music-background-discussions-lectures-and-documentaries-lead-up-to-madison-operas-production-of-the-new-lgbtq-themed-opera-fellow-travelers-on-feb-7-and-9/

Today, all The Ear wants to do is to point out how timely this story about the “Lavender Scare” of purging and punishing gays during the Red Scare, anti-Communist witch hunt of McCarthyism in the late 1940s and 1950s.

The opera’s story is about a young man (below) who supports Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and then finds himself romantically and sexually attracted to another man who works in the State Department, one of McCarthy’s favorite targets.

He then has to deal with hypocrisy, with the contradictions between his personal life and his political beliefs as he goes from being victimizer to victim.

The political climate for such a work exploring fear and prejudice couldn’t be more relevant .

A lot of the credit for that can go directly to President Donald Trump (below), the master of “Fake News.”

Trump is a right-wing fear-monger and name-smearer, constantly raging against “radical left-wing Democrats.” He has even called Sen. Bernie Sanders — a Democratic candidate for president — a “Communist,” even though Sanders describes himself as a democratic Socialist along the lines of Western European socialists.

It is also no secret that in addition to such unfair and insulting name-calling, Trump and his homophobic supporters – including Vice President Mike Pence and Christian Fundamentalists – are looking to roll back the civil rights and human rights of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.

And they want to do so even at a time when an openly gay man who is married, Pete Buttigieg, is running for president and seems to have just won the Iowa caucuses.

Moreover, there is a direct link between McCarthyism and the homophobia of the Liar-in-Chief.

Remember that McCarthy’ lawyer was a closeted and self-hating gay man named Roy Cohn (below right, with McCarthy). There is some evidence that McCarthy himself was secretly homosexual too.

After the humiliating end of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the premature death of McCarthy, Cohn went into private practice in New York City.

And that is where Cohn became the lawyer – and a role model of thuggish public behavior — for a young real estate developer named Donald Trump (below left, with Roy Cohn).

Such partisan times as the present seem to call for and inspire didactic art – better called “message art.” The Ear hasn’t seen the opera yet, so he can’t say how well it fits the bill.

But at first glance, the opera sure seems to fit the times we live in and the personalities of many of those who determine such a disturbing political and social climate. As The Nation magazine put it, “Trumpism is the New McCarthyism.”

In short, the opera’s plot seems both pertinent and realistic, one that could take place in today’s Washington, D.C.

The Ear is anxious to find out more and to make up his own mind, including about the music to be sung by the cast and played by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain.

He also hopes many of you will see the opera, and then leave your reactions and comments here, be they positive or negative.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: This week the UW-Madison hosts a faculty horn recital and two orchestral concerts – one by the visiting and innovative chamber orchestra The Knights and the other by UW students

February 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This week is a busy one at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music with concerts on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

There are also FREE and PUBLIC master classes on Friday.

Here are details:

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 5

At 7:30 p.m. in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., UW horn professor Daniel Grabois (below, in a photo by James Gill) – a member of the acclaimed Wisconsin Brass Quintet – will perform a FREE faculty recital.

Grabois will be accompanied by pianist Shuk-Ki Wong.

No specific program has been posted. But composers on the program include Eugene Bozza, Charles Gounod, Francis Poulenc, Wolfgang Plagge and a world premiere by Daniel Kessner.

THURSDAY, FEB. 6

At 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, also in the Hamel Music Center, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below, with the UW Choral Union in the background) will give a FREE concert.

UW professor Oriol Sans (below), who is new to campus this year, will be the main conductor with Michael Dolan serving as a guest conductor.

The program is the “Appalachian Spring” Suite by Aaron Copland and the Symphony No. 9 by Dmitri Shostakovich.

SATURDAY, FEB. 8

At 8 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, guest artists The Knights will give a concert that features UW clarinetist Alicia Lee (below), who is a member of the Wingra Wind Quintet and who toured with The Knights chamber orchestra during the decade she lived and worked in New York City.

Says Lee: “We are excited to bring a group with a fresh perspective that is run in perhaps a less traditional way,” Lee says of the residency. “This is a group of people with interesting, diverse approaches to a life in music. Many have been making music together for nearly 20 years, so the roots of both friendship and musical values run very deep.”

On Friday, Feb. 7, The Knights (below) will offer a one-day, on-campus residency that is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

Opportunities include access to strings, wind, percussion and horn master classes; a workshop on music business; a side-by-side orchestral reading; and attendance at their rehearsal. All activities will take place in the Hamel Music Center. For a day-long schedule, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/the-knights/

You can hear rehearsals and commentaries by The Knights in the YouTube video at the bottom.

According to program notes: “The Knights is a collective of adventurous musicians, dedicated to transforming the orchestral experience and eliminating barriers between audiences and music.

“Driven by an open-minded spirit of camaraderie and exploration, they inspire listeners with vibrant programs that encompass their roots in the classical tradition and passion for artistic discovery.

“The orchestra has toured and recorded with renowned soloists including Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Bela Fleck and Gil Shaham, and have performed at Carnegie Hall, Tanglewood and the Vienna Musikverein. Read more at: https://theknightsnyc.com

The program for The Kreutzer Project concert on Saturday night is:

Colin Jacobsen: World premiere of a new work

Ludwig van Beethoven: Kreutzer Concerto 
(based on the famous Kreutzer Sonata) arranged by The Knights for solo violin and chamber orchestra

INTERMISSION

Leos Janacek: The “Kreutzer Sonata”
 String Quartet arranged by The Knights for chamber orchestra

Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dances
 arranged by The Knights for chamber orchestra

General admission tickets are $30 and are available at the Campus Ticketing Office in the Memorial Union and by calling (608) 265-ARTS (2787) or visiting: https://artsticketing.wisc.edu/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=83A6D957-B006-4ABC-AFB2-6485A8C4D94C.

Free rush tickets for UW-Madison students and music faculty are subject to availability. Visit the Hamel box office one hour before the concert.

 


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra expands its Masterworks series this Friday night in Madison and Saturday night in Brookfield with piano soloist Orion Weiss and music by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Donald Fraser

January 21, 2020
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CORRECTION: The Ear received the following correction to the story about the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and apologizes for the error:

“There was a change to our rollout in Brookfield. We are only repeating the fifth Masterworks concert on Saturday, May 9. at 7:30 p.m. at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. We are NOT repeating this Friday’s concert in Brookfield.

“We will perform a Family Series concert of “Beethoven Lives Next Door” on Sunday, March 29, at 3 p.m. at the same Brookfield venue.”

By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) is about to take a Great Leap Forward.

This weekend will see the WCO — now in its 60th year of existence and its 20th season under music director Andrew Sewell (below bottom, in a photo by Alex Cruz) – take a major step in its evolution as a statewide music ensemble. It is a development comparable to when John DeMain took the Madison Symphony Orchestra from single performances to “triples.”

That is because, for the first time ever, the WCO is going to “doubles.” It will perform Masterworks concerts in Madison on Friday nights at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. Then the WCO will repeat the same concert on the following Saturday night in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts.

For a full story with lots of background and quotes about future plans for the WCO, you can’t do better than read the story by Michael Muckian that appeared last week in Isthmus:

Here is a link: https://isthmus.com/music/wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-turns-60/

The opening program has a couple of points of special interest.

First, this concert will mark the Madison debut of pianist Orion Weiss, a former student of Emanuel Ax who is increasingly booked for concerts and recordings.

Weiss (below in a photo by Jacob Blickenstaff) will solo in perhaps the most popular and famous of Mozart’s 27 piano concertos: No. 21 in C Major, K. 467. It is also known as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto because the beautiful  slow movement was used as the soundtrack to the movie of that same name. (You can hear the slow movement at the bottom in a YouTube video that has more than 59 million views.)

You can learn more about Weiss at his website: https://www.orionweiss.com

Another unique facet of the WCO concert is the U.S. premiere of “Sinfonietta for Strings” (2018) by the award-winning British composer Donald Fraser, now an American resident who lives in Illinois and is married to Bridget Fraser, the executive director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO).

Fraser (below) – whose music is tonal and accessible — is especially well known, not only for his original compositions but also for his orchestral arrangements of chamber music by Brahms, Elgar, Marin Marais and others. His 2018 recording of “Songs for Strings” features many of those transcriptions.

For more about Fraser, go to his website: https://donaldfraser.com/index.html

The concert will conclude with the Symphony No. 4 – the “Italian” Symphony – by Felix Mendelssohn. It is a sunny, tuneful and energetic work that is the most popular and best-known symphony by Mendelssohn. It was also used in a movie as the soundtrack to the Italian bicycle race in the coming-of-age film “Breaking Away.”

Tickets are $10-$77. For more information about the program and the soloist, as well as about pre-concert dinners and how to buy single and season subscription tickets, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-i-5/

 


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Classical music: Background discussions, lectures and documentaries lead up to Madison Opera’s production of the LGBTQ-themed, McCarthy-era opera “Fellow Travelers” on Feb. 7 and 9

January 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera continues its foray into 21st-century operas with Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers on Friday night, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 9, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

(Production photos below are by Dan Norman of the Minnesota Opera production, which is being encored in Madison. You can see and hear a preview of the Minnesota Opera production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The acclaimed 2016 opera is set in 1950s Washington, D.C. The “Lavender Scare,” in which suspected homosexuals saw their livelihoods and lives destroyed, has enveloped the U.S. government. (Below are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.) 

Against this backdrop, Timothy Laughlin, a recent college graduate and an ardent supporter of Wisconsin’s anti-Communist Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, meets Hawkins Fuller, a State Department official.

The two men (below, Acosta on the right) embark on a relationship, tangled in a web of fear and necessary deceit. Their friends and colleagues fill out a story of individuals grappling with their beliefs and emotions.

With a libretto by Greg Pierce that is based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers was praised as “a near-perfect example of fast-flowing musical drama” by The New York Times and tells of the very human consequences of prejudice and fear, with compassion, nuance and incredible beauty.

The opera will be sung in English with projected text.

The performance will last approximately 2 hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

For more information, go to: www.madisonopera.org/FellowTravelers

Tickets are $26 to $118 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to the Overture Center box office at 201 State Street or call it at (608) 258-4141 or go online to www.MadisonOpera.org/Tickets

“When I saw Fellow Travelers, I knew before it was over that I would be producing it in Madison,” says Madison’s Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with the haunting music and the well-drawn characters, and the emotional impact at the end was even more powerful than I had anticipated. I am truly looking forward to sharing this modern masterpiece with our community.”

Peter Rothstein (below) directs this production in his Madison Opera debut. Rothstein, who received his MFA from the UW-Madison, directed Fellow Travelers for Minnesota Opera in 2018.

The Twin City Arts Reader called his production “equal parts sweeping love affair and tragic circumstance. To some, the events will feel comfortably distant for this doomed period romance. For others, they will seem all too real and possible in this day and age. It’s a powerful combination.”

Making his Madison Opera debut as Timothy Laughlin is Andres Acosta (below), who performed this role to acclaim at the Minnesota Opera.

Ben Edquist (below), who debuted at Opera in the Park this past summer, sings Hawkins Fuller.

Adriana Zabala (below, of Florencia en el Amazonas) returns as Mary Johnson, who works with Hawkins and is a friend and voice of conscience for him and Timothy.

Returning to Madison Opera are Sidney Outlaw (below top, of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet) as Tommy McIntyre, a political insider, and Alan Dunbar (below bottom, in a photo by Roy Hellman, of Mozart’s The Magic Flute) in multiple roles, including Senator Joseph McCarthy and a government interrogator who puts Hawkins through a lie detector test.

Andrew Wilkowske (below) debuts in several roles, including Senator Potter and General Arlie.

Filling out the cast is Madison Opera Studio Artist Emily Secor (below top) as Miss Lightfoot, who works in Hawkins’ office; soprano Cassandra Vasta (below bottom) as Lucy, whomHawkins marries; and Madison Opera Studio Artist Stephen Hobe in five different roles.

John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) conducts, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” is sponsored by: Fran Klos; Sally and Mike Miley; David Flanders and Susan Ecroyd; John Lemke and Pamela Oliver; Sharyn and Carl Stumpf; and Dane Arts. Community events are sponsored by The Capital Times.

RELATED EVENTS

In addition to the two performances, Madison Opera offers several events to allow deeper exploration of the opera and its historical background.

They include a free discussion of the “Wisconsin Dimension” of this period in history at the Madison Central Library and a free showing of The Lavender Scare documentary at PBS Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin Public Television).

OPERA NOVICE: WELCOME TO THE 21st CENTURY

This Friday, Jan. 17, 6-7 p.m. FREE and open to the public at the Madison Opera Center (below), 335 West Mifflin Street

New to opera? Not sure how you feel about modern opera? Come to the Madison Opera Center for a short, fun and informative evening, led by General Director Kathryn Smith.

Learn about some of the new American operas that are shaping the operatic landscape in the 21st century, including Fellow Travelers. Studio Artist Stephen Hobe (below) will sing an aria from Fellow Travelers, and there will be plenty of time for questions. It’s the perfect jump-start for the opera-curious.

FELLOW TRAVELERS: THE WISCONSIN DIMENSION

This Sunday, Jan. 19, 3–4:30 p.m.; FREE and open to the public at the Madison Central Library, 201 West Mifflin Street

 Join us for a discussion of how the Lavender Scare and its fallout was felt in Wisconsin, led by R. Richard Wagner (below top), activist and author of We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History (below middle), and Susan Zaeske (below bottom), a UW-Madison campus leader in the arts and humanities who has taught an experiential-learning course on LGBTQ history.

THE LAVENDER SCARE– Documentary Screening

Friday, Jan. 24, 7 p.m.; FREE and open to the public at PBS Wisconsin, 821 University Avenue

PBS Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin Public Television) presents a screening of The Lavender Scare, the first documentary film to tell the little-known story of an unrelenting campaign by the federal government to identify and fire all employees suspected of being homosexual.

Narrated by Glenn Close, the film was praised as “a gripping, nimbly assembled documentary… vivid, disturbing and rousing” by the Los Angeles Times. The screening will be followed by a discussion.

OPERA UP CLOSE: FELLOW TRAVELERS

Sunday, Feb. 2, 1-3 p.m.; FREE for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers; and $20 for non-subscribers; at the Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street

Join the Madison Opera for a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Fellow Travelers. General Director Kathryn Smith will discuss many aspects of the opera, including the historical events that provide the story’s backdrop, the novel on which it is based, and how this 2016 opera swiftly spread across the country.

Principal artists, stage director Peter Rothstein, and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this acclaimed 2016 work.

PRE-OPERA TALKS

Friday, February 7, 2020, 7 p.m. and Sunday, February 9, 2020, 1:30 p.m. FREE to ticket holders at the Wisconsin Studio in the Overture Center

Join General Director Kathryn Smith one hour prior to performances for an entertaining and informative talk about Fellow Travelers.

 


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