The Well-Tempered Ear

It’s Thanksgiving Day. Conductor Marin Alsop, NPR, WQXR, WFMT and Wisconsin Public Radio offer music suggestions. What piece would you choose to mark the holiday?

November 26, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020 — is Thanksgiving Day.

Right now, the U.S. has had more than 12 million cases of COVID-19 with more than 260,000 deaths plus all the alarming signs and conditions that many more cases and deaths are coming in the next several months.

We might be sad that we can’t be with the family and friends we usually celebrate with. But we nonetheless have many things to give thanks for during this strange and tragic time.

We can thank the vaccine researchers; the doctors and nurses; and the other health care workers who take care of Covid patients, even those who don’t observe precautions and bring on their own illness.

We can thank all kinds of people on the front lines — food and transportation workers, for example — who help protect us and care for us.

We can thank the friends, family and others who stay in touch and help get us through these trying times.

And we can thank technology that makes isolating a lot less unbearable because we have telephones, radios, TVs, CD players, computers, cell phones and virtual online ZOOM meetings and gatherings and various other events including live-streamed concerts.

For The Ear, music has never meant more or brought more comfort than during this difficult year. He is giving thanks for that as well as for the other people and things just mentioned.

So what music should we celebrate this year’s emotionally complicated and mixed Thanksgiving holiday with?

Well, you can Google sources and go to YouTube to find compilations of music appropriate to the holiday. (See one playlist lasting 90 minutes in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City has five suggestions for being musically grateful: https://www.wqxr.org/story/top-five-expressions-thanks-classical-music/

And WFMT in Chicago is offering 20 suggestions based on holiday food: https://www.wfmt.com/2019/11/25/a-complete-thanksgiving-feast-in-20-food-inspired-pieces/

But here are a couple of other suggestions, some local.

Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) is always a reliable source. And tomorrow is no exception.

If WPR programming stays true to past patterns, music by American composers will be emphasized.

Plus, starting at 10 a.m. WPR will broadcast performances from the Honors Concerts (below) by middle and high school students around the state and who participate in the Wisconsin School Music Association. This year, for the first time, the performances will be virtual. But as in past years, they are sure to be moving and even inspiring.

Other fine suggestions from the world-famous conductor Marin Alsop  (below), a Leonard Bernstein protégée, who recently spoke for 7 minutes to NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon. 

Here is a link, but you should listen rather than just read the transcript if you want to hear the musical samples: https://www.npr.org/2020/11/21/937448472/this-thanksgiving-put-on-some-music-to-soothe

Do you like any of those suggestions? Were any new to you?

What piece of music would you choose to express gratitude on this particular Thanksgiving?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Cellist Camille Thomas makes her Madison debut online from Paris for the Wisconsin Union Theater this Saturday night

November 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Union Theater’s fall virtual Concert Series performances will begin this Saturday night, Nov. 7, at 7:30 p.m. CST with a live online performance from Paris by the acclaimed cellist Camille Thomas (below).

The “Midnight in Paris” recital – performed in Paris and streamed — features music by Claude Debussy, Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Ravel and Frederic Chopin. The performance will be preceded by a live 30-40 minute online Q&A with Thomas and pianist Julien Brocal on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. CST.

Here are the specific works on the program, which will last about 75 minutes with no intermission:

Debussy, “Clair de Lune” (arr. Roelens)

Nadia Boulanger, “Three Pieces” for cello and piano

Ravel, Kaddish

Chopin, Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65; and Introduction et Polonaise brillante, Op. 3 

Tickets for this online event are $10 for UW-Madison students, $18 for Wisconsin Union members, and $20 for all other patrons.

For more information about the Thomas’ performance – including a video and how to purchase tickets — visit union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/camille-thomas.

Thomas (below), a Franco-Belgian cellist, says she uses her music to bring people together from a range of cultures and backgrounds. Thomas released her second album, called “Voice of Hope,” with the exclusive Deutsche Grammophon this past June. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Thomas play a solo version from the album of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from his opera “Orfeo ed Euridice.”)

Thomas plays the Feuermann Stradivarius cello (1730, below) — named for the famous 20th-century cellist Emanuel Feuermann who played it — with a bow by Eugene Sartory, who is regarded as one of the finest bow makers in history. Joining her for this performance will be pianist Julien Brocal.

“Camille Thomas’s extraordinary talent makes her one of the most captivating artists of our time, as evidenced by being the first cellist in several decades to be signed by the major record label Deutsche Grammophon,” says Wisconsin Union Theater director Elizabeth Snodgrass. “Her ‘Midnight in Paris’ program brings us closer to her roots and reflects the beauty and charm of her personality as well as her musicality.”

The Ear has listened to some of Thomas’ performances on YouTube and finds her tone, intonation and phrasing outstanding.

The performance by Camille Thomas is the start of the fall Concert Series events, which includes a concert with pianist Jeremy Denk (below, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times) on Friday, Dec. 11.

In its 101st year, the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert Series is one of the oldest uninterrupted series of its kind in the United States.

The Wisconsin Union Theater (WUT) has served as a cultural center for community members and visitors for more than 75 years. The WUD Performing Arts Committee plans many of the Theater’s events, including the Concert Series.

While usually held in-person and most often in Shannon Hall, the Wisconsin Union Theater team will hold this fall’s theater events in a virtual format for the health and safety of patrons, artists and team members in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The team aims for all of its spaces, including online ones, to be accessible. Those that need accommodations can reach out to the Wisconsin Union Theater team at wisconsinuniontheater@union.wisc.edu

The WUT team says it continues to evaluate what changes may need to occur related to the spring Concert Series events as well as other spring Theater season performances.

The Wisconsin Union Theater has made multiple commitments to take a stand against racial injustice, including being more than allies, being activists; using the arts to create social justice; remembering students are future leaders and must be part of the change; using its voice to influence leadership and being firm in its resolve; and making space, stepping back and learning how to give up undeserved or unnecessary power and privilege.

 


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The New York Times music critics pick 10 online concerts and operas to watch through the month of November

October 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Classical music critics for The New York Times have again listed their picks of virtual and online concerts that will be streamed during the month of November, starting this Sunday, Nov. 1, and running right through Nov. 30. In September, they did the same for the month of October.

The list of 10 highlights includes chamber music, orchestral music and operas as well as lots of new music, world premieres of commissions and even the Cliburn International Piano Competition, now known simply as The Cliburn.

Most of the events are posted and available for quite a while.

Note that all times are Eastern and that on this Sunday, Nov. 1, daylight saving ends.

As the critics point out, the list may be especially helpful and enjoyable now that the weather is turning colder, people are isolating at home during the nationwide spikes in coronavirus cases, and concert halls remain closed to the public.

Well-known institutions such as The Metropolitan Opera (below) and the Los Angeles Opera are featured. (You can sample an earlier Met production of Philip Glass’ “Satyagraha” – about the early life of Gandhi — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So are symphony orchestras from Detroit, Seattle, San Francisco and Cincinnati. 

And pianist Igor Levit (below top), who this past year released the highly praised, award-winning complete cycle of 32 piano sonatas by Beethoven and who was named Artist of the Year by Gramophone magazine, is also featured, as is the outstanding Chicago-based violinist Jennifer Koh (below bottom, in a photo by the Los Angeles Times). 

Here is a link to the story: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/28/arts/music/classical-music-stream.html

What do you think of the choices?

Do you have other concerts or classical music events to add to the list?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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New York Times music critics pick 10 MUST-HEAR online virtual classical concerts to stream for October

October 3, 2020
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ALERT: Tonight’s concert by the choral group Roomful of Teeth for the Wisconsin Union Theater at the UW-Madison’s Hamel Music Center has been canceled and postponed indefinitely.

By Jacob Stockinger

Increasingly the coronavirus pandemic seems surging out of control. So it comes as no surprise that also more and more concerts of classical music are taking place virtually and online.

Coronavirus image CDC

There are many ways to choose among local, regional, national and international concerts.

But one good guide was published this last week and featured the choice of must-hear classical concerts by critics for The New York Times.

It is an interesting and varied selection, and includes times, links and brief descriptions.

It features concerts that emphasize Black composers such as Florence Price (below top) and women composers. It covers many genres from a solo piano recital by Jeremy Denk (below bottom) – who is supposed to perform here on Dec. 11 at the Wisconsin Union Theater – to chamber music, vocal music, orchestral concerts and operas.

Florence Price head shot University of Arkansas Libraries

Jeremy Denk playing CR Hiroyuki Ito NYTImes

Curiously, there is quite bit of new music but little early music, either Renaissance or Baroque. Perhaps more will appear around the holiday times, when that music is part of the traditional holiday celebrations.

You will find contemporary composers but also lots of certified, tried-and-true classics and masterworks.

Some are one-day only events but many run from a week through a month.

Here is a link to the story. PLEASE NOTE THAT TIMES ARE ALL EASTERN: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/29/arts/music/classical-music-stream.html

Please let The Ear know if you like this kind of listing and find it useful.

And please feel free to leave in the comment section other guides or events that the public should know about.


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The Metropolitan Opera has canceled the rest of this season and announced the following season of Live in HD. How will the cancellation affect concert seasons here and elsewhere?

September 25, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Unfortunately, it seems like The Ear’s prediction on Monday is coming true.

Given the coronavirus spikes and complications of vaccine production, testing, distribution and administration, The Ear said, it looks like live concerts are likely to be canceled for the rest of this season and perhaps even for the fall of 2021.

Here is that post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/09/21/looks-like-there-will-be-no-live-concerts-for-the-rest-of-this-2020-21-season-and-maybe-until-early-2022/

Then yesterday the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City announced exactly that: It is going to cancel the whole season, and not just the fall productions, as originally planned. (You can hear general manager Peter Gelb discuss the plans for this season and the next season in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Given that the Met is the largest performing arts organization in the United States, it promises to be a Big Domino with a lot of influence and side effects.

Here is the Met story, with more quotes, details and information, from The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/23/arts/music/metropolitan-opera-cancels-coronavirus.html

Perhaps to provide some reassurance and attenuate the negative news of the decision to cancel, the Met also announced its Live in HD season for the 2021-22 season, which is based on live productions.

Here it is on the website Opera Wire: https://operawire.com/met-opera-2021-22-season-here-is-all-the-information-for-this-seasons-live-in-hd-performances/

And if you want to know what the Met (below, from the stage) is planning to offer instead, here is a link to the Met’s own website: https://www.metopera.org.

What do you think will be the local effects of the Met decision to cancel the entire season?

Will other musical organizations follow suit, cancel the entire new season of in-person events and go safely online with virtual events?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: As superstar Itzhak Perlman turns 75, a critic assesses his virtues and shortcomings in playing both the violin and his audiences

September 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Monday, Aug. 31, superstar violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman (below, in a photo by Yael Malka of The New York Times) turned 75.

To celebrate, Sony Classical released a boxed set of 18 CDs (below) with many performances by Perlman – solo, chamber music and concertos – recorded over many years.

On the occasion of Perlman’s birthday, critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim of The New York Times wrote a retrospective review of Perlman’s long career. (You can hear his most popular performance ever — with more than 6 million hits — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear finds the opinion piece both brave and truthful, pointing out Perlman’s mastery of the Romantic repertory but also criticizing his stodgy treatment of Vivaldi and other Baroque music that has benefitted from the period-instrument movement and historically informed performance practices

Yet the essay, which also touches on ups and down of Perlman’s career, always remains respectful and appreciative even when discussing Perlman’s shortcomings.

Offering many historical details and photos as well as sample videos, the critical assessment of Perlman seems perfectly timed.

The Ear hopes you enjoy it as much as he did. Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/arts/music/itzhak-perlman-violin.html

If you have heard Itzhak Perlman either on recordings or live – at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the old Civic Center or Overture Hall — let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: How can classical music be made less white? Nine Black artists suggest changes. Which ones will work best?

July 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

With all the attention given to and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement — and other demonstrations and protests against personal and systemic racism as well as white privilege — it comes as no surprise that questions are being raised about the overwhelmingly white world of classical music and how to change it.

Most of the local classical music groups The Ear knows of have posted statements of solidarity.

If he recalls correctly, they include the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Willy Street Chamber Players and many others.

But beyond declarations of solidarity with people of color, the music groups face deeper issues that require action, not just words, and remain more difficult to solve: How to attract more Black  classical musicians? How to foster more Black composers? And how to attract more Black audiences?

Diversity and equity are long-term issues, and quite a number of possible solutions loom.

Would performing more pieces, both historical and contemporary, by Black composers (below) work?

Would hiring more Black resident musicians help?

Would booking more Black guest artists and soloists help? (Below is the young and upcoming British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.)

Would changing the music curriculum in schools help? (Some important Black composers are explored in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Would generating more support to and from the Black community help?

Last week The New York Times did a fine piece of work in addressing these issues.

The reporter and music editor asked nine different accomplished Black conductors, instrumentalists, singers, critics and administrators in classical music about how to solve the inequity. The interviews were condensed and edited into very readable statements.

Here is a link to that story: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/16/arts/music/black-classical-music-opera.html

Please read it.

Then let us know which suggestions you think should be attempted first and which solutions are most likely to work.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The Met just canceled its entire fall opera season. Can local groups be far behind?

June 3, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The question has weighed on The Ear ever since local groups started announcing their new concert seasons.

Will audiences – especially older and more vulnerable ones — be ready to risk venturing into crowds of 500, 1,000 or 2,000 people without an effective treatment or vaccine for global pandemic of the coronavirus (below) and the growing number of deaths from COVID-19?

Now such suspicions have been supported or even confirmed by news that the world-famous Metropolitan Opera (below), at Lincoln Center in New York City, has just canceled all of its live fall productions.

It cited concerns about the safety of both the public and the performers. And its reasoning makes sense — even though it is estimated that the Met will lose up to $100 million. It is hard or impossible in concert halls and on stages (below is a photo of the Met’s stage) to use masks and maintain social distancing.

All in all, it sounds all too familiar, similar to the reasons given for cancellations this past winter and spring, and even this summer.

Here’s a link about the Met cancellation, with lots of details and quotes, in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/arts/music/metropolitan-opera-cancels-season-virus.html

Locally, it seemed like the show might go on when many groups – despite the public health crisis growing worse — went ahead and started announcing their fall seasons or even an event this summer, as in the case of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square, which were postponed by a month.

After all, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Madison Bach Musicians have all announced new seasons — as did the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear about the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s new “Ode to Joy” season in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The UW-Madison – the biggest presenter of live concerts in the Madison area with some 300 events a year – has wisely not yet announced its concert season, let alone how it will hold lessons and classes.

The Ear suspects that more cancellations are in the making, especially when it comes to mass gatherings such as concerts, movies, plays and sports events.

Indeed, it seems like many of the groups even took possible cancellations into consideration when it came to planning programs; cutting back on expenses and staffing; and using local or regional guest artists, who might be less expensive and less difficult to cancel, rather than long-distance imported ones.

Even if a vaccine is perfected by Jan. 1, it will take a while to produce enough of it, then to administer it and then to have it take effect.

But perhaps those suspicions and speculations are overly cautious or too pessimistic.

What do you think will happen to the fall concert season?

Will going online and streaming new or past concerts once again be a substitution?

Has the pandemic changed your own habits — perhaps waiting to purchase single tickets rather than renew a season subscription? Or your plans for the fall season, perhaps even the entire season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: What will the fall concert season will look like? And what will the post-pandemic concert world be like?

May 18, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week, The Ear listened to and read a lot of news about COVID-19 and the arts.

And it got him thinking: What will happen this fall with the new concert season? And even later, what will a post-pandemic concert world look like? (Below is the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a photo by Peter Rodgers.)

As you may have heard, the Tanglewood Festival, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has been canceled this year. So too has the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Locally, American Players Theatre in Spring Green also just canceled its summer season.

So far, the summer season seems to be one big cancellation for the performing arts.

True, there are some exceptions.

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has yet to announce its plans for August.

One also has to wonder if crowds of up to 20,000 will feel safe enough to attend the Concerts on the Square (below), now postponed until late July and August, by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra?

Will people still want to attend the postponed Handel Aria Competition on Aug. 21 in Collins Recital Hall at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center, assuming the hall is open?

Fall events seem increasingly in question.

Last night on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that sports events and concerts will be among the last mass gatherings to take place safely, probably not until next spring or summer or even later, depending on when a vaccine becomes available.

Some public health experts also offer dire predictions about how easing up lockdown restrictions too soon might lead to an even worse second wave of the coronavirus virus pandemic this autumn and winter, despite all the happy talk and blame-shifting by Team Trump.

So, what do you think will happen beyond summer?

The Ear wonders what the fallout will be from so many music groups and opera companies turning to free online performances by solo artists, symphony orchestras and chamber music ensembles.

Will season-opening concerts be canceled or postponed? What should they be? Will you go if they are held?

Will at-home listening and viewing become more popular than before?

Will the advances that were made in using streaming and online technology (below) during the lockdown be incorporated by local groups — the UW-Madison especially comes to mind — or expected by audiences?

In short, what will concert life be like post-pandemic and especially until a vaccine is widely available and a large part of the population feels safe, especially the older at-risk audiences that attend classical music events?

Will larger groups such as symphony orchestras follow the example of the downsized Berlin Philharmonic (below, in a photo from a review by The New York Times) and play to an empty hall with a much smaller group of players, and then stream it?

Will some free streaming sites move to requiring payment as they become more popular?

Live concerts will always remain special. But will subscriptions sales decline because audiences have become more used to free online performances at home?

Will most fall concerts be canceled? Both on stage and in the audience, it seems pretty hard to maintain social distancing (below is a full concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra). Does that mean the health of both performers – especially orchestras and choral groups – and audiences will be put in jeopardy? Will the threat of illness keep audiences away?

Even when it becomes safe to attend mass gatherings, will ticket prices fall to lure back listeners?

Will programs feature more familiar and reassuring repertoire to potential audiences who have gone for months without attending live concerts?

Will expenses be kept down and budgets cut so that less money is lost in case of cancellation? Will chamber music be more popular? (Below is the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet during its suspended Beethoven cycle.)

Will fewer players be used to hold down labor costs?

Will imported and expensive guest artists be booked less frequently so that cancellations are less complicated to do? 

Will many guest artists, like much of the public, refrain from flying until it is safer and more flights are available? Will they back out of concerts?

Will all these changes leave more concert programs to be canceled or at least changed?

There are so many possibilities.

Maybe you can think of more.

And maybe you have answers, preferences or at least intuitions about some the questions asked above?

What do you think will happen during the fall and after the pandemic?

What do you intend to do?

Please leave word, with any pertinent music or news link, in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.


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