The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What happens when Shakespeare and Benjamin Britten meet Andy Warhol and The Factory? The University Opera explores a new spin on an old tale

November 12, 2019
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ALERT: At 7:30 p.m. this Thursday night, Nov. 14 — the night before it opens the opera production below — the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Oriol Sans, will perform a FREE concert in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue, next to the Chazen Museum of Art. The program offers Darius Milhaud’s “The Creation of the World,” Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” and Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 “The Clock.”  

By Jacob Stockinger

The Big Event in classical music this week in Madison is the production by the University Opera of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

It is a chance to see what happens when Shakespeare (below top) meets Britten (below bottom) through the lens of the Pop art icon Andy Warhol.

The three-hour production – with student singers and the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor Oriol Sans — will have three performances in Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill: this Friday night, Nov. 15, at 7:30; Sunday afternoon, Nov. 17, at 2 p.m.; and Tuesday night, Nov. 19, at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $25 for the general public; $20 for seniors; and $10 for students.

For more information about the production and how to obtain tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-a-midsummer-nights-dream/2019-11-15/

For more information about the performers, the alternating student cast and a pre-performance panel discussion on Sunday, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/A-Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Media-release.pdf

And here are notes by director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) about the concept behind this novel production:

“When the artistic team for A Midsummer Night’s Dream met last spring, none of us expected that we would set Britten’s opera at The Factory, Andy Warhol’s workspace-cum-playspace.

“For my part, I wanted to find a way to tell this wonderful story that would be novel, engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

“I only had one wish: that we did a production that did not feature fairies sporting wings – a representation that, to me, just seemed old-fashioned and, frankly, tired.

“As we worked on the concept, we found that The Factory setting allowed us to see the show in a new, compelling light and truly evoked its spirit and themes. The elements of this “translation” easily and happily fell into place and now, six months later, here we are!

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the intersecting stories of three groups of characters – Fairies, Lovers and Rustics – and its traditional locale is that of a forest, the domain of Oberon, the Fairy King. (You can hear the Act 1 “Welcome, Wanderer” duet with Puck and Oberon, played by countertenor David Daniels, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“In our production, the proverbial forest becomes The Factory, where our Oberon, inspired by Andy Warhol (below, in a photo from the Andy Warhol Museum), rules the roost. He oversees his world – his art, his business, and “his people.” He is part participant in his own story, as he plots to get even with Tytania, his queen and with whom he is at odds; and part voyeur-meddler, as he attempts to engineer the realignment of affections among the Lovers.

“Tytania, in our production, is loosely modeled on Warhol’s muse, Edie Sedgwick (below top), and Puck resembles Ondine (below bottom), one of the Warhol Superstars.

The Fairies become young women in the fashion or entertainment industries, regulars at The Factory; the Lovers, people who are employed there; and the Rustics, or “Rude Mechanicals,” blue-collar workers by day, who come together after hours to form an avant-garde theater troupe seeking their 15 minutes of fame.

“For all these people, The Factory (below, in a photo by Nat Finkelstein) is the center of the universe.  They all gravitate there and finally assemble for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta – in this setting, a rich art collector and his trophy girlfriend.

“Magic is an important element in Midsummer. In the realm of the fairies, Oberon makes frequent use of magical herbs and potions to achieve his objectives. In the celebrity art world of mid-1960s New York City, those translate into recreational drugs.

“The people who work in and gather at The Factory are also are involved in what could be called a type of magic – making art and surrounding themselves in it. They take photographs, create silk screen images, hang and arrange Pop art, and party at The Factory.

“Not only does this world of creative magic provide us with a beautiful way to tell the story of Midsummer, but it also becomes a metaphor for the “theatrical magic” created by Shakespeare and Britten, and integral to every production.

“We hope you enjoy taking this journey with us, seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in perhaps a new way that will entertain and delight your senses and, perhaps, challenge your brain a bit.”

 


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Classical music: The Madison Opera performs Verdi’s popular “La Traviata” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall

October 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Opera opens its 59th season with a traditional production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” (The Lost One), one of the most popular operas in history.

According to the website www.operasense.com — specifically at https://www.operasense.com/most-popular-operas/ — it has been the most performed opera in the world, beating out such perennial favorites as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Puccini’s “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” and Bizet’s “Carmen.” (Below are photos by Matthew Staver from the production by Opera Colorado in Denver, which features the same sets and costumes that will be used in the production by Madison Opera.)

Performances in Overture Hall are this Friday night, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 3 at 2:30 p.m. The opera will be sung in Italian with projected supertitles in English. The running time, with two intermissions, is 2 hours and 45 minutes.

PRE-OPERA TALKS are on Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center. One hour prior to performances, general director Kathryn Smith will give an entertaining and informative talk about “La Traviata.” The talks are free to ticket holders.

POST-OPERA Q&A’s are on Friday and Sunday and will also take place in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center. Audience members can join general director Kathryn Smith immediately after the performance to ask questions about what they have just seen. The sessions are free to ticket holders.

Tickets are $18-$135 with student and group discounts available. For information about tickets, the production and the cast, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org

Set in mid-19th century Paris, “La Traviata” tells of Violetta, a courtesan who tries to follow her heart. But societal pressures force her to leave the man she loves, and an incurable illness takes care of the rest.

Glittering parties contrast with quiet desperation, and ravishing music underscores all-consuming emotions.

“Only a few operas ever achieve a truly beloved status — and “La Traviata” is one of them,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). For being over 150 years old, its story is quite modern: a young woman trying to overcome the limitations that society has placed on her because of her class and gender, searching for happiness yet willing to make sacrifices.

“Plus it is full of very famous music, from the ‘Brindisi’ to ‘Sempre Libera’ and more,” Smith adds. “It’s always a pleasure to have a new generation discover this work, and to share it with opera omnivores who know it well.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing Violetta’s signature aria “Sempre libera” (Always Free) at the Royal Opera House in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“La Traviata” is based on the play and novel “La Dame aux Camélias” (The Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas the son (below top), which were in turn based on his real-life relationship with the courtesan Marie Duplessis (below bottom), who died in 1847 of consumption.

The play was an instant hit when it premiered in Paris in 1852, and Verdi (below) turned it into an opera the following year.

While the first production of the opera was not a success, due to the poor singing of two cast members and the physical unsuitability of one singer, its second production was acclaimed, and the opera swiftly became one of the most performed operas in the world, a status it has not lost.

Both the opera and the play have inspired countless films, including “Camille” (with Greta Garbo), “Pretty Woman” (with Julia Roberts) and “Moulin Rouge” (with Nicole Kidman).

Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) says: “”La Traviata” has been a part of my artistic life since the very beginning of my career – it’s one of the reasons I so wanted to conduct opera. The heartfelt and tragic story of a love that was cut short by both health and cultural circumstances is still deeply moving today.

“The role of Violetta is a tour-de-force that ranges from high-flying coloratura to dramatic vocalism, with a strongly-etched character. I love this opera so deeply and look forward to conducting it for our audience.”

Returning to Madison Opera as Violetta is Cecilia Violetta Lopez (she played Carmen in Madison), whom The Washington Post reviewer called “as compelling a Violetta as I’ve seen.”

Mackenzie Whitney  (below, who appeared in “Florencia en el Amazonas” for the Madison Opera) returns as Alfredo, the young man for whom she sacrifices everything.

Weston Hurt (below) debuts with Madison Opera as Alfredo’s father Germont, whose disapproval of his son’s relationship with Violetta has tragic consequences.

Madison Opera’s Studio Artists are featured: Kirsten Larson as Flora, Emily Secor as Annina, Benjamin Hopkins as Gastone, and Stephen Hobe as the Marquis d’Obigny.

Rounding out the cast are Benjamin Sieverding (Romeo and Juliet) as Dr. Grenvil and Benjamin Major in his Madison Opera debut as Baron Douphol.

Fenton Lamb (below) directs this traditional production in her Madison Opera debut.

Maestro John DeMain conducts the singers, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The Madison Opera’s production of “La Traviata” is sponsored by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, Bert and Diane Adams, Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Chun Lin, Patricia and Stephen Lucas, Millie and Marshall Osborn, Kato and David Perlman, the Wallach Family, Helen Wineke, Capitol Lakes, and the Wisconsin Arts Board.


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Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


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Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma goes to NPR to perform and talk about spending 58 years learning and playing Bach

August 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma has just recorded the six suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach for the third time.

Ma, now 62, started learning them when he was four years old.

Over so many years, his approach has changed. He says he finds new things in the music as he himself changes and matures, much the way you see different things in the same novel you read at 18 and then again at 55 after you have experienced more of life.

That’s why Ma calls his latest recording “Six Evolutions.” And truth be told, to The Ear his interpretations seem lighter, dancier and more up-tempo while his earlier readings seemed heavier, sometimes even gooey thick.

Anyway, the cellist (below), who has won 19 Grammy Awards and has often performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, recently stopped by the studios of National Public Radio (NPR) for a Tiny Desk Concert.

He played three movements, and he talked about his long experience with playing and learning and exploring Bach to students, who loved him.

It is well worth listening to.

Here is a link: https://www.npr.org/2018/08/16/639206471/yo-yo-ma-tiny-desk-concert

What do you think?

Do you have an opinion about Ma’s current readings of solo Bach versus his past ones?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Here is what happened when the late American writer Philip Roth heard fugues by Bach and Beethoven. What do you think of his reactions?

May 31, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The late, great and award-winning American novelist Philip Roth (below) – who died of congestive heart failure in a Manhattan hospital on May 22 at age 85 – spent the last half-dozen years of his life retired and not writing.

Instead he liked to visit friends and attend concerts.

Roth was an avid fan of classical music.

So the following story about a chamber music concert by the Emerson String Quartet (below) – one of his favorite chamber music ensembles — of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Dmitri Shostakovich is especially amusing and perhaps telling to read.

What seems especially Rothian are his different reactions to fugues by Bach (below top is an unfinished manuscript page from Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”) and by Beethoven (below bottom is a manuscript page from the “Grosse Fuge”).

Here is a link to the story as recounted on the blog by the famous New York City classical music radio station WQXR-FM — and be sure to read the comments by other readers:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/what-roth-thought-bach

You can hear the Emerson Quartet playing the opening fugal theme that Bach chose to permute for almost 90 minutes, followed by Fugue No. 9, in the YouTube videos at the bottom.

What do you think of Roth’s reactions and comments to fugues by Bach and Beethoven?

Do you agree or disagree with him?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This Saturday’s CAN’T MISS, MUST-HEAR Bach Around the Clock 5 is new and improved with something for everyone who loves the music of Johann Sebastian

March 9, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

How do you like your Bach?

No matter how you answer, it is just about certain that you will find it at this Saturday’s marathon Bach Around the Clock 5, which is even more impressive this year than last year, which was plenty successful.

BATC 5 is a community birthday celebration of the life and music of Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach (below) – for many, The Big Bang of classical music — who turns 333 this month.

BATC 5 will take place this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below) at 1833 Regent Street, on Madison’s near west side.

NOTE: If you can’t make it in person, the entire event will be streamed live, as it was last year, from the church via a link on the BATC web page.

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com/live-stream/

But also – new this year – you can listen via streaming from the web site of Early Music America, which also awarded the event one of only five $500 grants in the entire U.S.

https://www.earlymusicamerica.org

For all 12 hours, BATC 5 is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. Those who attend are also encouraged to be informal in dress and behavior – to come in and listen, then leave and came back again – in short, to wander in and out as they want to or need to.

To The Ear, the event has been improved in just about every way you can think of.

Do you like to hear professional performers? Amateurs? Students? You will find lots of all of them. (Below are the Sonora Suzuki Strings of Madison.)

Do you like your Bach on period instruments, such as the harpsichord and the recorder, using historically informed performance practices? BATC 5 has that.

Do you like your Bach on modern instruments like the piano? BATC has that too. (Below is Tim Adrianson of Madison who will play the Partita No. 5 in G Major this year.)

Do you like more familiar works? There will be the Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in D minor, the Concerto for Two Violins and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. (Last year saw Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 3 and 5, and BATC director Marika Fischer Hoyt says her plans call for the one-day festival to work its way through all six Brandenburgs before repeating any.) You can hear the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Do you like less familiar works to expand your horizon? There will be lots of those too.

Do you prefer Bach’s vocal and choral writing? BATC has lots of it, including the famous Cantata No. 140 (“Wachet auf”) performed by UW baritone Paul Rowe (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) and his students from the UW’s Mead Witter School of Music, plus two solo cantatas. The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will also sing.

Do you prefer Bach’s instrumental music? BATC has that in abundance, from solo pieces like a Cello Suite to chamber music such as an Organ Trio Sonata and larger ensembles.

Do you like the original versions? No problem. BATC has them.

Do you like novel or modern arrangements and transcriptions of Bach’s universal music? BATC has them too.

Concerned about how long the event is?

You might want to bring along a cushion to soften a long sit on hard pews.

Plus, there is more food and more refreshments this year, thanks to donations from Classen’s Bakery, HyVee, Trader Joe’s and the Willy Street Co-op.

There are more performers, up from 80 last year to about 200. And they include a pianist who is the official Guest Artist Lawrence Quinnett (below) and is coming all the way from North Carolina, where he teaches at a college, to perform two half-hour segments of Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II.

Here is a link to Quinnett’s own web site:

http://www.lawrencequinnett.com

But familiar faces and voices from the UW-Madison and other groups in the Madison area will also be returning to perform.

Also new this year is a back-up group for concertos and accompaniment.

Some features have been carried over, including mini-interviews with performers conducted by hosts, including Stephanie Elkins (below top) of Wisconsin Public Radio and Marika Fischer Hoyt herself (below bottom, with flutist Casey Oelkers, on the left, who works for the Madison Symphony Orchestra)


But The Ear is also impressed by how little repetition in repertoire there is from last year. So far, each year feels pretty much new and different, and the newly designated non-profit organization, with its newly formed board of directors, is working hard to keep it that way.

What more is there to say?

Only that you and all lovers of classical music should be there are some point – or even more than one.

Here is a link to the BATC general web site, with lots of information including how to support this community event — which, for the sake of full disclosure, The Ear does:

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com

And here is a link to the full schedule that you can print out and use as a guide. It also has last year’s schedule for performers and pieces that you can use for purposes of comparison:

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com/concert-schedule/

Let the music begin!

See you there!


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Classical music: More cold and snow are on the way today. Has any composer captured arctic austerity better than Debussy?

January 14, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Looks like more severe cold is on the way later tonight and tomorrow, this time accompanied by one to three inches of snow.

The Ear is sure a lot of readers know of and can suggest music that expresses such a wintry mood.

So far, the best and most haunting interpretation he has heard is “Footprints in the Snow” (Des pas dans la neige) by the French musical Impressionist Claude Debussy (below). It is the sixth of 12 in Debussy’s Preludes, Book 1.

A lot of versions by very famous pianists exist and can be found on YouTube.

But the moodiest ones that really attract the Ear are the slowest ones that imitate the motionlessness of severe cold and the austerity of snow – amounting to a kind of stasis or suspended animation. It can almost seem like Minimalism ahead of its time.

The best reading is done by the great Italian master Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (below), who follows the composer’s tempo instructions of “slow and sad” very literally. It reminds him of the title of the first novel by the American writer Ann Beattie: “Chilly Scenes of Winter.” You can feel the sense of absence and frozen mystery.

Take a listen and tell us what you think or if you have other suggestions.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Despite overly traditional staging, the Madison Opera’s “Carmen” beguiled and bewitched through the outstanding singing

November 7, 2017
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy attended Sunday’s sold-out performance of “Carmen” by the Madison Opera and filed the following review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

When I learned that Madison Opera was going to produce Bizet‘s “Carmen,” I was not surprised. It is annually one of the most frequently performed operas internationally, and it is a surefire vehicle for filling seats. It is safe.

On the other hand, once one watches repeated performances of an old favorite, the appeal can diminish. One advantage of an opera is that novel approaches to the production can prevent a warhorse from becoming stale.

I would love to say that the approach both musically and dramatically to this production of “Carmen” broke new ground, but it did not. In fact, the production was as traditional as could be. (Below is the main set, rented from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I attended a performance of “Carmen” in Tucson a couple of years ago, and the conductor Keitaro Harada breathed new life into the familiar music through interesting tempi and finely nuanced dynamics.

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo  by Prasad) conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a perfectly fine and occasionally uplifting manner, but there was little new to learn from his approach. The purely instrumental entr’actes shimmered, but during the rest of the opera the singing was at the forefront.

Maestro Harada (below), whom Madison should be actively courting, is currently conducting “Carmen” in Sofia, and the accompanying publicity clip in the YouTube video at the bottom (bear with the Bulgarian commentary) shows that the production is unconventional in its approach although it clearly is still “Carmen.” I would have enjoyed something other than the ultra-traditional staging and sets experienced here in Madison.

At times the production was so hackneyed and hokey that I chuckled to myself – ersatz flamenco dancing, the fluttering of fans, all of the cigarette factory girls with cigarettes dangling from their lips, unconvincing fight scenes, annoying children running across the stage, dreary costumes that hardly reminded me of Seville. And I could go on.

Yet “Carmen” has a way of drawing one in despite oneself. The music is marvelous, and the singing was uniformly excellent.

The four principals were luminous both in their solo pieces and ensembles. Cecelia Violetta López as Micaëla (below right) was lustrous in her two arias as well as in her duet with Sean Panikkar’s Don José (below left).

Panikkar started the performance off with little flair, but from the time he became besotted with Carmen toward the end of the first act he was on fire. He then maintained a high degree of passion and zest in his vocal performance.

Corey Crider (below right) was a wonderful Escamillo, singing his toréador role with great élan despite his unfortunate costumes.

And Aleks Romano (below) as Carmen made the most of her complex character. Her singing was luscious, and her acting – particularly her use of her expressive eyes – was terrific.

Likewise, the lesser roles – Thomas Forde as Zuniga, Benjamin Liupaogo as Remendado, Erik Earl Larson as Dancaïre, a radiant Anna Polum as Fransquita, and Megan Le Romero as Mercédès – were equally well sung. The ensemble work in the quintet at the end of Act II and in the card scene was outstanding.

The chorus (below) sounded terrific throughout, although the women’s costumes and the stage direction made the choristers appear ludicrous as times.

When all is said and done, “Carmen” still beguiled me by drawing me into its characters’ complex psychologies and motivations. Likewise, its music still bewitched me in much the same way as Carmen inexplicably bewitched hapless Don José (below).

But I seem to always wish for more – more compelling productions, more daring music making, more risk-taking.

I do look forward to this coming spring’s production of “Florencia en el Amazonas.” The recording is captivating, and the opera’s performances have pleased a wide variety of audiences by all accounts. And it is something new. Hallelujah!

Did you go to “Carmen”? 

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


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