The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Schubertiade last Sunday afternoon explored the influence of Beethoven on Schubert with insight and beauty

February 2, 2020
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ALERT: In early editions of my last post, I mistakenly said that the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform the Verdi Requiem on May 25 and 26. The correct dates are APRIL 25 and 26. The Ear regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most informative and enjoyable events of the Beethoven Year – 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – came early.

It took place last Sunday afternoon in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison.

It was the seventh annual Schubertiade, and its theme was “Schubert and Beethoven: Influences and Homages.” A classic contrast-and-compare examination of two musical giants who lived and worked in Vienna in the early 19th century, the concert took place for almost three hours before a packed house. (Schubert is below top, Beethoven below middle, and the sold-out audience below bottom)

The annual event is organized by co-founders and co-directors UW piano professor Martha Fisher and her pianist husband Bill Lutes (below, greeting the crowd), who also perform frequently, especially as outstandingly sensitive and subtle accompanists.

They make the event, with audience members sitting onstage, look easy and informal. But it takes a lot of hard work.

The two sure know how to choose talent. As usual, all the singers and instrumentalists – UW alumni and faculty members (below) — proved very capable. The concert cohered with consistency.

Nonetheless, The Ear heard highlights worth singling out.

Baritone Michael Roemer (below) sang exceptionally in “An die ferne Geliebte” (To the Distant Beloved) by Beethoven (1770-1827). His voice brought to mind the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the inviting tone and direct delivery of the first song cycle ever composed. It was also the one that inspired the younger Schubert (1797-1828) to compose his own song cycles, and you could hear why.

Soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below right), accompanied by Bill Lutes and cellist Karl Knapp (below center), brought warmth, ease and confidence to the lyrical beauty of “Auf dem Strom” (On the River).

Tenor Daniel O’Dea (below) showed how Schubert’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” – the same Romantic poem made famous in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” – ended up much more lighthearted than the more familiar, serious and intense symphonic version.

Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes, who also sang as well as narrated and accompanied, showed complete blending and tightness in Schubert’s first published composition: “Eight Variations on a French Song.” It was for piano, four-hands – a sociable genre that Schubert favored and wrote a lot of.

Soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below) sang Schubert’s song “Elysium” in which it is unclear whether it is a pastiche or a parody of Beethoven, who remained a mentor until Schubert died at 31. Could that ambiguity point to Schubert’s maturing sense of himself and his own art as compared to Beethoven’s?

One year after Beethoven’s death – Schubert was a pallbearer — Schubert put on his only formal public concert of his own work. That was when he premiered his Piano Trio No. 2, the bravura last movement of which was played by Bill Lutes with cellist Parry Karp and first violinist David Perry (below), of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

Then all four members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) – with violist Sally Chisholm and second violinist Suzanne Beia – played the last two movements of Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, the work that Schubert requested to hear performed as he lay on his death bed in his brother’s Vienna apartment.

Of course there were other moments that pleased and instructed. There was a set of four songs – one coupling sung by mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple (below) — in which the same texts were set to music by both Beethoven and Schubert.

We got to hear Beethoven’s final song, “Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” (Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament).

Then there was the heart-wrenching “Nachthymne” (Hymn to the Night) by Schubert, again beautifully performed by Jamie Rose Guarrine. (You can hear “Hymn to the Night,” sung by Elly Ameling, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So in the end, what were the big lessons, the takeaways from this year’s Schubertiade?

One lesson is that for all his more familiar symphonies and concertos, his string quartets and piano trios, his piano sonatas and his sonatas for cello and violin, Beethoven was also a much more accomplished song composer than the public generally knows.

But for The Ear, the biggest lesson of all is that despite Beethoven’s deep influence, Schubert retained his own special voice, a voice full of unforgettable melodies and harmonies, of lyricism and empathy.

And using a mentor to find, refine and retain one’s own identity is the highest homage any student can pay to a teacher.

 


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Classical music: The 7th annual Schubertiade at the UW-Madison is this Sunday afternoon and will explore the influence of Beethoven on Schubert

January 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, Jan. 26, is the seventh annual UW Schubertiade – named after the evening gatherings of friends (below) where the composer Franz Schubert performed and premiered his own music.

This year’s theme, given that 2020 is the Beethoven Year, is the immense influence that the older Beethoven (below top) 1770-1827) had on the younger Schubert (below bottom, 1797-1828).

The event will begin with a pre-concert lecture by UW-Madison Professor of Musicology Margaret Butler at 2:15 p.m. in the Rehearsal Hall at the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue, next to the Chazen Museum of Art.

Then at 3 p.m. in the 330-seat Collins Recital Hall in the same building, the two-hour concert will take place.

The concert will close with the usual custom. The audience and performers will join in singing “An die Musik” (To Music). (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear it sung by legendary German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and legendary British accompanist Gerald Moore.)

A reception will follow the concert in the main lobby.

For more description of the event plus a complete program and list of performers – who consist of UW-Madison graduates and musicians including soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below top) and mezzo-soprano Alisanne Apple (below middle) as well as the Pro Arte Quartet (below bottom, in a photo by Rick Langer) – go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/our-annual-schubertiade/

At the site, you will also find information about buying tickets – general admission is $20 with free student tickets on the day of the concert is space is available – and about parking.

The event was founded by and continues to be directed by wife-and-husband pianists Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes (below) who also sing, accompany and play works for piano, four hands.

Lutes sent the following introductory remarks: “Ever since Martha and I presented the first of our annual Schubertiades back in January 2014, we’ve looked for ways to keep our all-Schubert birthday parties fresh and interesting for our audience.

“From time to time we contemplated introducing another composer – maybe even switching our allegiance from the immortal Franz to another of our favorites: perhaps a “Schumanniade.”

“This time, with six years of all-Schubert behind us, we thought we would do the obvious and finally unite Schubert with the composer who probably meant more to him than almost any other – Beethoven, whose 250th birthday is being celebrated this year.

“Once Beethoven moved permanently to Vienna at age 22, he soon became famous and eventually was regarded as the greatest of the city’s composers.

“Schubert, who was born in Vienna five years after Beethoven’s arrival, grew up hearing the older master’s works, often at their premieres. As his genius flowered early, Schubert was often challenged and inspired by Beethoven’s music.

“We bring together these two giants who lived in the same city, knew the same people, attended the same musical events, perhaps met or quite possibly didn’t.

“Yet Beethoven’s presence and example guided Schubert in his own road toward the Ultimate Sublime in music. Our concert of “Influences and Homages” features works where the musical, if not the personal, relationship is there for all to hear.”

Lutes also supplied a list of the song titles in English translation:

“Ich liebe dich” – I love you

“Der Atlas” – Atlas

“Auf dem Strom” – On the River

“Der Zufriedene” – The Contented Man

“Der Wachtelschlag” – The Quail’s Cry

“Wonne der Wehmut” – Joy in Melancholy

“Kennst du das Land?” – Do You Know the Land?

“An die ferne Geliebte” – To the Distant Beloved

“An die Freude” – Ode to Joy

“Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” – Scene from Hades

“Elysium”

“Nachthymne” – Hymn to the Night

“Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” – Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament

Have you attended a past Schubertiade (below, in Mills Hall)?

What did you think?

Would you recommend it to others?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra performs its annual gala Christmas concert this weekend and also offers a FREE community carol sing this Saturday morning

December 12, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

As Charles Dickens might say, the Madison Symphony Orchestra knows how to keep Christmas well.

Over many years, “A Madison Symphony Christmas” has become a  popular and major annual kickoff to the holiday season in the Madison area by embracing the season with Christmas classics and new music.

Much of the event’s appeal derives from the diversity and range of the performers. This year it again features the full orchestra plus the Madison Symphony Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs and the Mount Zion Gospel Choir.

In addition, two opera stars who have performed with the Madison Opera — tenor Mackenzie Whitney (below top) and soprano Michelle Johnson (below bottom)– return to the stage for this annual family-friendly tradition. For biographies of the two singers, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/a-madison-symphony-christmas-2019/

MSO principal harpist Johanna Wienholts (below) is a featured soloist in a concerto by George Frideric Handel.

“A Madison Symphony Christmas” takes place in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on this Friday night, Dec. 13, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Dec. 14, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 15, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $19 to $95 with discounts available. See below for details.

NOTE: On this coming Saturday morning, Dec. 14, at 11 a.m., Greg Zelek (below, in a  photo by Peter Rodgers) — the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Organist and Curator of the Overture Concert Organ — leads a FREE Community Carol Sing in Overture Hall. All ages are welcome, and no tickets or reservations are needed. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/free-community-carol-sing-2019/

Music director and conductor John DeMain (below) offers the following preview of the MSO concert:“This is the biggest celebration of the season in Madison and beyond. It has four different choruses and choirs as well as amazing soloists from the orchestra, the world of opera and Broadway.

“The huge Madison Symphony Orchestra will play your favorite Christmas music, and there is a great carol sing-along featuring the Overture Hall organ playing with the MSO. After this concert, you’ll want to celebrate Christmas all year long.”

The program begins with classical styles in the first half, culminating in Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.) The concert climaxes with a Gospel music finale, and a chance for the audience to sing along.

Works to be performed include John Rutter’s version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”; the “Magnificat” by Johann Sebastian Bach; Franz Schubert’s “Wiegenlied” (“Lullaby”); and music by Charles Gounod, J. S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Adolphe Adam, Dan Goeller and Randol Alan Bass.

The older voices of the Madison Youth Choirs (below) are featured in works by composer Stephen Hatfield, including a version of the traditional English “Apple-Tree Wassail.”

The Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) and soloists present of medley of familiar holiday favorites, including “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

Finally, the Mount Zion Gospel Choir (below, in a photo by Bob Rashid) sings arrangements for choir and orchestra by co-director Leotha Stanley, including “The Joy of Christmas,” Stanley’s version of “Silent Night,” and a newly composed song by Stanley, “Christmas Hope.”

CONCERT, TICKET AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. The MSO recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations — and participate in singing carols with the Madison Symphony Chorus that take place in the Overture Hall lobby (below) 45 minutes before the concerts.

Program notes are available online for viewing in advance of the concerts: http://bit.ly/msodec19programnotes

  • Single Tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/a-madison-symphony-christmas-2019/through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 8-10 vouchers for 19-20 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined. 

 


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Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions

November 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experienced Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/28/classical-music-the-madison-opera-performs-verdis-la-traviata-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-in-overture-hall/

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.


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Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players open their new four-concert season this Saturday night with an all-Mozart program

October 10, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed Mosaic Chamber Players (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) will open their new season this coming Saturday night, Oct. 12, at 7:30 p.m. in the older and historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program is all works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below) and includes the following pieces:

The Sonata for Violin and Piano in C Major, K. 303, features violinist Laura Burns, of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Oakwood Chamber Players,  and pianist Jess Salek, who is also the founder and artistic director of the chamber music ensemble.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano in B-Flat Major K. 454, will be performed by violinist Wes Luke, of the Ancora String Quartet and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and pianist Salek.

The energetic Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478, features violinist Laura Burns, violist Wes Luke, pianist Salek and cellist Derek Handley (below), of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can see a graphic depiction of the first movement of the Piano Quartet.)

Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for seniors, and $5 for students. Only checks or cash will be accepted.

A reception will be held after the performance

Here are the concerts and programs – all take place at the First Unitarian Society — for the rest of four-concert season, including two-all Beethoven concerts to mark the Beethoven Year in which the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth will be celebrated.

Friday, Feb. 21, at noon (Free admission)

All-Beethoven (below) String Sonata Program:

Sonata in F Major for Piano and Cello, Op. 5, No. 1

Sonata in E-Flat Major for Piano and Violin, Op. 12, No. 3

Sonata in C minor for Piano and Violin, Op. 30, No. 2

Saturday March 21, at 7:30 p.m. (Tickets required)

All-Prokofiev (below) Program:

Sonata in F minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 80

Sonata in D Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 94a

Sonata in C Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 119

Saturday June 13, 2020 7:30 p.m. (Tickets required)

All-Beethoven Piano Trio Program:

Piano Trio in E-Flat Major, Op. 1, No. 1

Piano Trio in E-Flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2

Piano Trio in G Major, Op. 121a: “Kakadu” Variations

For more information about the group and biographies of the players, go to: http://www.mosaicchamberplayers.com

You can also follow the group on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mosaicchamberplayers/


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Classical music: The Karp family turns in a memorable and moving 40th annual Labor Day concert that also took listeners back in time

September 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you missed the free 40th annual Karp Family Labor Day Concert on Tuesday night in Mills Hall, you missed more than music. You missed the kind of event that makes for long and precious memories.

Sure, you can nitpick the program and the performers, who also included daughter-in-law violist Katrin Talbot (below right) and guest violinist Suzanne Beia (below left), who performs with the Pro Arte Quartet, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

You could ask, for example, which cello transcription worked better – the Violin Sonatina, Op. 100, by Dvorak or the Violin Sonata No. 10, Op. 96, by Beethoven. (The Ear votes for the Dvorak.)

And you could also ask which performer stood out the most. (The Ear thinks that is the great-grandmother and matriarch pianist Frances Karp playing in a Mozart piano quartet. At 90, Frances still possesses beautiful tone, the right volume and balance, and the necessary technical chops. They say there is nowhere to hide in Mozart, but Frances Karp did need any place to hide. Her Mozart was, simply, sublime.)

But, in the end, those kinds of questions and critiques really seem beside the bigger point.

What mattered most was the sheer enjoyment of hearing a family perform live some wonderful music by Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak and Schumann (the passionate Adagio and Allegro in A-flat Major, Op. 70, played by Lynn Harrell in the YouTube video at the bottom).

And what mattered more as The Ear thought about it was the kind of time travel the concert involved.

There were two kinds, really.

One had to do with having watched the various performing Karps – clearly Madison’s First Family of Music – over four decades. It was touching to realize that The Ear has seen cellist Parry Karp, to take one example, evolve from son to husband to father to grandfather. And through it all, the music remained.

In today’s culture of short attention spans, that kind of constancy and persistence — through the inevitable ups and downs of 40 years — is something to celebrate, admire and cherish.

Time travel happened in another way too.

The Ear first watched Frances Karp accompany her son Parry (below top), then watched son Christopher Karp accompany his older brother Parry (below bottom). And it called to mind the days when – before radio or recordings – families made music together in their homes.

Historically, that’s how many great composers and much great music got started. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Felix Mendelssohn played piano duets with their gifted sisters, Nannerl and Fanny, respectively. Jean Sibelius played duets with his sister. And there were surely many more. Hausmusik, or “house music,” played a vital role.

And this is how it felt at the traditional Karp family concert. We felt invited into a loving, close and gifted musical family who were performing as much for each other as for the audience.

We could use more of that.

The musical and the familial mixed so beautifully, so convincingly, that all one can say after the event is “Thank you” with the ardent wish to hear them again next year.


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Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians summer workshops in early music are open to the public. A faculty concert is on Wednesday night and a FREE all-participants concert is on Friday at 12:30 p.m.

July 21, 2019
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REMINDER: Madison Opera’s annual Opera is the Park was cancelled last night because of weather and takes place TONIGHT in Garner Park at 8 p.m. For more information, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/classical-music-madison-operas-annual-free-opera-in-the-park-returns-this-saturday-night-july-20-in-garner-park-and-celebrates-18-years-in-madison-plus-a-glimpse-of-the-upcoming-season/

By Jacob Stockinger

The fifth annual Madison Bach Musicians Summer Chamber Music Workshop (below,  a cello class from last year) will be held from Monday, July 23, to Friday, July 26, at the West Middleton Lutheran Church, 3763 Pioneer Road, in Verona, Wisconsin.

The workshop is chaired by MBM assistant artistic director and baroque violinist Kangwon Kim (below), who says: “I’m excited to welcome 32 participants, our largest number ever, working in nine chamber groups this summer to share a week of intense music-making and learning.

” We will explore wonderful repertoire from the baroque and early classical periods, both familiar and rarely performed, while working intensely in an encouraging community that will support musical growth.”

Harpsichordist JungHae Kim (below top) from San Francisco and baroque violist Micah Behr from Madison will join returning faculty members recorder player Lisette Kielson, cellist Martha Vallon (below bottom), dance instructor Karen McShane-Hellenbrand, and MBM founder, artistic director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson.

Musicians who range in age from 13 to older adulthood will receive personalized ensemble coaching in violin, viola, baroque cello, viola da gamba, piano, fortepiano, harpsichord and recorder. (You can sample the Madison Bach Musicians in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The public is invited to an evening Faculty Concert and various afternoon classes exploring continuo playing, specific instrument master classes, stage presence for musicians, sight-reading, baroque dance, and more.

The Faculty Concert on Wednesday night, July 23, at 7:30 p.m. will feature works by Carl Heinirch Graun (below top), Francesco Turini, Jean-Henri D’Anglebert (below  bottom), Georg Philipp Telemann, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier and Henry Purcell on period instruments. Admission is $15 at the door.

The all-participants final concert of the music from the workshops is on Friday, July 26, at 12:30 p.m. It is FREE and open to the public.

An Auditor’s Pass for afternoon programming for the entire festival — including the Faculty Concert — is $40.

For more information, go to: https://madisonbachmusicians.org/summer-workshop/


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” took listeners on an enchanting and moving voyage into love and fine singing of Puccini-like lyricism

May 1, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I looked forward enough to Madison Opera’s premiere production of Daniel Catán’s Spanish-languageFlorencia en el Amazonas” that I attended both performances at Overture Hall this past weekend.

Based on repeated hearings of the recording and numerous favorable reviews of other productions, I was fairly certain that I would be in for a treat. I was not disappointed.

The action takes place on a boat on the Amazon heading for Manaus where the title character Florenica (below), an opera singer of high repute, is to perform.

Other passengers (below), unaware of her presence onboard, also have the opera house as their destination in order to hear her sing.

Rosalba, her unauthorized biographer, and Paula and Alvaro, a bickering older couple, are joined onboard by the Captain, his nephew Arcadio, and a Puckish character Riolobo, who acts as narrator and supervises the magic in this tale of magical realism.

Below, starting at the top and moving clockwise, are: Kanopy Dancers, Ashraf Sewailam (The Captain), Mackenzie Whitney (Arcadio), Rachel Sterrenberg (Rosalba), Elizabeth Caballero (Florencia Grimaldi), Adriana Zabala (Paula), Levi Hernandez (Alvaro) and Nmon Ford (Riolobo)

The boat (our life) floats along the Amazon (life itself) in this parable of longing, regret, the fickleness of love, love lost and regained, and transformation.

Aiding in the unfolding of the tale are water sprites, referred to at times as Amazons. Six willowy dancers from the Kanopy troupe did not seem particularly Amazonian, but their waving of billowy fabric evoked the river and their retrieving twice from the water careless Rosalba’s precious manuscript added to the magic.

Riolobo and the sprites also bring Alvaro back to life after he appears to drown during a storm.  (We should be attentive to water sprites since Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” which also features these denizens, is on the schedule for next year’s season.)

And, in the end, just when you think that all conflicts have been resolved and love is at hand, the boat reaches Manaus only to find it impossible to make landfall due not only to cholera but also to rabies, scurvy, leprosy and beriberi. Florencia’s transformation into a butterfly (below) ends the voyage.

This odd but magical plot is a vehicle for lush, rhapsodic music by a Mexican composer whose life ended too soon. The orchestral and vocal writing featured soaring melodies, which at times reminded me of Puccini had his life extended further into the 20th century. The orchestral writing continually evokes the river and flowing water, reminding me of music of the Impressionists.

John DeMain ably led the wonderfully sounding Madison Symphony Orchestra.  He once again proved himself to be a master of pacing, tempo and dynamics.

The opera was very evenly cast. Nmon Ford (below top on right), as Riolobo, had a rich baritone voice and an impressive physicality. His transformation at the end of the first act into a feather-clad river spirit (below bottom) was hypnotic.

As Rosalba, Rachel Sterrenberg (below, top right), who made a memorable appearance last season as the wife Chan in “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” was a soprano of great flexibility who rendered her character’s opulent melodic lines with mounting ecstasy. Hers was a thrilling performance.

Her foil, full-voiced tenor Mackenzie Whitney (below, bottom left) as Arcadio, produced some of the most Puccini-like moments of sheer soaring lyricism.

Their duets, including a rather dark anti-love duet, were  highlights of the work. Catán’s writing for mixed voices is inspired, and all of the ensemble numbers – duets, a quintet, a septet – are entrancing.

Baritone Levi Hernandez as Alvaro and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala as his wife, Paula, had moments of bickering and moments of tenderness. His robust vocalization perfectly complemented the creamy richness of hers. Zabala’s second act lament was very touching.

Bass Ashraf Sewailam, in his debut appearance with Madison Opera, produced some of the best singing of the show. He was both profound and lyrical with a total lack of affectation. His acting was subtle, and his outstanding performance demands his return.

Elizabeth Caballero as the diva Florencia Grimaldi was impassioned, focused yet fluid, sumptuous and rapturous. Her ravishing singing, particularly during her metamorphosis — heard in another production in the YouTube video at the bottom — was truly moving.

The set, lighting, projections and costumes were all understated and perfectly blended. The only false step was what appeared to be coffins flying through the air out of Manaus. It took me a moment to realize they were intended to be floating in the river.

The audience seemed enchanted and moved by the opera. I was, too. Let’s have more works like this.


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Classical music: Want to know about Chinese classical music composers in our time? Read this story about the six-day Juilliard festival that starts today

January 19, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Classical music – like everything else in China – has undergone momentous changes over the past few decades.

The importance of Western classical music in contemporary China is not seen only through the construction of new conservatories and opera houses; or through the many outstanding instrumentalists, especially pianists such as Lang Lang, Yundi Li, Haochen Zhang and Sa Chen, who have won prizes in Western competitions and become major performers.

Chinese composers have also left their mark, as the Juilliard School in New York City will prove over six days, starting today, during this year’s “Focus” festival.

One such older composer is Chou Wen Chung (below, in a photo by Andrew Reneissen for The New York Times).

A much younger composer is Chen Lin (below in a photo by Dawes Li).

You will find some but not a lot of their music on YouTube – yet.

But The Ear bets that many of the 33 Juilliard performances will soon find their way to social media.

Anyway, here is a link to the comprehensive preview in The New York Times, which also features some sound and video samples.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/12/arts/music/juilliard-china-music.html


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