The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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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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Classical music: Sunday afternoon the Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform  “Sing To Me a Love Song” featuring the “Liebeslieder” Waltzes by Johannes Brahms

February 7, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

With Valentine’s Day coming up, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will present an afternoon of love songs including Johannes Brahms’ beloved Liebeslieder Waltzes (Set 1), sung in German. (You can hear the opening waltz in the YouTube vide at the bottom)

The program “Sing Me a Song of Love” is filled with various music styles  and sizes of ensembles. The intimate concert is a chance to hear a wide variety of music composed by Brahms, Samuel Barber, Gaetano Donizetti, Leo Delibes, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz and others.

The concert takes place this Sunday afternoon, Feb. 10, 2019, at 3 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium (below), 900 University Bay Drive.

Advance tickets for the performance are available for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or from a member of the choir.

Brahms’ Liebeslieder (Love Songs) explore various aspects of love, both pleasant and painful, set to an accompaniment of a piano duet played by Mark Brampton Smith (below top) and Sherri Hansen (below bottom).

The remainder of the program features solos, duets and small ensembles sung by talented soloists from the choir including tenor Chris Eggers (below top), contralto Natalie Falconer (below second), soprano Julie Hutchinson (below third), mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below bottom), and many other performers.

A mix of classical music and musical theater selections balance out the program, including the sumptuous “Flower Duet” from Lakmé, the opera aria Una furtiva lagrima from The Elixir of Love, and entertaining musical theater selections such as The Miller’s Son (A Little Night Music) and All I Care About Is Love (Chicago).

Immediately following the event, audience members are invited to join the singers for a reception with complimentary hors d’oeuvres, wine and chocolates.


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Classical music: Prize-winning composer John Harbison has turned 80. In February, Madison will see many celebrations of his birthday, starting this Friday night with the Imani Winds

January 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night, Feb. 1, a month-long celebration in Madison of the 80th birthday of critically acclaimed and prize-winning composer John Harbison (below) gets underway.

The festivities start with a concert by the Grammy-nominated Imani Winds (below), which will perform this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. – with a pre-concert lecture at 6 p.m. — in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. The program includes Harbison’s popular Wind Quintet.

Here is a link with more information about the group, the program and tickets: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/imani-winds/

Among America’s most distinguished artistic figures, Harbison is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them a MacArthur ”genius grant’ and a Pulitzer Prize. His work encompasses all genres, from chamber music to opera, sacred to secular. (You can hear Harbison discuss his approach to composing in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

He has composed for most of America’s premiere musical institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera, the symphony orchestras of Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle and New York; and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

Institute Professor at MIT, Harbison serves as composer, conductor, performer, teacher and scholar. He divides his time between Cambridge, Mass., and Token Creek, Wis., where he co-founded and co-directs a summer chamber music festival with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison.

Other local birthday events include a performance by the Madison Symphony Orchestra; several chamber music and choral concerts at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, including one by the Mosaic Chamber Players; an exhibition of books and manuscripts at the Mills Music Library at UW-Madison’s Memorial Library.

There are also several concerts, including the world premiere of a new Sonata for Viola, and a composer residency at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music; and the world premiere of a new motet by the Madison Choral Project.

Harbison will also be featured in radio interviews and broadcast retrospectives by both Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT community radio.

National and international celebrations include other world premieres of commissions, many new recordings and the publication of Harbison’s autobiographical book about Johann Sebastian Bach, “What Do We Make of Bach?”

For more details about the many local celebrations, you can go to the following two links. Schedules, programs and updates – events are subject to change — will be posted at www.tokencreekfestival.org and www.johnharbison.com.

To receive “Harbison Occasions,” an intermittent e-newsletter, write to arsnova.artsmanagement@gmail.com


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Classical music: The Met’s new music director is openly gay – here is why that’s good. Saturday on Wisconsin Public Radio, he conducts Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” with local singer Kyle Ketelsen. Read a rave review

January 18, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, Jan. 19, starting at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio,  you can hear the Metropolitan Opera’s acclaimed new production of Claude Debussy’s only opera “Pelléas et Mélisande” (below, in a photo by Ken Howard for the Met).

The orchestra will be led by the French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is the new music director of the Met and also received critical acclaim for his production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” earlier this season.

The production also stars local bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen – who lives in the Madison suburb of Sun Prairie – in a major male role.

Here are two stories that pertain to the production that might interest local readers.

One is a rave review by The New York Times’ senior critic Anthony Tommasini, who singles out Ketelsen (below) for praise. Ketelsen last sang here in December during the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas program. Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/16/arts/music/review-pelleas-et-melisande-met-opera.html

Another interesting angle to this Saturday’s production is that Nézet-Séguin is openly gay and agreed to a joint interview with his longtime partner and fellow musician Pierre Tourville (below left and right, respectively, in a photo by Jeenah Moon for the Times) at a famous gay bar in Manhattan.

It is interesting in Zachary Woolfe’s story to see why the two men see the issue of sexuality as socially and artistically relevant.

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/15/arts/music/yannick-nezet-seguin-met-opera-gay.html

Finally, here is YouTube video of a preview of the production, given by Nézet-Séguin:


Classical music: WQXR names the best classical recording of 2018. Plus, here are other guides to help you use gift cards

January 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is another gift list that The Ear just found. Even though it was compiled before the holiday, he looked for it but didn’t find it.

It’s another of the top classical recordings of 2018. But this time, the list – with plenty of sound samples — comes from WQXR, the famed classical music radio station in New York City.

It may be too late to use for holiday gift giving – unless it is for yourself. After all, there are a lot of gift cards waiting to be redeemed.

Also below are several other lists so that you can cross-check and compare. The CD of Chopin ballades and nocturnes by Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (below), for example, makes almost all the lists, which is a good sign of quality. (You can hear Andsnes play the Ballade No. 4, The Ear’s favorite, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Here is the link to WQXR:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/best-classical-releases-2018/

Here is a link to the top picks by critics for The New York Times and the Top 10 for National Public Radio (NPR):

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/22/classical-music-gift-guide-or-gift-or-both-critics-for-the-new-york-times-name-their-top-25-classical-recordings-of-2018-so-does-national-public-radio-npr/

And here are the nominations for the 2019 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/classical-music-here-are-the-just-announced-grammy-nominations-for-2019-they-can-serve-as-a-great-holiday-gift-guide/


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Classical music: We should hear more operas sung in English translation – like Wisconsin Public Radio’s live broadcast TODAY at noon of the Metropolitan Opera’s shortened version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”

December 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear thinks that we in English-speaking countries should hear more operas sung in our native language.

Yes, sung in English – not the original Italian, French or German.

You can see how you’d like it for yourself if you listen at noon TODAY– Saturday, Dec. 29 — to Wisconsin Public Radio. That’s when you can hear the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of its family-friendly production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

The Ear did so and – except for deleting the wonderful overture — loved it.

So, apparently, did a lot others. (You can hear Nathan Gunn in a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

After many years, the production has now become a holiday tradition for the Met to offer children while school is out for the holidays.

And one suspects it is developing new audiences – especially with the colorful staging and costumes by Julie Taymor, who won such acclaim for her staging of “The Lion King” on both the stage and film.

Sure, a lot of purists will probably object to substituting English for the original Italian, French, German and Russian. But it is so freeing and feels so good to understand what you are hearing without the distraction of constantly going back and forth trying to look at both the supertitles and the stage.

It also seems worth a try, given the problems that many opera companies are having competing with the “Live from the Met in HD” productions that you can see in movie theaters for far less money, and the decline of both season subscribers and single tickets.

To be honest, of course even in English you will miss some of the words. That’s the nature of singing. But excellent diction helps. And if you are lucky enough to see the production in person, supertitles in Italian, French German and Spanish and, yes, English are still provided.

It is not a completely new idea. After all, Great Britain has the English National Opera, which performs standard operas by Verdi and Puccini, Monteverdi and Handel, Mozart and Wagner, in English. So, many of the very great operas have already been translated into English and could be staged in English elsewhere.

Here are links where you can learn more about the English National Opera:

https://www.eno.org

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_National_Opera

Do you question how the text is hurt in translation?

It’s worth remembering that Mozart himself used the vernacular German instead of his usual opera house Italian so that he would reach the general public. Why not do the same today? Translation could make opera much more accessible, less pretentious and more populist.

The same is true for cutting the show down to 100 minutes from almost 3 hours. Let’s just admit that the attention span of the general public is much shorter than it used to be.

Orchestra and chamber music concerts as well as solo recitals are trimming their running times often down to 90 minutes or less, and meet with great approval from the public. Why not try the same approach with opera? Indeed, both the Madison Opera and the University Opera have limited but successful experiences with editing operas and using English.

It is also worth recalling that in translation we read greater words than an opera libretto. If we can translate Homer and Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Proust, why can’t we translate opera librettos? One just has to be sure to find a great translator with a sensitive musical ear– such as American poet Richard Wilbur is with his award-winning, rhyming translations of Moliere’s comedies and Racine’s tragedies. Similarly, American poet J.D. McClatchy has done a fine job with The Met’s “Magic Flute.”

Here is a link to more information about the production, including a synopsis:

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/the-magic-flute/

And here is a review of the Met’s  “Magic Flute” by Tommasini:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/arts/music/review-mozart-magic-flute-met-opera.html

What do you think?

Should more operas be staged in English?

Should long operas be edited?

Why or why not?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Gift guide or gift or both? Critics for The New York Times name their top classical recordings of 2018, and so does National Public Radio (NPR)

December 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is “Panic Saturday” — another, newer theme day on the commerce-driven Holiday Consumer Calendar that goes along with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber-Monday and Giving Tuesday. 

In past years, by this time many media outlets would publish the list of the top classical recordings of the past year. And The Ear has offered them as holiday shopping guides with links to the lists.

They seem to be running late this year, probably too late for many shoppers.

But recently the team of critics for The New York Times named their Top 25 classical recordings of 2018 that run from the 15th century to today (sample album covers are below).

This time, the website didn’t just reproduce something that first appeared in the printed edition. And something more than small snippets or excerpts are offered.

This time, the newspaper took full advantage of the electronic possibility of the web and used streaming to add hours of sound samples — some as long as 40 minutes – so you can see what you think of the recordings before you buy them. (Be sure to look at reader reactions and comments.)

It is a new and innovative way to do a Top 25 list – very appealing or entertaining as well as informative. Even if you don’t use it to buy anything for others or yourself, it can provide many minutes of listening pleasure. You can think of it as a gift guide or a gift or both.

Of course, there are also the usual short and very readable, to-the-point narratives or explanations about why the recording stands out and what makes it great music, a great performance or a great interpretation.

So there is a lot to listen to and help you make up your mind. The Ear has enjoyed it and found it helpful, and hopes you do too, whether you agree or disagree with the choice:

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/arts/music/best-classical-music-tracks-2018.html

Since this is the last weekend for holiday shopping before Christmas, here is the previous list – notice the duplications in the two lists — posted here, which was of the nominations for the upcoming 2019 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/classical-music-here-are-the-just-announced-grammy-nominations-for-2019-they-can-serve-as-a-great-holiday-gift-guide/

And here is the Top 10 list, which was chosen by the always discerning Tom Huizenga (below) — who explains the reasons for his choices — and which also offers generous sound samples, from National Public Radio (NPR) and its Deceptive Cadence blog. Also look for duplications:

https://www.npr.org/2018/12/18/677776208/npr-musics-best-classical-albums-of-2018

What recordings would you suggest? 

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Live radio broadcasts of opera from The Met start today at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio. And superstar Plácido Domingo marks his 50th year at the Met.

December 1, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today at noon, the Metropolitan Opera starts its 88th season of Live Broadcasts From the Met.

Locally, the performance today, like all of them, airs on Wisconsin Public Radio. The new season, which starts with Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofole,” continues through May 11.

Here is a list to the title of the entire season: https://www.wpr.org/metropolitan-opera-begins-its-88th-season

It also seems like a perfect time to mark a milestone at the Met: The 50th anniversary of the Met debut of superstar tenor Plácido Domingo (below) who is still singing, now as a baritone, at the age of 77.

Here is a link to his impressive biography on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plácido_Domingo

Here is a link to an account, appreciation and review of the event last week, celebrated with Domingo’s appearance in Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” below center, in a photo by Sara Krulwich for the New York Times) in The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/25/arts/music/review-placido-domingo-met-opera-trittico-puccini.html

Here is The Met’s general manager Peter Gelb (left) giving a piece of the Met’s stage to Domingo to mark his golden anniversary:

Finally, here is a YouTube video of the Met’s celebration of Domingo:


Classical music: This weekend also brings holiday brass music, string music and new chamber music with voice to the UW. Plus, live radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera start this Saturday on Wisconsin Public Radio

November 30, 2018
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ALERT: This Saturday, Dec. 1, sees the start of the “Live From the Met” opera broadcasts on Wisconsin Public Radio with Arrigo Boito’s opera “Mefistofole.” The weekly series, now in its 88th year, will continue through May 11. Starting time is usually noon. Here is a link to the radio broadcast season: https://www.wpr.org/metropolitan-opera-begins-its-88th-season

By Jacob Stockinger

As usually happens towards the end of the semester, concerts are backing up, especially on the weekends.

Yesterday, information about the two performances of the annual UW-Madison Winter Choral Concert on Sunday afternoon was posted. Here is a link: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/11/29/classical-music-two-performances-of-the-uw-madisons-popular-winter-choral-concert-takes-place-this-sunday-afternoon/

But much more is going on.

Take a look and listen:

SATURDAY

Non-music majors, take heart. If you attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, you can still play and perform while pursuing other studies.

At 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the All-University Strings (AUS) will perform a FREE concert that is open to the public.

The group (below, in a photo by Jeff Miller for the UW-Madison) is comprised of two non-major string orchestras (named Orchestra One and Orchestra Too), and is open to all interested string players. No audition is required, seating order is voluntary, and there is no ranking within the sections.

The AUS program endeavors to be a true learning community, serving students from virtually every department and major with the goal of nurturing lifelong engagement in music and the arts.

Pedro Oviedo is the conductor, and the guest artists are The Hunt Quartet. (The string quartet is made up of graduate students at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music: Chang En Lu and Ava Shadmani, violins; Fabio Saggin, viola; and Alex Chambers-Ozasky, cello. They will be joined by Max Herteen, double bass.)

The appealing program includes:

Norman Leyden: Serenade for Strings

Karl Jenkins: Allegretto from “Palladio” (A neo-Baroque piece you might recognize from a De Beers “Diamonds Are Forever” ad. Listen to it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Eric WhitacreOctober

Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel: “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition

Astor PiazzollaLa muerte del angel (The Death of the Angel)

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Concerto Grosso

SUNDAY

At 12:30 p.m. the UW Horn Choir (below) will present its annual holiday concert at the Chazen Music of Art as part of the Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen series.

The FREE and public concert, directed and conducted by horn Professor Daniel Grabois, takes place in Brittingham Gallery No. 3.

The event will also be streamed live. Here is a link to the streaming portal as well as information about the program, which includes Bach and Mahler, the players and how to reserve seats:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/about/news/in-the-news/sunday-afternoon-live-with-the-uw-horn-choir/

At 8 p.m. in Morphy Hall, a FREE concert of chamber music by distinguished guest artists will be held.

The Brooklyn-based soprano-violin duo Cipher Duo (below top, Justine Aronson and Sarah Goldfeather) will team up with cellist Nicholas Photinos(below bottom), a member of the Grammy-winning chamber music ensemble eighth blackbird, for an evening-length performance of both new and reimagined music.

The program will include works by Sarah Goldfeather, Amy Beth Kirsten, David T Little, Dolly Parton and more.

On Monday, the performers will also give public master classes:

The Cello Master Class is Monday, Dec. 3, 12:15-2:15 p.m. in Morphy Hall.

The Violin-Voice Master Class: Monday, Dec. 3, 1:15-3:15 p.m. in Music Hall.

For more information about the program and performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/guest-artists-nicholas-photinos-cello-and-cipher-duo-voice-and-violin/


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Classical music: The international Handel Aria Competition launches a new showcase concert for local high school singers

November 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Handel Aria Competition (below are the 2017 finalists) was established seven years ago to encourage emerging artists ages 18-35 from around the world to perform Handel’s vocal works.

We are pleased to introduce our newest project, the Handel Aria Competition High School Singers Showcase. Our goal with this event is to encourage high school singers in the Madison, Wisconsin area to explore works from George Frideric Handel’s extensive vocal repertoire.

We are inviting local voice teachers to help one or more of their students prepare a Handel aria or duet to be performed at the Handel Aria Competition High School Singers Showcase.

This concert, which will be free and open to the public, will take place at Capitol Lakes, 333 West Main Street in downtown Madison, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Piano accompaniment will be provided, and each singer will receive a $100 scholarship towards voice lessons.

Voice teachers with students who might be interested are encouraged to contact Handel Aria Competition Artistic Director Sarah Brailey (below) — herself a winner of the competition and now a graduate student at the UW-Madison — at handelariacompetition@gmail.com for more information. A limited number of performance slots are available on a first-come basis.

PLEASE NOTE: The 7th annual Handel Aria Competition will be Friday night, June 7, 2019 in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. (Below is a soprano Suzanne Karpov, First Prize winner of the 2018 competition. Many other performances from past years are on YouTube.)

Auditions for the competition via YAP Tracker, an online way to audition for opera and vocal competition, will open soon – and the deadline will be April 1, 2019


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