The Well-Tempered Ear

TONIGHT at 7:30 the UW-Madison offers free but conflicting online concerts of opera and percussion music

November 24, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight – Tuesday, Nov. 24 – at 7:30 p.m. the University of Wisconsin’s Mead Witter School of Music will offer two FREE but competing events online.

You would think with so many empty spots in the events calendar due to the coronavirus pandemic that such conflicts could be avoided.

In any case, whichever concert you choose to watch – or perhaps to toggle back and forth between the two – here are the details:

OPERA SCENES

The first concert, done by University Opera, is Opera Scenes.

According to the website description: “What was to be Opera Workshop’s Fall Opera Scenes program has morphed in a delightful way.

“This term, each singer undertook an in-depth study of one particular operatic role. We’ll be presenting the fruits of that study – excerpted recitatives and arias from The Coronation of Poppea, Don Giovanni and Orfeo ed Euridice – staged in each student’s adapted habitat, and filmed by the students themselves.”

Here is the program with specifics about the singers and the selections as well as other aspects such as direction and accompaniment:

UW-Madison Opera Workshop: Professors Mimmi Fulmer, Thomas Kasdorf and University Opera head David Ronis (below) are the directors; William Preston and Molly Schumacher are the TAs.

“Batti, batti” and “Vedrai carino” from “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Zerlina: Maria Steigerwald
Directors: Molly Schumacher and David Ronis
Pianist: William Preston

“Chiamo il mio ben così” and “Che farò senza Euridice” from “Orfeo ed Euridice” by Christoph Willibald Gluck

Orfeo: Emily Quartemont
Director: David Ronis
Pianist: Thomas Kasdorf

“Or sai chi l’onore” and “Non mi dir” from “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Donna Anna: Sachie Ueshima
Director: Mimmi Fulmer
Pianist: Thomas Kasdorf

Excerpts from Act I, Scenes 3, 4, and 10 from “L’incoronazione di Poppea”by Claudio Monteverdi. (Below is a photo by Michael R. Anderson of a previous fully staged production in 2018 by University Opera of the Monteverdi opera.)

Poppea: Molly Schumacher
Director: Mimmi Fulmer
Pianist: William Preston

Here is a direct link to the one-hour production: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANcPY9sLGls

UW CHAMBER PERCUSSION ENSEMBLE

Also tonight is a concert by the UW-Madison Chamber Percussion Ensemble (below), directed by Anthony Di Sanza and Thomas Ross.

It takes place in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the Hamel Music Center, and will run from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. No in-person attendance is allowed.

The UW-Madison Chamber Percussion Ensemble is dedicated to the performance of significant and engaging works for the Western percussion ensemble tradition. Repertoire from diverse trends in 20th and 21st century chamber composition is explored with an emphasis on new compositions for percussion.

Here is a direct link to the live-streamed concert, with more information  about the program and the names of the players if you click on “Show More”: https://youtu.be/iZKO8pZmomA

And here is the program of the mostly new music:

Living Room Music (in the times of Covid) (1940) by John Cage and heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.
I. To Begin
II. Story
III. Melody
IV. End

Spanesque Oscillations (2003) by Steve Riley

For High Hats (2017) by Matt McBane

INTERMISSION

Marimbaireachd (1997) by Matthew Welch

The Lonelyness of Santa Clause (1994) by Fredrik Andersson

Metric Lips (1988) by Bela Fleck (arr. Steinquest)


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University Opera’s original online video project celebrates the life and music of American composer Marc Blitzstein. It will be posted for FREE on YouTube this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m.

October 21, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera presents its first project of 2020-21 in video format as it turns to the music of the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” will be released free of charge on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s YouTube channel this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. CDT at the general site www.youtube.com/meadwitterschoolofmusic or the official specific link: https://youtu.be/77FXFZucrWc.

Director of University Opera David Ronis (below top) is the director of the original production and will give introductory remarks. UW-Madison graduate Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) is the musical director. The production lasts 1 hour and 40 minutes, and features four singer-actors, a narrator and a piano.

Marc Blitzstein’s life story parallels some of the most important cultural currents in American history of the mid-20th-century.

Known for his musicals — most notably The Cradle Will Rock in 1937 (you can hear Dawn Upshaw sing the lovely song “I Wish It So” from “Juno” in the YouTube video at the bottom) — his opera Regina and his translation of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Blitzstein was an outspoken proponent of socially engaged art. Like many artists of his time, he joined the American Communist Party. But he also enthusiastically served in the U.S. Army during World War II (below, in 1943).

Nevertheless, in 1958, long after he had given up his Communist Party membership, Blitzstein (below) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he “named no names.”

An extremely gifted yet underappreciated composer, he was a close friend of and mentor to Leonard Bernstein (below right, with Blitzstein on the left) and traveled in a close circle of American composers including David Diamond and Aaron Copland.

Although openly gay, he married Eva Goldbeck in 1933. Sadly, she died three years later from complications due to anorexia.

Blitzstein’s own death was likewise tragic. In 1964, while in Martinique working on an opera about the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, he was robbed and badly beaten by three Portuguese sailors whom he had picked up at a bar. He died the next day of internal injuries. 

Although throughout his life and afterwards, Blitzstein’s work was championed by Bernstein and others, many claim that neither the composer nor his stunning music and beautiful lyrics ever received the attention they deserved. So University Opera is proud to present this show celebrating his life and his works.

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” is a unique production put together by David Ronis. A biographical pastiche, it tells the story of Blitzstein’s life by recontextualizing 23 songs and ensembles from his shows, juxtaposing them with spoken excerpts from his working notes and letters, and tying it all together with a narration.

The result is a dramatic, evocative and enjoyable portrait of Blitzstein’s life and his art, according to Ronis.

“We’ve discovered a lot of “silver linings” while working on this production,” says Ronis. “We were disappointed at not being able to do a normal staged show. But working with video has had tremendous artistic and educational value.

“Our students are learning on-camera technique, not to mention how to work with a green screen (below, with soprano Sarah Brailey), which allows for post-production editing and digital manipulation of backgrounds. They’re also working with spoken text as well as sung pieces. Mostly, we’re just very grateful to have a creative project to sink our teeth into during the pandemic. 

“And the music of Blitzstein is so fantastic, we’re very happy to be able to share it with our audience. This project is like none other I’ve ever done and we’re thinking that it’s going to be pretty cool.”

Research on the project was completed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where Blitzstein’s archives are housed. University Opera gratefully acknowledges the help of both Mary Huelsbeck of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, and the Kurt Weill Foundation for their assistance with this project.

The cast features five UW-Madison graduate students: Sarah Brailey, Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Lindsey Meekhof (below) and Steffen Silvis.

The video design was done by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park.

Others on the production staff include Will Preston, rehearsal pianist; Elisheva Pront, research assistant and assistant director; Dylan Thoren, production stage manager; Alec Hansen, assistant stage manager; Teresa Sarkela, storyboard creator; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video will be accessible for 23 hours starting at 8 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 23. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted. A link for donations will be posted with the video. 

University Opera, a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, email opera@music.wisc.edu or visit music.wisc.edu.

 


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The Madison Opera launches its Digital Fall this Sunday afternoon and Sept. 27 with more to come through December. The cost is $50 per household

September 18, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Opera about its Digital fall season, which will open with an artists’ panel discussion this Sunday afternoon, Sept. 20, and then an original world-premiere production on Sept. 27, a week from this Sunday.

“Although the coronavirus pandemic has closed the Overture Center for the Arts this fall, Madison Opera is not going silent.

“We are creating a fall season that lasts from September through December. It includes both digital content and live performances at the Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, our home in downtown Madison.

“All content will be available to subscribers for at least one month from the “live” date, so you can watch at your leisure, and as often as you wish.”

A Digital Fall subscription is $50 per household. It can be purchased on its own, or as part of a new subscription package. It can be purchased through the link at the bottom.

Here is how it will work: About 48 hours before each event, subscribers will receive an email with the private link to that event.  (You may need to check your spam folder).  If you have not received an email the day before an event, email info@madisonopera.org and we’ll send you the link directly.

The link remains active for one month, so if you cannot watch an event live – or want to re-watch it – you won’t miss out.

Do you miss operatic conversation? Join us online! Opera Up Close is a favorite event for Madison Opera subscribers, usually featuring a discussion of the upcoming opera from a historical context and with cast members.

For our Digital Fall, this conversation is reimagined via technology to discuss broader opera topics, featuring favorite Madison Opera company members, interviewed by Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill).

Opera Up Close Cocktail Hour Discussions take place on Sunday afternoons, 4– 5:30 p.m. Subscribers will have the opportunity to ask questions both in advance and during the talk.

UP CLOSE COCKTAIL HOUR DISCUSSION

This Sunday, Sept. 20, 4-5:30 p.m.

Many singers have debuted at Madison Opera (MO) early in their careers, before going on to sing around the world.

Featured in this discussion are: Kyle Ketelsen of Sun Prairie (below top in a photo by Lawrence Brownlee, MO debut 2000); Emily Fons (below middle, MO debut 2012); and Will Liverman (below bottom, MO debut 2015). Join us for a wide-ranging discussion about their careers, training paths, and much more.

WORLD PREMIERE OF  A SONG CYCLE

Jeni Houser and David Blalock, singers

Saturday, Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m.

Featuring the world premiere of “Keep Moving” by Madison composer and UW-Madison graduate Scott Gendel

Married singers Jeni Houser and David Blalock (below) have a long history with Madison Opera. Jeni was one of our first Studio Artists in 2012, and has returned many times, most recently as Anne in Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

David debuted in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” (2014), and both artists sang at Opera in the Park 2019 (below). This past season, Jeni and David made (separate) Metropolitan Opera debuts, and were slated to sing the leads in Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld ” in Madison last spring, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Wisconsin residents will launch our Live from the Opera Center series in a joint recital, accompanied by principal pianist Scott Gendel (below).

Gendel is also an acclaimed composer, and the recital will feature the world premiere of his song cycle “Keep Moving,” set to poetry by Maggie Smith, which he is writing specifically for Jeni and David. (below, in a photo by David Scott, are all three are rehearsing in the Madison Opera’s Winston Center.)

Here is a link to the initial schedule of events, including a cooperative production of Jean Cocteau’s monologue opera “The Human Voice” with the Austin Opera in Texas, and biographies of various singers and participants.

More events will be added and announced in the coming months.

You will also a find a button to click on to subscribe to the Digital Fall: https://www.madisonopera.org/Fall2020


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Classical music: Fresco Opera of Madison will hold an “aria hunt.” It starts this Friday, Aug. 28, and runs through Sept. 27 with unspecified rewards

August 25, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the board of directors of the always imaginative Fresco Opera Theatre of Madison:

“Fresco Opera is trying to stay alive in the world of the global coronavirus pandemic. So many organizations are going to social media platforms with live streaming.

“We have found that audiences have become numb to this. So Fresco Opera has decided to change the game.

“Our artistic director has created a “geo-caching” opera — similar to a treasure hunt –where the patron goes on an interactive adventure to discover hidden spots in our city. It is accompanied with a recorded story and arias.

“Fresco Opera is pleased to present “Aria Hunt” – an interactive opera experience that will allow you to enjoy beautiful music, while you join in the experience.

“Beginning this Friday, Aug. 28, participants can explore and seek out seven “hidden” locations in the Madison area, which we have paired up with an operatic aria.

“Once you find a location, you will listen to an aria, which will be available on Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music.

“Fresco will provide clues to seek out each of the locations. In addition, a story will accompany you on your quest.

“You are the opera!

“To add to the excitement, we want you to take a “selfie” at each of the locations, to be posted on our social media sites. You will then be eligible for a reward!

“All locations must be discovered to qualify.

“Aria Hunt is the perfect way to end this summer on quite literally a high note! The hunt will run from this Friday, Aug. 28, through Sunday, Sept. 27.

“Here are details and the cast (below) of the Aria Hunt:

“Music Streaming Release Date: August 28th

“Per-Person tickets (or donations) are $8 and are available at www.frescoopera.com

“Singers are: Erin Bryan; Melanie Cain; Diana Eiler; Rachel Eve Holmes; Cat Richmond; Emily Triebold and Thomas Weis

The Writer and Narrator is: Andrew Ravenscroft


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Classical music: The UW Choral Union, UW Symphony Orchestra and guest soloists took the audience on a memorable musical voyage in Ralph Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony”

January 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It took a postponement of almost two months before the UW Choral Union (below) finally got to perform last Saturday night in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center.

But the wait was worth it.

The combined forces – conducted by the retiring choral director Beverly Taylor – proved convincing and accomplished in the challenging score of “A Sea Symphony” by the early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The performers did justice to the score’s vivid sound painting. You could hear the sea wind whistling through the rigging; you could feel the ship plowing through the swells and waves.

The American poet Walt Whitman (below) – whose epic-like poetry provided the text for this ambitious nautical and musical journey – would have been proud of the performance.

After all, like Whitman’s poetry, Vaughn Williams’ music — his first symphony — can be forceful and spacious at many moments, tender and reflective or even intimate at other times. The music matches the text, and the performers matched both.

The forces were precise under Taylor’s baton, with sharp attacks and no ragged stopping. True, there were a few moments when the balance seemed a bit off, when the UW Symphony Orchestra overpowered the large campus and community chorus, especially in the very brassy and thickly scored first movement. You just wanted to hear the words better and felt frustrated not to.

But for the most part, though, the student orchestra proved impressive. They were tight and crisp, accurate and transparent, allowing listeners to hear the inner part playing and even certain modernist harmonies of the generally conservative Vaughan Williams (below).

Moreover, the symphony, the chorus and the soloists blended especially well and movingly in the symphony’s quieter moments.

Those moments included the second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone”; and the quiet, understated ending where the idea of voyage and exploration becomes personal and metaphorical or spiritual as well as literal: “Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me … O my brave soul! O farther, farther sail!”

(You can hear a sample in the hymn-like opening of the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition, the outstanding acoustics of the new hall – where the chorus sits above and behind the orchestra – brought the performance to life even more convincingly.

There were two soloists (below): soprano Chelsie Propst and baritone James Harrington.

Harrington possessed a pleasing tone, but he seemed to be holding back for some reason. He could have projected more confidence and been more energetic or assertive in his delivery. After all, neither Whitman nor Vaughan Williams is shy in this large-scale work.

Curiously, it was the woman soloist, Propst, who roared like the sea, whose big voice easily soared over the orchestra and chorus. Her singing was thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly engaging.

Unfortunately, the very successful concert was not sold out, but the audience proved attentive and very enthusiastic.

This debut performance in the new hall made one look forward all the more to another big piece and big performance by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra, one that will wrap up the season and end Taylor’s long tenure at the UW-Madison: the dramatic and operatic Requiem by Verdi on Saturday and Sunday, April 25 and 26.


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Classical music: The Madison Opera stages its first-ever production of Dvorak’s fairy tale opera “Rusalka” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A preview roundtable is this Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage its production of Antonin Dvorak’s luxurious masterpiece Rusalka on Friday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Running time is 3 hours with two intermissions, and will feature projected supertitles with English translations of the original Czech that will be sung.

Tickets are $18-$131 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

Inspired by the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story travels from a mythical forest to a palace and back again. Its lush score includes the famous “Song to the Moon.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing”Song to the Moon” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in a mythical realm, Rusalka is about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. She tells her father Vodnik that she wishes to become human and live with the Prince on land. Horrified, Vodnik tells her that humans are full of sin, but reluctantly suggests she enlist the help of Jezibaba, a witch. Jezibaba agrees to make her human, but cautions that Rusalka will lose her power of speech. Further, if the Prince betrays her, she will be cursed forever.

The Prince falls in love with Rusalka and plans to marry her, but her silence unnerves him, and a Foreign Princess interrupts the wedding festivities with evil intent. Rusalka returns to the lake as a spirit that lures men to their death – and the Prince follows her.

Rusalka is one of the most gorgeous operas in the repertoire,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with it when I first saw it over 20 years ago, and listening to the score is a pure pleasure. I am so delighted to share this opera with Madison, so that everyone can learn how brilliant an operatic composer Dvorak was, and experience an opera that is justifiably popular around the world.”

Rusalka’s story was inspired by multiple sources, including Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben, Hans Christian Andersen, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

The opera premiered on March 31, 1901 in Prague and quickly became a massive success, hailed as Dvorak’s masterpiece.

But it was not initially widely performed outside of Czech territories; the first U.S. performance was in 1975. But in recent decades, the opera by Dvorak (below) has become a regular part of the opera repertoire, due to its beautiful music and lovely story.

This production is not only a Madison Opera premiere, but also the company’s first-ever opera in Czech.

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Soprano Emily Birsan (below) returns to Madison Opera in the title role, following successes here as Gounod’s Juliet and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Last month, she sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has praised her singing for her “amazing clarity of diction, accuracy of intonation and fineness of expression.”

Tenor John Lindsey (below) returns to Madison Opera as The Prince, after singing in last summer’s Opera in the Park.

Making their debuts with Madison Opera are soprano Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess, contralto Lindsay Amman as the witch Jezibaba and bass William Meinert as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik. Emily SecorSaira Frank and Kirsten Larson play the three wood sprites; Benjamin Liupaogo sings the Hunter.

The Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra round out the musical forces, all under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director.

Keturah Stickann (below) directs her first opera for Madison Opera; she has directed both traditional and contemporary repertoire across all of the U.S., most recently for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera.

This production originated at Minnesota Opera and features projections (below) by Wendall K. Harrington, who has been described as “the godmother of modern projection design.”

In reviewing the Minnesota production, theTwin Cities Arts Reader praised “the stunning visuals on display, which only serve to enhance and elaborate on the action and the music.”

Madison Opera’s production of “Rusalka” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kay & Martin Barrett, Millie & Marshall Osborn, Sally & Mike Miley, Kato Perlman, Charles & Martha Casey, John Lemke & Pam Oliver, and The Ann Stanke Fund.

RELATED EVENTS

You can learn more about “Rusalka” at the events leading up to the performances.

Opera Up Close will take place this Sunday, April 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center (below) 335 West Mifflin Street, $20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers.

This event features a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Rusalka. General director Kathryn Smith will discuss Antonin Dvorak and the history of his fairy-tale opera. Principal artists, stage director Keturah Stickann and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this masterpiece.

Pre-Show Talks by Kathryn Smith take place on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

Post-Opera Q&A’s are on Friday, April 26, and Sunday, April 28, immediately following the opera in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

More information — including cast biographies and a blog with Q&A interviews with some cast members — is available at https://www.madisonopera.org and https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/rusalka/.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
2 Comments

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

By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


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Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians, with dancers and guest vocal soloists, will perform a tragic Purcell opera and comic Bach cantata this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

April 2, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger’

This coming weekend the Madison Bach Musicians — an acclaimed local group devoted to period instruments and historically informed performance practices — will present a double bill that features the tragic opera “Dido and Aeneas” by British composer Henry Purcell (below top) and the comic “Coffee” Cantata, BWV 211, by Johann Sebastian Bach (below bottom).

Both performances take place in the Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

On Saturday, April 7, there is a 6:45 p.m.  lecture by MBM founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson followed by a 7:30 p.m. performance.

On Sunday, April 8, there is a 2:45 p.m.  lecture by Trevor Stephenson followed by a 3:30 p.m. performance.

Purcell’s vivid and eloquent operatic masterpiece, Dido and Aeneas is based on the tragic love story told in Book IV of Virgil’s epic Latin poem “Aeneid”and is depicted in the 1815 painting (below) by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

The performance of the Baroque opera uses a full baroque orchestra.

In addition there are three guest singers as soloists: Chelsea Shepherd (below top) as Dido; Elijah Blaisdell (below middle) as Aeneas; and Nola Richardson (below bottom) as Belinda.

Adding to the production are dance sequences, all coming together thanks to the collaboration of director David Ronis (below top in a photo by Luke Delalio) of the University Opera; Karen McShane-Hellenbrand (below middle) of the UW-Madison Dance Department; and Baroque-performance specialist conductor and UW bassoonist Marc Vallon (below bottom in a photo by James Gill).

J. S. Bach’s witty Coffee Cantata will add some mischievous fun to the program.

This work suggests that perhaps Johann Sebastian himself was a coffee enthusiast at a time when coffee was sweeping the Continent and often seen as a sinful new fad.  “Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter than muscatel wine! I must have my coffee….” sings Lieschen in an aria that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Bach even premiered and performed many of his works at Zimmermann’s Coffeehouse in Leipzig, which he frequented and which is depicted below in an 18th-century engraving by Georg Schreiber.

As usual, MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below) will offer his insightful and entertaining commentary on these two diverse masterworks in his lecture preceding each concert.

Tickets are $38, $35 for seniors and $10 for student rush tickets at the door if the concert is not sold out.

Advance tickets are available at the Willy Street Coops East and West. More information about the production and tickets can be found at madisonbachmusicians.org


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra deliver outstanding performances of great music by Mozart and Brahms

December 12, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The program for the first concert this season by the UW Choral Union (below), mercifully, had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, and just offered great music.

There were only two works, one by Brahms and the other by Mozart. Surefire!

Johannes Brahms composed three relatively short works for chorus, without soloists, and orchestra. Of these, I wish conductors would get busy with two of them in particular. The Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates) and Nänie are simply superb works by one of the greatest of all choral composers.

The third, the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54, I would rate just a bit lower for musical content, but that is the one of the three that is more frequently performed, and that was the one we heard.

That said, there is much quite beautiful music in the piece, which sets a poem of Friedrich Hölderlin that moves from anxiety to desperation. Brahms (below) preceded the choral setting with a serene introduction that—to satisfy his aesthetics if not the poet’s—he repeats at the end to restore order.

Conductor Beverley Taylor (below) employed rather broad tempos, but this enabled her to bring out some of the melodic material with great beauty.

And, with a chorus of some 124 singers, she was able to give the music tremendous sonority, if a bit at the price of German diction. With the very good UW Symphony Orchestra in fine fettle, too, this was an excellent performance that should alert listeners to neglected treasures.

The main work was the unfinished “Great” Mass in C minor, K. 427, by Mozart (below). This is music inspired by the composer’s marriage and by the new (for him) artistic climate of Vienna. Even incomplete – it has a fragmentary “Credo” and is missing an “Agnus Dei”) — it still stands, with his also uncompleted Requiem, as a towering masterpiece of his sacred choral output.

Taylor displayed a fine feeling for both the overall and individual qualities of the work, projecting them with vigor and discipline.

There were four student soloists (below), with promising young voices.

But eventually the standout proved to be soprano Sarah Richardson (below). The operatic-style aria, “Et incarnatus est” from the “Credo” was apparently sung by Mozart’s wife in its preliminary performance, and is often heard as a separate solo number today. This was sung by Richardson (below) with skill and eloquence. (You can hear the aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This chorus was really a bit oversized for a work like this, but Taylor made it the real star of the performance, in singing with both power and precision.

A truly rewarding concert!


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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