The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


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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: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.


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