The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Acclaimed violinist Gil Shaham debuts here this weekend in an all-Russian program with the Madison Symphony Orchestra

January 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) performs three concerts that include the long-awaited Madison debut of violin virtuoso Gil Shaham. MSO music director John DeMain will conduct.

The all-Russian program features works by three of the most popular and beloved Russian composers of all time: the Suite from The Love for Three Oranges” by Sergei Prokofiev; the Symphony No. 3 in A minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff; and the Violin Concerto in D Major by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The concerts are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on this Friday, Jan. 19, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 20, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 21, at 2:30 p.m.

(See below for ticket information.).

“Our January concerts feature a number of significant firsts,” says MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad).

“Most important is the Madison Symphony Orchestra debut of one of the world’s premier violinists, Gil Shaham. We have sought out Mr. Shaham for many seasons, and we are thrilled his international schedule aligned with ours this year. His offer to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto led me into creating another one of my all-Russian programs.

From Prokofiev, we open the concert with MSO’s first performance in nearly 40 years of his Suite from his opera, The Love of Three Oranges. This will also be our first-ever performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony.”

“The Love for Three Oranges” Suite by Sergei Prokofiev (below) is based on a satirical opera commissioned during the composer’s first visit to the United States in 1918.

“The suite is composed in six parts and follows the story of a prince that is cursed to love three oranges, roaming the Earth searching for them. When he finds the oranges and peels them, each discloses a beautiful princess inside. The first two princesses to emerge die, but the third and most beautiful is saved, and she and the Prince live happily ever after.

“The Violin Concerto by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky (below) is one of the best-known violin concertos in the repertoire and is considered one of the most technically difficult works ever written for the violin. The concerto was written in 1878 as Tchaikovsky ended his marriage to Antonina Milyukova, a marriage that lasted only three months.”

Declared “the outstanding American violinist of his generation” by Time magazine, Gil Shaham is one of the foremost violinists of our time: his flawless technique combined with his inimitable warmth and generosity of spirit has solidified his renown as an American master.

Grammy Award-winner Shaham (below), also named Musical America’s “Instrumentalist of the Year,” is sought after throughout the world for concerto appearances with leading orchestras and conductors, and regularly gives recitals and appears with ensembles on the world’s great concert stages and at the most prestigious festivals. (You can hear Gil Shaham rehearsing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto last month in Paris in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In his Symphony No. 3, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s melodic outline and rhythm characterize what is believed to be his most expressively Russian symphony, particularly in the dance rhythms of the finale.

Composed between 1935 and 1936, this was the last symphony Rachmaninoff (below) would create, with an orchestration more transparent than that of his previous symphonies.

One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below), artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra and interim director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please read the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen (below, in photo by Katrin Talbot) at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/5.Jan18.html

NOTE: The MSO recommends that concert attendees ARRIVE EARLY for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk, which is free for all ticket-holders.

TICKET INFORMATION

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale http://www.overture.org/events/gil-shaham-plays-tchaikovsky, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 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 $12 or $18 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.

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

Major funding for the January concerts is provided by the Irving and Dorothy Levy Family Foundation, Inc., Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, Inc., Marilyn and Jim Ebben, Dr. Stanley and Shirley Inhorn, Kato L. Perlman, and Cyrena and Lee Pondrom. Additional funding provided by James and Joan Johnston, von Briesen & Roper, S.C., and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Classical music: For you, what were the best, most memorable or most enjoyable concerts of 2017? Here are the highlights for critics John W. Barker and The Ear

December 29, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The end of the calendar year is only the mid-point of the new season and the concert calendar.

Still, it is a good time to take stock of the past year and the various performers and performances that we heard.

John W. Barker (below), who writes frequently for this blog as well as for Isthmus, recently published his top picks of concerts in 2017 in Isthmus. Here is a link to his year-end assessment:

https://isthmus.com/music/best-2017-classical-music/

To be fair, The Ear doesn’t always agree with Barker on the quality of some pieces and of certain performances. But by and large the two of us are in accord, and even when we aren’t, the Ear respects and learns from Barker’s expertise and experience.

The Ear would only add several things he found that Barker doesn’t mention:

The all-Mozart concert in the fall by the Pro Arte Quartet (below) — with UW faculty clarinetist Alicia Lee and San Francisco cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau filling in for Parry Karp, was a much-needed balm in these times of distress.

If you are a fan of amateur music-making and love the music of Bach, the revival of the Bach Around the Clock marathon in March proved enthralling. (Below are violist father Stan Weldy and mandolinist son Alex Weldy.)

You heard all kinds of musicians, from students and adult amateurs to professionals, in all genres of music, including arrangements and transcriptions that Johann Sebastian would no doubt have approved of.

Pianist Richard Goode (below), who played this fall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, showed the power of softness and quiet.

His subtle playing was full of nuance in preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, by Johann Sebastian Bach; in a late sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven; in the only sonata by Anton Webern; in a generous group for Chopin works; and in an unexpected encore by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd. All in all, Goode proved a wonderful reprieve from some of the heavier, louder and more dramatic keyboard playing we hear.

But if you wanted drama, you only had to attend the recital by UW-Madison virtuoso Christopher Taylor (below). He excelled in everything, especially the total-body playing of the solo piano arrangement by Franz Liszt of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which wowed the house. But he also showed great restraint, tone and subtlety in contemporary American composer John Corigliano “Ostinato” based on that symphony’s famous second movement.

Then Taylor finished up with contrasting sets of six Musical Moments by Franz Schubert and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

BUT NOW IT IS YOUR TURN: YOU BE THE CRITIC!

Recognizing that the best concert is not necessary the most memorable concert, and that the best or most memorable concert is not necessarily the most enjoyable concert, please tell us:

What did you think was the best concert and best single performance you heard in 2017?

What was the most memorable classical music experience you had in 2017?

And what was the most enjoyable classical music performance you heard in 2017?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Who should be Musician of the Year for 2017 and why?

December 9, 2017
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

At the end of each year for the past nine years, The Ear has named a Musician of the Year.

It can be an individual, a small group or a large ensemble. But it must be a local music-maker, not just a presenter.

In past years, The Ear named the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra; the long-lived and thoroughly professional Pro Arte Quartet; the recently formed and always impressive Willy Street Chamber Players (below); and the veteran and always reliable summer chamber music group, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

He has also named retired UW-Madison professor and conductor James Smith; Madison Bach Musicians founder and director Trevor Stephenson; Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad); and UW collaborative pianist Martha Fischer.

If you want to check out those postings, you can use the blog page.

Just enter Musician of the Year in the search engine. Or go to the calendar and look it up by the date it appears, which is usually Dec. 30 or 31.

To be honest The Ear already has a nominee in mind for this year.

But it is not set in stone and definite yet. And he thought it would be informative and entertaining to open up the process and ask readers for their suggestions.

So if you have a name to nominate for Musician of the Year for 2017, please use the COMMENT section to leave the name of the recipient you propose and why they deserve the honor.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The annual sold-out Christmas concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, guest artists and local groups is this coming weekend

November 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and the Music Director John DeMain will kick off the 2017 holiday season this weekend with the annual “A Madison Symphony Christmas.”

The holiday celebration is filled with traditions from caroling in the lobby before the concert to the closing sing-along, where John DeMain (below) and the Madison Symphony Orchestra don their Santa hats.

Christmas classics are interwoven with new holiday music. Guest artists soprano Emily Pogorelc and tenor Eric Barry join DeMain, the MSO, the Madison Symphony Chorus, Madison Youth Choirs, and Mount Zion Gospel Choir on stage for the family-friendly celebration.

The concerts are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday, Dec. 1, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 3, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $18-$90. See below for details.

The program features an array of music including Joy to the World by Georg Frideric Handel; Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor with the Madison Symphony Chorus (below); Mozart’s Mass in C minor with Emily Pogorelc; John Rutter’s Shepherd’s Pipe Carol (heard in the YouTube video at the botttom) with the Madison Youth Choirs; Do You Hear What I Hear?; the Seven Joys of Christmas; Leotha and Tamera Stanley’s Christmas Peace with the Mount Zion Gospel Choir.

In addition, sing-a-longs that include O Come, All Ye Faithful, Away in a Manger, The First Noel, Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Praised for her “lively, incisive soprano” by the New York Times, soprano Emily Pogorelc (below) currently attends the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. A native of Milwaukee, Pogorelc has performed with the Opera Philadelphia, Glimmerglass Opera Festival, Curtis Opera Theatre, and the Florentine Opera. She has won first place in numerous competitions, and was featured on National Public Radio’s From the Top.

Winner of the Bel Canto Prize at the 2016 Maryland Lyric Opera Competition, Spanish-American tenor Eric Barry (below) is “making an impressive mark” on opera and concert stages “with a clear timbre, evenness of projection and exceptional sensitivity” (Opera News).

His engagements have included performances with the Shreveport Opera, Boston Midsummer Opera, Opera Memphis, North Carolina Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, and the Teatro Comunale di Sulmona along with music festivals around the world. He returns to the MSO after appearing as a featured soloist in 2015.

The Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) gave its first public performance on February 23, 1928, and has performed regularly with the Madison Symphony Orchestra ever since. The Chorus is comprised of more than 150 volunteer musicians who come from all walks of life and enjoy combining their artistic talent.

Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC, below) inspires enjoyment, learning, and social development through the study and performance of high-quality and diverse choral literature.

The oldest youth choir organization in Wisconsin, MYC serves more than 1,000 young people, ages 7–18, in a wide variety of choral programs. In addition to a public concert series, MYC conducts an annual spring tour of schools and retirement centers, performing for more than 7,000 students and senior citizens annually.

Under the leadership of Leotha Stanley and his wife, Tamera Stanley, the Mount Zion Gospel Choir (below, in a photo by Bob Rashid) has been a part of the MSO Christmas concerts since 2005.

The choir is primarily comprised of members from Mount Zion Baptist Church and includes representatives from other churches as well. It has traveled extensively throughout the Midwest and has toured to Europe, singing in France and Germany. 

Concertgoers are encouraged to arrive 45 minutes before the concert begins to join the Madison Symphony Chorus as they lead a selection of Christmas carols in the festively lit lobby at Overture Hall.

Adds the MSO: These concerts typically sell out, so early ticket purchases are encouraged.

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 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 $12 or $18 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.

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

Major funding for the Christmas concert is provided by: American Printing, Nedrebo’s Formalwear, John W. Thompson and Jane A. Bartell, Maurice and Arlene Reese Family Foundation, BMO Wealth Management, Hooper Foundation/General Heating & Air Conditioning, Judith and Nick Topitzes, and An Anonymous Friend. Additional funding provided by Colony Brands, Inc. J.H. Findorff & Son, Inc., Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren s.c., the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: Start the holiday season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s FREE Community Carol Sing, with organ, on Monday night

November 22, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

‘Tis the season—for singing together in groups!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) will host a FREE Carol Sing in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on this coming Monday, Nov. 27, at 7 p.m.

All ages are welcome.

No tickets or reservations are needed for the free Carol Sing, which will last approximately 45 minutes.

MSO Principal Organist and Curator Greg Zelek will lead the Carol Sing with the Overture Concert Organ (below).

Familiar carols will be sung, and solo organ works will include the Carol Rhapsody (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) by Richard Purvis and an arrangement of “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella.”

Greg Zelek (below) is the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s own principal organist and Curator of the Overture Concert Organ and Series. Zelek has been praised as one of the most exciting young organists in the American organ scene. He has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, the New World Symphony, and in Carnegie Hall with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.

Zelek directs the programming for the instrument. In addition to the Free Farmers’ Market Organ Concerts, the instrument is featured in the annual MSO Christmas concert, along with several Free Community Hymn Sings and a Christmas Carol Sing.

See details for all organ performances at www.madisonsymphony.org/organperformances.

Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund.

The MSO’s Free Community Carol and Hymn Sings are presented in partnership with the Overture Center for the Arts.


Classical music: This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Grammy-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin will perform Spanish music and a new concerto by Chris Brubeck

November 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO), with music director John DeMain conducting, will present the third concert of its 92nd season.

“Troubadour: Two Faces of the Classical Guitar” features Grammy-winning guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin (below) playing two works: one written for Isbin by American composer Chris Brubeck; and the other by the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo. (Isbin will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon in Morphy Recital Hall on the UW-Madison campus in the Humanities Building on North Park Street.)

In addition the MSO will perform two 20th-century ballet suites — The Three-Cornered Hat by Spanish composer Manuel De Falla and Billy the Kid by American composer Aaron Copland.

The concerts (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street on Friday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 18, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 19, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $18-$90. Details are below.

Invoking a sense of the American heartland, Billy the Kid was written by Copland (below) as a ballet following the life of the infamous outlaw. This piece is most well-known for the memorable “cowboy” tunes and American folk songs that paint a vivid picture of the Wild West.

The virtuosity and versatility of multiple Grammy Award-winner Sharon Isbin is on display in this program of contrasts: the jazz idioms of the American composer Chris Brubeck’s “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra,” written for Sharon Isbin, alongside the lush romanticism of the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” (You can hear Sharon Isbin play the beautiful slow movement of the Rodrigo concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The piece by Brubeck (below) contains strong hints of the jazz influence of his father, noted pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. Inspired by the gardens at Palacio Real de Aranjuez, Rodrigo’s composition attempts to transport the listener to another place and time through the evocation of the sounds of nature.

Isbin’s performances of Chris Brubeck’s “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra” have received wide acclaim: “The concerto takes off with Isbin delivering rapid-fire virtuosity with infectious themes. The slow middle is a tender jazz-based tribute to Dave Brubeck, and Isbin played with heartfelt warmth and tenderness. The finale was an infectious rhythmically driven journey through myriad styles. It was as intriguing as it was moving … Isbin is much more than a virtuoso; she is an artist of depth.”

The Three-Cornered Hat by De Falla (below) is based on a story written by Pedro de Alarcón about a Corregidor (magistrate) who tries, without success, to seduce the pretty wife of the local miller.

One hour before each performance, Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), professor at UW-Whitewater, MSO trombonist and writer of MSO’s program notes, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please read Allsen’s Program Notes at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/3.Nov17.html.

The Symphony recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk (free for all ticket-holders).

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, go to: 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 $12 or $18 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.

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

ABOUT SHARON ISBIN

Acclaimed for her extraordinary lyricism, technique, and versatility, Sharon Isbin has been hailed as “the pre-eminent guitarist of our time.” Recipient of numerous prestigious awards, her debut concert with the MSO comes after over 170 solo performances with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, National Symphony, London Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Orchestre National de France, and the Tokyo Symphony.

Isbin is the subject of a one-hour documentary presented by American Public Television. Seen by millions on over 200 PBS stations throughout the US, it is also available on DVD/Blu-ray and won the 2015 ASCAP Television Broadcast Award. “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour” paints the portrait of a trailblazing performer and teacher who over the course of her career has broken through numerous barriers to rise to the top of a traditionally male-dominated field.

The following is a dedicated website where you can view the trailer, read rave reviews, and see detailed broadcast dates: www.SharonIsbinTroubadour.com

Major funding for the September concerts is provided by: NBC-15, the Madison Symphony Orchestra League, and Elaine and Nicholas Mischler. Additional funding provided by Scott and Janet Cabot, John DeLamater and Janet Hyde, Steven Weber, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: Organist Greg Zelek, of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will give a FREE celebratory recital at First United Methodist Church this coming Tuesday night

November 10, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

“Greg Zelek (below), the new principal organist of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Curator of the Overture Concert Organ and Series, will present a FREE public organ recital on this coming Tuesday night, Nov. 14, at 7 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, 203 Wisconsin Avenue, in downtown Madison.

“The evening’s program of masterpieces includes: the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, by Johann Sebastian Bach; the Organ Sonata in F minor, Op. 65, No. 1, by Felix Mendelssohn; the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, by J.S. Bach (heard performed by Zelek in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the Organ Sonata in D minor, Op. 42, No. 1, by Alexandre Guilmant.

“A public reception follows the recital where people can share their thoughts about the program and meet the artist.

“Zelek says he relishes the creative aspect of playing the organ. Because no two instruments are alike, every time he sits down at a new console he reinvents the repertoire that he has played thousands of times for that specific instrument and that specific space.

“Zelek adds: “It gives me the opportunity to be as creative as possible when it comes to the selecting of different sounds and colors for each individual instrument and composition.”

“The First Church organ console (below top), as well as the one (below bottom) at the Overture Center, is in front of the audience, offering the organist opportunities to interact and engage with them.

“I speak to the audience in between pieces,” Zelek explains. “Having a greater understanding of the music sheds light onto its immense beauty and enhances the listener’s appreciation of the performance.

“The organ is also such a physical instrument. When the audience can see what the organist is doing, it draws everybody in. There is so much going on. It’s not just the hands and the feet, but also the different buttons we’re pushing and sounds we’re generating from the instrument. It is a full body workout when I play! The audience should never be bored.”

“Zelek’s recital is part of the 180th anniversary celebration of First United Methodist Church as well as the 25th anniversary of its Austin organ.

“Admission for the recital is FREE with donation envelopes available to support The Arts program at First Church. The church has a deep tradition in featuring varied musical offerings and provides much needed rehearsal and performing space for local music and performing arts groups.”


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

November 7, 2017
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

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

By Larry Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you go to “Carmen”? 

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: A curmudgeon vents his complaints concerning the music scene in Madison, Plus, this Sunday Afternoon the Pro Arte Quartet plays Haydn and Dvorak in a FREE concert at the Chazen Museum of Art that will be streamed live

November 4, 2017
21 Comments

ALERT: The UW’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet will perform a FREE concert tomorrow, Sunday, Nov. 5, at 12:30 p.m., at the Chazen Museum of Art in Brittingham Gallery No. 3. The program features the String Quartet in E Major, Op. 53, No 3, by Franz Joseph Haydn and the String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 16, by Antonin Dvorak. The “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen” concert will also be streamed live. Here is a link:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/about/news/in-the-news/sunday-afternoon-live-with-pro-arte-quartet-november-5/

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an essay by Larry Wells, a guest reviewer and a frequent concertgoer. He writes:

“As I have aged, I have become more of a curmudgeon. (My friends and family will readily attest to this.) It is in that spirit that I address some annoyances I have been experiencing over the past few years while attending musical events in Madison.

“I will start with a recent experience, attending University Opera’s performances of “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” at Music Hall (below). The two arms of any seat in the hall have two different numbers. Unless the guest was paying attention as he entered the row, it is unclear which number belongs to which seat. After attending a few shows there, I have figured it out. But I don’t believe I have ever been to a performance there when there hasn’t been confusion about which seat is which. I have routinely heard people asking others (who are generally equally clueless), and I have routinely seen blocks of people shift over one seat. You would think that someone at a great educational institution could figure out a way to make the seating less baffling.

“An equally annoying phenomenon occurs regularly at Mills Hall, also on campus. I discovered that, for choral concerts particularly, the sound in the balcony is far better than the sound on the main floor. However, the doors of the balcony are often locked and the ushers regularly say that the balcony is not open. Upon making further insistent inquiries, I usually manage to get someone to unlock the balcony, but I wonder why it is felt that unlocking it routinely is such an onerous task.

“I will also mention that, regardless of one’s seat location in Mills Hall, it is difficult not to notice that the sound clouds over the stage are in sore need of a dusting and cleaning.

Stephen Sondheim wrote a wonderfully amusing song for “The Frogs” called “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience.” In it the audience is reminded not to talk, cough, fart and so on. (You can hear the piece in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“At the aforementioned performances in the Music Hall (I went twice), I saw people texting and video recording the performance even though the program has, in very small print, an admonishment not to photograph or film. At a recent choral concert in Mills Hall, texting was rampant during the performance, and there was no mention about turning off cell phones in the program. The bright screens immediately draw the eye away from the stage. I find it extremely distracting.

“At performances given by the UW Dance Department, a loud and forceful announcement at the beginning of each performance instructs the audience to turn off cell phones, no texting, no photos, etc. A similar announcement takes place not only at the beginning of the concert but also at the end of intermissions for performances at Overture Center. I think it is time for the UW Music Department to address the issue in a similar way.

“Another criticism of the way that things are done by the Music Department: Why is it so hard to find out what is being performed at a recital or concert? The Music Department has a good website with a calendar that lists the performances being given on any day, but many times the program is not included in that information. I am disinclined to go to a concert when I don’t know what the program is, and I often will go to a performance just to hear one work if it’s one I am anxious to hear. Thus, I often have to go roaming around the Music Building looking for posters or sometimes even going to the person sponsoring the performance to ask what the program is. It shouldn’t be that hard.

“An issue at Overture Center is whispering. I do not understand how people have lived to the ripe old ages that most of the audience members have and not come to realize that whispering is still audible.

“Two seats away from me at Overture Hall for my symphony subscription is a woman who, at every single performance, starts to cough as soon as the music begins, noisily unzips her purse, reaches in and fumbles around until she finds her cough drop, and then noisily unwraps its cellophane cover. Every time. It is a wonderment to me that she has not discovered that she could unwrap the cough drops in advance and have them at the ready.

“When I subscribed to the San Francisco Symphony, there were bowls of wax paper wrapped cough drops at every entrance. Not a bad idea.

“And then there is the seemingly obligatory standing ovation syndrome that has become a standard feature of every performance in Madison. In the rest of the world a standing ovation is reserved for an extraordinary performance deserving special recognition. Here I think of Pavlov’s dog and sheep. The performance ends, one person leaps to his feet (that’s the Pavlov part) and everyone else stands (that’s the sheep). At the same time the sentiment has been lost, and it all seems rather provincial to me.

“I realize that these are all first-world problems of little importance. They are minor annoyances, but that is what a curmudgeon dwells on. And it feels great to vent.”

Do you agree with any of these complaints?

Do you have any major or minor complaints to add?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: The Madison Opera stages Bizet’s “Carmen” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

October 31, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will perform Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” this Friday night, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 5, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street. (Below is the set from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City that is being used for the production.)

Tickets are $18-$130. (See below for details.)

With some of the most famous music in opera, Bizet’s passionate work is a vivid story of love, jealousy and betrayal.

Set in 19th-century Seville, Spain, the opera follows a gypsy determined to live life on her own terms – whatever her fate may be.

On a break from her shift at the cigarette factory, Carmen tosses a flower at a corporal named Don José, who ignores her advances. Only after Carmen is arrested and placed in José’s custody does he begin to fall for her, breaking the law and abandoning his hometown sweetheart.

What follows is a torrid love affair of passion, agonizing rage, and fanatical desire that will change their lives forever.

“Carmen is the reason I run an opera company,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill).  “I fell in love with opera as a teenager in the children’s chorus of a ‘Carmen’ production, as its incredible score and intense story hooked me immediately – not to mention the sheer excitement of having principal artists, chorus, children’s chorus, dancers, and orchestra all come together to create this astonishing world.  I am so delighted to produce ‘Carmen’ in Madison, with this spectacular cast and production team.”

At the premiere of “Carmen” in Paris on March 3, 1875, audiences were shocked at its characters’ apparent lack of morality and virtue, and critics derided Bizet’s music. (You can hear the ever-popular Toreador Song in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Three months after the opera’s premiere, Bizet died of heart disease. He was only 36 years old and would never know that his “flop” of an opera would become a global sensation over the next two centuries.

“Carmen was the first opera I saw as a young teenager,” remembers Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). “It should be everyone’s first opera. It is the perfect blend of musical theater and grand opera, with thrilling choruses, great tunes from start to finish, and a compelling story of ill-fated love. And then there is Carmen herself, one of the most alluring characters of all time. I love conducting this great opera, which is so gorgeously orchestrated.”

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts. Making her debut in the title role is Aleks Romano (below), a rising young singer whom Opera News recently praised for her “attractively smoky mezzo-soprano.”

Acclaimed tenor Sean Panikkar (below) makes his role debut as Don José. He debuted with Madison Opera at Opera in the Park 2014, but this is his first mainstage appearance with the company.Also returning to Madison Opera are Cecilia Violetta López (below top) as José’s hometown sweetheart Micaëla and Corey Crider (below bottom) as the toreador Escamillo. López debuted at this past summer’s Opera in the Park; Crider sang the title role in “Sweeney Todd” with Madison Opera in 2015.

Thomas Forde (below), who most recently sang Luther/Crespel in Madison Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffman,” returns to play José’s commanding officer, Zuniga.

Studio artists Anna Polum and Megan Le Romero play Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes. Studio Artist Benjamin Liupaogo and Wisconsin native Erik Earl Larson play the smugglers, Remendado and Dancaïre. Rounding out the cast is Charles Eaton in his debut as Morales. (Many have ties to the opera program at the UW-Madison.)

Directing this traditional staging is E. Loren Meeker (below) in her first production for Madison Opera. Meeker has directed at opera companies around the United States, including Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival and Wolf Trap Opera.

“A piece like Carmen captures our imagination and begs to be re-told over the centuries because the characters speak to the deepest and most honest parts of human nature,” says Meeker.  “Today we grapple with love, lust, jealousy, morality, honor, and freedom just as much as people did when this opera premiered in 1875.

“At Madison Opera we have a brilliant cast who is willing to unravel the mystery of these characters with me scene by scene – making each choice onstage new, fresh, and true to the characters and arch of the story.

“Bringing this vivid world to life set to some of the most rich and well known music in the operatic canon, plus the fun of working with dancers, a fight director, the Madison Youth Choir, and a large adult chorus challenges me and inspires me all at the same time. The energy created in the performance, the brilliant music sung by such amazing artists, makes this classic opera worth seeing again and again and again.”

Carmen is a truly grand opera and features the Madison Opera Chorus, led by chorusmaster Anthony Cao (below); members of the Madison Youth Choirs; the Madison Symphony Orchestra; and dancers from Tania Tandias Flamenco and Spanish Dance.

For more information about the cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2017-2018/carmen/cast/

For informative and entertaining Q&As with the cast members, go to the Madison Opera’s Blogspot:

http://madisonopera.blogspot.com

For tickets, call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or go to:

http://www.overture.org/events/madison-opera


Posted in Classical music
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