The Well-Tempered Ear

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

February 13, 2019
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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: Trio Celeste proves superb in its Madison debut concert at Farley’s House of Pianos

January 8, 2019
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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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

In its Salon Piano Series, Farley’s House of Pianos has been offering splendid piano recitals. But it has augmented that by bringing other musicians to join in chamber music programs, showing them at work with the vintage pianos in the Farley collection, so lovingly restored.

On Sunday afternoon, the series brought the Trio Celeste (below) from California to play just such a program. Consisting of violinist Iryna Krechkovsky, cellist Ross Gasworth and pianist Kevin Kwan Loucks, the group played a demanding program of predominantly Russian origins.

They began by reversing the two parts of the program from the printed order. Thus, the first item was the single-movement Trio élégiaque No. 1 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, composed in 1892, inspired by the Tchaikovsky work that comprised the latter half. This was followed by piano trio arrangements from the flashy “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” by the Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla.

The red meat of the program, however, was the magnificent Trio in A minor, Op. 50, composed in 1882 by Tchaikovsky. This is one of the towering works of the chamber music literature, cast in quite unconventional terms: a tightly constructed but beautifully flowing opening movement, then an extended set of variations on a folksy tune.

The group (below) did resort to a frequent trick of cutting, omitting notably the challenging fugal variation. (You can hear the whole Theme and Variations movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.) But the performance was powerful and impassioned — and the more compelling for being given in a modest venue rather than in a large concert hall.  These are truly superb musicians, and it is wonderful to have them come to Madison for us.

The program made use of Farley’s Steinway Model D instrument made in 1950. During the intermission, Tim Farley (below) spoke knowingly about the instrument and its restoration. And, at the outset of things, comments on the music were given by the pianist and the cellist.

A truly memorable event in the Farley series!


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Classical music: Wikipedia offers a comprehensive overview of classical music in 2018. Plus, the annual New Year’s Day concert by the Vienna Philharmonic airs this morning on radio and tonight on TV

January 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – January 1, 2019 – brings just two items or stories to the blog.

NEW YEAR’S DAY FROM VIENNA

The first item is a kind of ALERT.

One of the most popular and beloved worldwide musical traditions is the annual Great Performances broadcast by National Public Radio (NPR) of “New Year’s Day From Vienna” with the Vienna Philharmonic.

This year’s conductor is Christian Thielemann  (below top) of the Munich Philharmonic and the host is Hugh Bonneville (below bottom in a photo by Nick Briggs) of PBS’ “Downton Abbey.”

The concert is a sold-out feast of waltzes, polkas and marches (including the famous clap-along “Radetzky March,” with Herbert von Karajan conducting in 1987, in the YouTube video at the bottom).

The radio version will be broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio from 10 a.m. to noon THIS MORNING, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019.

Then at 8-9:30 p.m. TONIGHT, Wisconsin Public Television will broadcast the visual version of the event, complete with ballet and wonderful landscape, interior and architectural shots in and around Vienna. There will also be encore performances: https://wptschedule.org/episodes/48242142/Great-Performances/From-Vienna-The-New-Years-Celebration-2019/

For a playlist and more background, go to: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/from-vienna-the-new-years-celebration-2019-about/9076/

2018 IN REVIEW

The first day of the new year seems like the perfect time to look back and see what happened in classical music during the past year.

And this year, The Ear found something truly comprehensive and international.

Wikipedia has put together a year-end overview that is astonishing for its amount of detail. 

You will find a global day-by-day calendar that includes links, in blue, for more details.

You will find news items and major events – including the effect of the #MeToo movement as well as deaths and obituaries, jobs and retirements.

You will find a list of new music.

You will find a list of new operas.

You will find lists for several major awards for classical recordings.

It is a terrific resource — a good long read, both informative and entertaining. Perfect for New Year’s Day.

Here is a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_in_classical_music

Happy New Year!


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
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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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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Classical music: Need a break from holiday shopping or final exams? A FREE “Just Bach” midday concert TODAY marks Christmas. On Friday at noon a free concert features violin music of Mozart and Ravel.

December 12, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Need a  break from holiday shopping or final exams this week? Today’s post brings announcements of two short and appealing midday concerts:

TODAY

Just Bach is a new monthly series of hour-long concerts in Madison celebrating the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The series continues with an end-of-semester performance at 1 p.m. TODAY, Wednesday, Dec. 12, at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Ave.

Admission is free with goodwill offerings accepted. Audience members are permitted to eat and drink during the performance.

Next semester’s dates are Jan. 23, Feb. 20, March 13, April 24 and May 29.

The orchestra of baroque period-instrument specialists will be led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim.

The goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large. The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach (below) would have conceived.

The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

Here is the complete program for today’s concert:

BWV 729: In dulci jubilo (Mark Brampton Smith, organ)

Chorale: Wie soll ich dich empfangen (How shall I embrace You?) from Part I of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

BWV 61: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Savior of the Heathen)

Chorale: Ich will dich mit Fleiss bewahren (I will cherish you assiduously) from Part III of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

Aria from BWV 213: Schlafe, mein Liebster (Sleep, my beloved)

Chorale: Schaut hin, dort liegt im finstern Stall (Look there, there He lies in a dark stall) from Part II of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

Duet from BWV 110: Ehre sei Gott (Glory be to God)

SELECTIONS FROM PART IV OF BACH’S “CHRISTMAS ORATORIO”:

Recit and Chorale: Immanuel, o suesses Wort! (Emmanuel, oh sweet word!)

Aria: Floesst, mein Heiland, floesst dein Namen (My Saviour, Your name instills)

Recit and Chorale: Wohlan, dein Name soll allein (Well then, Your name alone)

Aria: Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben (I will live only to honor You)

Chorale: Brich an, o schoenes Morgenlicht  (Break forth, oh beautiful morning light) from Part II of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing). You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom, performed by the critically acclaimed Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, sung to pictures of Bach’s own manuscript.

Singers are Sarah Brailey and Elisheva Pront, sopranos; Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, mezzo-soprano; Wesley Dunnagan, tenor; and UW-Madison Professor Paul Rowe, bass.

The orchestra includes: Kangwon Lee Kim (below) and Nathan Giglierano, violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt and Micah Behr, violas; James Waldo, cello; and Mark Brampton Smith, organ.

FRIDAY

This Friday, Dec. 14, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. the FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will features violinist Wendy Adams and pianist Ann Aschbacher.

The  duo will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 35, K. 526 – which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom — and Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2

Here is some background:

The First Unitarian Society of Madison presents “Friday Noon Musicales,” a distinguished artist recital series now in its 31st season.

Talented area musicians play most every Friday, from October through May. Mostly classical music, but Broadway, jazz, folk and other styles are presented at times as well. Enjoy complimentary coffee, tea and live music.

Concerts are free and open to the public. No ticket is required. All performances 12:15–1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

Visit https://fusmadison.org/music for upcoming featured artists.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” this Friday night in Madison and Sunday afternoon in Whitewater

December 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about performances this coming weekend by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) and the professional orchestra Sinfonia Sacra of what is, unfortunately and undeservedly, often considered, when compared to Handel’s “Messiah,”  “The Other Oratorio” for the holiday season:

There will be two performances of four parts of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” (1734). On Friday night, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m. at the Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave., in Madison; and on Sunday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater, 930 Main Street, in Whitewater.

Advance tickets for the Friday night performance at Luther Memorial Church in Madison are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports (Madison) and Willy Street Coop (all three locations in Madison and Middleton).

Advance tickets for the Sunday afternoon performance at Young Auditorium in Whitewater are available from www.uww.edu/youngauditorium/tickets

Of the six cantatas that make up the “Christmas Oratorio,” Part, 1, 2, 3 and 5 will be performed. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the brisk and energetic opening, performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir.)

Parts 1 to 3 tell the Christmas story: Mary and Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the shepherds and the angels. Part 5 introduces the magi from the East, traditionally known as the Three Kings.

The music offers a sampling of every style of music in the repertoire of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) as a composer.

Massive, concerto-like movements crowned by brilliant trumpet fanfares, booming timpani and virtuosic fugues highlight the full chorus.

Solo arias, duets and trios and even one instrumental movement provide a contemplative contrast with constantly changing instrumental colors—from lush strings to playful flutes and the pastoral sounds of oboes and bassoons.

Featured vocal soloists include mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below top) and tenor J. Adam Shelton (below middle), both on the faculty of UW-Whitewater. Highly accomplished members of the choir, including baritone Bill Rosholt (below bottom, and a Madison Savoyards regular), will share the solo parts with these professionals.

The members of Sinfonia Sacra, under concertmaster Leanne League (below), are drawn from the rosters of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and the music faculties of UW-Madison, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.

Trumpet virtuoso John Aley (below top) and oboist Marc Fink (below bottom) will also perform.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios, a cappella choral works from various centuries, and world premieres.

Bach’s music has always occupied a special place in the choir’s repertory, with performances of the Christmas Oratorio (2002 and 2003), the Mass in B minor (2005), the St. John Passion (2010) and the Magnificat (2017).

Artistic Director Robert Gehrenbeck (below) has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Messiah” marks 10 years with another sold-out performance and two new soloists this Friday night. Then starting Saturday, it’s on to “The Nutcracker”

December 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

There is no more iconic piece of classical music for the holiday season than the oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel. (You can hear the famous “Hallelujah” Chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For 10 years, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the WCO Chorus, the Festival Choir and four guest soloists (all forces from a previous performance are in the photo below) have been bringing the masterwork to Madison. And it usually plays to a full house.

This year’s performance once again takes place at 7 p.m. this Friday night, Dec. 7, at the Blackhawk Church, 8629 Brader Way in Middleton. And once again, all 800 seats are sold out.

For more information, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah-1/

“It is very successful and has become a real tradition,” says WCO’s Chief Operating Officer Sue Ellen McGuire. “We have people and families who come year after year.”

But that does not mean each year’s performance, both acclaimed by critics and popular with the public, is a repetition of the previous year’s.

True, some things carry over, such as the longtime soprano soloist Sarah Lawrence and bass soloist Peter Van de Graaff (below), who is also the overnight resonant voice of classical music on Wisconsin Public Radio via The Beethoven Satellite Network.

“It is such a great masterpiece that I feel I can play around with it somewhat and make each year’s performance distinctive and different,” says WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below). Some years, he says, he cuts out or adds certain choruses; or changes the intermission break; or alters the makeup of the instruments or choruses; or uses different soloists, or continues to adapt to and adopt early music practices.

Take this year. For the first time, the performance will include two singers who competed in the annual Handel Aria Competition held in Madison: mezzo-soprano Johanna Bronk (a finalist in 2017), and tenor Gene Stenger (bottom left, the second prize winner and audience favorite in 2017).

“It’s a no-brainer and a natural fit to use the world-class talent that takes part in a local event,” says Sewell, who is also the music director of the symphony orchestra in San Luis Obispo in California.

And for those of you who wonder what the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra does after Concerts on the Square end in the summer and before its Masterworks series starts in January, the answer is marking the holidays.

In addition to “Messiah,” the WCO will accompany the Madison Ballet’s performances of Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” that take place between Dec. 8 and Dec. 26 in the Overture Center. For details and tickets, go to: https://www.madisonballet.org/nutcracker/


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Classical music: The UW-Madison Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra perform the Duruflé Requiem and Kodaly “Te Deum” this coming Saturday and Sunday nights

December 5, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

In Mills Hall this coming Saturday night, Dec. 8, at 8 p.m. and Sunday night, Dec. 9, at 7:30 p.m., the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union (below, in a  photo by John W. Barker) and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform two works: the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé; and the “Te Deum” by Zoltan Kodaly.

The Choral Union is a campus and community choral group that performs once each semester. This spring, it will take part in three performances of the Symphony No. 8, “The Symphony of a Thousand,” by Gustav Mahler with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, where conductor Beverly Taylor is the choral director.

In addition to the chorus and the orchestra there are student soloists.

In the Duruflé Requiem, the student soloists are: Michael Johnson, baritone; and Chloe Flesch, mezzo-soprano (below).

In the Kodaly “Te Deum,” the student soloists are:  Jing Liu, soprano; Chloe Flesch, mezzo-soprano; Benjamin Hopkins, tenor; and bass Ben Galvin.

Tickets cost $17 for the public, $8 for students.

For more information about the works as well as a YouTube video preview of the Kodaly and information about how to obtain tickets in advance or at the door, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/choral-union-the-durufle-requiem/

Beverly Taylor (below), the longtime director of Choral Activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music who will lead the performances, recently spoke to The Ear about the concert:

“I plan to retire in May 2020, so I’m picking some great music for my last few Choral Union concerts!

“I’ve always wanted to do the Duruflé Requiem, which Bruce Gladstone performed in Luther Memorial Church a few years ago in the organ version. But I knew we couldn’t get a good organ on stage in Mills Hall and still have room for the orchestra.

“I hadn’t realized that Duruflé (below) had written a full orchestra version without the organ, which is replaced by the woodwinds. So it seemed a wonderful piece to do. (You can hear the Kyrie movement from the Durufle Requiem in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

“Since I have the symphony orchestra only one semester, I ignore holiday music when it comes to programming for the Choral Union, and try to assemble a wonderful evening.

“The Duruflé piece sounds like music by Gabriel Fauré and other late French church works, with its less dramatic text choices and its warmth, lush color and tide-like swells and diminuendos.

“I’ve done the “Te Deum” by Kolday (below) twice before over my 24 years here. It continues to be a favorite, and I use it because I like it, because it’s about 20 minutes long and a good companion piece, and because it shows off the Choral Union so beautifully.

“It’s a work of great contrasts, from a thrilling opening to a quiet middle based on a Hungarian folksong, to a next-to-final fugato and to a very quiet ending.

“The only problem with this program?  Both pieces end quietly!  Can we still get a burst of applause?”


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Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/


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

November 16, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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