The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera performs Verdi’s popular “La Traviata” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall

October 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Opera opens its 59th season with a traditional production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” (The Lost One), one of the most popular operas in history.

According to the website www.operasense.com — specifically at https://www.operasense.com/most-popular-operas/ — it has been the most performed opera in the world, beating out such perennial favorites as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Puccini’s “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” and Bizet’s “Carmen.” (Below are photos by Matthew Staver from the production by Opera Colorado in Denver, which features the same sets and costumes that will be used in the production by Madison Opera.)

Performances in Overture Hall are this Friday night, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 3 at 2:30 p.m. The opera will be sung in Italian with projected supertitles in English. The running time, with two intermissions, is 2 hours and 45 minutes.

PRE-OPERA TALKS are on Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center. One hour prior to performances, general director Kathryn Smith will give an entertaining and informative talk about “La Traviata.” The talks are free to ticket holders.

POST-OPERA Q&A’s are on Friday and Sunday and will also take place in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center. Audience members can join general director Kathryn Smith immediately after the performance to ask questions about what they have just seen. The sessions are free to ticket holders.

Tickets are $18-$135 with student and group discounts available. For information about tickets, the production and the cast, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org

Set in mid-19th century Paris, “La Traviata” tells of Violetta, a courtesan who tries to follow her heart. But societal pressures force her to leave the man she loves, and an incurable illness takes care of the rest.

Glittering parties contrast with quiet desperation, and ravishing music underscores all-consuming emotions.

“Only a few operas ever achieve a truly beloved status — and “La Traviata” is one of them,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). For being over 150 years old, its story is quite modern: a young woman trying to overcome the limitations that society has placed on her because of her class and gender, searching for happiness yet willing to make sacrifices.

“Plus it is full of very famous music, from the ‘Brindisi’ to ‘Sempre Libera’ and more,” Smith adds. “It’s always a pleasure to have a new generation discover this work, and to share it with opera omnivores who know it well.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing Violetta’s signature aria “Sempre libera” (Always Free) at the Royal Opera House in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“La Traviata” is based on the play and novel “La Dame aux Camélias” (The Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas the son (below top), which were in turn based on his real-life relationship with the courtesan Marie Duplessis (below bottom), who died in 1847 of consumption.

The play was an instant hit when it premiered in Paris in 1852, and Verdi (below) turned it into an opera the following year.

While the first production of the opera was not a success, due to the poor singing of two cast members and the physical unsuitability of one singer, its second production was acclaimed, and the opera swiftly became one of the most performed operas in the world, a status it has not lost.

Both the opera and the play have inspired countless films, including “Camille” (with Greta Garbo), “Pretty Woman” (with Julia Roberts) and “Moulin Rouge” (with Nicole Kidman).

Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) says: “”La Traviata” has been a part of my artistic life since the very beginning of my career – it’s one of the reasons I so wanted to conduct opera. The heartfelt and tragic story of a love that was cut short by both health and cultural circumstances is still deeply moving today.

“The role of Violetta is a tour-de-force that ranges from high-flying coloratura to dramatic vocalism, with a strongly-etched character. I love this opera so deeply and look forward to conducting it for our audience.”

Returning to Madison Opera as Violetta is Cecilia Violetta Lopez (she played Carmen in Madison), whom The Washington Post reviewer called “as compelling a Violetta as I’ve seen.”

Mackenzie Whitney  (below, who appeared in “Florencia en el Amazonas” for the Madison Opera) returns as Alfredo, the young man for whom she sacrifices everything.

Weston Hurt (below) debuts with Madison Opera as Alfredo’s father Germont, whose disapproval of his son’s relationship with Violetta has tragic consequences.

Madison Opera’s Studio Artists are featured: Kirsten Larson as Flora, Emily Secor as Annina, Benjamin Hopkins as Gastone, and Stephen Hobe as the Marquis d’Obigny.

Rounding out the cast are Benjamin Sieverding (Romeo and Juliet) as Dr. Grenvil and Benjamin Major in his Madison Opera debut as Baron Douphol.

Fenton Lamb (below) directs this traditional production in her Madison Opera debut.

Maestro John DeMain conducts the singers, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The Madison Opera’s production of “La Traviata” is sponsored by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, Bert and Diane Adams, Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Chun Lin, Patricia and Stephen Lucas, Millie and Marshall Osborn, Kato and David Perlman, the Wallach Family, Helen Wineke, Capitol Lakes, and the Wisconsin Arts Board.


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Classical music: The future of Western classical music is in Asia – specifically China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Why is that?

May 25, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not just about Lang Lang.

The signs are everywhere.

They were present at a recent piano recital by elementary school, middle school and high school students that The Ear attended.

You see it at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and at top music schools, including the Curtis Institute of Music, across the U.S. and Western Europe. And you see it in youth groups such as the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (below).

Western classical music recording labels, such as Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classical, are looking to develop new markets and so are signing more Asian musicians, such as the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Shanghai String Quartet, and releasing more Asian performances. (Below is the Taiwanese-Australian, prize-winning violinist Ray Chen, who is also a master at using social media to build his meteoric career.)

All these items point to the same conclusion: The future of Western classical music looks more and more likely to be found in Asian culture and in Asia  – specifically in China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. (Next season, prize-winning South Korean pianist Joyce Yang (below) returns to Madison, where she first gave a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, to solo with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Consider some of the following:

There are, The Ear read somewhere, now more piano students in China than in all of Europe, North America and South America combined. And he is reading about more and more concert tours of China and other Asian countries by Western performers — even while in the U.S. the number of pianos in homes are on the decline.

Increasingly the winners of major international competitions — such as the Chopin competition, the Van Cliburn competition, the Tchaikovsky competition, the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium competition and the Leeds competition – come from Asia or are Asian. (Below, in a photo by Simon Fowler, is American pianist George Li, who immigrated from China as a child and attended Harvard and the New England Conservatory before winning a silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition. His concert career is now blossoming fast.)

In recent years, China has been building a lot of first-rate concert halls, opera houses and music schools. And the famed Juilliard School in New York City will open its second campus this fall in Tianjin, near Beijing.

China has certainly come a long way from the days of the Cultural Revolution when people could be imprisoned for listening to Beethoven, who is now a cultural icon in China — as you can hear at the bottom in the YouTube video of Li Jing Zhan conducting the orchestra at the Chinese National Opera in Beethoven’s No. 7. (Below is the striking new National Center for the Performing Arts in China.)

https://www.interlude.hk/front/culture-construction-chinas-new-concert-halls/

Nineteen of the 24 final competitors, ages 13-17, in the second Van Cliburn Junior Competition – which starts in Dallas, Texas, on May 31 and ends on June 8 – are Asian, Asian-American and Asian-Canadian, all with astonishingly impressive credentials and experience. It will be streamed live and free. Take a look and listen:

https://www.cliburn.org/2019-cliburn-junior-competitors/

Why this Asian shift is happening remains somewhat of a mystery to The Ear, although he had been thinking about for a long time.

Then he came across a op-ed column confirming the prevalence of Asian classical musicians. It was written by the American concert pianist and teacher Inna Faliks (below), who teaches at UCLA and who wrote convincingly about her recent concert experiences in China in The Washington Post.

Read it and see what you think, and tell us whether you agree:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-future-of-classical-music-is-chinese/2019/03/22/2649e9dc-4cb5-11e9-93d0-64dbcf38ba41_story.html?utm_term=.7f149e0f8eb9

Why are Asians so interested in Western classical music and music education? And why do they respect it or even revere it so much?

Does it have to do with the “tiger mom” phenomenon of strong parental pressure to succeed and achieve?

Is it largely a function of population?

Is it because of the collective teamwork required to make a lot of chamber music and orchestral music, or with the intense and instructive teacher-student relationship?

Is it because the cultural depth and seriousness in Western music education – ing contrast to the increasingly pop culture of the West – that prepares students well for the training and intellectual discipline required in other educational fields and careers, including the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?

Is Asia simply fascinated by Western culture the same way that Western culture was fascinated by the exotic Asian cultures – especially in China and Japan — during the 19th century and earlier? Or is the West increasingly ignoring its own culture. (The Ear can’t recall any classical musicians performing at President Donald Trump’s White House. Can you?)

How do you see the situation and react to it? And what do you think about the causes and effects?

Please leave your reactions and thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Personal experience, artistic excellence and historical importance drew pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel into planning next year’s centennial season at the Wisconsin Union Theater

March 30, 2019
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Now that Spring Break is over and subscription tickets are available for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s special centennial celebration next season – which includes superstar soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Emanuel Ax — here is an email interview that pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), the wife-and-husband consultants and planners of that season, granted to The Ear.

For more about the season and tickets, go to two websites:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/03/04/classical-music-superstar-soprano-renee-fleming-and-pianist-emanuel-ax-headline-the-100th-anniversary-of-the-wisconsin-union-theaters-concert-series-next-season/

https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/seasonevents/concert-series/

Could you briefly introduce yourselves to readers and tell them both your past and current activities?

We have been performing on the world’s many concert stages for almost our entire lives. In addition to our careers as concert performers, we serve as the founding Artistic Directors of Music@Menlo, the premier chamber music festival in Silicon Valley, as well as the Artistic Directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) in New York City.

Our main responsibility as concert performers is to give the best concerts we possibly can, and we are constantly striving to achieve the highest possible level of artistry in our performances.

In our roles as artistic directors, our responsibilities lie in the programming, casting and designing of concert series and chamber music projects for our organizations. At CMS, this includes designing the programming for our seven different satellite series around the country, plus international partnerships in Taiwan, Korea and Europe.

We are also involved in chamber music programming endeavors beyond Music@Menlo and CMS, having just completed a first-ever chamber music residency at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida. Furthermore, Wu Han is serving as Artistic Advisor to Wolf Trap Chamber Music at the Barns, which entails thematically programming eight concerts per season for the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons.

As artistic directors, we spend much of our time putting ourselves in the shoes of our listeners, measuring their experience and receptivity to chamber music of all periods and styles, and putting together the best programs and artists who will move our audiences forward into ever-increasing engagement with and love of the art.

David was the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet for 34 seasons, and we have been performing together as a duo for about 35 years, and continue to do so as one of our main performance activities.

What are your personal relationships to the Wisconsin Union Theater, and what do you think of it as a concert venue?

Our engagement with the Wisconsin Union Theater goes back quite a few years, but certainly not even close to the beginning of the Theater’s distinguished history. For any performer setting foot on its stage, there’s a sense of slipping into an ongoing tradition of artistic excellence that makes us feel both privileged and obligated to do our best.

The Wisconsin Union Theater and its story in American cultural life is larger than any of us; only the music we play rises above and beyond it all, and as performers, our lucky moment is to represent that incredible literature in a venue as significant and storied as the Wisconsin Union Theater. (Below is the theater’s main venue, the renovated and restored Shannon Hall.)

Why did you agree to be artistic advisors and artists-in-residence for the centennial season? Did your personal experiences in Madison play a role in that decision?

As seasoned artists, we deeply admire and respect the very special place in the classical music tradition and history that the Wisconsin Union Theater (below) inhabits, and the invitation to participate in the Theater’s 100th anniversary was an honor for us to receive. Our experiences playing on this distinguished stage and forming a relationship with the local audience have made our pursuit of the common goal of artistic excellence in the centennial season incredibly fulfilling.

Of course, having performed there in the past gave us a hint of confidence through our familiarity with the place, but we must say we have learned perhaps double what we knew originally through this planning process. Without interfering, but at the same time sharing our uncompromised commitment to artistic excellence, we hope that our presence during the process has been useful, and we know that we look so much forward to seeing the careful thought and hard work of all involved come to fruition.

Is there a unifying or guiding principle to the season you have put together?

The guiding principle behind our work on this historic season is artistic excellence, which in our opinion is what most inspires audiences and best serves the art form of classical music.

Our area of expertise is chamber music, and, as we wanted to share the best of what we can do with the Theater, our focus has been on ensuring that the chamber music offerings during this historic season, and hopefully beyond, reflect the best of the world of chamber music.

In our suggestions, we looked for variety of instrumentations, of composers and periods—in other words, giving as much of an overview of the art as we could within a season.

What would you like the public to know about the Wisconsin Union Theater and the upcoming centennial season?

In the Theater’s centennial season, the audience will have the opportunity to savor a variety of different genres of chamber music, from solo piano to vocal music, as well as a sampling of the very best works of the chamber music canon. Between these various genres, the great composers left a wealth of chamber music that could sustain the art form on its own, but that’s still only the tip of the iceberg.

Our chamber music offerings will include the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, which has a long history of performing for the Madison audience. Their December program will include celebrated cornerstones of the piano trio repertoire, including Mendelssohn’s D minor Trio and Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio. (You can hear the opening of the Archduke Trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Both pieces have achieved monumental historical significance through their influence in propelling the art form forward from the Classical period to the Romantic period.

The Escher String Quartet performance in January represents the best of the next generation of young string quartets. Their program includes a quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn—the father of the string quartet genre—and the sole quartet of none other than revered violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, who performed in the Wisconsin Union Theater nearly a century ago. Kreisler set foot on the Theater’s stage numerous times, and his rarely heard string quartet nods to the Theater’s long, distinguished history. David will join the Escher Quartet for the beloved Schubert Cello Quintet, which is the “desert island” must-have piece for many music lovers.

Furthermore, in March, we will bring two of the most fantastic musicians in the world to join us for a program of Antonin Dvorak, Josef Suk and Johannes Brahms. This multigenerational cast of musicians includes the incredible young French violinist Arnaud Sussmann (below top, in a photo by Matt Dine) as well as the most important violist of our generation, Paul Neubauer (below bottom). This program is all about the passing down of the baton and the continuous investment in the next generations of artists: Brahms was the one who discovered Dvorak, and Dvorak in turn discovered Suk.


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