The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: University Opera succeeded brilliantly by setting Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the 1960s at Andy Warhol’s The Factory

November 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells — the Opera Guy for this blog – took in two performances last weekend of the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which played to three sold-out houses at Music Hall. He filed this review. Performance photos are by Benjamin Hopkins and Michael Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was set in Andy Warhol’s Factory of the 1960s with countertenor Thomas Alaan (below) as a Warhol-like Oberon presiding over the antics.

The opera by Britten (below) follows Shakespeare’s play fairly closely. The magical transformations and herbs of the original were translated to a hallucinogen-filled milieu of go-go dancing fairies, master-slave relationships and same-sex liaisons.

And for me it worked. That is to say, this production contained the same strangeness and wonder as the traditional productions I have seen. The play itself is very strange and wonderful.

Alaan is a fine singer and played a manipulative and somewhat slimy Warhol/Oberon whose flat affect seemed to be reflected in the relative lack of expressivity in the voice. Pitted against Oberon were Amanda Lauricella and Kelsey Wang alternating as Tytania.

Although the program stated that the portrayal of Tytania was loosely based on Edie Sedgwick in this production, without the platinum hair I missed the references. Both portrayals were much more assertive than Edie ever was, and both singers’ ardent coloratura voices tended to overshadow Oberon’s, which may have been intentional. Wang (below, far right) was an intense actress who put sparks into her portrayal, while Lauricella really has a superb voice.

(Below, from left, are Michael Kelley as Puck; Thomas Alaan as Oberon; Tanner Zocher as a young man; and Kelsey Wang as Tytania.)

The four lovers (below left) seemed to be employees at The Factory. Tenor Benjamin Liupaogo portrayed Lysander. The vocal part has an uncomfortable upper range, but Liupaogo’s singing in the second act particularly was up to the challenge.

His rival Demetrius was portrayed by baritone Kevin Green. Their contending affections for Hermia and Demetrius’ initial scorn for Helena were oddly lacking in ardor.

Hermia was double cast with Julia Urbank, a promising soprano, and Chloe Agostino, who was also a very good singer. Poor Helena, first ignored and then pursued by both men, was also double cast with a terrific Rachel Love and an equally gifted Jing Liu.

(The four lovers, below from left, were: Benjamin Liupaogo as Lysander; Chloe Agostino as Hermia; Jing Liu as Helena;, Kevin Green as Demetrius; and Paul Rowe as Theseus with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyte.)

As I have noted before, the female singers in the opera program often seem to be very solid performers. (You can hear the lovers’ quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And then there were the “Rustics” (below), the workers who have come together to put on the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the upcoming wedding of the local duke, or in this case a rich art patron.

(The six rustics, below from left, were: James Harrington as Bottom; Jacob Elfner as Quince; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; Jack Innes as Starveling; Thore Dosdall as Flute; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; with Kevin Green as Demetrius, seated.)

The six men were each talented comic actors and provided many of the performance’s laughs. Foremost was James Harrington’s Bottom. Not only a very funny actor, he produced in my opinion the finest singing among the many talented students.

Mention must be made of the very amusing Flute, hysterically portrayed by Thore Dosdall, and the promising bass Benjamin Galvin as the slow learner Snug.

These men not only sang well together and separately, but also provided many guffaws whenever they appeared. (Below are: Jacob Elfner as Quince; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; James Harrington as Bottom; Jack Innes – back row up on box – as Starveling; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; and Thore Dosdall as Flute.)

Additionally we had the fairies — all female voices in this production — who sounded wonderful together and got to demonstrate their incongruous ‘60s dance moves to Britten’s score.

Professor Paul Rowe (below left, with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyta) made an appearance as Theseus, the duke. His singing was that of a mature artist, a quality to which the students are clearly aspiring.

As the opera drew to a close with a beautifully harmonious chorus, one felt the transformation from dissonance to harmony in the opera and conflict to resolution embodied in the original play.

Many mentions of woods and forest are made in the libretto.  Director David Ronis had the walls of the factory cleverly hung with changing arrays of Warhol-like multiple images of flowers and animals. With the amount of weed being smoked and who knows what being ingested onstage, it was easy to believe that the characters might think they were in a forest despite being in a Manhattan warehouse (below).

(The cast, below from left, included Amanda Lauricella and Thomas Alaan in the foreground as Tytania and Oberon. Others were: Julia Urbank on the floor; Benjamin Liupaogo, on the floor; Chloe Flesch; Maria Steigerwald; Amanda Lauricella; Maria Marsland; Angela Fraioli; Thomas Aláan; and James Harrington lying on the couch.)

Presiding over all of this were members of the UW Symphony Orchestra led by new conductor Oriol Sans (below). I have heard maestro Sans conduct the students several times this fall, and I feel he is an outstanding addition to the music school. His control over the forces was amazing, and the subtlety he drew from the players was remarkable.

Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) has tried original twists in several of his previous productions, but I think this has been the most outlandish. And I have to say that I really loved it. So carry on, please.

He has a penchant for Britten, one of my favorite composers. His previous productions included “Albert Herring” and “Turn of the Screw.” I wonder if readers have suggestions for another Britten opera he could conceivably produce here. I have my own wish list.

 


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Classical music: The UW Choral Union delivers an eclectic non-seasonal program of music by Beethoven, Brahms and Bernstein with power and lyricism

December 12, 2016
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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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Eschewing any seasonal or holiday connections, the UW-Madison Choral Union (below) gave its December concert last Friday night with a program of three “B’s”.

uw-choral-union-with-chamber-orchestra-and-soloists-dec-2016-jwb

Well, two of the B’s are familiar ones. But in place of Bach, we got Leonard Bernstein, taking first place in reverse chronological order — his Chichester Psalms, dating from 1965.

This three-movement work probably represents Bernstein’s most important choral score. It sets texts in the original Hebrew, the middle movement calling for a boy treble to represent the young David in the rendering of Psalm 131 — a function here filled bravely by young Simon Johnson (below, front left) of the Madison Youth Choirs.

uw-choral-union-dec-2016-jwb-simon-johnson-of-myc

The platoon of percussionists in the first two movements confirms the composer’s flashy “modernism.” To be sure, there are some characteristic melodic twists that proclaim the composer familiar to us, and the swaying melodic tune of the third movement is really lovely.

But Bernstein (below) did not know what to do with it besides repeating it obsessively. Bernstein simply was not a savvy master of choral writing, and I firmly believe that this work—a trivial cross between Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bernstein’s own Broadway musical West Side Story—would not merit much attention were it not for Bernstein’s name on it.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: You can decide on the work’s merits for yourself by listening to the live performance, conducted by the composer himself, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Leonard Bernstein composing in 1955

Just how inadequate Bernstein’s choral sense was emerged clearly with the next work, the short ode for chorus and orchestra by Johannes Brahms, Nänie, Op. 82.

The title adapts a Greek word for a lament, and Friedrich Schiller’s German text evokes the death of beauty in the death of Achilles. Brahms was among the supreme choral masters, and this particular example is one of several of his “minor” choral works that we hear too rarely.

brahmsBW

The second half of the program was devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Op. 86. No, not the monumental Missa solemnis of the composer’s last years when (as with the Ninth Symphony’s finale) he had transcended the realities of choral writing. This earlier Mass setting, dating from 1807, was in the direct line of Mass settings for the Esterházy family composed by the aged Haydn.

But to Haydn’s incorporation of symphonic structure into Mass composition, Beethoven (below) brought his own strongly progressive personality, and a remarkable quality of melodic and thematic invention. This is a lovely work, and choirs who fling themselves doggedly against the Missa solemnis ought sometimes to revel in this beautiful work instead.

Beethoven big

The forces arrayed included a solo quartet (below, in the front from left) are bass John Loud, tenor Jiabao Zhang and sopranos Jessica Kasinski and Anna Polum.

uw-choral-union-dec-2016-soloists

The UW Chamber Orchestra proved able. But the star was, of course, the Choral Union chorus itself. Its diction worked from indistinguishable Hebrew through respectable German to really lucid Latin. Above all, it made mighty, full-blooded sound that bolstered Beethoven’s lyricism with powerful projection.

Once again, conductor Beverly Taylor (below) has gone beyond stale conventions to bring us valued exposure to music outside the conventional boundaries.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society seeks amateur photos from the public for a slide show to accompany Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in June. Plus, Mikko Rankin Utevsky gives a FREE viola recital Sunday night

April 9, 2016
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ALERT: Blog contributor and all-round musician — violist, conductor and singer as well as critic — Mikko Rankin Utevsky sends the following word:

Dear friends: I’m giving my senior viola recital this Sunday evening, April 10, the culmination of my four years of study here at the UW-Madison. On the program are a pair of powerful and evocative works from 1919: the Viola Sonata of Rebecca Clarke, and the Suite for Viola and Piano by Ernest Bloch. Pianist Thomas Kasdorf joins me for the program, which is at 7 p.m. at Capitol Lakes, off the Capitol Square, at 333 West Main Street. I hope to see you there!

P.S.: Thomas and I are giving another recital – with me singing this time – on Tuesday, May 10, at 7 p.m., also at Capitol Lakes. On the program are assorted songs by Samuel Barber, Kurt Weill, Charles Ives, Robert Schumann, and Claude Debussy, and the “Songs of Travel” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. If you can’t make this one, see you in a month!

By Jacob Stockinger

Multi-media concerts seem to be catching on, perhaps in an attempt to attract new and younger audiences.

Next season the Madison Symphony Orchestra will do two of them: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” with a hi-definition film made by NASA for the Houston Symphony Orchestra; and a Beyond the Score with “Scheherazade” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, accompanied by photographs plus actors Jim DeVita and Brenda DeVita from American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

Doing mutli-media is nothing new for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which is always experimenting and looking for novel approaches to classical music. But the group is expanding how it is done in an impressively populist way.

Here is an announcement from The Ear’s friends at the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which turns 25 this summer:

BDDS silver jubilee logo

SEASONAL PHOTOGRAPHS WANTED FOR A SPECIAL CONCERT AT THE OVERTURE CENTER THIS SUMMER.

Have you taken photos of your favorite time of year?

Visual artist Lisa A. Frank will be creating photographic scenery for this year’s “Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society” concerts at the Overture Center for the Arts.

The program on June 25 will include the “Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi. For this concert, a photo collage of the four seasons – like Frank’s spring image of bird eggs and feathers in a nest and the fall image of gourds – will be projected on a large screen behind the musicians.

(You can get a sense of it from the popular YouTube video at the bottom, which features the “Spring” section of the four string concertos that make up “The Four Seasons.)

Lisa Frank Spring Birds eggs

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Lisa Frank (below) invites amateur photographers of all ages to participate in this concert by sending up to 5 of your best shots depicting any aspect of any season.

Lisa Frank

The images can be in jpeg, tiff or Photoshop format. If your photograph is included, you may be asked to resend a higher resolution image. (Below is a summer photo of a flower and butterfly.)

Lisa Frank Summer Butterfly

All featured photographers will receive a video of the final result.

Up to 100 photos will be selected.

Send your photographs by Sunday, April 18 to:

lisafrank@lisafrankphotography.com

And here is a link – with information about programs, performers, venues and tickets — to the new summer season of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which celebrates the group’s 25th anniversary or Silver Jubilee:

http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org


Classical music: These women composers should be household names

March 26, 2016
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It may be known more for basketball, for March Madness and the Big Dance.

But March is also Women’s History Month.

Before it ends, The Ear wanted to share a terrific story about women composers that appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine.

It discusses women composers who should be household names like Johann Sebastian Bach or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

barbara strozzi

Who are they?

schumannclara

Can you guess their names and match them to the photos?

elizabeth maconchy

Have you heard their works?

Amy Beach BW 1

Read the story and see for yourself.

Here is a link:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/these-women-composers-should-be-household-names-bach-or-mozart-180958464/?no-ist

And at bottom is a YouTube video with a beautiful and tuneful example of one woman composer as well as background about a great but unknown female American violinist, who is championed by the Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below), who herself has performed several times with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

Rachel Barton Pine

And leave what you think about a specific composer or women in music in general in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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