The Well-Tempered Ear

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

May 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By Larry Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


But the stage belonged to the women.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classical music: The Madison Opera stages its first-ever production of Dvorak’s fairy tale opera “Rusalka” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A preview roundtable is this Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage its production of Antonin Dvorak’s luxurious masterpiece Rusalka on Friday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Running time is 3 hours with two intermissions, and will feature projected supertitles with English translations of the original Czech that will be sung.

Tickets are $18-$131 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

Inspired by the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story travels from a mythical forest to a palace and back again. Its lush score includes the famous “Song to the Moon.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing”Song to the Moon” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in a mythical realm, Rusalka is about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. She tells her father Vodnik that she wishes to become human and live with the Prince on land. Horrified, Vodnik tells her that humans are full of sin, but reluctantly suggests she enlist the help of Jezibaba, a witch. Jezibaba agrees to make her human, but cautions that Rusalka will lose her power of speech. Further, if the Prince betrays her, she will be cursed forever.

The Prince falls in love with Rusalka and plans to marry her, but her silence unnerves him, and a Foreign Princess interrupts the wedding festivities with evil intent. Rusalka returns to the lake as a spirit that lures men to their death – and the Prince follows her.

Rusalka is one of the most gorgeous operas in the repertoire,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with it when I first saw it over 20 years ago, and listening to the score is a pure pleasure. I am so delighted to share this opera with Madison, so that everyone can learn how brilliant an operatic composer Dvorak was, and experience an opera that is justifiably popular around the world.”

Rusalka’s story was inspired by multiple sources, including Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben, Hans Christian Andersen, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

The opera premiered on March 31, 1901 in Prague and quickly became a massive success, hailed as Dvorak’s masterpiece.

But it was not initially widely performed outside of Czech territories; the first U.S. performance was in 1975. But in recent decades, the opera by Dvorak (below) has become a regular part of the opera repertoire, due to its beautiful music and lovely story.

This production is not only a Madison Opera premiere, but also the company’s first-ever opera in Czech.

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Soprano Emily Birsan (below) returns to Madison Opera in the title role, following successes here as Gounod’s Juliet and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Last month, she sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has praised her singing for her “amazing clarity of diction, accuracy of intonation and fineness of expression.”

Tenor John Lindsey (below) returns to Madison Opera as The Prince, after singing in last summer’s Opera in the Park.

Making their debuts with Madison Opera are soprano Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess, contralto Lindsay Amman as the witch Jezibaba and bass William Meinert as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik. Emily SecorSaira Frank and Kirsten Larson play the three wood sprites; Benjamin Liupaogo sings the Hunter.

The Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra round out the musical forces, all under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director.

Keturah Stickann (below) directs her first opera for Madison Opera; she has directed both traditional and contemporary repertoire across all of the U.S., most recently for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera.

This production originated at Minnesota Opera and features projections (below) by Wendall K. Harrington, who has been described as “the godmother of modern projection design.”

In reviewing the Minnesota production, theTwin Cities Arts Reader praised “the stunning visuals on display, which only serve to enhance and elaborate on the action and the music.”

Madison Opera’s production of “Rusalka” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kay & Martin Barrett, Millie & Marshall Osborn, Sally & Mike Miley, Kato Perlman, Charles & Martha Casey, John Lemke & Pam Oliver, and The Ann Stanke Fund.

RELATED EVENTS

You can learn more about “Rusalka” at the events leading up to the performances.

Opera Up Close will take place this Sunday, April 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center (below) 335 West Mifflin Street, $20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers.

This event features a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Rusalka. General director Kathryn Smith will discuss Antonin Dvorak and the history of his fairy-tale opera. Principal artists, stage director Keturah Stickann and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this masterpiece.

Pre-Show Talks by Kathryn Smith take place on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

Post-Opera Q&A’s are on Friday, April 26, and Sunday, April 28, immediately following the opera in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

More information — including cast biographies and a blog with Q&A interviews with some cast members — is available at https://www.madisonopera.org and https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/rusalka/.


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Classical music: “Into the Woods” proved a complete, first-rate theatrical experience

February 26, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog  – attended two performances of “Into the Woods” at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and filed this review. (Photos are by Beau Meyer for the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.)

By Larry Wells

The University Theatre and University Opera’s recent joint production of “Into the Woods” was a feast for fans of Stephen Sondheim (below). It was a complete theatrical experience with excellent singing, a nuanced orchestral accompaniment, skilled acting and enchanting staging.

The nearly three-hour work is an amalgamation of several well-known fairy tales exploring themes such as parent-child relationships, loss of innocence, self-discovery, the consequences of wishes being fulfilled, and death – but all in an amusing, literate, fast-paced kaleidoscope of witty dialogue, catchy music and sophisticated lyrics.

The production employed an attractive, ever-changing set, designed by John Drescher, that was vaguely reminiscent of Maurice Sendak.

Stage director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) utilized the large cast and what had to be an equally large number of backstage crew members in a captivating succession of ensemble pieces and solo numbers. I was never aware of the passing of time. Not looking at my watch is my acid test of a production’s success.

Among the many standout performances, Bryanna Plaisir (below) as the Witch was comical in her delivery and quite amazing in the physicality of her performance. There were a number of times when she flew, and each time I was taken by surprise at her effortlessness. Her initial song, accompanied mostly by percussion, was mesmerizing.

There were two roles that were double cast: Elisheva Pront and Miranda Kettlewell (below) as the Cinderellas; and Meghan Stecker and Zoe Bockhorst as the two Little Red Riding Hoods.

Both Pront and Kettlewell possess excellent voices.

Stecker was the more girlish of the two Red Riding Hoods, whereas Bockhorst (below left) portrayed a slightly more canny character.  Both were very funny in their encounter with Cobi Tappa’s Wolf (below right).

Tappa is a physical actor whose tall lankiness conveyed the Wolf’s lupine nature flawlessly. He also portrayed the Steward, and I was completely captivated by his performance, as was the appreciative audience.

Joshua Kelly (below) was the narrator and also played the baker’s father.  His was a professional quality performance from beginning to end – enunciating so clearly that he was completely understandable throughout.

Jack was played by Christian Michael Brenny. His portrayal of a simple-minded boy was touching, and his singing was outstanding.

Emily Vandenberg (below left) as the wife of the baker (played by Michael Kelley, below right) was another outstanding performer – an excellent comic actress and an accomplished vocalist.

Mention must also be made of Rapunzel and Cinderella’s princes, Tanner Zocher  and Jacob Eliot Elfner. Their two duets, “Agony” and “Agony Reprise,” were enthusiastically received by the audience not only for their delivery but also for such lyrics as “…you know nothing of madness ‘til you’re climbing her hair…”.

Sondheim’s way with words continues to amaze me. In describing a decrepit cow, Jack’s mother gets to sing “…while her withers wither with her…”.  The Wolf gets to sing the line “…there’s no possible way to describe what you feel when you’re talking to your meal…”

Chad Hutchinson (below) conducted the orchestra in a finely shaded performance – never overpowering and always supportive.

There were many other excellent performances and memorable moments. Suffice it to say that altogether cast, crew, artistic and production staff created a show that I enjoyed on two consecutive evenings. In fact I was completely entranced both times.

Postscript: The first evening I sat in front of a person who coughed more or less continually the entire first act.  Mercifully she left at the intermission. Next to me was a woman who alternated between audibly clearing her throat and blowing her nose — when she wasn’t applying moisturizer to her hands — throughout the entire show. Stay home if you’re sick. And remember that you are not at home watching your television.  You are in a theater.


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Classical music: “Into the Woods” is a big deal in many ways for the UW-Madison. There are five performances at the Memorial Union between this Thursday night and Sunday afternoon

February 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Make no mistake.

The modern musical and theatrical retellings by Stephen Sondheim (below) of well-known childhood fairy tales do not offer your usual versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming, Cinderella and Rapunzel among others.

Moreover the local production of the acclaimed 1986 Broadway musical “Into the Woods” – the woods being a dark, adult and disturbing Freudian metaphor of deeper meanings — is literally a big deal. (You can hear a sample of Sondheim’s music and supremely clever lyrics, taken from the 2014 movie version by Walt Disney, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It involves both the University Opera and the University Theatre and Drama Department. The ambitious joint production – the first in a dozen years – took almost two years and involves over 90 people.

You can see the promising results for yourself in five performances starting this Thursday night in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights; and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Happily, there are a lot of ways to check out background and prepare for the show, which faced its own trials.

You’ll notice, for example, that  the rehearsal picture below —  taken by Beau Meyer of Elisheva Pront (Cinderella) with Jake Elfner (her Prince Charming) — was taken with no costumes, even though such photos were planned. But during the recent deep freeze and big thaw, Vilas Hall got hit with flooding from broken pipes and the costumes got clobbered, so such photos are delayed.

Still, the show must go on — and did.

Here is an interview with David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio), the prize-winning director of University Opera and other members of the production team and actors:

https://arts.wisc.edu/2019/02/15/into-the-woods/

Here is more information, including a plot summary, a cast and ticket information from the University Opera:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/2018/12/27/opera-theatre-sondheim-into-the-woods/

Here is a story from the Department of University Theatre and Drama, including interviews with the two women who play Cinderella:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-and-university-theatre-sondheims-into-the-woods/2019-02-22/

From the Wisconsin Union Theater, here is the complex and complete ticket pricing information ($10-$40):

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/#additional

And here is a complete list of the student cast, who will sing under the baton of UW-Madison professor Chad Hutchinson (below)  who will conduct the orchestra:

https://theatre.wisc.edu/2018/10/18/into-the-woods-cast/


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Classical music: The FREE midday Just Bach concert series will continue through the second semester. November’s concert is TODAY at 1 p.m.

November 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The new Just Bach series of hour-long, midday concerts (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) has reason to celebrate this holiday season.

It has been a success and has just announced that it will continue through the second semester. Next semester’s dates – all Wednesdays–are Jan. 23, Feb. 20, March 13, April 24 and May 29.

As usual, they will run from 1 to about 2 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue. Admission is FREE with good-will donations accepted. And audiences are permitted to eat and drink during the concert.

Two more concerts are left in this semester.

November’s concert takes place TODAY. The next concert is Dec. 12.

The program includes opening with organist Mark Brampton Smith (below playing the Fantasia in G Major, BWV 572. (You can hear the piece, with a scrolling score, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Soprano Sarah Brailey (below top) will be featured in the famous Cantata 82a “Ich habe genug” (I Have Enough). Brailey will then be joined by UW-Madison bass-baritone Paul Rowe (below bottom, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) in Cantata 173a, “Durchlauchster Leopold” (Most Serene Leopold), a secular work written in 1722 for the birthday of Bach’s employer, Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Koethen.

The orchestra of baroque period-instrument specialists will be led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim (below), and will include traverso flutists Linda Pereksta and Elizabeth Marshall, who play modern piccolo and flute, respectively, in the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

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.

Members of the artistic team will prepare local singers to perform alongside seasoned professionals and develop a familiarity and love of the repertoire.

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

Adds founder and director Marika Fischer Hoyt (below), who plays baroque viola with Just Bach, Sonata a Quattro and the Madison Bach Musicians plus modern viola with the Madison Symphony Orchestra: “We are deeply grateful to Pastor Brad Pohlman and the congregation of Luther Memorial Church for hosting the series this Fall. We invite the Madison community to come spend a lunch hour with the sublime music of J.S. Bach – feed your body and soul!”

For more information, here is a link to the website: https://justbach.org

And if people want to follow Just Bach on Facebook, they can like our page at https://www.facebook.com/JustBachSeries


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Classical music: The Madison Savoyards marks its 55th anniversary with six performances of “Die Fledermaus” starting this Friday night

July 17, 2018
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ALERT: Tomorrow, on Wednesday night, July 18, at 7:30 p.m. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue near Camp Randall Stadium, the Madison Summer Choir will mark its 10th anniversary with a performance of the choral and orchestral Mass in D Minor by Anton Bruckner and other works including one by Johannes Brahms. For more information, go to:

http://www.madisonsummerchoir.org

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Madison+summer+choir

By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this weekend, the Madison Savoyards presents Die Fledermaus, or The Bat, by Johann Strauss Jr. — sung in English with supertitles — at UW Music Hall at the base of Bascom Hill.

Evening performances are on Friday, July 20; Friday, July 27; and Saturday, July 28; matinees are at 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 21; Sunday, July 22; and Sunday, July 29.

Ticket prices are $30 for the public; $28 for seniors; $15 for students and youth under 17; and $5 for children under 5. Tickets can be purchased through UW Box Office at (608) 265-2787, www.arts.wisc.edu, or in person at the door. Group sales of 10 or more available by telephone only.

For more information, go to the website: www.madisonsavoyards.org

The production marks the 55th anniversary of the Madison Savoyards, best known for presenting the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

For this production, board director J. Adam Shelton makes his debut as stage director and Kyle Knox (below), a UW-Madison graduate, returns as music director and conductor. He is also the music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the new associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the popular Overture to Die Fledermaus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Die Fledermaus is the story of a romantically stale couple that learns to love again all the while playing the fools in this comedy of errors.

Eisenstein and his wife Rosalinda, fall prey to a cruel joke by their old pal Falke involving their chambermaid, a Russian prince, a prison warden and a tenor who can’t get the girl. Everyone works his or her way up and down the social ladder in this futuristic production set in 2021.

The famous second act masquerade ball is a menagerie theme featuring a ballet performance by Central Midwest Ballet Academy of Middleton.

The choreographer is Kristin Roling, with costumes by Rebecca Stanley and set design by Corey Helser.

The cast includes Tim Rebers (below top) as Eisenstein and Erica K. Bryan (below bottom) as Rosalinda.

Also featured are Michelle Buck (below top) as Adele; Ben Swanson (below second) as Falke; Kirsten Larson (below third) as Prince Orlofsky; and Tom Kastle (below bottom) as Frosch.

Grant funding supports the artists and underwrites the Children’s Pre-Show (1 p.m. on July 22 at UW-Madison’s Music Hall) where children will meet members of the cast and crew, and learn about the show and its music, tour the theater, and create a show-centric craft for free.

American Sign Language service is available, by request, for the July 21 performance.

ABOUT THE SAVOYARDS 

It is the mission of the Madison Savoyards “to preserve the works of Gilbert and Sullivan (below) and other light opera by producing and promoting live performances; to develop the skills and talent of cast, crew and musicians of all ages; and to inspire, entertain, and educate the community through performances and other initiatives.”

More information can be found on the company’s Facebook page along with behind-the-scenes insights to the production.

J. ADAM SHELDON (below) ANSWERS TWO QUESTIONS FROM THE EAR:

Why does the anniversary production feature Johann Strauss Jr. rather than Gilbert and Sullivan?

“We decided to celebrate our 55th anniversary with Die Fledermaus to try something new as a company.  Strauss Jr.’s Fledermaus is always a party and will elevate our audiences in the same ways as they have come to expect with G&S.

“We have actually continued our tie to G&S by choosing a libretto that is based upon Gilbert’s translation of the original Meilhac and Halevy play, Le Réveillon. Gilbert’s On Bail brandishes the same humor, socio-political commentary, and alliterative patters we expect from his pen. It only seemed logical to use a translation steeped in Gilbert’s.

“Additionally, our company has performed nearly every work in the G&S collaborative canon — the only exceptions being the reconstructed Thespis & Pineapple Poll — and we want to see how the community embraces us peppering in other light opera and operettas into our repertoire. Some celebrate 55 years with emeralds; we’re celebrating with love… and a twist!

“The story of Fledermaus really did not need a ton of punching up to meet the year. For fun we have included Wisconsin references like Spotted Cow beer, cheese curds (my personal favorite), and Old Fashioneds, which enliven the second act even more, but the core of the story is timeless.

“Whether told with Viennese costumes, or modern attire and cell phones, this story could happen anytime, anywhere.  People still play practical jokes on one another, people escape to costume parties for fun, and lovers still fall in, and maybe out, of love.

“Furthermore, Rebecca Stanley (our costume designer) and I imagined a grand masquerade ball in the second act where high fashion meets “cosplay.”  (EDITOR’S NOTE: For a definition of “cosplay,” here is a link to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosplay)

Why did you choose to do it in English?

“The Madison Savoyards is dedicated to continuing the tradition of performing in English. It offers accessibility to our audiences that larger operatic works sometimes cannot. Plus, light opera historically is offered in the vernacular of wherever it’s performed.

“Likewise, we are continuing to offer comedic works as the core of our repertoire.

“We recognize we have a powerful place in the community offering comedic works exclusively in English. But we will offer supertitles this summer for those who might not be familiar with the story.”


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Classical music: Superb music-making offset awkward acting and dancing in a concert that the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society gave last weekend. This summer’s last BDDS concerts are tonight, Saturday and Sunday 

June 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, published belatedly but in time for this weekend’s upcoming closing concerts – two performances each of two programs — of the current summer season by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

It is 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.

Performance photos were taken by Dick Ainsworth for BDDS.

By John W. Barker

One of the two programs of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s second weekend this season was held in the Overture Center’s Playhouse last Saturday night.

The associations of its three works with war were somewhat strained, most of all for Robert Schumann’s Three Romances, Op. 94. They were composed in 1849 for the options of oboe and violin or clarinet with piano.

On this occasion they were presented in a transcription for bassoon, made by the performer, Adrian Morejon (below). He played these brief and lovely pieces beautifully, but I confess I would have liked them more if one of the stipulated, higher-range instruments had been used.

The first major work was from the contemporary American composer Kevin Puts (below), called Einstein on Mercer Street. It is a kind of cantata, a half-hour in length, cast in five sections, each beginning with spoken words but moving to singing.

The text, whose origins were not made clear, purports to represent the thinking of Albert Einstein in his last years in Princeton, N.J., as he contemplates his place in science and in the creation of the atomic bomb.

The vocal part was written for baritone Timothy Jones (below center), who performed it this time, delivering it with confident eloquence. To tell the truth, though, a lot of his words, spoken and sung, did not come through clearly, at least for where I sat.

Though the vocal writing goes through one ear and out the other, there is a lot of very pleasant melodic music in the score, and it occurred to me that, with a little tightening, the work could nicely be left just to the instrumental ensemble (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, percussion and piano), the vocal part dispensed with — heresy, of course.

The second half of the program was devoted to the classic work of 1918, L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), originally with a French text by the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, and with brilliant music, in the style of blues, jazz and ragtime by Igor Stravinsky.

The spoken text, in a rhymed English translation, calls for three actors: a narrator, a Soldier and the Devil. Jones was quite good as the narrator, but well enough could not be left alone.

With utter arbitrariness, the character of the Soldier was turned into the soldierette “Josie,” so that the Prince he woos and wins becomes a “Princess.”

This absurdity was absolutely pointless, save, perhaps, to allow the two co-directors of the festival, Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes (below) to play soldierette and the Devil against each other. In hilarious costumes, the two did well enough, Sykes especially, but the gender change grated all the way through the piece.

And there was another problem. The work was not only written for actors and musicians, but also with dancers in mind. No choreography survives, and the use of dancers in performances of the work is patchy.

Here we had hip-hop dancer Blake Washington introduced during the Three Dances movement as the recovering “Prince,” with a lot of spastic shivering and shaking that suggested more of painful decomposition than recovery.

The stars of the piece, however, were the seven outstanding instrumentalists: violinist Axel Strauss; David Scholl, double bass; Alan Kay, clarinet; Morejon, bassoon; Matt Onstad, trumpet; Dylan Chmura-Moore, trombone; and Anthony di Sanza, percussion. With truly superb playing, they upheld the high standards of the musicians that the BDDS brings us.

For more information about BDDS’ closing concerts this weekend – featuring guest soprano and critically acclaimed UW-Madison alumna Emily Birsan and music by Mozart, Schumann, Saint-Saens, Fauré, Ravel, Prokofiev, Barber and other composers in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green tonight, Saturday and Sunday, go to: http://bachdancing.org/concerts/festival-concerts/


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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.


Classical music: Wisconsin Public Radio will air the Madison Opera’s productions of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Magic Flute” this Saturday afternoon and next Saturday afternoon

May 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Saturday live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera ended for the season last weekend.

But opera on the radio continues.

The Madison Opera is partnering with Wisconsin Public Radio to present recorded broadcasts of Charles Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet on Saturday, May 20, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute (below) on Saturday, May 27. (Photo are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

Both broadcasts begin at 1 p.m. Listeners can tune into their local WPR station or stream online at www.wpr.org/listen-live.

Each spring, two operas from Madison Opera’s season are presented by Wisconsin Public Radio to let listeners re-live the season.  These broadcasts cap off the end of the season of live radio broadcasts from The Metropolitan Opera that run from December through May on WPR’s News and Classical Music Network.

“We are committed to showcasing some of the best music and arts performances in Wisconsin. Our broadcast partnership with the Madison Opera, and organizations and musicians throughout the state, help to ensure everyone has access to live and local concerts no matter where they live,” said Peter Bryant (below), director of WPR’s News and Classical Music.

Charles Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet opens the broadcast series on Saturday, May 20, at 1 p.m.  In 14th-century Verona, Romeo meets Juliet in a crowded ballroom, setting in motion a chain of events that will change both their families. With soaring arias, impassioned scenes and plenty of sword fights, Gounod’s gorgeous opera brings Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers to vivid life.

Madison Opera’s cast features UW-Madison graduate and Lyric Opera of Chicago alumna Emily Birsan (below right) as Juliet, John Irvin (below left) as Romeo, Sidney Outlaw as Mercutio, Stephanie Lauricella as Stephano, Liam Moran as Friar Lawrence, Allisanne Apple as Gertrude, Chris Carr as Tybalt, Philip Skinner as Lord Capulet, Benjamin Sieverding as the Duke of Verona, Nathanial Hill as Gregorio, James Held as Paris, and Andrew F. Turner as Benvolio.

John DeMain conducts, featuring the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra. The broadcast includes an intermission feature with Birsan, Irvin and DeMain, interviewed by WPR’s Lori Skelton.

On Saturday, May 27, at 1 p.m., the broadcasts conclude with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute. A prince, a princess, a bird-catcher and a host of other fascinating characters invite you into a fantastical world of charmed musical instruments, mystical rituals, and a quest for enlightenment and wisdom.

Written in the last year of his life, Mozart’s sublime opera is part fairy tale, part adventure story, and all enchantment.

Madison Opera’s cast features Amanda Woodbury as Pamina, Andrew Bidlack as Tamino, Alan Dunbar as Papageno, Caitlin Cisler as The Queen of the Night, Nathan Stark as Sarastro, Scott Brunscheen as Monostatos, Amanda Kingston as the First Lady, Kelsey Park as the Second Lady, Anna Parks as the Third Lady, Anna Polum as Papagena, Matthew Scollin as the Speaker, Robert A. Goderich as the First Priest/Armored Man, and James Held as the Second Priest/Armored Man.

Julliard professor Gary Thor Wedow conducts, featuring the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The broadcast includes an intermission feature with Woodbury, Bidlack, Dunbar and Wedow, interviewed by WPR’s Lori Skelton.

Madison Opera is a non-profit professional opera company based in Madison, Wisconsin.  Founded in 1961, the company grew from a local workshop presenting community singers in English-language productions to a nationally recognized organization producing diverse repertoire and presenting leading American opera singers alongside emerging talent.  A resident organization of the Overture Center for the Arts, Madison Opera presents three productions annually in addition to the free summer concert Opera in the Park and a host of educational programming.


Classical music: The Madison Savoyards’ production — with paid singers — of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” opens this coming Friday night and runs through Aug. 7

July 26, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following press release to share:

The Madison Savoyards presents The Gondoliers (or The King of Barataria) by Gilbert and Sullivan (below), starting this Friday night, July 29, at 7:30 p.m. and running through Sunday, Aug. 7, at Music Hall, at the base of Bascom Hill on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

There will be six performances: Friday, July 29, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, July 30, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, July 31, at 3 p.m.; Friday, August 5, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 6, at 7:30 pm; Sunday, Aug. 7, at 3 p.m. UW-Madison conducting student Kyle Knox will make his Madison Savoyards debut as Music Director for The Gondoliers. 

Gilbert and Sullivan (left)

Gilbert and Sullivan fans will not want to miss this tale of romantic complication, silliness and wonderful music, set in beautiful 18th-century Italy.

The story opens with a conundrum. Casilda, the young daughter of the Duke of Plaza-Toro, has arrived in Venice to meet her future husband, the prince of Barataria.

Upon arrival, however, she finds that his identity is in question. As an infant, the young prince was entrusted to a drunken gondolier, who promptly mixed up the baby with his own son.

Thus, in the wake of the king’s recent death, both gondolier brothers must jointly rule the kingdom until the prince’s nurse can be brought in to correctly identify him.

To further complicate the matter, both gondoliers have recently married their loves, and Casilda is, in fact, in love with another man. The story plays out and eventually resolves in typical Gilbert and Sullivan fashion, with hilarious circumstances intertwined with poignant, relatable moments.

Stage Director Audrey Lauren Wax has her artistic eye on the set design to help bring this story to life. “I am truly excited to work with a functional Gondola in this production,” says Wax, who most recently directed Princess Ida with the Savoyards in 2014.

“Our design and stage management team have gone above and beyond discussing and collaborating on the logistics of it.” Wax says. “I do think the audience will be quite pleased and excited the moment it hits the stage. And in the fashion of my directing approach, it has been designed with the idea of a puzzle in mind. You’ll just have to see the show in order to see this fabulous creation.”

Puzzle-like stage pieces aside, no Gilbert and Sullivan show would be complete without the trademark hummable tunes and patter songs, and The Gondoliers does not disappoint in either realm. You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.

In a historic move for the Savoyards, all roles and some chorus positions will be paid. This has drawn a larger mix of current students and recent grads from University of Wisconsin-Madison and Edgewood College, as well as local youth and adult performers.

One such local favorite is Bill Rosholt, playing the Duke of Plaza-Toro in his 11th principal role with the Savoyards. Anmol Gupta appears with Rosholt as Luiz, the Duke’s assistant, and UW-Madison graduate student Becky Buechel (below) portrays the Duchess of Plaza-Toro, along with Deanna Martinez as her daughter, Casilda.

Savoyards Gondoliers Becky Buechel

Christopher Smith (below) and Brian Schneider play the handsome gondoliers Marco and Giuseppe, flanked by Gavin Waid (Antonio), Nicholas Kaplewski (Francesco), Coltan Bratland (Giorgio), and Sara Wojtak (Annibale) as the brothers’ Venetian gondolier friends.

Savoyards Gondoliers Christopher Smith

Contadine (peasant farmers) Gianetta and Tessa are portrayed by Lauren Welch (below) and Alaina Carlson, and Julia Ludwiczack plays all three contadine Fiametta, Giulia and Vittoria.

Savoyards Gondoliers Lauren Welch

Natalie Falconer portrays Inez, the King’s Foster-mother, and the cast is rounded out by a chorus of Gondoliers, Men-at-Arms, Heralds, Pages, and Contadine from the greater Madison area.

Tickets for The Gondoliers are $30 and $40, and can be purchased through the Campus Arts Ticketing Box Office, by phone at (608) 265-ARTS, or online at www.arts.wisc.edu

The Children’s Pre-Show is Sunday, August 7 from 1 to 2 p.m., and is free for any ticket holder age six to 12. Limited spots are available, so please contact Krystal Lonsdale at krys.lonsdale@gmail.com to reserve a space for your child.

For more information about the opera and the production, visit: www.madisonsavoyards.org

The Madison Savoyards, Ltd. has been presenting Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas for 53 years and strives to make each presentation come alive by knowing and respecting the special gifts of the authors and gathering a gifted and enthusiastic cast and crew.

The Savoyards first presented “The Gondoliers” in 1974, and most recently in 2003.


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