The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This Friday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra closes its season with a dark and unorthodox symphony by Shostakovich as well as lighter suites by Bizet and Debussy

May 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) ends its winter Masterworks season this coming Friday night, May 10, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

And it is going out in a big, eclectic way.

The WCO will perform under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell (below).

Sewell and the WCO will be joined by two guest singers: soprano Mary Mackenzie, a former Madison resident and member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO); (below top); and the Grammy-nominated bass Timothy Jones (below bottom).

Both critically acclaimed singers are familiar to Madison audiences from past appearances with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Madison Opera, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and previous appearances with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

They will all join in the major work that opens the concert, the Symphony No. 14, Op. 135, by Dmitri Shostakovich (below), his penultimate symphony that runs about 50 minutes and is highly unorthodox in its form.

Shostakovich wrote his symphony in 1969, and dedicated it to the British composer Benjamin Britten.

Perhaps to avoid more confrontations with the government of the USSR and perhaps to critique global events such as war,  the composer gave it a very international flavor.

Written for strings and percussion with vocal soloists, the symphony is composed in 11 movements. It is also set to poetry by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (below top), the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (below middle) and the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (below bottom). In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a live recording of the first movement from the work’s world premiere in Moscow in 1969.

In the late work, Shostakovich (below, in 1950) – always suspect by the Soviet state and in danger during the Stalinist Terror — seeks to portray the idea of unjust and premature death that aroused deep feelings of protest in him. Shostakovich emphasized, however, that it was not out of pessimism that he turned to the problem of mortality but in the name of life on this earth.

The concert concludes on a lighter, more upbeat note by celebrating the innocence and joy of youth in two charming suites: “Jeux d’enfants” (Children’s Games), Op. 22, by Georges Bizet and the “Petite Suite” (Little Suite) by Claude Debussy.

Tickets are $12-$80. To buy tickets and to see more information about the program and detailed biographies of the performers, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-v-4/


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Classical music: We should hear more operas sung in English translation – like Wisconsin Public Radio’s live broadcast TODAY at noon of the Metropolitan Opera’s shortened version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”

December 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear thinks that we in English-speaking countries should hear more operas sung in our native language.

Yes, sung in English – not the original Italian, French or German.

You can see how you’d like it for yourself if you listen at noon TODAY– Saturday, Dec. 29 — to Wisconsin Public Radio. That’s when you can hear the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of its family-friendly production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

The Ear did so and – except for deleting the wonderful overture — loved it.

So, apparently, did a lot others. (You can hear Nathan Gunn in a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

After many years, the production has now become a holiday tradition for the Met to offer children while school is out for the holidays.

And one suspects it is developing new audiences – especially with the colorful staging and costumes by Julie Taymor, who won such acclaim for her staging of “The Lion King” on both the stage and film.

Sure, a lot of purists will probably object to substituting English for the original Italian, French, German and Russian. But it is so freeing and feels so good to understand what you are hearing without the distraction of constantly going back and forth trying to look at both the supertitles and the stage.

It also seems worth a try, given the problems that many opera companies are having competing with the “Live from the Met in HD” productions that you can see in movie theaters for far less money, and the decline of both season subscribers and single tickets.

To be honest, of course even in English you will miss some of the words. That’s the nature of singing. But excellent diction helps. And if you are lucky enough to see the production in person, supertitles in Italian, French German and Spanish and, yes, English are still provided.

It is not a completely new idea. After all, Great Britain has the English National Opera, which performs standard operas by Verdi and Puccini, Monteverdi and Handel, Mozart and Wagner, in English. So, many of the very great operas have already been translated into English and could be staged in English elsewhere.

Here are links where you can learn more about the English National Opera:

https://www.eno.org

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_National_Opera

Do you question how the text is hurt in translation?

It’s worth remembering that Mozart himself used the vernacular German instead of his usual opera house Italian so that he would reach the general public. Why not do the same today? Translation could make opera much more accessible, less pretentious and more populist.

The same is true for cutting the show down to 100 minutes from almost 3 hours. Let’s just admit that the attention span of the general public is much shorter than it used to be.

Orchestra and chamber music concerts as well as solo recitals are trimming their running times often down to 90 minutes or less, and meet with great approval from the public. Why not try the same approach with opera? Indeed, both the Madison Opera and the University Opera have limited but successful experiences with editing operas and using English.

It is also worth recalling that in translation we read greater words than an opera libretto. If we can translate Homer and Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Proust, why can’t we translate opera librettos? One just has to be sure to find a great translator with a sensitive musical ear– such as American poet Richard Wilbur is with his award-winning, rhyming translations of Moliere’s comedies and Racine’s tragedies. Similarly, American poet J.D. McClatchy has done a fine job with The Met’s “Magic Flute.”

Here is a link to more information about the production, including a synopsis:

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/the-magic-flute/

And here is a review of the Met’s  “Magic Flute” by Tommasini:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/arts/music/review-mozart-magic-flute-met-opera.html

What do you think?

Should more operas be staged in English?

Should long operas be edited?

Why or why not?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: This Saturday the acclaimed German tenor Jonas Kaufmann returns to the Metropolitan Opera in Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West. It’s the second “Live from The Met in HD” production this season

October 25, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

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This Saturday, Oct. 27, the second production of this season’s “Live From the Met” in HD series will be broadcast worldwide: It is Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (Girl of the Golden West), his last work that, for some reason, has never achieved the popularity of “La Boheme,” “Tosca,” “Madama Butterfly” and “Turandot.”

The production features acclaimed superstar German tenor Jonas Kaufmann (below top), who is returning to the Met stage after four years. Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek (below bottom) plays the gun-slinging title role.

The hi-definition broadcast of a live performance from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City starts at 11:55 a.m. and runs until 4 p.m. with two intermissions.

The encore showings are next Wednesday, Oct. 31, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

The opera will be sung in Italian with supertitles in English, German, Spanish and Italian. (You can see the trailer preview in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tickets are for Saturday broadcasts are $24 for adults and $22 for seniors and children under 13. For encore showings, all tickets are $18.

The cinemas where the opera can be screened are two Marcus Cinemas: the Point Cinema on the west side of Madison (608 833-3980) and the Palace Cinema (608 242-2100) in Sun Prairie.

Here is a link to the Marcus website for addresses and more information. You can also use them to purchase tickets:

http://www.marcustheatres.com/movies/met-aida-live

Here is a link to the Metropolitan Opera’s web site where you can find the titles, dates, casts, production information and video clips of all 10 productions this season, which includes operas by Bizet, Wagner, Donizetti, Saint-Saens, Puccini, Cilea and Poulenc plus a new work, “Marnie,” by Nico Muhly:

https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/

Here is a review from The New York Times, which right now has a technical glitch that makes loading it difficult (the Times said the problem should be fixed soon):

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/18/arts/music/review-jonas-kaufmann-met-opera-puccini-fanciulla.html

And here is a more positive review from Opera Wire:

http://operawire.com/metropolitan-opera-2018-19-review-la-fanciulla-del-west-jonas-kaufmann-edition/

Here is a link to a synopsis and cast list:

https://www.metopera.org/globalassets/season/in-cinemas/hd-cast-sheets/fanciulla_1819_hdsynopsis.pdf?performanceNumber=15221

Here is a link to other information about the production of “Girl of the Golden West,” including photos and audiovisual clips:

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/la-fanciulla-del-west/

And here is a Wikipedia history of the broadcast series that gives you more information about how many cinemas it uses, the size of the worldwide audience – now including Russia, China and Israel — and how much money it makes for The Met.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Opera_Live_in_HD


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Classical music: The FREE one-hour, monthly midday concert series “Just Bach” debuts with excellent playing and outstanding singing as well as practical problems such as downtown parking and timing

October 1, 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

Marika Fischer Hoyt is becoming ever more ubiquitous, not only as a performing violist in orchestral, string quartet and period-instrument ensembles, but also as organizer of musical activities, especially as devoted to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below).

Hoyt (below) has already revived the annual “Bach around the Clock” spectacular each spring to mark Bach’s birthday, but now she has established a monthly series of FREE midday concerts at Luther Memorial Church called “Just Bach.”

The first of this series was held last Thursday afternoon, Sept. 27, at 1 p.m. in the church sanctuary at 1021 University Avenue. Ten musicians participated.

The singers were UW-Madison alumna Sarah Brailey, soprano (below); mezzo-soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe; tenor Wesley Dunnagan; UW-Madison bass-baritone Paul Rowe.

The players were Kangwon Lee Kim and Leanne League, violins; Fischer Hoyt, viola; James Waldo, cello; and Luke Conklin, oboe. All played on period instruments, with Mark Brampton Smith playing the organ.

The hour-long program offered Bach’s “Little” Organ Fugue in G minor, and two full cantatas: BWV 165, “O heiliges Geist- und Wasserbad” (O Bath of Holy Spirit and Water) for Trinity, and BWV 32, “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (Dearest Jesus, My Desire), a dialogue cantata. (You can hear the opening aria of Cantata BWV 32 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Both set the type of Pietistic Lutheran German texts standard for such church compositions of the day, and each built around pairs of arias and recitatives for different solo singers.

BWV 32, which adds an oboist (below, second from right) to the string players in some of the movements, is particularly interesting in representing a series of exchanges between the Soul (Seele) and Jesus Himself, culminating in direct duos between them.

Each cantata ends with a harmonization of a traditional Lutheran chorale. In the spirit of the program’s venue, the audience was asked to sing them, in German, from prepared sheets. In these, and in an English hymn from this church’s hymnal, the audience was prepped by Brailey, who served as general hostess.

In purely musical terms, the performances were really excellent, with both vocalists and instrumental players of established talents. And certainly the very atmosphere of a church setting evoked the composer’s original purposes. (The church’s ample acoustics enriched the musical performances, though they badly undermined spoken material on the microphone.)

Previously, the Madison Bach Musicians has been a rare group giving us specimens of the generally neglected cantatas, but now this “Just Bach” series will augment the works’ availability.

Subsequent concerts in this series will be switched to 1 p.m. on WEDNESDAY afternoons on Oct. 31, Nov. 28 and Dec. 12.

For more background, including the addresses of Facebook and Instagram sites of “Just Bach,” go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/09/25/classical-music-just-bach-a-monthly-mid-day-free-concert-series-starts-this-thursday-at-1-p-m-in-luther-memorial-church/

But prospective attendees should be warned of practical problems. The early afternoon time is difficult for most people, there is no parking facility, and access to the venue will likely be limited to those already in the vicinity.

For all that, I reckoned some 40 or so people in the audience – with no one eating lunch, even thought that is permitted. So artistic merits might still surmount obstacles.


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Classical music: The Token Creek Festival will “harvest” gardens of music from next Saturday through Sept. 2

August 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The summer season for classical music in Madison has gotten busier and busier. But the summer still ends on the same high note — the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival that is co-directed by John Harbison and Rose Mary Harbison.

Here is the announcement about this year’s festival, the 29th, that begins this coming weekend:

“The late-summer garden inspires the 2018 season theme of “Harvest” at this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

“Both garden and festival share much in common:  risk, patience, experimentation, disappointment, and finally amazement that a piece —whether a piece of ground or a piece of music — is capable of such nourishment, abundance and variety.

“In the musicians’ garden, with its unpredictability and surprise, there is always the hope of reducing the variables — but they persist, and the richness of choice, the endlessness of the resources we inherit drive us to continue to create.

“One of the advantages of our season title is that it implies a summing up, a reaping of things planted, but of a kind that can occur each year,” writes co-artistic director and composer John Harbison (below). “Each planting retains certain elements and adjusts others with the hope of increased productivity. But so many of the adjustments made in hope of improvement do not work, but create new problems, require new approaches.  What a fine analogy for the making of art.”

Here are this year’s Concert Programs. Please note something new this year: All weekend concerts start at 4 p.m.

Program I: ROOTS – Music of Bach and Primosch. On Saturday, Aug. 25, at 4 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 26, at 4 p.m.

“Continuing our ongoing exploration of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) in cantatas and instrumental works, and its reflection in the music of James Primosch (below bottom), one of the few composers in our time able to grasp both the possibilities and responsibilities available in sacred music in a tradition inherited from Bach.”

Program II: NEW GROWTH – The Kepler Quartet (below, with composer Ben Johnston, and playing Johnston’s String Quartet No. 7 in the YouTube video at the bottom) on Wednesday, Aug. 29, at 7:30 p.m.

“A recital of beautifully alluring micro-tonal music “in between the notes.” The attractive and intelligible musical surface, and our experience hearing it, belies the at-times complex compositional methods.

“We are impressed by the pure pleasure of hearing tones combining differently but convincingly. The recital will be augmented with a demonstration and discussion by the Keplers.

Works are by Ben Johnston, Stefano Scodanibbio (below top), Henry Cowell (below middle) and Harry Partch (below bottom).”

Program III: CORNUCOPIA – Saturday, Sept. 1, at 4 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 2, at 4 p.m.

“Schumann’s beloved and timeless song cycle “Dichterliebe” (A Poet’s Love) with tenor Frank Kelley (below) and his impassioned, enigmatic and exuberant Piano Trio in D minor anchor this program.

“The program also includes the Violin Sonata in G Major, K. 301, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Piano Sonata in E Major by Franz Joseph Haydn sonatas and the world premiere of John Harbison’s new song cycle, “In Early Evening,” to poems by Louise Gluck.”

The ARTISTS are Mark Bridges, cello; Laura Burns, violin; Ryne Cherry, baritone; Ross Gilliland, bass; John Harbison, portative organ and piano; Rose Mary Harbison, violin; Frank Kelley, tenor; The Kepler Quartet; Karl Lavine, cello; Sharan Leventhal, violin; Jennifer Paulson, viola; James Primosch, piano; Brek Renzelman, viola; Eric Segnitz, violin;  Janice Weber, piano; and Sarah Yanovitch, soprano.

Performances take place in the Festival Barn (below top and bottom), on Highway 19 near the hamlet of Token Creek (10 minutes north of Madison, near Sun Prairie). 

The charming and rustic venue — indoors and air-conditioned, with modern comforts — is invitingly small; early reservations are recommended, and casual dress is suggested. Ample parking is available.

Tickets are $12-$32, and can be purchased at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/token-creek-festival-2018-harvest-tickets-47217166817

For more information about the performers and specific works on programs, call (608) 241-2525 or go to www.tokencreekfestival.org

ABOUT THE FESTIVAL

The Token Creek Festival has been called “ferociously interesting and important, an ideal musical experience, a treasure nestled in the heart of Wisconsin cornfields.” (Photo below is by Jess Anderson.)

“Now in its 29th season, this late-summer series near Madison is known for its artistic excellence, diverse and imaginative programming; a deep engagement with the audience; and a surprising, enchanting and intimate performance venue in a  comfortable refurbished barn.”


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