The Well-Tempered Ear

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: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.


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Classical music: Moscow and Paris meet through cello and piano music at the Wisconsin Union Theater this Saturday night at 7:30

December 4, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

What was the musical relationship between Paris and Moscow, especially after the Russian Revolution?

You can find out, and hear examples, this Saturday night, Dec. 8, at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall (below) at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Pianist Lise de la Salle and cellist Christian-Pierre La Marca (below right and left, respectively) will explore the musical relationship between Moscow and Paris through works by Gabriel Fauré (you can hear them play his Elegy in the YouTube video at the bottom), Camille Saint-Saëns, Jules Massenet, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It is the subject of their latest recording from Sony Classical.

For the full program plus biographies and videos of the performers and information about obtaining tickets ($25-$42 for the general adult public, $20 for young people, $10 for UW students), go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/lise-de-la-salle-and-christian-pierre-la-marca/

Lise de la Salle made her debut at age 13 in a performance at the Louvre. According to Le Monde, she “possesses a youthful single-minded spirit and the courage of conviction seldom expected of such a young artist.”

Now 29, de la Salle has established a reputation as one of today’s most exciting young artists and as a musician of uncommon sensibility and maturity. Her playing inspired a Washington Post critic to write, “For much of the concert, the audience had to remember to breathe … the exhilaration didn’t let up for a second until her hands came off the keyboard.”

She specializes in Russian composers and has played with symphony orchestras in London, Paris, Munich, Tokyo, Baltimore, Detroit and Quebec. Says Bryce Morrison of Gramophone magazine,“Lise de la Salle is a talent in a million.”

In just a few years, through his international concert appearances, the young cellist Christian-Pierre La Marca already ranks among the masters of the cello. He has performed in concert halls such as the Louvre, the Philharmonie of Berlin, the 92nd Street Y in New York City, and Izumi Hall in Osaka, among others.

La Marca has appeared as a soloist with many leading orchestras and is also highly sought after in chamber music. He plays a unique golden period Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume cello (1856) and the Vocation Foundation has provided him a rare Jacob Eury cello bow (1825). An exclusive Sony Classical artist, La Marca has already released three albums unanimously praised by international press and international critics.

Before the performance, enjoy a lecture by Kyle Johnson (below) at 6 p.m. Check Today in the Union for room location. Johnson is a pianist who recently received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the UW-Madison.

His performing experience ranges from solo and festival appearances throughout the U.S. and U.K., co-founding the Madison-based contemporary ensemble Sound Out Loud, and as a performance fellow in the Longitude Contemporary Ensemble in Boston, Mass.

His research interests strongly correlate with his interest in 20th-century piano repertoire, of which he produces a podcast series around (Art Music Perspectives). For more information, visit www.kyledjohnson.com.

This performance is presented by the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Performing Arts Committee. This project was supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. WORT-FM 89.9 is the media sponsor.


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Classical music: Two new memoirs and a new recording are revealing but uneven in marking the centennial of Leonard Bernstein

July 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

We are only a month away from the centennial of the birthday of conductor, composer, educator and pianist Leonard Bernstein, which will be celebrated on Saturday, Aug. 25. Larry Wells, who is The Opera Guy for The Ear, recently assessed three of the many works – two new books of memoirs and one new recording — reexamining the life, career and legacy of Leonard Bernstein.

By Larry Wells

During this year commemorating the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell), one need only consult https://leonardbernstein.com to find a day-by-day calendar of performances of his works.

As well as world-wide opportunities to hear his works -– even in Madison — there have been two recent books about Bernstein and a new recording of his final opera, “A Quiet Place,” that might be worth your time.

“A Quiet Place” was premiered in Houston as a sequel to his earlier opera “Trouble in Tahiti.” These first performances were conducted by our own John DeMain, the longtime artistic director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Madison Opera.

This nearly two-hour one-act opera dealing with incest, bisexuality, alcoholism and psychosis did not please the critics either for its libretto or for its music.

Soon thereafter Bernstein refashioned the opera by inserting “Trouble in Tahiti” in the middle and cutting some music. His subsequent recording has always baffled me because the music is so uninteresting and the casting is so haphazard.

The new recording on the Decca label (below) is of yet another version devised by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Reducing the orchestration to a chamber ensemble of 18 players, removing “Trouble in Tahiti,” and restoring some of the cuts, this recording by Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra allows us to hear most of the original version of the opera.

(To read Sunderland’s analysis of his edition, check https://leonardbernstein.com/uploads/pages/files/PFR_2013_FW.pdf.)

The new recording is a valiant attempt by Nagano (below) to breathe some life into this dreary work, but I remain unconvinced that “A Quiet Place” is any more than a failed, final stab by a composer most of whose work I admire very much.

Charlie Harmon was Bernstein’s personal assistant, and his recent memoir ”On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius” (below) goes a long way in explaining the failure of “A Quiet Place.” (You can hear the Postlude to Act I of “A Quiet Place” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To hear Harmon tell it, by this time in Bernstein’s life the maestro depended on drugs to go to sleep, drugs to keep himself awake, and alcohol in excess.  He also had a penchant for younger men.

The picture he paints of a troubled genius is rather pathetic, and Bernstein comes across as thoughtless, self-centered and exasperating. When Harmon (below, on the right with Bernstein) writes of his shock at being groped by Bernstein, I had to wonder what else he had expected. Still, it is an entertaining read.

Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein has recently published  “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (below) Here we get a glimpse into Bernstein’s family life. The portrait of his troubled relationship with his long-suffering wife Felicia Montealegre is particularly interesting.

I heard Jamie Bernstein (below) speak recently in Tucson, and she told amazing anecdotes about Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and William Schuman.

Little of that appears in the book. She assumes that the reader is interested in her own love life and her failed pop music career. I would have preferred to read more about the many fascinating people who surrounded Bernstein and less about her privileged and entitled life.

I have always been a big fan of Bernstein. I admired him as a conductor, teacher and composer. Anyone who has even a nominal interest in the man will find both of the recent memoirs at least diverting. The recording of “A Quiet Place,” however, is only for the true devotees.


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Classical music: Kyle Knox is the new music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras

April 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Kyle Knox has been named the new music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO).

Knox (below), who was a clarinetist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestras and then studied conducting as a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, will assume his duties on July 1.

Knox, will also conduct the Youth Orchestra (below), the most senior performing group in WYSO.

The move is likely to please many disappointed fans of Knox, who has won praise for conducting the UW Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the University Opera and the Middleton Community Orchestra but who was passed over as the successor to UW Professor James Smith (below) when Smith retired.

Smith was also the acclaimed longtime music director of WYSO. For the past year Randal Swiggum (below), the music director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra, has been the interim music director of WYSO and conductor of the Youth Orchestra.

In the latest WYSO newsletter, Knox, a longtime Madison resident who is married to Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, writes:

“I am so looking forward to my first year as Music Director at WYSO, beginning July 1, 1918. Even in the short time I’ve spent at Saturday rehearsals, it is clear this is a first-rate youth orchestra program. Top to bottom, each ensemble offers a special opportunity for music-making and artistic growth. I am lucky to be joining such a vibrant artistic and administrative team.

“Our 2018-2019 season will feature great orchestral and chamber works from all eras. In addition to our stellar roster of sectional and chamber music coaches, the students may have the opportunity to work with world-class guest artists and soloists. It should be an exciting season of music-making.

“As a teenager, music had a transformational effect on my life. I owe much of my personal and professional development to my time playing in youth orchestra and the many wonderful teachers I met as a result.

“Even now, almost 20 years later, the relationships I formed during those years continue to be among the most meaningful in my life. Something about sharing a stage with other people, working toward a collective goal, leaves a special imprint on my mind. (Below is Kyle Knox conducting the UW Symphony Orchestra.)

“For the students, I hope that your time at WYSO is enriching and helps add meaning to your lives, both as artists and people. It is an honor for me to be a small part of that journey.

“I look forward to getting to know everyone in the WYSO family over the coming months.”

For more background and information about WYSO, which is more than 50 years old and has reached thousands of students from more than a hundred communities in south-central Wisconsin, and about the upcoming spring concerts in May, go to:

https://www.wysomusic.org


Classical music: Madison Youth Choirs will perform music of Madison’s nine sister cities this Sunday afternoon and evening

December 8, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

“This semester, Madison Youth Choirs singers (below) are embarking on a musical journey across the globe as they explore and perform compositions connected to the diverse cultures inhabiting Madison’s nine sister cities: Ainaro, East Timor; Arcatao, El Salvador; Camaguey, Cuba; Freiburg, Germany; Kanifing, The Gambia; Mantua, Italy; Obihiro, Japan; Tepatitlán, Mexico; and Vilnius, Lithuania.

“As we study the wide variety of musical forms that emerged from these nine regions and think about the reasons we’re drawn to establish sister city relationships, we’re examining both the common forces that drive the creative expression of artists from all cultures and the unique contributions that artists from our sister cities have made to the worldwide musical canon.

“We invite you to join us for a culminating winter concert series celebrating these international choral connections.

WHERE

Madison Youth Choirs Winter Concerts, “Sister Cities

First Congregational United Church of Christ

1609 University Ave., Madison

WHEN

Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017

1:30 p.m. Girlchoirs

4:00 p.m. Boychoirs

7:00 p.m. High School Ensembles

Tickets available at the door: $10 for general admission, $5 for students 7-18, and free for children under 7. A separate ticket is required for each performance. 

This concert is generously endowed by the Diane Ballweg Performance Fund with additional support from American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the state of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

About the Madison Youth Choirs (MYC):

Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community. Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self-confidence, personal responsibility, and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond.

“SISTER CITIES” PROGRAMS

Sunday, December 10, 2017, First Congregational Church, Madison

1:30 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Girlchoirs)

Choraliers

“Now We Are Met” by Samuel Webbe

“Sakura” Traditional Japanese folk song

“Tecolote” Spanish lullaby, arr. Victoria Ebel-Sabo

“S’Vivon” Traditional Jewish folk song, arr. Valerie Shields

Con Gioia

“Peace Round” Traditional round, text by Jean Ritchie

“Shepherd’s Pipe Carol by John Rutter

“Murasame” by Victor C. Johnson, text: 11th-century Japanese poem

“Guantanamera” Cuban folk song, text by José Marti

Capriccio (below)

“A Circle is Cast” by Anna Dembska

“Ich will den Herrn loben alle Zeit” by Georg Philipp Telemann, arr. Wallace Depue

“Ma come bali bene bela bimba” Traditional Italian, arr. Mark Sirett

“Soran Bushi” Japanese folk song, arr. Wendy Stuart

“Yo Le Canto Todo El Dia” by David L. Brunner

4:00 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Boychoirs)

Combined Boychoirs

“Dance for the Nations” by John Krumm, arr. Randal Swiggum

Purcell (below)

“La Nanita Nana” by José Ramon Gomis, arr. David Eddlemann

“Es is Ein Ros entsprungen” by Melchior Vulpius

“Sakura” Traditional Japanese folksong, arranged by Purcell choir members

Britten  (below)

Two Elegies by Benjamin Britten

  1. Old Abram Brown
  2. Tom Bowling

“No che non morira” (from Tito Manlio) by Antonio Vivaldi

Holst

“O Rosetta” by Claudio Monteverdi

“O là, o che bon echo” by Orlando di Lasso

“We Are” by Ysaye Barnwell

Combined Boychoirs

Chorus of Street Boys from Carmen by Georges Bizet

“Kimigayao” (The National Anthem of Japan) Melody by Hiromori Hayashi

7:00 p.m. Concert (Featuring High School Ensembles)

Cantilena

“How Can I Keep From Singing?” by Gwyneth Walker

Liebeslieder Walzer by Johannes Brahms, text by Georg Friedrich Daumer

  1. Wie des Abends (from Opus 52) (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
  2. Vogelein durchrauscht die Luft (from Opus 52)
  3. Nein, geliebter, setze dich (from Opus 65)

Ragazzi

“Bar’chu” by Salamon Rossi

“The Pasture” (from Frostiana) by Randall Thompson

“Mogami Gawa Funa Uta” by Watanabe/Goto, based on folk materials, arr. Osamu

Shimizu

Cantabile

“Angelus ad pastores ait” (from Sacrae Cantiunculae, 1582) by Claudio Monteverdi

“Gamelan” by R. Murray Schafer

“Mata del Anima Sola” by Antonio Estévez

Cantabile and Ragazzi (below)

“The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” Traditional carol from Trinidad, arr. Stephen

Hatfield

Combined Choirs

“Dance for the Nations” by John Krumm


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Classical music: UW oboist Aaron Hill performs world premieres and little known composers in a FREE recital Sunday afternoon

October 20, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This is Homecoming weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it is busy on many counts, including several classical music concerts in the city on Sunday afternoon.

But one of the more intriguing is a FREE recital at 3 p.m. in Mills Hall by UW-Madison Professor Aaron Hill (below), who teaches oboe and also performs in the Wingra Woodwind Quintet.

Hill will be joined by collaborative pianist Daniel Fung (below), who is also a vocal coach at the Mead Witter School of Music at the UW-Madison.

Particularly noteworthy is the number of world premieres and relatively unknown contemporary composers on the program.

Here is the program:

“Poem,” for oboe and piano (1953) by Marina Dranishnikova (1929-1994, below). (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Oboe Sonata (1947) by Jean Coulthard (1908-2000)

  1. Gently Flowing
  2. Sicilienne
  3. Allegro

Intermission

* Soliloquies (2013) by Andre Myers (b. 1973)

  1. To be or not to be
  2. There’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance
  3. In the Month of May
  4. Spring Discourse

   * world premiere performance

* After Manchester (2017) Aaron Hill and Michael Slon (b. 1982 and 1970, respectively) * world premiere performance

Four Personalities (2007) Alyssa Morris (b. 1984)

  1. Yellow
  2. White
  3. Blue
  4. Red

Here are some program notes by Aaron Hill:

“This program highlights five different ways to program previously unfamiliar music, as explained below.

“Poem” by Marina Dranishnikova came to me through our local community. Oliver Cardona, currently a junior music major at UW-Madison, initially brought it to my attention. The work was discovered and edited by my predecessor, Professor Marc Fink (below), during his travels in Russia.

I first heard the Oboe Sonata by Jean Coulthard (below) at the 2017 International Double Reed Society conference at Lawrence University  in Appleton, Wis.

Charles Hamann, the principal oboist of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, edited and recorded it as part of a large project to bring international attention to masterpieces by Canadian composers.

Andre Myers (below) attended the University of Michigan with me and we first became acquainted when I performed one of his orchestral works. His beautiful writing for English horn started our friendship and 15 years later, he wrote his Soliloquies for me.

The first two are based on famous scenes from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The third is based on a poem by Minnesota’s first poet laureate, Robert Bly, which will be read aloud from the stage. The final movement is inspired by a dream vision he had of centaurs playing in a meadow.

“After Manchester” was originally a free improvisation I recorded and posted to social media in the wake of the terror attack at Ariana Grande’s concert on June 4, 2017.

Later in the summer, Professor Michael Slon (below), the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Virginia, transcribed my improvisation and wrote a piano part to transform it into a piece of chamber music. The work was completed just days before the violent events in Charlottesville.

Professor Alyssa Morris (below) currently teaches oboe at Kansas State University and her compositions have become widely performed as standard literature for oboists in recent years.

She wrote “Four Personalities” to perform in her own undergraduate recital at Brigham Young University and I first heard it while searching for oboe music on YouTube. The piece is based on the Hartmann Personality Test.

In her words, the colors correspond to the following types:

Yellow: Yellow is fun-loving. The joy that comes from doing something just for the sake of doing it is what motivates and drives yellow.

White: White is a peacekeeper. White is kind, adaptable, and a good listener. Though motivated by peace, white struggles with indecisiveness. 

Blue: Blue brings great gifts of service, loyalty, sincerity, and thoughtfulness. Intimacy, creating relationships, and having purpose is what motivates and drives blue.

Red: Motivated by power. Red is aggressive and assertive. Red is visionary, confident, and proactive. 


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