The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and UW duo-pianists showcase the remarkable music of Camille Saint-Saens and Mozart in the popular concert that closes its season

June 1, 2019
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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. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Margaret Barker) closed its season Thursday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center with a promising and well-received program.

The centerpiece featured two graduate student soloists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, pianists Thomas Kasdorf (below right) and Satoko Hayami (below left), who joined in Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat Major, K. 365, for two pianos and orchestra. The two soloists were alert and polished collaborators. (You can hear the energetic and catchy final movement, used in the Academy Award-winning film “Amadeus,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Conductor Steve Kurr (below) set a bouncy pace but a rather fast and overpowering one, and with an orchestra — especially strings — quite overblown by the standards of Mozart’s day.

The MCO was blessed by the loan of a very special model of a Model B Steinway instrument, now owned and lovingly restored by Farley’s House of Pianos. This was paired against a Steinway of much later vintage, owned by the hall. But nowhere was there identification about which piano was which as they sat onstage, much less which pianist was playing which piano (and they switched between the two works utilizing them.) This was disappointing for it prevented making an informed comparison of the two instruments.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921, below) is backhandedly treated as being on the margins of composer greatness. But his scope was remarkable, as witnessed by the two works that were the program’s bookends.

The opener was his humorous Suite, “Carnival of the Animals.” This set of 14 short pieces was written for one private performance, in chamber terms, one player per part. So the orchestra that was used — of 87 listed musicians, 60 of them were string players — became a crushing distortion. The two pianists were a bit formal, but ideally facile.

Saint-Saens made no provision for any kind of spoken text, certainly not in French. In the middle of the last century, the American poet of high-spirited doggerel, Ogden Nash, wrote wickedly funny verses with offbeat rhymes and puns to go with each movement.

It was these Nash verses that Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below), who was only identified as the “narrator,” read with a good bit of tongue-in-cheek. Nowhere are these at all identified or credited in the bumbling program booklet.  (Many in the audience might have just thought that they were written by Gilliland himself.)

In many of the suite’s movements, Saint-Saens quoted or alluded to hit tunes by earlier composers, for parodistic purposes. Unfortunately, there are no program notes in the booklet, so these tidbits would easily go unnoticed by many listeners.

Saint-Saens composed, among his numerous orchestral works, a total of five symphonies, only three of which are numbered. I had originally been given to expect No. 2, a charming work I love, as the program closer. All but the last of them are early works in a graceful post-Classical style.

But No. 3 was composed much later in his life, and in a more expansive style. This is a frequently performed spectacle, unconventional in plan and in scoring. It adds the two pianists and an organ — hence the nickname the “Organ Symphony.”

Unfortunately, the hall has no organ of its own, so the substitute was a rig of electronic organ with its own booming speakers and exaggerated pedal notes. Again totally unmentioned is that this contraption was played by MCO sound technician Alex Ford (below, with the portable electronic organ keyboard from Austria with its computer-screen stops).

This kind of organ could never be integrated into the full orchestral texture and served only to allow the orchestra to play this grandiose score. Such ambition was backed by really splendid and well-balanced orchestral playing.

As intended, the large local audience, with many children and families, was wildly enthusiastic.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


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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 education: On Sunday, the Madison Youth Choirs presents “Hide and Seek: Cracking the Musical Code” with music by Bach, Handel, Grieg, Poulenc, Britten, Holst, Copland and others

May 10, 2017
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ALERT: This week is the season’s last FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. Featured are violinist Maureen McCarty and keyboardist Mark Brampton Smith in music of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Antonio de Cabezon, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Pachelbel, Jules Massenet and Spirituals. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Youth Choirs have sent the following announcement to post:

This spring, Madison Youth Choirs singers are sharpening their critical thinking, analytical and investigative skills as they identify patterns, puzzles and secret structures in a variety of complex musical compositions by artists including Johann Sebastian Bach, Francis Poulenc, Gustav Holst, Benjamin Britten, Georg Frideric Handel, Aaron Copland, and other composers. The results will be presented this Sunday in “Hide and Seek: Cracking the Musical Code.”

MYC’s Cantabile and Ragazzi choirs will also present excerpts from a world premiere score by Wisconsin-based composer Scott Gendel (below) inspired by the beloved novella The Snow Goose.

Please join us as we dive deep into these classical and contemporary choral works, discovering the great rewards of seeking brilliance and beauty wherever they hide.

The concerts are at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., near Camp Randall Stadium.

Here is a schedule of times for various groups to perform:

Sunday, May 14, 2017

1:30 p.m. Girlchoirs

4 p.m. Boychoirs

7 p.m. High School Ensembles.

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

See below for complete programs.

These concerts are generously supported by the American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank, the Green Bay Packers Foundation, the Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, the John A. Johnson Foundation, a component fund of the Madison Community Foundation, Dane Arts with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, The Evjue Foundation, Inc., charitable arm of The Capital Times, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. This project is also supported by 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. (You can hear a sample of them singing in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information, go to www.madisonyouthchoirs.org

Here are the concert programs for this Sunday:

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

Choraliers

Lachend…Cesar Bresgen

Two Childhood Songs…Randall Thompson

Fairest Lady (from The Nursery Rhyme Cantata)…Nick Page

Con Gioia

O Lovely Peace (from Judas Maccabeus)…George Frederic Handel

Ewig Dein…Ludwig van Beethoven

Kentucky Jazz Jam…Traditional folk songs, arr. David J. Elliott

Capriccio

Musica est Dei donum optimi…Orlando di Lasso

Herr, du siehst statt gutter Werke auf (BWV 9)…Johann Sebastian Bach

Camino, Caminante…Stephen Hatfield

Think on Me…James Quitman Muholland

Amavolovolo…Traditional Zulu, arr. Rudolf de Beer

Cantilena

Bonny Wood Green…Traditional Irish Ballad, arr. Stephen Hatfield

Ah! Si mon moine voulait danser…Folk song from Quebec, arr. Donald Patriquin

Cantabile

Love is a Rain of Diamonds…Gwyneth Walker

No Time…Traditional camp meeting songs, arr. Susan Brumfield

Combined Choirs and Audience

Blowin’ in the Wind…Bob Dylan

4 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Boychoirs)

Combined Boychoirs

Das Hexen Einmal-Eins (The Witch’s One-Times-One)…Franz Joseph Haydn

Purcell

Wind on the Hill…Victoria Ebel-Sabo

Mangwani M’pulele…Traditional Zulu, arr. Theodore Bikel

The Old Carrion Crow…Nova Scotian folk song, arr. Mary Goetze

Britten   

Missa Brevis in D…Benjamin Britten

Wenn Sorgen auf mich dringen…J.S. Bach

I’se the B’y…Newfoundland folk song, arr. John Govedas

Holst

Tourdion…Anonymous, 16th century, arr. Pierre Attaignant

Bawo Thixo Somandla (sung in Xhosa)…Mxolisi Matyila

A Miner’s Life…Traditional Irish song, arr. Seth Houston

Ragazzi

Zion’s Walls…Setting by Aaron Copland, arr. Glen Koponen

Seigneur, je vous en prie…Francis Poulenc

Brothers, Sing On…Edvard Grieg

Combined Boychoirs

Blowin’ in the Wind…Bob Dylan

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

Cantilena

Domine Deus (from Mass in G Major, BWV 236)…J.S. Bach, arr. Doreen Rao

maggie and milly and molly and may…Vincent Persichetti

Bonny Wood Green…Traditional Irish Ballad, arr. Stephen Hatfield

Ah! Si mon moine voulait danser…Folk song from Quebec, arr. Donald Patriquin

Ragazzi

Zion’s Walls…Setting by Aaron Copland, arr. Glen Koponen

Seigneur, je vous en prie…Francis Poulenc

Brothers, Sing On…Edvard Grieg

Cantabile

Suscepit Israel (from Magnificat in D, BWV 243)… J.S. Bach

Love is a Rain of Diamonds…Gwyneth Walker

No Time…Traditional camp meeting songs, arr. Susan Brumfield

Cantabile and Ragazzi

Excerpts from The Snow Goose…Scott Gendel

Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal…Traditional shape-note, arr. Alice Parker

Combined Choirs and Audience

Blowin’ in the Wind…Bob Dylan


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