The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” excelled in singing, orchestral playing, drama and other aspects that redeemed a largely unmemorable work. Plus, what is good music for Veterans Day?

November 11, 2016
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ALERT: Today is Veterans Day. What piece of classical music should be played to mark the event? The Ear suggests the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Leave your choice in the COMMENT section.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post features a guest review of Madison Opera’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Larry Wells. Wells has been enjoying opera since he was a youngster. He subscribed to the San Francisco Opera for nearly 20 years, where he last saw “Romeo and Juliet,” sung by Alfredo Kraus and Ruth Ann Swenson

More recently he lived in Tokyo and attended many memorable performances there over nearly 20 years. These included Richard Strauss rarities such as “Die Ägyptische Helena” and “Die Liebe der Danae” as well as the world’s strangest Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner and a space-age production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” featuring Alessandra Marc singing “In questa reggia” while encased in an inverted cone.

By Larry Wells

Last Sunday’s matinee performance of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Madison Opera at the Overture Center was a feast for the eyes. The costumes, sets, lighting and staging were consistently arresting. (Performance photos are by James Gill.)

But we go to the opera for music and drama.

The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is well known. Gounod’s opera substitutes the tragedy with melodrama, and therein lies one of the work’s flaws. Despite sword fights, posturings and threats as well as one of opera’s lengthiest death scenes, one leaves the theater thinking that a vast amount of theatrical resources have been squandered on something insubstantial.

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However, despite its dramatic flaws, the opera’s music has somehow endured. And Sunday’s performance milked the most out of the music that could have been expected.

The star of the show was the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the expert direction of Maestro John DeMain (below). He knows how to pace a performance, how to build an exciting climax and how to highlight a solo instrument.

He is an incredibly intelligent conductor, and we are fortunate to have him in Madison. I want to make special mention of the beautiful harp playing, which, according to the program, was accomplished by Jenny DeRoche.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The second star on the stage was the Madison Opera Chorus (below). The chorus plays a significant part in many of the opera’s scenes, and the singing was stirring when it needed to be and tender when it was called for.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-chrous-and-set

As for the soloists, highest praise must go to UW-Madison alumna soprano Emily Birsan (below right) for her portrayal of Juliet. Her solo arias, particularly her big number in the first act as well as her subsequent lament, were stunning.

Her Romeo, tenor John Irvin (below left), sounded a little forced during his forte moments, but he sang magnificently in his quiet farewell to Juliet after their balcony scene. (You can hear the famous balcony scene, sung by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-john-irvin-and-emily-birsan

Their voices blended beautifully in the opera’s multiple duets. And the wedding quartet, where they were joined by Allisanne Apple’s nurse (below, rear right) and Liam Moran’s Friar Lawrence (below, middle center), was a highlight of the performance.

madison-opera-romoeo-and-juliet-friar-and-nurse

The opera abounds with minor characters, all of which were ably portrayed. Special mention should be made of Stephanie Lauricella (below, far right) for her fantastic moments as Romeo’s page; Madison’s Allisanne Apple for her amusing portrayal of Juliet’s nurse Gertrude; Sidney Outlaw (below, second from left) as a robust Mercutio; and Philip Skinner as a powerful Lord Capulet.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sidnay-outlaw-left-and-page-right

I have wondered why this opera is still performed. Its music is lovely but unmemorable, and its dramatic impact is tenuous.

I left the performance thinking that it had been a good afternoon at the theater – certainly more interesting than the Packers’ game – but wishing that one of a couple dozen more meaty operas had been performed in its place.

Since we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, how much more interesting would have been Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”? 

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Classical music: Stage Director Norma Saldivar talks about Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” The Madison Opera gives three performances of it this coming weekend.

February 2, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will present its first-ever production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” by Stephen Sondheim (below) this coming weekend on Friday and Saturday nights and on Sunday afternoon in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts.

The company has built a new production of this American masterpiece — which is so popular that it was made into a 2007 film by director Tim Burton that starred Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham Carter. The powerhouse cast, Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra all promise to bring a very operatic theater score to life.

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The show tells of the barber Sweeney Todd, who returns to the gas-lit streets of Victorian London after 15 years of unjust imprisonment to claim vengeance on those who wronged him. He is aided in his murderous activities by Mrs. Lovett, maker of some rather tasty meat pies.

One of Sondheim’s most renowned works, “Sweeney Todd” has a stunningly inventive score containing drama, macabre humor, lyrical purity and an unforgettable final scene.

“I love this piece,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “It’s a true American classic, with a story that is simultaneously dark and comic, and music that ranges from beautifully lyrical songs like ‘Not While I’m Around’ (at bottom in a YouTube video ) to vaudevillian turns like ‘A Little Priest,’ all with some of the wittiest lyrics ever written.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Although it premiered on Broadway in 1979 – winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical – “Sweeney Todd” has been a staple of opera companies since 1984, when Houston Grand Opera first staged it, followed a few months later by New York City Opera. With a score that is almost entirely sung, it has been described by Sondheim as a “dark operetta.”

That first Houston Grand Opera production was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera, who will conduct these performances.

“For me, it is a brilliantly composed work for the musical theater that has marvelous melodies, incredible lyrics, a unique and thrillingly fascinating story, and a climax that is the stuff of grand opera,” says DeMain. “I can’t wait to conduct our stunning cast in this masterwork for the lyric stage.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Corey Crider (below top) and Meredith Arwady (below bottom) make their Madison Opera debuts as the vengeful barber and the ever-practical Mrs. Lovett. Crider has sung leading roles with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Arizona Opera, and the Castleton Festival. Arwady has sung leading roles with San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Santa Fe Opera.

Corey Crider

Meredith Arwady

In the role of the mysterious Beggar Woman, Emily Pulley (below) makes her Madison Opera debut after recent performances at the Metropolitan Opera, Central City Opera, and Opera Theater of St. Louis.

tEmily Pulley

Returning to Madison Opera are former Madison Opera Studio Artist Jeni Houser as Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter; Daniel Shirley as the young sailor Anthony Hope; and Thomas Forde as the evil Judge Turpin. Three tenors round out the cast. Joshua Sanders, who has been singing with Madison Opera since high school, plays the innocent Tobias Ragg. Jared Rogers makes his debut as the menacing Beadle Bamford. Robert Goderich, a local theater and opera favorite, plays Sweeney’s rival barber, Adolfo Pirelli.

Performances are on Friday, at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

The production will be sung in English with projected text.

Tickets are $25-$110 with group discounts available. Contact the Overture Center Box Office,
201 State St., Madison, WI. You can also call (608) 258-4141 and email www.madisonopera.org

Madison Opera is building a new production specifically for the Capitol Theater. Stage director Norma Saldivar, set designer Joseph Varga, costume designer Karen Brown-Larimore, and lighting designer Hideaki Tsutsui are creating a world set in an Industrial Age factory, with the orchestra on stage to bring the action even closer to the audience.

“Building a new production allows us to take advantage of the Capitol Theater,” says Smith. “The gorgeous venue is ideally suited to this piece and it is exciting to create something new.”

Stage Director Norma Saldivar (below, in a photo from Madison Magazine) is Executive Director of the UW-Madison Arts Institute and a professor in the Theater Department, recently granted an email interview to The Ear:

Norma Saldivar color

Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers?

I’m Norma Saldivar, and I am the stage director for the Madison Opera’s production of “Sweeney Todd.”

How does directing an opera differ from directing a play?

I know that you’d like me to say that there is some real difference in directing opera or straight theatre productions – and there are distinct differences. However, the work of the director remains the same.

I am a storyteller, a chief creative leader of a team of people who bring the story to life and three-dimensional form. There are differences in working with music that obviously involve expressing the intention of the composer, which means working with a conductor who brings to life and secures the intention of the composer and lyricist.

But ultimately, we all work to bring the story to an audience and to engage and entertain them.

In the case of “Sweeney Todd,” how does such a grim and gory or grotesque plot – about murdering men by slitting their throats and then baking their bodies into cannibalistic meat pies –- end up being an enjoyable and entertaining opera? Does being so over the top help or offer special challenges?

The story predates Sondheim and began in “penny dreadfuls” — these stories of suspense were very popular and connected to their audience in a way that so many contemporary suspense and horror stories do now for our audience.

I think there is a great deal of suspense in the story, in that as it unfolds an audience can’t believe their eyes or ears. The audaciousness is surprising and tantalizing –- and then there is also humor, heartbreak and love in the story. It is a different take on an age-old story of revenge.

What does Stephen Sondheim do in the libretto and music to overcome that kind of inherent handicap?

I don’t see the aspects of the genre — suspense and horror – as handicaps. There are other musical pieces – “Phantom of the Opera” is one – that make for great drama.

The music is the added character to the story.

Sondheim writes in one of his books that he was inspired by the movie music of Bernard Hermann – his work in horror films by Alfred Hitchcock fueled Sondheim’s work on Sweeney. But Sondheim is so brilliant that he integrates other musical genres in the piece to create a very specific effect. There are intricate pieces that pull us momentarily away from the suspense. Like any good storyteller, his music takes the audience on an unexpected ride.

What is your approach to staging it? Are there special things in this production that you would like the audience to take notice of?

I am a very visual director. I love that Sondheim himself talks about this piece being a movie for the stage. What a great challenge for the stage director to try and interpret quick cuts and split screens, or changes in time and location on stage. We have a great design team that provides me the tools and background to work with the singers to support the musical story and to work in visual harmony. Without the design team and singers — well, I wouldn’t have much.

The challenge with this piece in particular is the length of the story. It moves quickly, spans months of time, and exists in a theatrical and psychological platform all at once. It’s a terrific challenge for a director, production team and performers. All the nuances that have to play to make the story clear is what makes the challenge really interesting.

Is there anything else you would like to add or say about this work and this production of it — the cast, the sets, the costumes — for The Madison Opera?

It has been a pleasure to work with the extraordinary John DeMain and the entire Madison Opera family. From the administration to the designers to the principal artists to the lovely chorus to the folks building the show — what more can a director ask for? Everyone is top-notch and devoted to giving everyone the best show. I feel honored to be working with them — really honored.

 


Classical Music: Wisconsin Public Television will broadcast George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” – with Madison maestro John DeMain conducting — this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

October 16, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

A good friend and blog fan writes:

“The three-hour nationwide broadcast of the 2009 San Francisco Opera production will be aired this Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. as part of PBS’ Fall Arts Festival.”

wpt Porgy and Bess 1 SF 2014

The highly praised production features maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) , the longtime music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which performs an all-Russian program this weekend. DeMain is also the artistic director of the Madison Opera. He frequently guest conducts around the nation and the world.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

DeMain has conducted, to large audiences and critical acclaim, excerpts of “Porgy and Bess” here in Madison. It has long been a specialty of his. In fact, DeMain won a Grammy for his all-black cast in New York City in 1976. He also conducted a production that was broadcast on PBS several years ago by the now–defunct City Opera of New York.

The San Francisco Opera production stars two highly acclaimed singers: bass-baritone Eric Owens as Porgy and soprano Laquita Mitchell as Bess.

wpt porgy ad bess SF 2 2014

But don’t look for a local production of the entire opera.

“When you see the big cast,” this fan explains, “it becomes very clear why we in Madison and the Madison Opera cannot do “Porgy and Bess” in Madison. It is just too big.”

Here are the specifics: “Porgy and Bess” will be broadcast on Friday night at 8-11 p.m. on The Wisconsin Channel (Cable Channel 972). It will be broadcast again on Sunday at 4-7 p.m. on the flagship WPT channel (Channel 21, Cable Channel 600 in HD).

The Ear thinks that it is too bad that the PBS broadcasts won’t be shown on a big screen in some cinema, like the “Met Live in HD” series. It would be fun to see the production in a group.

Here is a link to a preview from Wisconsin Public Television:

http://wptschedule.org/episodes/45345123/The-Gershwins–Porgy-and-Bess-from-San-Francisco-Opera/

Here is a link to a review from a SFGATE website for San Francisco:

http://www.sfgate.com/music/article/TV-review-S-F-Opera-s-Porgy-and-Bess-5819710.php

And here are links to the San Francisco Opera website that also includes a blog that talks about “Porgy and Bess” and also has complete cast information:

http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx

http://sfopera.com/porgy.aspx#media-videos

Finally, to whet your appetite, here is a YouTube video with excerpts of favorite moments from the San Francisco Opera production of “Porgy and Bess”:

 

 

 

 


Classical music: The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music opens a very busy week with an FREE oboe recital and a PUBLIC opera master class on Monday. Plus, today is the last performance of the Mozart Requiem by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and UW student pianist Hailey O’Neil will fill in for a Beethoven Sonata Competition winner at this afternoon’s FREE recital.

April 6, 2014
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ALERTS: University of Wisconsin-Madison piano student Hailey O’Neil, who won an Honorable Mention, will fill in for the injured winner Oxana Khramova at the Beethoven Sonata Competition winners’ FREE recital today at 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall. O’Neil will play the lovely “Pastoral Sonata, Op. 28, by Beethoven.

For more information, visit:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/classical-music-the-three-winners-of-the-29th-annual-beethoven-sonata-competition-at-the-university-of-wisconsin-madison-school-of-music-are-named-and-will-perform-a-free-concert-on-sunday-afternoon/

Of course the Beethoven Sonata concert unfortunately conflicts with the last performance (at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center) by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem and Joseph Jongen’s “Symphonie Concertante” with organ soloist Nathan Laube, all under the baton of guest conductor Julian Wachner. Here is a positive review by critic John W. Barker for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42448&sid=16e141d4e100c8abeb61a0720e30e06d

MSO Chorus CR Greg Anderson

By Jacob Stockinger

Tomorrow, Monday, April 7, opens a busy week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

It starts with opera and chamber music for oboe, then expands to include contemporary music by guest artists from the University of Iowa’s acclaimed Center for New Music; piano and string music” the Adagio from Joseph Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 22; Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 in Flat Major; and Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Quintet by the UW’s Perlman Piano Trio and guest performers (all below in a photo by Katherine Esposito) ; three performances by the University Opera of Hector Berlioz’ opera “Beatrice et Benedict”; and one performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion”’ done by the UW Concert Choir and UW Chamber Orchestra under conductor Beverly Taylor.

For full details, go to www.musc.wisc.edu and click on Events Calendar.

perlman trio 2014 2 Esposito

Here is how the week starts out:

METROPOLITAN OPERA STAR SUSANNE MENTZER

On Monday from 1:15 to 3:15 p.m. in 1321 Humanities Building, opera star mezzo-soprano 
Susanne Mentzer (below) will be offering a master class to UW-Madison voice and opera students

Susanne Mentzer 1

This event is free and open to the public. Mentzer will be working one-on-one with students, performing a signature aria for the class, conducting a “Q&A session, and staying to meet and greet all attendees.

Mentzer is in Madison to perform as Mrs. Patrick DeRocher in Madison Opera‘s production of “Dead Man Walking,” conducted by Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera maestro John DeMain, April 25 and April 27 in Overture Hall. For more information, visit:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2013-2014/dead_man_walking/

Internationally known mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer enjoys a significant opera, concert and recital career of over 30 years. She has appeared on four continents at nearly every great opera house and with every great orchestra. She has been a guest artist at the Metropolitan Opera (below) in leading roles since 1989.

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Her extensive discography includes over 25 CDs of opera and oratorio. She has recorded two recitals she often performs in concert: “The Eternal Feminine,” a recital of music by women composers (Koch International Classics), which includes the premiere of Libby Larsen’s “Love After 1950” with her long-time pianist, Craig Rutenberg; and her personal favorite, “Wayfaring Stranger” (Erato), a collection of international folksongs arranged for voice and guitar with Grammy Award winning Sharon Isbin.

She also received a Grammy nomination for her work as Colombina in Busoni’s Arlecchino. She is on the recent releases of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” and “Plump Jack” by Gordon Getty. Mentzer appears on DVDs of “The Tales of Hoffman” (Opéra de Paris), Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (La Scala), and Grammy-nominated “The First Emperor” by Tan Dun (Metropolitan Opera), and Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” (Metropolitan Opera).

She has appeared numerous times on PBS as part of the “Live from Lincoln Center” and “Live from the Met” programs and Live From the Met satellite cinema broadcast. Mentzer is a mentor to young singers. She recently relocated to the San Francisco area where she teaches privately after 12 years in academia as a Professor at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and DePaul University in Chicago. She has also served as faculty at the Aspen Music Festival and School and has been a guest teacher at the San Francisco Opera Merola program, the Castleton Festival and frequently gives master classes in conjunction with her engagements.

To read more about Susanne Mentzer, go to her website, www.susannementzer.com.

susanne Mentzer

OBOIST KOSTAS TILIAKOS

On Monday night, at 7:30 in Morphy Recital Hall, pianist Christopher Taylor and flutist Stephanie Jutt will accompany Kostas Tiliakos on oboe and English horn in his only solo recital on the Faculty Concert Series this year.

Admission is FREE and open to the public.

kostas tiliakos 2013

His program will consist of works by composers Minas Alexiadis, Anastassis Philippakopoulos, Theodore Antoniou, Jurgis Juozapaitis, and Thea Musgrave.

A native of Athens, Greece, Kostas Tiliakos (below in a photo by Katherine Esposito) has been principal oboist in the Greek National Opera Orchestra in Athens since 1997. Previous to that, he held the position of Solo English Horn for eight years.

An avid lover of contemporary music, Tiliakos has been a member of the Hellenic Ensemble for Contemporary Music since 1990 and has premiered and recorded works by contemporary composers, many of which he was a dedicatee.

He has also recorded solo and chamber music works on Wandelweiser (Germany), Lyra and Irida Classics (Greece) and has been broadcast on radio and television throughout Europe.

Internationally, he has appeared as soloist throughout Europe, Africa, Canada and the U.S. During his time in Greece, Kostas was a sought-after music journalist and editing consultant with Lambrakis Press SA and 4pi Special Editions, the two largest publishing organizations in Greece. Kostas studied Biology at Athens University and holds a BA in European Cultural Studies.

He received his Masters of Music from UW-Madison under Marc Fink where he was a Paul Collins Wisconsin Distinguished Fellow. His principal teachers have included Marc Fink, Claude Chieulet, Didier Pateau. He has also studied with Paul Dombrecht and Hansjörg Schellenberger.

Most recently, Kostas was selected for the position of Visiting Associate Professor of Oboe at UW-Madison. The Ear understands that he has been renewed to do the same next academic year.

 

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Classical music: Maestro John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera is The Ear’s “Musician of the Year” for 2013. Plus, “New Year’s Day From Vienna” will be broadcast Wednesday once on Wisconsin Public Radio and twice on Wisconsin Public Television.

December 31, 2013
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REMINDER: “New Year’s Day From Vienna,” with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performing waltzes, polkas and marches under Daniel Barenboim, will be broadcast live on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio, and then air at 1:30-3 p.m. and again at 7-8:30 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television.

Vienna Philharmonic

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the day last of the old year, New Year’s Eve — which means it is that time of the year again when The Ear looks back over the past year and decides who deserves to be named “Musician of the Year.”

That is never an easy decision, especially in a city with as much fine classical music and as many fine classical musicians as Madison has. There are so many talented individuals and so many outstanding groups or ensembles in the area that any number of them could qualify for the honor.

It was particularly difficult this year because, due to personal circumstances, The Ear didn’t get to attend a lot of live events he wanted to.  Even so, this year the choice seemed somewhat obvious.

For example, here is a link to an insightful overview of the 2013 season offered in Isthmus by critic John W. Barker, who often is a guest writer on this blog. You just have to scroll down through the long story until you find Barker’s spot-on assessments of the year in classical music. It should make any classical music fans envious and proud to be in Madison:

http://www.thedailypage.com/scroll/2013/arts2013/index.html

So on to the man who happens to be the most common denominator among Barker’s Best Picks: John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) is the Musician of the Year for 2013.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Let’s start at the beginning.

It has been 20 years since maestro John DeMain came to Madison as the Music Director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Artistic Director of the Madison Opera. And he is a supremely articulate — he often does interviews on TV and radio — and cordial advocate of his own causes, as you can hear for yourself in a video at the bottom and in more than a dozen video on YouTube.)

Even before he arrived here, DeMain had a high profile as the artistic director of the Houston Grand Opera, where he commissioned and premiered John Adams’ “Nixon in China” and has a long history with the City Opera, where he conducted while still a student at the Juilliard School. He had also won a prestigious Grammy Award for his landmark recording of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess.”

But coming to Madison, DeMain had a chance to show his strength as an organizational  builder and planner -– with results that the Madison public could easily see, hear and be impressed by.

John DeMain inherited a fine organization for an amateur or semi-professional orchestra, one that had been built up especially by Roland Johnson during his long tenure.

But once he took over, DeMain vastly improved the playing and then programmed more ambitious pieces for the players, and developed his approach to them. His Brahms now is tighter and leaner and more exciting than when he arrived. John DeMain (below in a photo by Greg Anderson) is devoted to lifelong learning and improvement, and doesn’t take even the music he already knows and performs for granted.

John DeMain conducting MSO CR Greg Anderson

Over his tenure, DeMain has discovered and booked exciting and affordable young guest soloists – pianist Philippe Bianconi, violinists Augustin Hadelich and Henning Kraggerud, cellist Alisa Weilerstein tenor Stephen Costello — although The Ear would also like to see some big and more expensive figures brought to town to allow us to hear these artists live. Plus, DeMain listens to dozens of auditions each year and unerringly picks great young up-and-coming singers for the Madison Opera’s season including the popular Opera in the Park each summer.

opera in park De Main_001

I also find it noteworthy and important. DeMain is in demand elsewhere and every season has many opportunities to guest conduct out of town — for the now defunct New York City Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York and many others.

John DeMain conducting 2

No less important is his willing to expand out into the local scene. In addition to the opera, he has conducted the chamber groups Con Vivo the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. He continues to play the piano — he was trained as a pianist before turning to conducting.

As an administrator and organizer, he has demonstrated great skills at putting together a team. True, the orchestra has suffered somewhat during the Great Recession and its aftermath – as did all artistic groups. It had to cut back its season by one concert, which DeMain says he hopes to restore to the subscription season.

But the same labor strife that has led to great damage to the Minnesota Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and so many others has not touched the MSO. DeMain’s contained the damage.

Having inherited double performances, DeMain took the MSO to three performances of each concert, reaching about 5,000 people or so with each “triple” performance. He continues to experiment with programming, and in late January will try out the “Behind the Score” series of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak (below).

dvorak

And while some listeners might complain about the lack of more adventurous contemporary music, DeMain has seats to fill and still manages to program contemporary works every season, even with many experimental offerings nearby at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

DeMain attends concerts at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, and is a tireless promoter of music education from the televised “Final Forte” Bolz concerto competition to the matinée Young People’s concerts (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson).

MSO Fall Youth kid greg anderson

And let’s not forget that DeMain was instrumental in getting the impressive Overture Center built and then programming concerts for the orchestra’s and opera’s home in Overture Hall (below).

Overture Hall

I am sure there is more I am overlooking.

Do I have some disappointments? Sure.

I thought his 20th anniversary season would be a bit more ambitious and adventurous, and feature some big works by Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner. I would like to see few more big-name and hot young soloists, including pianists Joyce Yang, Daniil Trifonov and Jeremy Denk (below), who has done two recitals at the Wisconsin Union Theater but has yet to perform a concerto. And there are so many young talented soloists out there today, we should be hearing more of them live and while they are still affordable in our market.

Jeremy Denk playing 2

I also get impatient with what I call “playing the Gershwin card” too often -– including again for this year’s season finale -– because the important and identifiable George Gershwin (bel0w) had such an easy-listening and crossover pop-like musical style that it unfailingly draws so many listeners. I loved DeMain’s last concert version of “Porgy and Bess,” but there must be other solutions.

gershwin with pipe

But in the end I have to defer to his judgment. The excellence that John DeMain has brought to the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera has extended to the entire city and to other groups. The rising tide he brought has lifted all boats.

If any one individual can take credit for the ever-increasing quality of the classical music that wehear in Madison, that person is John DeMain (below in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

DeMainOpera

Little wonder, then, that on this 20th anniversary of his arrival in Madison, maestro John DeMain is the Musician of the Year for 2013.

Thank you, John DeMain. We all – listeners and performers alike — are in your debt.

Cheers and good luck in the coming years!


Classical music: It’s Father’s Day. Who is tops as a musical father figure? The Ear says Johann Sebastian Bach is the Father of All Fathers – literally and figuratively — when it comes to classical music.

June 16, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today, Sunday, June 16, is Father’s Day in the U.S.

The holiday just isn’t as important as Mother’s Day, as lower retail sales figures show. But it is well worth noting and is widely celebrated.

So The Ear has to ask: What is the best music to play on Father’s Day, and who qualifies as the most important father figure in classical music?

Of course there are many father figures in opera, with Verdi’s Rigoletto protecting his daughter Gilda as a prime example. (Below is a photo from a production by the San Francisco Opera.)

Rigoletto SF Opera

Then there is Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s dour, tyrannical and demanding father who played such a pivotal and not always good role in his son’s career.

leopold mozart 1

Same for Beethoven’s father, a drunk who forced and abused his son Ludwig into practicing in the middle of the night.

The talented Alessandro Scarlatti (below top) gave us the prolific composer of wonderful keyboard sonatas Domenico Scarlatti (below bottom).

Alessandro Scarlatti

Domenico Scarlatti muted

But I think the honors for today’s holiday must go to the Father of All Fathers: Johann Sebastian Bach.

Not only did he father a lot of children– 20 with two wives. He also fathered some pretty important composers in their own right who followed him and at times even disavowed or repudiated their own father’s style as old-fashi0ned and outdated: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Johann Christoph Bach.

More importantly, Johann Sebastian (below) was — at least to my ears – the father of all Western classical music, if any single figure can be said to be that.

He was, in short, The Big Bang of classical music.

In that sense J.S. Bach was a father to all classical composers who followed him, whether they emulated him or rebelled against him.

Bach1

So here is a favorite work of mine by J.S. Bach to celebrate Father’s Day and the towering influence of Bach as a literal and figurative father:

If you can think of others father figures, please let The Ear know by leaving a remark in the COMMENTS section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music Q&A: Former Metropolitan Opera stage director Kristine McIntyre talks about Verdi’s “A Masked Ball,” which opens the Madison Opera’s new season this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

October 22, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is Kathryn Smith’s second season as general manager of the Madison Opera. For more about her and her impressive background, here is a link to a story that appeared last week in The Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/stage-presence-impressive-career-guides-opera-director/article_99138d7a-1935-11e2-86c9-001a4bcf887a.html

But the Madison Opera’s 51st season will also be the first season that Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) herself has selected and put together. Last year, she ended up being responsible for the three operas that her predecessor, Allan Naplan, chose before he left for the Minnesota Opera, from which he has since unexpectedly resigned. (Sorry, The Ear has no update. Can anyone out there help with news of Naplan?)

Smith’s inaugural season is an impressive one. It that starts this coming weekend with Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” (“Un Ballo in Maschera”) in Overture Hall on Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.; then moves on to the Madison Opera’s first-ever Handel opera, “Acis and Galatea” Jan. 10-13; and concludes with Mozart’s masterpiece “Don Giovanni” on April 26 and 28  before going on to Opera in the Park on July 13 for a peek at next season.

Tickets to “A Masked Ball” are $18-$118. Call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Here are links to the Madison Opera’s website and to the page for “A Masked Ball” where you can find a lot of information about the various productions (casts, sets, program notes) and the organization and its history plus an opera blog:

http://www.madisonopera.org

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2012-2013/masked_ball/

Maestro John DeMain (below), the artistic director of the Madison Opera who also specializes in opera and conducts it around the US and world, will conduct members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which he also heads.

Stage director Kathrine McIntyre (below) recently gave an email interview to The Ear:

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your career?

I fell in love with opera when I was 16 and decided pretty young that I wanted to be an opera director. My educational background is English literature and theater, so my process is to really delve into both the text and the psychological reality of the characters.

I began my opera career at the San Francisco Opera and then worked at the Metropolitan Opera (below) for 8 years where I directed revivals of Verdi and Rossini and assisted on new productions. I left the Met in 2008 in order to focus on my own directing work, and now I direct all over the country. I’ve been fortunate to split my career between working on new and recent works and many new productions of classic opera repertory.

Where do you place “Un Ballo” in Verdi’s overall output and in the history of opera?

“Ballo” comes just after the period we refer to as Verdi’s middle years – after he composed “La Traviata” and “Il Trovatore” and “Rigoletto” so he was at the height of his dramatic and musical skills. It was a period in which he was also obsessed with Shakespeare and had spent years trying unsuccessfully to turn King Lear into an opera.

All of that impacts “Ballo” –– it is a very skillful piece, brilliantly constructed and so well characterized. Verdi (below) really pushed many of his composition ideas to the edge in “Ballo,” particularly his amazing ability to mix light and dark elements in the same scene. You could write a treatise just on his use of laughter throughout the piece. He took a lot of chances in “Ballo” and it’s a shame that it’s not done more in this country because it’s really extraordinary and very, very satisfying, both musically and dramatically. (See McIntyre’s further comments about “Ballo” as a neglected masterpiece in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

What do you see as the relevance of the opera – its plot, characters and music — to today’s public?

On one level, “Ballo”  (the set is below, in a photo by Douglas Hamer for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City) is about a classic love triangle: a man falls in love with his best friend’s wife. That’s certainly a timeless theme.

But at a larger level, it’s also about the conflict between public and private life, between duty and emotion. It’s about the nature of leadership, in this case about kingship, and it asks, “What duty does a sovereign or leader have to those he leads?”

Those are profound questions that we are still trying to answer. So Verdi is telling both a human story and exploring big themes –- in that way, the work is really Shakespearean in scope, and like a great Shakespeare play, it’s universal.

What specific aspects of this particular production or interpretation would you single out to the pubic as noteworthy or unusual and why?

This is going to be a very dramatically satisfying production. We have a cast who are not only great singers, but also great actors who are deeply invested in the dramaturgy of the piece. And amazingly, they are all doing their parts for the first time, so the energy of discovery and exploration will be a huge part of the production.

Ballo” takes great actors because the characters are much more complex and realistic than in many other operas of the same period. The piece is also based on a true piece of history and I always think it’s fascinating when real life is elevated to the level of grand opera.

What would you like to say about working with the Madison Opera and this production?

I’m thrilled to be back in Madison doing this opera, which is one of my favorites and one I’ve wanted to direct for a long time. I live in Portland, Oregon, so I actually feel very at home here in Madison. I’m having a great time working with the chorus, the local singers and the dancers who are in the cast.

Is there anything else you would like to say or add?

If anyone is on the fence about opera, or about Verdi, then I think this is the piece for you. It has great music that will be extraordinarily sung, but it’s also very powerful dramatically – and really entertaining. Verdi never lets the story or music lag, so the piece just tears along and suddenly you are at a masked ball and it’s all about to go horribly wrong. It is a real evening of music theater.


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