The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Classical music is hardly dying. As the new seasons begins, National Public Radio (NPR) surveys the many new works and world premieres that will take place across the U.S.

September 6, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight marks the opening of a lot of concert seasons across the country. That includes the new season right here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

UW-Madison flutist Stephanie Jutt (below, in a photo by C&N Photography) will perform a FREE program of Latin American music and German music at tonight 8 p.m. in Morphy Hall. She will be accompanied by UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor and UW-Milwaukee pianist Elena Abend.

Stephanie Jutt CR Dick Ainsworth

And over the next several weeks the many other classical music institutions in Madison will also open their seasons: the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Oakwood Chamber Players, the Madison Bach Musicians and so on.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Yet the idea that classical music is moribund, that it is a dying form of culture and art, persists. And critical observers cite smaller audiences, older audiences and debt-strapped organizations as proof.

But if you want to judge the vitality – and possible future -– of classical music in America, you might want to take a look at the season preview that was posted on the outstanding Deceptive Cadence blog by NPR or National Public Radio.

The preview looks at world premieres of new works and unusual events or programming of all kinds — but mostly orchestral and operatic — that will take place around the country. The story includes new works by such well-known and prize-winning composers as Jennifer Higdon (below top), John Adams, John Corigliano and Kevin Puts (below bottom) — all of whom have had works performed in Madison.

Jennifer Higdon and cat Beau

Kevin Puts pulitzer

The Ear finds it encouraging and heartening, although he finds it dispiriting that Madison doesn’t make the list, and wonders why? Is it an oversight on the part of NPR? Or the lack of large-scale new music here, despite upcoming appearances by the Jack Quartet and premieres of works by UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger (below) and the world premiere on Sept. 26 by the Pro Arte Quartet of a commissioned Clarinet Quintet by composer Pierre Jalbert. And this summer saw a world premiere by Jeff Stanek at the Token Creek Chamber  Music Festival.

Laura_Schwendinger,_Composer

Anyway, whet your appetite for the new music and for repeat performances of it elsewhere -– like here at home — by reading about it or, better, listening to it. One of the important sites for new works is the impressive outdoor amphitheater at the Santa Fe Opera, (below, in photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera).

Santa Fe Opera auditorium CR Ken Howard SFO

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/09/03/345259101/great-expectations-a-new-season-of-new-music

Do you think classical music, for all the challenges it faces, is a dying art form?

Or will it persist in some form or another?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Is Beethoven still relevant and our political contemporary with his opera “Fidelio”?

August 10, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall that Ludwig van Beethoven (below) composed only one opera.

It is “Fidelio,” and it reflected his Enlightenment-era political ideas about equality and democracy –- despite the composer’s own financial reliance on patronage by aristocrats and royals.

Beethoven big

And you may recall that the Madison Opera has slated “Fidelio” for a production this coming season in Overture Hall on Friday night, Nov. 21, and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 23.

The production comes during a time of great political unrest and perhaps upheaval at home, with crucial national and state elections, and especially overseas and in foreign affairs with Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Africa’s Ebola strife and many other hot spots showing no sign of letting up.

So will the local production of “Fidelio” be more or less a traditional one? Or will the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith and its artistic director, John DeMain, who is also the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, have other ideas about how to tweak the opera and recast it for modern or contemporary relevance?

It will be interesting to see, although The Ear understands that the production will be traditional.

Here is a link to the Madison Opera’s website:

http://madisonopera.org/performances-2014-2015/

Currently, the acclaimed Santa Fe Opera is staging a controversial new version of “Fidelio”(below), created by director Stephen Wadsworth, that takes place in the Nazi death camp Bergen-Belsen. Sounds very Peter Sellars-like. (You can hear the moving music from the Prisoners’ Chorus at the bottom in a YouTube video.)

FIDELIO in Bergen-Belsen at Santa Fe

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, of The New York Times, did not like it and, in fact, said it offended her because it belittled the Holocaust. She also complained that the roles in the actual text did not match the roles that the new staging created. She saw the production as too inconsistent.

Her larger complaint seems to reflect the notion that after the Holocaust, writing poetry and creating art is impossible, that beauty has been ruined.

It is an ambitious, lofty and tempting thought, but one that is clearly not true. In fact, it is downright wrong. Great suffering and art are old pals. Sometimes art takes you away from suffering; sometimes it takes you deeper into it. It depends on the work and on the performers. But we need both.

Anyway, here is the review from the Times as well as another one with a different take. Read them for yourself. Then decide and make up your own mind. It sure sounds like a concept worth pursuing, even if flawed, to The Ear.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/04/arts/music/santa-fe-opera-sets-fidelio-in-a-concentration-camp.html?_r=0

Critic Heidi Waleson, of The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, praised the production:

http://online.wsj.com/articles/opera-review-santa-fe-opera-1407191039

Be sure to tell The Ear, and other readers, including members of the Madison Opera, if you have ever seen an updated version of “Fidelio” and what you thought of it.

Where do you think “Fidelio could be recast to best advantage The Holocaust? The Spanish Inquisition? The Soviet Gulag and Great Terror? The Killing Fields of Cambodia? The Rwandan genocide? Abu Graib prison in Iraq? A CIA black site torture prison in Egypt? The Chinese Cultural Revolution?

Or, given the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, how about a Supermax prison in Wisconsin?

You get the idea.

Go wild with your imagination, and then write in.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: The Ear generally doesn’t like countertenors. Do you? Is it sexist or artistically wrong to prefer female singers to countertenors and to boy sopranos, especially in Bach cantatas. What do you say about the choices?

July 26, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

No doubt about it: Countertenors are once again cool.

Finally, after centuries of being ignored, slighted and downright ridiculed, countertenors are back in. They are mainstream these days and their numbers are increasing, as are their popularity and their quality.

When you plug the word “countertenor” into the YouTube search engine, you get more than 106,000 results. (At bottom is YouTube video of French countertenor Philippe Jarousskey singing a Vivaldi aria that has almost 2.5 million hits.)

On this past Thursday, NPR’s “Morning Edition” featured a terrific piece about countertenors with Miles Hoffman, the music commentator who is also a professional violist.

The report and commentary concerned the upcoming world premiere this weekend of the opera Theodore Morrison’s “Oscar,” based on the life and trial of Oscar Wilde, at the open air Santa Fe Opera (below).

santa fe opera house

The main point about the singing is that the lead role is played by the universally acclaimed countertenor David Daniels, for whom the opera was specifically composed. And Daniels (below, on the right, as Oscar Wilde in a photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera) has a voice that was described as “high” and heavenly.”

Here is a link to the story with audio clips of other performances by Daniels including music by Handel and Franz Schubert:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/25/205148226/The-High-Heavenly-Voice-Of-David-Daniels

oscr_0417

Now, I have heard a few countertenors, in live performances and on recordings, and there are times when I liked them a lot. I certainly was impressed by them and glad that they now have place in the mainstream of vocal music and opera.

The resurgence of countertenors over the past 15 or so year was inevitable, I suppose, given the revival of Baroque opera and especially the operas of George Frideric Handel (below), who usually wrote his high-pitched hero roles for countertenors.

handel big 2

In fact, here is a link to an earlier piece that NPR “Deceptive Cadence” blogger Tom Huizenga wrote about the Handel recording by another prominent countertenor Bejun Mehta (below):

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2010/11/30/131701596/when-a-man-sings-like-a-woman-a-countertenor-convergence

Bejun Mehta

But I found myself disagreeing with Miles Hoffman (below) and others who think that countertenors somehow bring an added richness to the singing.

Miles Hoffman NPR

My ears tell me just the opposite. So now is a good time to files what appears to be a minority report.

I generally find the countertenor tone uncomfortable. In general, I find adult women’s voices or ordinary male tenors more convincing and expressive, less artificial and more normal to my standards.

I feel the same way about using boy sopranos in choruses of J.S. Bach’s cantatas. There are times when I love the sound of boychoirs and boy sopranos.

But even in period performances of early music – by far, my preference — Bach’s cantatas seem much more convincing and beautiful to me with a soloists and choruses of adult men and adult women.

Of course, we all live in history.

But the fact of the matter is that women were not used for singing not because high male voices were superior but because earlier epochs were heavily sexist and discriminated against women.

That is also, I believe, why the roles of young women in Shakespeare’s plays were usually played by young men. Women were simply not allowed full participation in the performing arts.

And although we may want to reconstruct such practices out a curiosity for historically informed performance and to hear how a certain piece of music originally sounded, I say that earlier periods – not ours – were the more deprived epochs.

Anyway, I look forward to hearing from readers and sophisticated fans of vocal music about whether my objections are misplaced and inappropriate, or whether they agree with me. Not that I expect the trend toward  using countertenors will abate. I am sure it will only grow.

In the end, I suspect, it was comes down to taste and personal preference – as is so often the case, given the inevitable subjectivity of art.

But let me know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Ear catches up with the hectic and fast rising career of the American Metropolitan Opera soprano Susanna Phillips, who closed this past season of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

June 2, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is no secret that the concert fees of performing artists have far outpaced inflation. The days of Madison presenters being able to afford and book superstars, with reasonable ticket prices, like the new Arthur Rubinstein, the new Jascha Heifetz, the new Marian Anderson, the new Vladimir Horowitz, the new Luciano Pavarotti and so on, are long over.

Still, Madison maestros and presenters sure know how to choose and book some up-and-coming classical stars as soloists. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Opera and even Farley’s House of Pianos have done an outstanding  job of finding great artists who are young, gifted and award-winning as well as still up-and-coming and affordable.

Take the case of the American, Alabama-born soprano Susanna Phillips, who sang Mozart concert arias beautifully when she closed the current season of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) under music director and conductor Andrew Sewell and who will be a very busy singer this coming summer and next season.

WCO lobby

Here is a press release from her public relations firm that details the upcoming 2013-14 appearances for Susanna Phillips (below), who also excels at Lieder or art songs (see the YouTube video at bottom of a song by Felix Mendelssohn).

susanna phillips

They include headlining roles in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Santa Fe Opera, Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at the Aspen Music Festival and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony at Bravo! Vail as well as the world premiere of a work by Christopher Weiss at the Twickenham Fest this summer.

Then come her appearances in three different operas at the famed Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City.

The Met hall 1

Here are the details:

“Following her resounding success in A Streetcar Named Desire at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Beverly Sills Artist Susanna Phillips returns to Santa Fe Opera as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro (June 29–Aug 23).

“In her first summer festival engagement, she celebrates the Britten centennial at the Aspen Music Festival, where she will make her role debut as Ellen Orford in a concert performance of Peter Grimes (July 27).

Aspen Music Festival

“At the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival (below), Phillips will join the Philadelphia Orchestra for Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (July 12).

Bravo Vail Gerald Ford Amphitheater.

“And the world premiere of a new commission from Christopher Weiss (below) will crown Twickenham Fest, the festival that Phillips herself co-founded in her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama (Aug 30–Sept 1).

After this full summer, the soprano looks forward to returning to New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where she will star in three important productions next season.

It was in the opening run of Jonathan Kent’s hit staging of The Marriage of Figaro at Santa Fe Opera that, “as the Countess, young soprano Susanna Phillips proved a major find” (Musical America). In the same role at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland last summer, “with a voice that is beautifully warm, brassy and blooming, the American soprano Susanna Phillips captivated from the first measures of the second act” (Forum Opera).

Now Phillips returns to Santa Fe to reprise the Countess for eight performances in June, July, and August, with baritone Zachary Nelson in the title role, and conductor John Nelson leading the revival of Kent’s production.

Last season at the Aspen Music Festival, the soprano impressed the Aspen Times with her ability to convey “emotions and memories radiantly.” Now she returns to the festival to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial, making her role debut as Ellen Orford (a part she will reprise at Carnegie Hall this November) in a semi-staged production of Peter Grimes on July 27. Led by festival music director Robert Spano, Britten’s psychological thriller will co-star Anthony Dean Griffey – “the best Grimes of the moment” (Los Angeles Times) – in the title role.

At Colorado’s Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, Phillips continues to demonstrate her range outside the opera house. On July 12 she sings solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra and acclaimed, dynamic and openly gay music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin (below) in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Finding her voice “optimally suited” to the work, the Washington Post has reported: “Phillips sang the solo with gorgeous, well-supported clarity, a shining, simple but not colorless sound, limpid and calm on the mysterious chords of ‘Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu,’ which return as a refrain.”

Yannick Nezet-Seguin in aciton

For her final festival appearances of the summer, Phillips returns to her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, for the fourth season of Twickenham Fest, the chamber music festival that she herself co-founded. As the Birmingham News recognized in a five-star review, “Twickenham Fest is well on its way to becoming a driving force in classical music in Alabama.” This year’s festival will showcase such notable guest artists as Israeli pianist Roman Rabinovich and cellist Matthew Zalkind.

Twickenham Fest gave its first world premiere last season, when Phillips sang “Speaking for the Afghan Woman,” a song cycle by William Harvey (below) set to verses by female Afghan poets that was written especially for her. The Birmingham News found the poetry “poignant, often gut-wrenching,” and reported that “Phillips’ emotive powers” were such that she “penetrated directly to the hearts of these poets.”

William Harvey composer

Continuing this exciting new tradition for a second season, this year’s Twickenham Fest will present the world premiere of a new commission from 2013 composer-in-residence Christopher Weiss, the recipient of a Theodore Presser Foundation Career Grant, whose music has been hailed by the New York Times as “wonderfully fluid [with a] cinematic grasp of mood and lighting.” The festival will be held from August 30 to September 1, and will be enriched by educational outreach programs at local schools and libraries.

Christopher Weiss composer

The 2013-14 season will also see Phillips star in three important Metropolitan Opera productions. The first of these is Mozart’s Così fan tutte, for which company music director James Levine (below) makes his long-awaited return to the Met podium. Alongside Isabel Leonard, Matthew Polenzani and Rodion Pogossov, Phillips will sing the role in which the Dallas Morning News pronounced her “a glorious Fiordiligi, her soprano honeyed and agile” (Sept 24 & 28; Oct 2 & 5; April 23 & 26). Her final performance in the role will also be transmitted live to cinema audiences worldwide on April 26, in the Met’s celebrated “Live in HD” series.

James Levine conducting

For her second Met engagement of the new season, Phillips will sing Rosalinde in Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, headlining a new production from two-time Tony Award-winner Jeremy Sams. The opening night’s performance will serve as the highlight of the company’s New Year’s Eve gala (Dec 31–Feb 22).

It was as Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème that the soprano made her Met debut, for which more than 400 residents of her Alabama hometown expressly traveled to New York. After her recent Met interpretation of the role, the New York Times noted: “Phillips (below) sparkled as the sassy Musetta, her bright, nimble soprano tinged with a coquettish flair.” Next season, she resumes her portrayal for two performances in Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic staging of the opera, the second of which will also be featured in the Met’s Live in HD series (April 2 & 5).

Susanna Phillips smiling

Details of the soprano’s upcoming engagements are available at susannaphillips.com.


Classical music: The bigger concert hall doesn’t necessarily have the better music.

November 2, 2012
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ALERT: On Saturday night ay 8 p.m. in Morphy Hall, UW bassoonist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill, with modern and baroque bassoons) will perform a FREE concert on the University of Wisconsin School of Music Faculty Concert Series. The program will feature a variety of works by Georg Philipp Telemann; “Récit et Allegro “by Noël-Gallon; “Stick” by UW composer by Stephen Dembski; “Chamber Concerto for Bassoon and Strings” by David Dies and a selection of John Coltrane songs.

By Jacob Stockinger

This is A Tale of Two Concert Halls.

One is Mills Hall (below), the largest concert hall at the University of Wisconsin School of Music. It has a capacity of about 700.

The second is the smaller Morphy Recital Hall, which is right across from Mills. It has a capacity of about 170.

Mills is usually where the Faculty Concert Series takes place; where the UW Symphony Orchestra and Chamber orchestra take place; where the Choral Union and other large groups take place.

I know Mills mostly from smaller events such as student recitals, master classes and the annual concert by the winners of Beethoven Sonata Competition.

But last Thursday night, Oct. 25, provided a wonderful example of how you cannot and should not use the size of the hall to judge the quality of the music.

Most people in line were waiting to get into a flute recital that featured Stephanie Jutt with acclaimed pianist Christopher Taylor and cellist Trace Johnson. That was in Mills Hall and turned out to be, I have no doubt, a memorable concert.

But The Ear was going to the warm and woody Morphy Hall to hear a concert that was advertised simply as an appearance by the soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine and keyboardist-composer Scott Gendel.

That concert turned out to be so much more than was advertised.

Despite the comparatively small, though enthusiastic, attendance (below) and empty seats, the concert proved to be a perfect Homecoming event.

In addition to Guarrine and Gendel, who were classmates and graduated from the UW School of Music in 2005, we heard Guarrine’s husband Karl Knapp (below, who studied with UW professor and Pro Arte Quartet cellist Parry Karp)

These two distinguished and talented alumni, who have gone on to big careers as singer and composer, were also joined in Baroque music by UW oboist Marc Fink, Pro Arte Quartet violinist Suzanne Beia and UW trumpeter John Aley (see the three below).

In perhaps the most touching moment, her teacher of 12 years, UW tenor James Doing, joined Guarrine on stage for a warm and touching Nocturne by Donizetti.

So it was indeed a reunion in so many ways. As I said: A perfect event for Homecoming.

Other things only added to the concert.

The Baroque arias by Handel, Bach and Alessandro Scarlatti were wonderful – light, transparent, lyrical and soulful. Guarrine’s singing of bel canto from Donizetti and Bellini was admirable. And she sang two lovely songs by Gendel, who talked a bit about his music.

Imagine: A voice concert with no Mozart, no Schumann or Brahms, no Puccini or Verdi. But I did hear two beautiful songs (one is at the bottom) by the neo-Romantic Italian composer Stefano Donaudy (1880-1941, incorrectly identified on the program as his poet brother Alberto, whom I had never even heard of. I’ll have to check him out, and so should you. (See the YouTube video at bottom.)

As for Guarrine, who has sung locally with the University Opera and the Madison Opera as well as the Santa Fe Opera, the Minnesota Opera and many others, she is a voice to continue to watch as her career will no doubt continue to blossom. Her pitch is impeccable, her tone is beautiful and her diction is excellent. She has stage presence.

And she has power to spare. Gendel, who not only an award-winning composer but also a professional opera rehearsal pianist and vocal coach played difficult piano parts powerfully. His playing is not shy or timid. But Guarrine was never drowned out. She easily held her own and then some in great balance.

And as an encore for the standing ovation she received, she  delighted the audience with one of Harvard math professor Tom Lehrer’s old but enduringly naughty ditty “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.”

As I recently wrote, the UW School of Music really is attracting more and more talented students with better and better performances as a result:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/10/05/classical-music-hear-for-yourself-how-university-of-wisconsin-music-students-have-gotten-better-by-going-to-the-uw-chamber-orchestras-free-opening-concert-of-maxwell-davies-ravel-and-schube/

Here are links to individual websites that will convince you.

First, through her agent, for Jamie-Rose Guarrine:

http://jamieroseguarrine.com

Then for Scott Gendel:

http://www.scottgendel.com/Home.html

No doubt I will see and you will see me many more time this semester in Mills Hall.

But I also expect you will see me more than usual in Morphy Hall. I hope to see you there.


Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Opera in the Park” again hits all the right notes – outdoors.

July 24, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera started “Opera in the Park” 11 years ago to advertise, and build audiences for, its regular winter season.

(The next season, by the way, includes Verdi’s “A Masked Ball,” Mozart’s “Don Giovanni and Handel‘s “Acis and Galatea,” the company’s first Handel opera and first baroque opera, perhaps opening the door to Gluck, Vivaldi and of course more Handel. For more about next season and for the Madison Opera blog, go to www.madisonopera.org.)

But along the way, something happened.

The event has morphed into a more or less independent concert that has taken on a life of its own. And what a life it is, now a highpoint of the increasingly busy summer classical music season in Madison. (The photo below is by James Gill.)

Consider that, despite the threat of rain and heat, a record-setting almost 14,500 people turned out Saturday to the hilly, amphitheater-like Garner Park, on Madison’s far west side, to hear this year’s edition of the annual event. (The photo below is by James Gill.)

They weren’t disappointed. Far from it. Over two hours, they consistently cheered and at the end gave a standing ovation – and even seemed disappointed when an encore wasn’t forthcoming.

The public isn’t always right. But this time it was.

I started to put check marks next to items on my program when I felt the selections were outstanding. Before long I realized that there were just too many checks to single each one out for comment.

So let me hit some highlights.

Who isn’t grateful to hear the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the rarely performed and Puccini-like Prelude and “Hymn to the Sun” from Mascagni’s “Iris” — think “Turandot” or “Madame Butterfly” — or Verdi’s boisterous and infectious “Anvil Chorus” from “Il Trovatore”?

Who could fail to be charmed by mezzo Emily Pons and bass Matt Boehler and the perfect physicality of their suitably seductive duet of “La Ci darem La Mano” between Zerlina and Don Juan from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”?

Who could resist soprano Caitlyn Lynch (below, in a photo by James Gill) in those fabulously ethereal high notes that float high above the mundane world in her dream aria “Chi Il Bel Sogno di Dretta” from Puccini’s “Rondine”?

Who would not be impressed by tenor Russell Thomas (below, in a photo by James Gill) in “La Donna e mobile” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto”? He is the Ethel Merman of tenors, possessing a big – make that huge – and beautiful voice. True, he lacks some subtlety and his stage manner is a bit stiff, as was Luciano Pavarotti ‘s. But the crowd loved him and sensed they were hearing The Real Deal when it comes to grand talent for grand opera. This man is going places far beyond the loud echoes he created in the vastness of the park.

There were tender moments too. Madison Opera’s congenial general director Kathryn Smith paid tribute to the company’s co-founder Roland Johnson, who died recently and then the crowd waved light sticks to the lovely and calming Barcarolle from Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman.”

Here is a link to a video of that tribute:

http://www.peterpatau.com/

Matt Boehler also turned in two other great moments where he matched voice and stage manner: As Leporello (below in a photo by James Gill), the servant who recites the list of 2,067 conquests by Don Juan – showing that even more than the seductions the immorality is in the cataloguing, the writing down and depersonalizing of the love-making and the love-object. And then he easily switched gears and got into character in the Gilbert and Sullivan tongue-twisting patter song “”Modern Major General.”

The Hollywood sampling of four selections was based on love – the word and the concept – and to The Ear it did not intrude too much on the more serious opera works. It fact, the songs — especially “Be My Love” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” helped set the mood in the cool and clear night. Who doesn’t like a little romance with their beauty?

And then everyone seemed spellbound and moved by the concert’s finale, the large cast (below, in a photo by James Gill) singing “Let Our Garden Grow” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” Lenny knew about rough days and difficult lives. It’s hard to argue with either the music or the lyrics in his take on Voltaire’s famously metaphorical line “We must cultivate our garden.”

If operatic music is the garden, the Madison Opera certainly cultivated it with great results on Saturday night.

Of course, much of this should come as no surprise.

Some audiences love the “Best Of” format. True, real opera fans crave the drama and plots, the costumes and sets. But many of us go for the music — and that is what we got.

This year’s crop of top-notch artists — there wasn’t a weak or unpleasant voice among them — showed no lack of pedigree. When introductions were made for the various singers, names like The Met, Covent Garden, the Santa Fe Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera and the New York Philharmonic got tossed about.

How lucky Madison is to get to hear so many of these voices before the world at large does. Choose right and choose early, it seems, and you can afford the best talent before it becomes famous and unaffordable. So the standing ovation (below) was well deserved.

Guest conductor especially deserves to be singled out for high praise. Gary Thor Wedow (below, in a photo by James Gill), who substituted for the Madison Opera’s artistic director and usual conductor John DeMain, has long experience at various opera companies and now teaches conducting at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City. And you could tell he loves what he does: As he conducted without a baton and with complete mastery, you could see him mouthing the words to just about everyone’s part. This is an expert.

Were there flaws or imperfections, dissatisfactions or mistakes? Sure.

It would have been welcome to hear at least a sample from next season’s Handel opera instead of a different one.

Probably the biggest problem was the sound system, especially depending on where you were sitting. Overall, it still seems to need some refining for clarity and balance.

But sound problems seem endemic to stadium-like concerts. Those same problems also plagued the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square for a decade or more. You begin to think that amplification in big outdoors spaces simply can’t ever be perfect because every ear wants something different out of it.

Nonetheless, the talent came through and the beauty survived, especially on what turned out to be such a perfect evening, who could ask for anything more?

Well, opera is an art and so there are many points of view about it. So here are so other critics’ takes on this year’s Opera in the Park.

Here is freelancer Rena Archwamety’s review for 77 Square, the Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/opera-in-the-park-serenades-and-seduces-with-songs-of/article_60dbced8-5d8b-5b74-95fb-26815f34b69b.html

And here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=37316&sid=41aee9bd30f1129a320857dbc5cf9790

What did you think of Opera in the Park 2012? What did you enjoy and what did you find to be the highlights? Be a critic. Leave a comment. And I will leave you with an oh-so-difficult but oh-so-beautiful song we heard live at Opera in the Park 2012.


Classical music and Opera Q&A: Conductor Gary Thor Wedow talks about the artists and music in Madison’s Opera’s FREE “Opera in the Park” concert this Saturday night.

July 17, 2012
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, July 21, at 8 p.m. in Garner Park on Madison’s far west side – the rain date is Sunday – the Madison Opera will again offer its FREE summer outdoor preview of its next season by presenting “Opera in the Park.”

In recent years, the community event has drawn up to 15,000 people. Garner Park opens at 7 a.m. the day of the concert. Blankets, chairs, food and beverages are allowed. 

For more information about the 11th annual “Opera in  the Park,” including photos of past events and a list of the music to be performed, including both opera and Broadway musicals, t visit:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances/park/

This time the conductor of the guest singers, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra players is Gary Thor Wedow, who has a lot of experience in conducting opera and who has taught at the famed Juilliard School of Music in New York City since 1994.

Wedow (below) recently gave The Ear an email Q&A about this year’s Opera in the Park:

Can you briefly introduce yourself to the readers and audience?

I’m a mid-Westerner from Indiana, a Hoosier. I studied at Indiana University as a pianist with virtuoso Jorge Bolet, who loved opera and singers – and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Years ago I turned from the piano to conducting and love the grandeur of opera — the most extraordinary and complete art form. Though I’ve been lucky to conduct a lot of the Baroque repertoire, the opera I’ve conducted most is still “Carmen” and I’ve been through the gamut of the repertoire at New York City Opera, Seattle Opera (where the photo by Chris Bennion below shows him working the orchestra pit), Canadian Opera Company and other great opera companies around the country.

What are the special challenges and special rewards of performing outdoors? How do you feel about the experience?

At the beginning of my career, I was chorus master at Santa Fe Opera and I think I’ve experienced about every challenge: rain, wind, cold, rattlesnakes and amorous skunks (don’t ask). Of course, now that I’ve said I’ve experienced every challenge, maybe in Madison I’ll find another surprise.

But the rewards are terrific: the ambience, the sky, the whole experience of a picnic with friends and family and truly great music — it’s a memory for a lifetime. My grandfather played in town bands and as a teenager one of my happiest memories was being in the high school band for football games and summer parks concerts; I’m afraid it’s in my DNA.

Can you walk us through the performers and make some brief comments?

The soloists are all internationally recognized American artists.

Caitlin Lynch (below) is a radiant soprano whom I just saw in the disturbing but mesmerizing world premiere of “Dark Sisters. She performs Donna Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” this coming season, she’ll be doing an aria from that role in the park.

Matt Boehler (below), our dynamite bass, will join Lynch in the production of “Don Giovanni” next year. He is performing throughout Europe and is based in Switzerland now, but is a pal of mine from his days at Juilliard, where I’m on the faculty.

Russell Thomas (below) is a tenor without peer and has a truly magnificent voice. He will sing two big excerpts from Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (A Masked Ball) (Madison’s Opera’s fall production). It is one of Verdi’s greatest works.

Emily Fons (below) is a Wisconsin native who just had a triumph in Great Britain at the Garsington Festival and is going to sing some gorgeous Offenbach with us.

Another Wisconsin artist is the soprano Caitlin Cisler (below) will perform the role of Oscar in the “Ballo” and sings Oscar’s sparkling first act aria.

Can you walk us through the program and repertoire, and make some comments?

Well, could you tell that I’m excited about the “Ballo” and the “Don Giovanni” excerpts — this is opera at its greatest. But I’m over the moon that we will begin the program with the seldom performed “Hymn to the Sun” from Mascagni’s “Iris.”  It has breathtakingly beautiful orchestral colors and features your terrific chorus.

Other favorites will include selections from Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; but also some wonderful operetta. Matt will patter his way through the Modern Major General form Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.” We will have some great American musical comedy classics: “Be My Love” — immortalized by Mario Lanza, but gloriously realized in Madison by Russell and Emily and Caitlin will charm us with “Show Boat” (borrowing from Maestro DeMain’s repertoire) and “Ice Cream” from “She Loves Me” — one of my personal favorites.

Are you familiar with the Madison Opera and Madison Symphony Orchestra or with maestro John DeMain? Do you have any comments or reactions about coming to Madison?

I’ve known John (below, in a photo by James Gill) much of my professional life. He is a superb musician and a first-class human being — he is an incredibly generous colleague, rarer than you might imagine. He has invited me to Madison several times before but it never quite fit, so I’m overjoyed that this summer it has worked out.

I am also a huge fan of the Madison Early Music Festival. What a rich cultural life you have there, so I am honored and overjoyed at working with the opera and symphony.

What else would you like to say about anything — the Opera in the Park concert or yourself as a performer and teacher or Madison?

I’m so excited to be coming to Madison. I’ve got dear friends there and know I will leave with more friends — performing this great music with a world-class orchestra and chorus and terrific colleagues in a park!

So, pack the picnic basket, wrap up the blanket and get a light stick (below) to join in the conducting. I’m looking forward to having a great evening — the more, the merrier.


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