By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has received the following information to post about a local opera production that is both exciting and an inspired choice to mark February as Black History Month:
For more information about the cast and the production as well as about purchasing tickets ($25-$114), go to:
With music by Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder (below top) and a libretto by writer and poet Bridgette A. Wimberly (below bottom), the acclaimed opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” tells of the legendary jazz musician and the people closest to him.
The opera, which melds jazz and opera, is set on the day that saxophone great Charlie Parker died in 1955. As his body lies unclaimed in a New York City morgue, Parker returns in spirit to the jazz club Birdland, determined to compose a final masterpiece. Family and friends blend in and out of his memories, including his three wives, his mother, his friend Dizzy Gillespie and even his drug dealer.
Charlie Parker’s Yardbird premiered in June 2015 at Opera Philadelphia (below is tenor Lawrence Brownlee, in a photo by Dominic Mercier, in the title role of Charlie Parker in the Philadelphia production) and was subsequently presented by the company at the Apollo Theater in New York City in April 2016. (You can hear an excerpt in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The New York Times praised it for its “pulsing, jazz-infused score,” while the Wall Street Journal said, “its rhythms snap and swing, its melodies – including real arias – seize the ear, its ensembles crackle with energy.”
Madison Opera will be only the second company to present this work, which is sung in English with projected text and runs 90 minutes without an intermission.
“I saw Charlie Parker’s Yardbird when it premiered in Philadelphia and instantly knew it would be a perfect opera for Madison,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “The very American story and the exciting jazz-inflected music fit perfectly into our ever-expanding range of repertoire.”
She adds, “It’s not a straightforward narrative of Parker’s life, but rather elements of his life as refracted through his memories and imagination, and particularly his relationships with the women in his life.”
Madison Opera’s cast includes both debuts and returning favorites, as well as a number of singers who created their roles in the world premiere.
Joshua Stewart (below), a young American tenor who has sung at La Scala, Bayerische Staatsoper, and Opera de Lausanne, debuts in the tour de force role of Charlie Parker.
Angela Brown (below) returns following her performance at Opera in the Park 2016 as Addie Parker, Charlie’s mother, a role she created in Philadelphia.
Will Liverman, who sang Figaro in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville here in 2015, sings jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, a role he created in Philadelphia.
Krysty Swann debuts as Rebecca Parker, Charlie’s first wife. Angela Mortellaro, who sang Galatea in Handel’s Acis and Galatea in 2013, returns as Doris Parker, Charlie’s third wife, a role she created in Philadelphia.
Rachel Sterrenberg debuts as Chan Parker, his final wife, a role she created in Philadelphia. Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, in whose hotel suite Parker died, is sung by Julie Miller in her Madison Opera debut.
Directing this production is Ron Daniels (below), who staged the world premiere and was the opera’s dramaturge, involved in the creation and workshop process.
John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) conducts, with members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra in the pit.
DeMain says: “I am so happy to be a part of Madison Opera’s Midwest premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. Parker was consumed with music, breathing it day and night. All of us who are passionate about performing and listening to music can identify with this phenomenal musician and will not want to miss this jazz-infused opera, the perfect expression of Parker’s range and depth as a musician.”
Composer Daniel Schnyder will attend the opening night performance and join Smith for the Pre-Opera Talk that evening at 7 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio.
In addition to the performances, Madison Opera and its community partners are hosting a series of related events, collectively known as “Extending the Stage,” which culminate in a concert of Charlie Parker’s music with composer Daniel Schnyder and the UW-Madison’s Blue Note Ensemble.
These events include Opera Novice; community previews; Opera Up Close; discussions of the life and music of Charlie Parker (below); and presentations of rare jazz films.
All events are open to the public and the majority are free of charge.
RELATED EVENTS: EXTENDING THE STAGE
Opera Novice: Jazz Opera? Friday, Jan. 20 | 6-7 p.m. The Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, 335 W. Mifflin Street. FREE and open to the public
New to opera? Passionate about Puccini, but not sure about a jazz opera? Join General Director Kathryn Smith for a short, fun, and informative evening exploring the history of jazz and opera, including a live performance of an aria from Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. With plenty of time to ask questions, it’s the perfect jump-start for the opera-curious.
Community Preview of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, Tuesday, Jan. 24 | 7-8 p.m. Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 W. Main St. FREE and open to the public
Join a Madison Opera staff member for a multimedia look at Charlie Parker’s life, the history of the opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, and some insights into Madison Opera’s production.
Opera Up Close, Sunday, Feb. 5 | 1-3 p.m. The Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street. Admission: $20; free for full-season subscribers and full-time students with ID; $10 for two-show subscribers. Tickets available at the door.
Come even closer with a behind-the-scenes preview of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. A multimedia presentation on Charlie Parker and the history of this opera will be followed by a roundtable discussion with the leading artists of Madison Opera’s production. There is no better way to get “up close” to this acclaimed new opera.
A Charlie Parker Concert and Discussion with Daniel Schnyder and the Blue Note Ensemble Thursday, Feb. 9 | 7:30 p.m. Morphy Recital Hall, UW-Madison. FREE and open to the public
Composer Daniel Schnyder joins UW-Madison’s Blue Note Ensemble for an evening featuring music by Charlie Parker, with solos performed by both Schnyder and UW-Madison saxophone students. The evening includes an aria from Charlie Parker’s Yardbird and a discussion about Parker and the opera with Schnyder, UW-Madison Professor of Saxophone Les Thimmig, and General Director Kathryn Smith.
Pre-Opera Talks: Friday, Feb. 10 |7 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 12 | 1:30 p.m. Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center. FREE to ticket holders
Attend an entertaining introduction to Charlie Parker’s Yardbird one hour prior to curtain. On Friday night, composer Daniel Schnyder will join General Director Kathryn Smith to talk about the piece. Be sure to arrive early, as space is limited.
An Evening of Rare Jazz Films: Alicia Ashman Library. Friday, Feb. 3 | 7 p.m.; Goodman South Madison Library. Tuesday, April 11 | 6 p.m. FREE and open to the public (Below is footage of Charlie Parker playing and of people discussing the man and his artistic achievement.)
Jazz archivist Gary Alderman will present and explain films of the historically significant innovators of modern jazz, including the only two known existing videos with sound of Charlie Parker.
Among the other musicians shown will be those relevant to Parker’s music and career, including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
The Life and Music of Charlie Parker: DeForest Area Public Library: Monday, Feb. 13, 6:30 p.m.; Alicia Ashman Library: Friday, Feb. 24, 7 p.m.; Fitchburg Public Library: Sunday, Feb. 26, 2 p.m.; Oregon Public Library: Friday, March 10, 6:30 p.m. FREE and open to the public
UW-Madison Professor of Saxophone Les Thimmig (below) will talk about Charlie Parker’s life and music, as well as the history of bebop.
More information is available at www.madisonopera.org/education.
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 89.9 FM. For many 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
Last Wednesday night, in the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave what was billed as its “Holiday 2016 Concert.” Fortunately, it had no seasonal connection whatsoever—just a lot of good music.
Opening the program was a sequence of three Slavonic Dances (Nos. 1,4 and 8) by Antonin Dvorak. (You can hear the zesty and energetic first Slavonic Dance, performed by Seiji Ozawa and the Vienna Philharmonic, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The conductor this time, UW-Madison graduate student Kyle Knox (below), was able to point up lots of instrumental details that could be easily lost, and the orchestra played with a lusty vigor appropriate to the folk flavor of this music.
After that, Knox’s wife, Naha Greenholtz (below) — who happens to be the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, among other things—joined the MCO in Felix Mendelssohn’s beautiful and very popular Violin Concerto in E minor.
Greenholtz played from the score, and some occasional technical blurrings suggested that she does not yet have the piece securely in her fingers.
Still, she clearly understands the work’s shape and contours, and I particularly appreciated her flowing tempo for the middle movement, not as slow as we too often hear it. Her overall effect with this concerto was handsome and colorful.
The main work was the Second Symphony by Brahms, which you can hear n the YouTube video at the bottom. This is a challenging work, especially when the important exposition repeat in the long first movement is honored, as Knox did.
Knox showed a thorough grasp of the score, and brought out its structures superbly. I found myself appreciating anew the wondrous way the composer is able to make his themes evolve to reveal unexpected beauties.
Well done, this is a richly satisfying work, and Knox drew out of his players (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) a truly satisfying performance.
The Middleton Community Orchestra continues to develop and progress. Just now, it is rather violin-heavy with 14 firsts and 18 seconds against only 9 violas and 13 cellos. These fiddlers need to blend better, and experience in working together will doubtless move them in that direction.
In general, the orchestra sounded quite healthy, fully supportive in the concerto and really accomplished in the symphony. All that is clearly the result of hard work, and Knox deserves a good deal of the credit for it.
Notable also was the large audience turnout. Middletonians can clearly be proud of their orchestra, and more and more of the Madison public is learning that a trip to the west side can be most rewarding.
The MCO is by now, in its seventh season, a valuable and appreciated component of our area’s musical life.
ALERT: The strike by the players in the Philadelphia Orchestra has been settled. For details, go to this website:
For more background about that strike and others, which The Ear writes about yesterday, go to:
By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Bach Musicians will open its 2016-17 season this coming weekend with two performances of a program that features English music from the Baroque and Renaissance eras.
The first performance is this Friday, Oct. 7, at 7:30 p.m., preceded by 6:45 lecture, in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.
The second is this coming Sunday, Oct. 9, at 3:30 p.m., preceded by a 2:45 lecture, at the Holy Wisdom Monastery (below), 4200 County Highway M in Middleton.
If bought in advance, tickets are $28 for the general public and $23 for students and seniors over 65; at the door tickets will be $30 and $25, respectively. Student rush tickets are $10, require a student ID and are available 30 minutes before the lectures. For more information, visit www.madisonbachmusicians.org
The program features: Sonata in Four Parts in F major “Golden Sonata” by Henry Purcell (1659−1695); Suite No. 2 in D major from “Consort of Four Parts” by Matthew Locke (c. 1621−1677); Songs to texts by William Shakespeare by Robert Johnson (1583−1633); “Diverse bizzarie Spra La Vecchia” by Nicola Matteis (c. 1650−c. 1709); Division No. 7 for two bass viols by Christopher Simpson (c. 1606−1669); “Solus cum sola” for solo lute solo by John Dowland (1563−1626); “The Broken Consort” Part 1, Suite no. 2 in G major by Matthew Locke; “The Carman’s Whistle” by William Byrd (c. 1540−1623); “Light of Love” by Anonymous as arranged by David Douglass; “John Come Kiss Me Now” by John Playford (1623−c. 1686) as arranged by David Douglass; “Long Cold Night” and “Queen’s Jig.”
Performers include: Dann Coakwell, tenor; David Walker, lute and theorbo; Kangwon Kim violin and concertmaster; Brandi Berry, violin; Anna Steinhoff and Martha Vallon, viola de gamba; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord.
Here are some edited notes by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson (below):
Madison Bach Musicians is delighted to start off its 13th season with a foray into new repertoire for the group: English music from the Renaissance and Baroque.
A special feature of the program will be the recognition in song of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
Both the smaller lute and the larger theorbo were considered ideal for accompanying the voice in songs, and the theorbo could project a bit better in larger ensembles.
Like the lute, the viola da gamba is also fretted, but it is bowed and not plucked. Moreover, the gamba is held between the legs, the “gams,” and its name literally means “viol of the legs.”
The baroque violins we’ll use in this program will be strung in the usual fashion of the 16th and 17th centuries, that is, with gut strings (from dried sheep intestine); and the bows will be of the Elizabethan “short” variety (shorter length, and with the stick arching away from the hair), which make them ideally suited for the intricate articulations and lively dance rhythms of this repertoire.
All of these instruments enjoyed great popularity in England during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Henry Purcell (below) flourished during the arts boom of the Restoration period under King Charles II and is widely known for his theater music and operas. However, he also wrote quite a bit of instrumental music.
The four parts of this sonata refers here not to numbers of movements, but to the number of simultaneous instrumental lines—in this case, four, which is notably different from the typical three-part (or trio sonata) Italianate texture of the 17th century.
The Purcell sonata is followed by an instrumental Suite in D major by Matthew Locke (c. 1621-1677). Locke was a close friend of the Purcell family and in particular of Purcell’s father, Henry Purcell Sr. The younger Henry Purcell wrote a musical elegy on Locke’s death in 1677.
Locke’s years of greatest musical activity in London began as the period of Puritanical Commonwealth rule, under Oliver Cromwell, was waning in the late 1650’s. The Commonwealth had severely restricted the theater and the arts in general. Fun fact: Locke (below) was the first composer to indicate a musical crescendo and decrescendo in a score.
The texts for the songs are from various Elizabethan poets—John Fletcher, John Webster and Shakespeare himself—and all of the music was composed by lutenist Robert Johnson (below, 1583-1633).
Johnson worked closely with Shakespeare in theatrical productions at the court of James I during the first few years of the 17th century. Johnson even provided music for Shakespeare’s original production of “The Tempest.”
The first part of the MBM program will conclude with two works that explore a favorite 17th-century technique of ornamentation over a repeated bass line, sometimes called a ground bass or chaconne.
The first is by the Italian virtuoso violinist Nicola Matteis (below, in a painting by Gottfried Kneller, c. 1650-1709), who enjoyed a successful career in London during an era when the English were importing Italian music masters by the dozens.
The second work, by Christopher Simpson (below, c. 1606-1669), explores “divisions” or variations tossed back and forth between two bass viols (gambas) while they simultaneously repeat a ground bass.
The second half of the program will feature songs for tenor and voice by John Dowland (below). We’ll also play Locke’s Broken Consort, “broken” meaning “mixed”–in that violins and gambas, which were considered in Elizabethan times to be artistically quite different instruments—were being asked by the composer to play nicely together.
Following that, I’ll play a rousing set of variations for harpsichord, “The Carman’s Whistle,” by William Byrd (below).
And to conclude the program, the consort will play a set of sprightly dances originally published in 1651 in the collection “The English Dancing Master” by John Playford (below).
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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.
By John W. Barker
The mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) finished its fifth season with a concert on Wednesday night that was a kind of brass sandwich—that is, a brass filling between two noisy slices of bread.
The opener was the popular “Carnival” Overture by Antonin Dvorak, the closest this composer ever came to producing a cheap crowd-pleaser.
(I wish that the enterprising conductor Steve Kurr (below), had chosen instead one of the other two overtures in Dvorak’s trilogy of “Nature, Life and Love,” which are much more substantial.)
The orchestra gave the overture a lusty performance, revealing some interesting wind details that one does not often hear.
There were two sandwich fillers.
The first was a concerto for tuba, dating from 2015. The composer, local musician and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music alumnus Pat Doty (below), was also the soloist.
Of its three movements, the first was clearly in the idiom of music for marching band, in which Doty has had long UW experience. The second movement was an attempt at a waltz, while the finale had Latin American odors and featured a prominent part for marimba. What to say? The program bio made the sensible point that Doty’s music “never takes itself too seriously.”
A more substantial score was the other filling, the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, Op. 91, by Russian late-Romantic Reinhold Glière, also in three movements. (Sadly, the program booklet failed to list the movements for each concerto.)
While this score may not be really great music, it is a splendid, if difficult, vehicle for the soloist.
Another UW-Madison grad, Paul Litterio (below), a player in many area orchestras including both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (and with a sideline in handbells), was the soloist. Playing with perfect technique, an elegant style and just a touch of teasing vibrato, Litterio gave a fascinating demonstration of his instrument in a solo capacity that we do not often hear.
The closing bread for the sandwich was another example of near-vulgar bombast by one of its masters: Tchaikovsky (below). If that was the kind of music to be written, he was the one to do it, and still make you admire him.
The Capriccio Italien, Op. 40, was the composer’s reaction to a visit to Rome. He evoked his neighborhood and, above all, the riotous sounds and songs of a Roman Carnival. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Tchaikovsky’s capacity for making bombast sound like fun creates a really delightful score, and the Middleton players poured all their energies into it.
(An interesting footnote: Tchaikovsky’s other musical product of his visits to Italy is a very different work, the gorgeous string sextet Souvenir de Florence (Memory of Florence), which is less about Italy itself and more a picture of the composer’s homesickness. As it happens, that masterpiece will be played on July 8 by the Willy Street Chamber Players.)
By Jacob Stockinger
Tickets to the opera, based on Louisa May Alcott’s famous 19th-century American novel of the same name, run $21-$101. You can call the Overture Center box office at 608 258-4141.
The production features guest conductor Kyle Knox (below), a busy and experienced musician who is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. His dramatic story was featured on this blog yesterday:
Candace Evans (below) returns as the stage director:
Heather Johnson (below) returns to sing the lead role of Jo March:
“Little Women” will be sung in English with projected surtitles.
The running time is 2-1/2 hours with one intermission.
Also, Mark Adamo is doing the pre-show talk on Friday night in tandem with the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith. Says Smith: “That means I’m going to ask him questions, so he can talk about his opera instead of me doing so as usual. That is at 7 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center, and is free to ticket holders.”
For more information about the opera, tickets, the cast and the production as well as the pre-performance lecture and post-performance Q&A, visit:
Here is a link to Mark Adamo’s informative website, where you can also see what other music Adamo, who teaches composition at New York University, composes:
And here is link to his entry on Wikipedia:
Adamo – who will attend the Friday night performance — generously agreed to a recent email interview with The Ear:
Is there anything beyond what is on your website that you think readers should know about you, your background and your career, including your latest and upcoming projects?
The website has only a little detail about “Becoming Santa Claus,” which is my fourth opera and which was given a lovely premiere (below) in Dallas in December. I’m editing the soundtrack for an upcoming DVD of the piece even as we speak.
What attracted you to “Little Women” as a subject for an opera?
I actually resisted it up front. I thought it was charming, but too antique and undramatic even to speak, let alone sing.
I was drawn to it only when I realized the show was neither “Three Weddings and a Funeral” (that is, not a story of all the March girls, save Beth, growing up to marry) nor a story of a girl struggling to be an artist (her whole family supports her) but a startling, and startlingly proto-modern, story of a girl/woman who learns too late that the destinies of even those she loves are out of her control.
Once it occurred to me that it was the story of everyone who’s ever heard, or uttered, the words, “I love you, but I have to leave” — and didn’t know why it had to be so — I knew the piece could sing.
How difficult a challenge is it for you to do both the score and the libretto? Do you prefer doing one to the other or find one easier?
For me, it’s natural. I was trained not only as a musician but as a playwright and lyricist (and, less comprehensively, as an actor and director) and, temperamentally, I’m the sort of artist who likes to take the most various, and longest possible, view of the project first before I start it.
An opera is a structure of words and music designed to be acted So the more questions I ask myself up front, the clearer both the script and the score can become even before they’re created, because the piece has been conceived in toto first and then the words and music designed to express it.
So I ask myself: What is the story? How can the journey of this character tell it? What is the sound of this story as verbal diction? Vocal contour? Harmonic mass? Melodic line? (Below are the handwritten manuscript and published score to a work by Mark Adamo.)
How would you describe the style of your music to the general public?
It always starts from the singing line. But I let the emotion of the character and the flow of the story determine everything else.
If the character feels like she’s making beautiful discoveries as she falls in love, the harmonies open up, moving from key to key before it settles when she does. If the conversation is turbulent, unsettled, inconclusive, the music is similarly fugitive.
Technically, that means the music is tonal, except when it’s chromatic; harmonic, unless just a sound or an orchestral color can carry the meaning; rhythmically steady, unless rhythms careen every which way to follow the turns of argument. In sum, it is eclectic — but not arbitrarily so. (NOTE: In a YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear an example in Beth’s aria from the production of “Little Women” by the Fayetteville Opera.)
“Little Women” has been performed in more than 65 international productions. What do you think has made it so popular? What is the usual public reaction to the work?
It’s actually over 100 at this point. Obviously, the path of the opera begins with the novel, one of the most beloved in English since its publication. Obviously, you try, as an artist, to make a piece as true and clear and deep as you can. But you can’t control whether artists subsequently believe in that piece (or not), or whether audiences embrace it (or not.)
Eighteen years after its premiere, my only possible response is gratitude that this opera is still speaking so often and to so many.
By Jacob Stockinger
This coming Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Choral Union, a campus and community chorus, and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all 20th-century program. (Both are below.)
Featured are the “Symphony of Psalms” by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; the “Gloria” by French composer Francis Poulenc; and the Overture to “The Wasps” by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Tickets are $15, $8 for seniors and students.
Here is a link to more information, including how to buy tickets:
Taylor agreed to a recent email interview with The Ear:
This year, you are giving only one performance, both now and in the spring for “The Creation” by Franz Joseph Haydn. For many years, you have generally given two performances. Why the change? Is it an experiment or trial, or is it permanent?
Three things combined: Really, the main reason was that the hall and players were only available one night. As more groups emerge and the hall is booked, and string players may be playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra or several new chamber groups, it’s hard to get everyone together on the same night.
Also, we thought we’d pack them in for one night, although with all that goes on in town, we may leave some people out.
Third, because we did not have a full chamber ensemble yet available at the time we planned “The Creation,” and knowing I’d have to hire some additional players, we planned on one night for budget reasons.
Next year? Who knows? Check back in February …
It is a great program of very different 20th-century works. What was your idea or reason for linking them by putting them on the same program?
Great question, and yes I’ve given it a fair amount of thought.
Before I answer that, I should say that I’ve added a bonus piece to the program in the form of the orchestra-only Overture to “The Wasps” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Because the program is a bit on the short side, I had an overture in mind, but hadn’t confirmed it till I saw how quickly the orchestra took on the challenges of the Poulenc and Stravinsky.
One of the great things about programming 20th century music — and I expect will be the same as we add more 21st century music — is the astounding variety of styles available to us. And many of the 20th-century composers lived long enough to provide differing styles within their own work.
What can you tell us about the work by Stravinsky (below)?
Stravinsky’s earliest works were late Romantic, then, with pulsing rhythms, sometimes called primitive; later there was neo-Classicism, and 12-tone, etc. If forced to choose a title, I would call “Symphony of Psalms” a mixture of the primitive and the Romantic.
What makes it Romantic is the writing for the choir, which entails long lines, some stunning dynamic changes from loud to soft, and a pure, almost disembodied gentle melody at the end.
What makes it Primitive is the pulsing rhythms in the orchestra in movement III and the unexpected chord interpolations in the first.
What makes it clever intellectually is the difficult, jagged but fascinating double fugue in the second movement; and what makes it a wonderful sonic treat is the elimination of Violin I, II and Viola in favor of FIVE flutes, FIVE oboes, FOUR bassoons, FOUR horns, FIVE trumpets, THREE trombones TWO pianos, ONE harp and ONE tuba, some cellos, double basses and a partridge in a pear tree.
When you get four flutes and a piccolo, playing sometimes a half-step apart, you set up weird shimmering overtones. It’s fascinating to hear, although I may be deaf after the concert from being so close to them.
What about the work by Poulenc (below top)?
I wanted to contrast the modern instrumentation of the pulsing rhythms of Stravinsky with an equally interesting 20th-century work with a different flavor.
What makes Poulenc’s “Gloria” (heard in a YouTube video at the bottom) hard to sing is what we hear all the time in popular music — the major seventh chord — think C, E, G and B natural. For performers, singing C’s against B’s can be hard to tune, but the chords are closely allied with jazz and the piano bar! And the piano was Poulenc’s composing instrument.
With long lines in the strings, we are treated to the lushest of lines in the third, fifth and sixth movements. The first movement is regally strong; the second and fourth are playful.
Our wonderful soprano soloist, Tyana O’Connor, sings gorgeously in three of the movements, both powerfully direct, and then in soft floating sounds.
And the work by Vaughan Williams?
I chose the Vaughan Williams for its length, its instrumentation (lots for the upper strings, which weren’t playing in the Stravinsky, and nice parts for the harps that we have already playing in the Poulenc and Stravinsky) and its buoyant, positive nature as an opening to our concert.
Vaughan Williams (below) wrote it while he was fairly young, as occasional music to a production of Aristophanes’ play “The Wasps.” He makes a nod to “The Wasps” in the form of a string buzz in the opening and toward the end. But for the most part the overture is formed of two tunes — a perky, angular march and a warm, lush tune aligned with English folksong. These tunes are presented separately and then combined.
By choosing three different flavors of 20th-century music, I hope to present a balanced evening with appeal to everyone.
Have steep budget cuts to the UW-Madison hurt the Choral Union? Do such cuts affect your ability to hire guest soloists? Do they account for the reduction in performances? Do they alter the repertoire that you can do?
Yes, they have hurt the Choral Union in certain ways, although I don’t think our excellence will be any the less.
Without the availability of some discretionary concert funds, we have had to increase some fees for members, and we have had to postpone some special works that might include high rentals of materials or special instruments or another venue to perform in.
We sometimes program using the great soloists available to us from our faculty and graduate students, and save funds for when we need to hire a professional voice that we don’t have. With more money we might do that more often, but we are lucky to have gifted people within our reach.
Good classical music has costs that the public often doesn’t know about — high costs for copyrighted parts and scores (below) for recent works, and specialty instruments such as viols or oboes d’amore and portative organs for early music.
What else would you like to say?
I’m so glad you asked me to write. Although this concert by the Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra is a ticketed event, the great majority of our concerts are FREE.
We encourage listeners of all types and generations to TRY to listen to something new and LIVE, and perhaps in a different genre than they’ve ever tried before.