The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Pro Arte Quartet minus one plays string trios this Friday night and Sunday afternoon, then starts its Beethoven string quartet cycle on Friday, Nov. 22. Plus 3 UW profs premiere a new fusion work tonight

October 3, 2019
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CORRECTION: The all-Telemann concert by the Madison Bach Musicians on this Saturday night at the First Unitarian Society of Madison is at 8 p.m. — NOT 7:30 as it was mistakenly listed in the early version of yesterday’s post. The Ear apologizes for the error. The pre-concert lecture is at 7:15 p.m. There is also a performance on Sunday at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton at 3:30 p.m., with a lecture at 2:45 p.m. For more information, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/02/classical-music-how-did-baroque-composer-telemann-get-overshadowed-and-why-is-he-being-rediscovered-trevor-stephenson-talks-about-his-all-telemann-concerts-this-weekend/

ALERT: TONIGHT, Thursday, Oct. 3, at 8 p.m., three UW-Madison music professors — Anthony Di Sanza (percussion), Tom Curry (tuba, keyboard and electronics) and Mark Hetzler (trombone and electronics) — will perform their new composition “Don’t Look Down” at the Arts + Literature Laboratory, located at 2021 Winnebago Street on Madison’s near east side. (Phone is 608 556-7415.)

The trio’s goal to showcase their instruments using a combination of electro-acoustic techniques, improvisation and traditional chamber music applications to create an array of sonic environments and musical languages.

The result is a work that looks at the impact of media and technology on society, while featuring shifting soundscapes and a variety of styles including classical, rock, jazz and experimental.

Tickets are $10 in advance at: https://dontlookdown.brownpapertickets.com; and $15 at the door. Student tickets are $5 off with a valid school ID. Advance ticket sales end one hour before the show. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

First, a news flash: The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s critically acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) will begin its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets on Friday, Nov. 22.

The program, time and other dates are not available yet, but should be announced soon.

The performances are part of the 2020 Beethoven Year, which will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Stayed tuned for more details.

This Friday night, Oct. 4, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, three members of the Pro Arte will perform a FREE concert of string trios. Performers are second violinist Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp.

Featured on the program are: the Serenade in C Major, Op. 10 (1902), by the Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi (below top); the String Trio, Op. 48 (1950), by the Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (below bottom); and the Serenade in D Major, Op. 8 (1796-97), by Ludwig van Beethoven.) You can hear the opening movement of the Weinberg Trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.

For more information about the quartet and the program, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-5/

This Sunday afternoon, the Pro Arte Quartet will also perform FREE at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen. The same program of string trios will be repeated. The performance will be held starting at 12:30 in the Brittingham Gallery 3.

For details about attending, go to: https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen9/

It will also be streamed live at the following portal: https://c.streamhoster.com/embed/media/O7sBNG/OS1C0ihJsYK/iqf1vBMs3qg_5


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra honors retired music critic John W. Barker with a special performance of Brahms and a season dedication

September 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

How does an individual  musician or musical group pay tribute and say thank you to a critic?

By performing, of course.

And that is exactly what 30 members of the Middleton Community Orchestra did, playing under guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top), last Friday night for the veteran music critic John W. Barker (below bottom).

The orchestra performed for him at the downtown Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, near the Capitol Square, where the ailing Barker lives with his wife Margaret.

Because of space limitations, word of the special performance never went public. But the large basement room was packed with affectionate and respectful fans and friends.

The MCO members played the lyrical and sunny Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, of Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Serenade by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The orchestra also announced that it would dedicate its upcoming 10th anniversary season to Barker as a gesture of thanks for all he has done over the past nine years to promote the mostly amateur orchestra — which opens its new season on Wednesday, Oct. 9. 

“I’ve known this piece most of my life,” said Barker, who soon turns 86 and who started reviewing in his teens. “It’s lots of fun.”

And so was the unusual honor.

“An orchestra paying tribute to a critic? It’s unprecedented,” Barker quipped, as both he and the audience laughed. Barker also quoted the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who once said, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

After the 40-minute performance, Barker spoke briefly to the players and audience.

“The job of the critic,” he said, “is to stimulate performers to play up to their best standards and to give readers some background and context. Being critical doesn’t mean being negative, although at times I have made some negative comments. But you never have to be nasty. I guess I’ve succeeded,” he said looking around at the players and the public, both of whom generously applauded his remarks.

Barker’s list of personal accomplishments is impressive. He has written local music reviews for The Capital Times, Isthmus and this blog.

But he is a participant as well as a critic. He has sung in many choirs, including 47 years in the one at the local Greek Orthodox Church, and has performed with the Madison Opera. He directed Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the Madison Savoyards.

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which may help to explain his general taste for the traditional. He also is a well-known classical music critic, with a national reputation, who has written for 63 years for the American Record Guide. For many years, he hosted an early music radio show on Sunday mornings for WORT-FM 89.9.

He also worked with Opera Props, the support group for University Opera, and was a member of the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival. And he frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison. He has published two books on Wagner and written a definitive history of the Pro Arte Quartet.

But this time even the voluble Barker had to admit, “I am grateful and thankful. I am very moved, even floored. But I’m afraid I’m finally at a loss for words.”

You can leave your own words of tribute in the Comment section.

To see the full “Barker season” schedule for the Middleton Community Orchestra and to read many of Barker’s past reviews of the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Thank you, John, for all you have done to enrich the cultural and musical life of Madison!


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Classical music: The second LunART Festival will spotlight women in the performing and creative arts. Here is Part 2 of 2 with more about new music, comedy and a full schedule

June 3, 2019
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ALERT: The second Van Cliburn Junior Piano Competition resumes today — Monday, June 3 — in Dallas at 2:20 p.m. CDT. The young players range from 13 to 17 and come from around the world, and they are terrific. Plus the quality of the live streaming is outstanding, especially for the camera work of the keyboard. It’s all FREE. If you want to see it, here is a link: https://www.cliburn.org. You might also be interested to know that among the jurors are Alessio Bax, who has performed in Madison at Farley’s House of Pianos, and Philippe Bianconi, who has soloed several times with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.  All that and you get to vote for the Audience Award too! 

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received a long and detailed announcement about the upcoming second LunART Festival. Here is Part 2 of two parts with more information about new music, comedy and a schedule of events. Yesterday was Part 1 — a link is below — with background and participants. 

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/06/02/classical-music-starting-wednesday-the-second-lunart-festival-will-again-spotlight-women-in-the-performing-and-creative-arts-here-is-the-first-of-a-two-part-preview/

The LunART Festival, co-founded and co-directed by Iva Ugrcic and Laura Medisky, is back for its second season from this Wednesday, June 5, through Sunday, June 9, and will continue its mission of supporting, inspiring, promoting and celebrating women in the arts.

The 2019 season brings 10 events to eight venues in the Madison area, providing accessible, high-quality, engaging concerts and events with diverse programming from various arts fields.

The festival will showcase over 100 artists this season, including many familiar local artists and performers as well as guest artists hailing from Missouri to Texas, Minnesota to Florida and as far away as Peru.

LunART’s 2019 call for scores was open to women composers of all ages and nationalities, and received an impressive 98 applicants from around the globe. Scores were evaluated by a committee of 17 LunART Festival musicians and directors, and three works were selected to be performed at each of the Gala concerts.

The winning composers are Eunike Tanzil (below top), Edna Alejandra Longoria (below middle) and Kirsten Volness (below bottom). All three will be in attendance at the festival. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a piece for cello and piano, with the composer playing the piano, by Eunike Tanzil.)

The “From Page to Stage: Emerging Composers” educational program also returns, bringing six composers to Madison to work with flutist and composer-in-residence Valerie Coleman (below).

During the festival she will mentor participants in developing practical skills to express their creative ideas, cultivate relationships with performers and master the art of collaboration. The program culminates with a free public concert featuring their music on Saturday, June 8, at 2 p.m. in the Capitol Lakes Grand Hall, 333 West Main street, downtown and two blocks from the Capitol Square.

On Friday, June 7 at Overture Center in Promenade Hall, Meaghan Heinrich (below) presents her pre-concert lecture, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman,” which explores what it means to be a woman artist in the 21st century, and how women’s experiences shape their artistic expressions.

Following the Friday gala concert is “Holding Court,” this season’s Starry Night event at Robinia Courtyard. This all-women comedy show features Midwestern comics Vanessa Tortolano (below top), Chastity Washington (below bottom), Vickie Lynn, Samara Suomi and Cynthia Marie who are blazing a trail of funny that will leave you gasping in their wake.

“The Multi-faceted Artist” panel discussion is for anyone interested in the ongoing trend and need for artists to wear multiple hats to succeed and thrive.

Coleman (composer and flutist) and Dr. Linda DiRaimondo (psychiatrist and aerial dancer, below top on top) serve as panelists along with Katrin Talbot (violist, poet and photographer, below bottom in a photo by Isabel Karp), and will lead the discussion on Saturday, June 8, at the downtown Madison Public Library’s Bubbler Room.

The festival wraps up on Sunday, June 9, from 10 a.m. to noon at Common Ground, 2644 Branch Street in Middleton, with “Mooning Around” poetry reading and artist mixer, featuring a performance of “One for Mileva Maric (Einstein)” by Andrea Musher, with special guests Sarah Whelan and Jackie Bradley, and poetry readings by The Line-Breakers: Andrea Potos (below), Eve Robillard, Rosemary Zurlo-Cuva and Katrin Talbot.

Everyone is welcome to come enjoy their morning coffee and pastries while making creative connections with other artists.

LunART Festival is supported by Dane Arts, the Madison Arts Commission, the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Open Meadows Foundation; it also won first place at the 2018 National Flute Association C.R.E.A.T.E. Project Competition and second prize at the 2018 UW Arts Business Competition.

Schedule of 2019 Festival events:

Wednesday, June 5

  • 6-8 p.m.: “Women Against Hate United by Love” exhibition opening reception @ Rotunda Stage, Overture Center for the Arts (free event)

Thursday, June 6

  • 9 a.m.-Noon From Page to Stage composition master class with Valerie Coleman @ First United Methodist Church (free event)
  • 7 p.m.: Opening Gala Concert @ Maiahaus (402 E. Mifflin St.) (Tickets: $20 general/$10 students)

Friday, June 7

  • 6 p.m.: “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman” pre-concert lecture by Meaghan Heinrich (free event)
  • 7 p.m.: “Portraits of Josephine” Gala Concert @ Promenade Hall, Overture Center for the Arts (Tickets: $20 general/$10 students)
  • 9 p.m.: Starry Night: “Holding Court” All-Women Comedy Show @ Robinia Courtyard (Tickets: $7 in advance/$10 at the door)

Saturday, June 8

  • 10 a.m.-Noon: “The Multi-faceted Artist” Panel Discussion @ Madison Public Library Bubbler Room (free event)
  • 2 p.m.: From Page To Stage: Emerging Composers Concert @ Capitol Lakes Grand Hall (free event)
  • 7 p.m.: “Gaia” Closing Gala Concert @ First Unitarian Society of Madison Atrium Auditorium (Tickets: $20 general/$10 students)

Sunday, June 9

  • 10 a.m.-Noon: “Mooning Around” poetry reading and artist mixer @ Common Ground, 2644 Branch St., Middleton (free event)

More information can be found at lunartfestival.org

video


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

June 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet closes out its season with polished, precise and emotionally intense performances of contrasting music by Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Caroline Shaw

May 16, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The Ancora String Quartet (below) is closing its season with a cluster of concerts around the area, including a central one Tuesday night at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street in Madison.

Of the three works in the program, the centerpiece was the Entr’acte by the American musician and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw (below, in a photo by Kait Moreno). It was written in 2011 when Shaw was 29, and has won some acclaim over the years.

It is cast roughly in the traditional form of a minuet and trio, but its point is less any musical substance than the invention of new and utterly eccentric ways of string playing for ear-catching sound effects. Many of those effects are, to be sure, intriguing.

Surrounding this was a pair of quartets seemingly very distinct from each other but related.

The first published quartet, in A major, Op. 13, by Felix Mendelssohn (below), was written in the wake of a romantic song he wrote and whose motives he then used in the quartet.

Emotional suggestions aside, however, it is notable as a darker and more intense work than his subsequent ones in this form. It was composed in 1827, when Mendelssohn was 18, but also the year in which Beethoven died. And it is the shadow of Beethoven, and of Beethoven’s innovations in his later quartets, that hangs over the Mendelssohn work.

Clearly the young master was trying to see how he could absorb the older master’s progressive style into his own still emerging one. I think he found in the process that the two could not be reconciled, and so his subsequent quartets were to be in a less stressful vein.

Against that 1827 work, we were then offered a composition from Beethoven’s own earlier years when he was 29 or 30.  This was the final quartet in the set of six published as his Op. 18.

This Op. 18, No. 6, by Beethoven (below) in B-flat major — the program had it mistakenly in G major — is a Janus-faced work, its first two movements still rooted in the late 18th-century background, but with a scherzo full of quirks and tricks that point to the future, and a finale that plays on emotional contrasts.

Its opening Malinconia – or melancholic – music is contested by music of rousing joy, somewhat prefiguring Beethoven’s absorption with recovering his health in the Heiliger Dankgesang (Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving) of his late string quartet, Op. 132. (You can hear the two contrasting moods and themes in the last movement, played by the Alban Berg Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For all three of these scores, a quartet member gave some introductory comments. (Below, first violinist Wes Luke introduces the work by Caroline Shaw.)

Members of the Ancora String Quartet are violinists Wes Luke and Robin Rynan, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb. As a group, the Ancora players displayed intensity and absorption as well as polished precision, in a program of contrasts.


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Classical music: This Friday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will make a LIVE RECORDING of the encore performance of the two-piano concerto it commissioned and premiered two years ago

March 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Want to be part of a live concert recording?

At first look, it seems like a typical — and in one way even repetitive – concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below).

But this particular concert — which is this Friday night, March 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – is anything but usual.

In fact, it promises to be unique and historic.

That is because the encore performance of the two-piano concerto “Double Rainbow” –- commissioned by the WCO and composed by Thomas Cabaniss for wife-and-husband pianists Jessica Chow Shinn (a Madison native) and Michael Shinn (below) — will be recorded live.

Also on the program is a string orchestra transcription of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night,” an entrancing work that is an emotionally intense, late Romantic work that precedes Schoenberg’s 12-tone or atonal period; and the Symphony No. 58 in F Major by Franz Joseph Haydn.

For more information and tickets ($12-$80), go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-iii-4/

The same pianists, who are on the faculty of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, gave the world premiere of the work under the baton of WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell two years ago. (The two pianists will be interviewed by Norman Gilliland at noon on this Friday during “The Midday” show on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

It proved an accessible work that clearly pleased the audience. (In 2018, Sewell also programmed the concerto for the San Luis Obispo Symphony, which he directs in California.)

“I like tunes,” said Cabaniss (below) – who will attend the performance this Friday night – when he talked to The Ear in an email Q&A from 2017 on the occasion of the world premiere.

Here is a link to that interview, which also has background information about Cabaniss and the inspiration for the concerto:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/classical-music-i-like-tunes-says-composer-thomas-cabaniss-who-talks-about-his-double-rainbow-piano-concerto-the-wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-and-guest-soloists/

Then Sewell heard the same pianists play another piece by Cabaniss – “Tiny Bits of Outrageous Love” for two pianos with no orchestra or other accompaniment.

“Andrew heard them and thought the piece would be a great pairing with ‘Double Rainbow’ for a recording,” says Alan Fish, who is the interim executive director of the WCO.

A release date has not yet been set for the recording. The goal is to issue a recording in the near future, adds Fish, both in a CD format and a downloadable format. More details will be known once the Shinns have recorded “Tiny Bits,” Fish adds.


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Classical music: “Into the Woods” is a big deal in many ways for the UW-Madison. There are five performances at the Memorial Union between this Thursday night and Sunday afternoon

February 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Make no mistake.

The modern musical and theatrical retellings by Stephen Sondheim (below) of well-known childhood fairy tales do not offer your usual versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming, Cinderella and Rapunzel among others.

Moreover the local production of the acclaimed 1986 Broadway musical “Into the Woods” – the woods being a dark, adult and disturbing Freudian metaphor of deeper meanings — is literally a big deal. (You can hear a sample of Sondheim’s music and supremely clever lyrics, taken from the 2014 movie version by Walt Disney, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It involves both the University Opera and the University Theatre and Drama Department. The ambitious joint production – the first in a dozen years – took almost two years and involves over 90 people.

You can see the promising results for yourself in five performances starting this Thursday night in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights; and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Happily, there are a lot of ways to check out background and prepare for the show, which faced its own trials.

You’ll notice, for example, that  the rehearsal picture below —  taken by Beau Meyer of Elisheva Pront (Cinderella) with Jake Elfner (her Prince Charming) — was taken with no costumes, even though such photos were planned. But during the recent deep freeze and big thaw, Vilas Hall got hit with flooding from broken pipes and the costumes got clobbered, so such photos are delayed.

Still, the show must go on — and did.

Here is an interview with David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio), the prize-winning director of University Opera and other members of the production team and actors:

https://arts.wisc.edu/2019/02/15/into-the-woods/

Here is more information, including a plot summary, a cast and ticket information from the University Opera:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/2018/12/27/opera-theatre-sondheim-into-the-woods/

Here is a story from the Department of University Theatre and Drama, including interviews with the two women who play Cinderella:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-and-university-theatre-sondheims-into-the-woods/2019-02-22/

From the Wisconsin Union Theater, here is the complex and complete ticket pricing information ($10-$40):

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/#additional

And here is a complete list of the student cast, who will sing under the baton of UW-Madison professor Chad Hutchinson (below)  who will conduct the orchestra:

https://theatre.wisc.edu/2018/10/18/into-the-woods-cast/


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Classical music: Starting this Thursday, Madison Opera offers FREE preview events leading up to its staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” on Feb. 8 and 10

January 16, 2019
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson, artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, will play selections by Johann Sebastian Bach for solo harpsichord. He will be joined by baroque flutist Kristen Davies for Bach’s Sonata in C major for Flute and Harpsichord. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Madison Opera will present Stephen Sondheim’s classic A Little Night Music on Friday, Feb. 8, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 10, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State Street.

One of the most popular stage pieces of the 20th century, this modern operetta waltzes through a story of the complications of love across generations, spiced with sparkling wit and rueful self-awareness.

Set in Sweden in the early 1900s, A Little Night Music tells of multiple couples with mixed ideas of love. During a weekend in the country, marriages are made and unmade and the summer nights smile on the young and old alike. Through delicious humor and a ravishing score, human folly eventually gives way to happily-ever-after.

A Little Night Music is an absolutely delicious piece,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “I think of it as a grown-up operetta, with some of the best dialogue and lyrics ever written, all to Sondheim’s brilliant score. It’s a delightful way to spend a winter evening, and I’m so thrilled with our cast and production team, who are creating a new production for the Capitol Theater.”

“A Little Night Music” opened on Broadway in 1973 to rave reviews. The New York Times wrote: “At last, a new operetta!  A Little Night Music is heady, civilized, sophisticated, and enchanting.”

It has since been performed by both theater and opera companies all over the world and was revived on Broadway in 2009. Sondheim composed the score entirely in variations of waltz time, and it includes several now-classic songs, such as “Send in the Clowns,” “A Weekend in the Country,” and “The Miller’s Son.” (You can hear Dame Judi Dench singing a restrained but deeply moving rendition of “Send in the Clowns” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Can you imagine? An entire musical composed in some form of waltz time,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director. “I love this score, which feels like Johann Strauss meets the harmonies of Ravel. It’s an incredible verbal and musical achievement that gets better every time I hear it. Madison Opera’s cast should prove to be sensational as we bring this Sondheim masterpiece to life. I so look forward to conducting it.”

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Emily Pulley (below top) returns to Madison Opera as Desirée Armfeldt, a famous actress searching for “a coherent existence after so many years of muddle.” Daniel Belcher returns as Fredrik, Desirée’s ex-lover, who is currently married to the 18-year-old Anne, played by Wisconsin native Jeni Houser (below bottom), who recently made her debut at the Vienna State Opera.

Sarah Day (below), a member of the core acting company of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, makes her debut as Madame Armfeldt, the elegant ex-courtesan who is Desirée’s mother. Charles Eaton returns as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Desirée’s current lover; his wife Charlotte is played by Katherine Pracht in her Madison Opera debut.

Rounding out the cast are Quinn Bernegger as Henrik, son of Fredrik; Emily Glick as the maid Petra; and Maddie Uphoff as Fredrika, Desirée’s 13-year-old daughter.

The Liebeslieders, who function as a waltz-prone Greek chorus throughout the show, are portrayed by Emily Secor, Cassandra Vasta, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, and Stephen Hobe.

Doug Schulz-Carlson (below) returns to direct. The artistic director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, his most recent Madison Opera production was Romeo and Juliet in 2016.

The original set is designed by R. Eric Stone (below top) and is being built in the Madison Opera Scene Shop. The costumes are designed by Karen Brown-Larimore (below bottom), who most recently designed costumes for Madison Opera’s production of Florencia en el Amazonas.

Members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra accompany Sondheim’s gorgeous score.

PREVIEW EVENTS

Events leading up to the performances can help the community learn more about A Little Night Music.

A FREE community preview will be held this Thursday, Jan. 17, from 7 to 8 p.m. at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street.

Opera Novice, also FREEtakes place this Friday, Jan. 18, from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Madison Opera Center (below), 335 West Mifflin Street, and offers a free, entertaining look at the works of Stephen Sondheim including A Little Night Music.

Opera Up Close — which is free to season subscribers and costs $20 for others — provides an in-depth discussion of the production, including a cast roundtable, and takes place on Feb. 3 from 1-3 p.m. at the Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street.

Pre-Opera Talks will take place at the Overture Center one hour prior to each performance.

For more information, including interviews with cast members and the production team, and to get tickets ($25-$115), go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/a-little-night-music/

Madison Opera’s production of “A Little Night Music” is sponsored by Thompson Investment Management, Inc., Fran Klos, David Flanders and Susan Ecroyd, and Charles Snowdon and Ann Lindsey.


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Classical music: Madison Opera gives completely satisfying and nearly perfect performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” Here are four reviews

November 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with performance photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I attended performances of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” presented by the Madison Opera at Overture Hall last Sunday afternoon.

Each of the operas is an hour and a quarter long. At least for “Cavalleria” (below), the time flew by while I was captivated by the good singing, excellent playing and charming staging. The opera is tightly constructed and the production flowed effortlessly to its dramatic conclusion.

The feckless mama’s boy Turridu was ably portrayed by tenor Scott Piper (below top) who sang beautifully throughout. His nemesis, Alfio, was sung by baritone Michael Mayes (below bottom). Mayes has an excellent voice and terrific musicianship, but he tended to overact.

The star of the show was soprano Michelle Johnson (below) as Santuzza.  Her big aria “Voi lo sapete” and her duets with Piper were rapturously dramatic. Her supple and nuanced performance had me uncharacteristically leaping to my feet and shouting “Brava!” as she took her curtain call. Hers is a voice I hope to hear again soon.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra shone throughout the performance, ably led by guest conductor Joseph Mechavich (below). I cannot recall hearing before such subtle control of its orchestral voices, and the ensemble glimmered in the well-known intermezzo. (You can hear that famous and beautiful Intermezzo, used in the film “The Godfather” and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

The set and costumes, the bravura singing by the chorus, and the lighting were all above expectations. It was a completely satisfying experience.

“Pagliacci” is a more troublesome work for me. It has moments of lyrical genius but also what to me seems like filler – the chorus going on too long about getting to vespers, for example.

Mayes (below) portrayed the villainous Tonio in this opera.  Although his prologue was beautifully sung, his creepy overacting was a bit too much. For example, when Nedda spat at him in contempt, he wiped the spittle from his face and then licked his hand. His final utterance “La commedia e finita” was overly dramatic and lacking irony.

Piper sang the clown Canio (below), and by the time he got to the showpiece aria “Vesti la giubba” I was nervous that he would not be able to hit all the high notes. He did hit the notes, but it will take a couple more years for this role to fit his voice comfortably.

Nedda was portrayed by sensational Talise Trevigne (below bottom). Her big aria “Stridono lassù” was sung beautifully, and the orchestra shimmered in its accompaniment. Her duet with her lover Silvio, ably sung by baritone Benjamin Taylor (below top), was another highlight of the production.

Once again, the orchestral interlude was beautifully played.

Altogether, this was almost a perfect afternoon at Madison Opera. There appeared to be a gratifyingly large number of younger people attending, which I took as a good sign for the future. (Below is the tragic final scene of “Pagliacci” with Robert Goodrich, Michael Mayes and Scott Piper.)

I look forward to the next production: Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” on Feb. 8 and 10. I saw it recently at Des Moines Metropolitan Opera, so I am interested to see how it will compare.

When all is said and done, I enjoyed “Pagliacci” but feel it is inferior to “Cavalleria.” Although both operas are frequently performed together, I have attended other pairings for “Cavalleria” including one with Puccini’s comic short opera “Gianni Schicchi.” That combination worked well. I wonder: Do readers have other suggestions for pairings?

Editor’s note: Everyone has an opinion. How did you and other critics find the Madison Opera productions? Leave your opinion in the COMMENTS section. And here are links to some other reviews:

Here is the review John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/music/satisfying-double-bill/

Here is the review, with a historical bent, that Greg Hettmansberger wrote for his blog “What Greg Says”: https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/11/06/madison-opera-goes-old-school/

 And here is what Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times newspaper: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/love-revenge-passion-violence-open-the-season-at-madison-opera/article_1c27e195-cc2f-5826-9502-00544b88fae6.html


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Classical music education: NPR gets rid of pianist Christopher O’Riley as a long-time host of “From the Top”

July 15, 2018
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

If you are a fan of the award-winning program “From the Top” – which spotlights talented young classical musicians (below) and is broadcast weekly on National Public Radio (NPR) – you will want to know that this season is the last one for pianist Christopher O’Riley (below), who has hosted the show for the past 18 years.

NPR is not renewing his contract and O’Riley will NOT return for the 2018-19 season.

“From the Top” airs locally on Sunday nights — including tonight — at 8 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR).

You might recall that O’Riley — a gifted and award-winning pianist is his own right — has also played his own concerts in Madison.

Years ago, he played his solo piano transcriptions of rock songs by Radiohead at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

This past spring, he played a Mozart piano concerto to close the season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

For more about the 61-year-old O’Riley, here is a link to his biography on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_O%27Riley

For the radio program, he accompanied some of the talented young classical musicians who were featured, and also provided short interludes of solo piano music, which were compiled on a CD several years ago.

For more about the show (below), go to: https://www.fromthetop.org and view the YouTube video at the bottom, which features a behind-the-scenes look at the show:

Although it focuses on string players who have appeared on “From the Top,” here is a story, with many names and details, from The Violin Channel:

https://theviolinchannel.com/christopher-oriley-from-the-top-radio-tv-let-go-contract-not-renewed/

One thing worth mentioning is that O’Riley’s departure will NOT mark the end of the show. “From the Top” will continue with guest hosts, some of whom will be successful or famous alumni of the show.

What do you think of the news about Christopher O’Riley?

What do you think of “From the Top”?

What do you think of Christopher O’Riley as a host and a pianist?

The Ear wants to hear.


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