The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: After almost three decades, Anonymous Four will break up and retire after the 2015-16 season. The Ear is sure glad he heard them sing LIVE at the Madison Early Music Festival in 2012.

May 18, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

I remember some purists complaining when, in 2012, the 13th annual Madison Early Music Festival had booked the a cappella singing group  Anonymous Four (below, in a photo by Dario Acosta) to open the festival in July, which focused that year on early North American and colonial American music.

Anonymous Four CR Dario Acosta

The complaints ran that the guest “star” singers didn’t really stick to the Colonial and Early American and Canadian repertoire set out by the festival’s theme that year — the complement to the previous year’s festival theme of South and Latin American music — that many of the songs they performed dated from later than the “early music” title defined.

But the concert certainly drew a full, perhaps even sold-out house (below), I think probably the largest opening concert of any Madison Early Music Festival I have ever attended.

MEMF 2012 Anon 4 audience

And The Ear thought they were wonderful performers that allowed the audience to thoroughly enjoy themselves and the repertoire that did indeed run into the 19th century, that they performed. The cheers were deservedly loud and long.

Even the group’s name honors the countless nameless women composers and performers who have sat outside mainstream music history and musicology for so long. Plus, it also emphasizes getting along and the seamlessly tight ensemble work that the group was deservedly celebrated for. It celebrates the more greater musical value of collectivity rather than individuality.

Editor’s Note: This year, the 15th annual Madison Early Music Festival features century Italian music  1300-1600, with an emphasis on the 14th century and ties to the other Papacy in Avignon, France, and will run this summer July 12-19. It will features the usual workshops for participants plus seven public concerts including the second annual Handel Aria Competition, which last proved a really delightful sing-off smack-down. Here is a link to the MEMF website, which will be featured on this blog a bit later:

http://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/conferences/madison-early-music-festival/index.html?source=madisonearlymusic.org

And here is a link to that review The Ear wrote when the Anonymous Four sang at the Madison Early Music Festival in 2012 (below) taking turns as soloists, duets, trios and full quartets:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/classical-music-the-madison-early-music-festival-opens-with-anonymous-4-and-wows-a-record-crowd/

MEMF 2012 Anon 4 duet

RETIREMENT IS PENDING

But like many other groups –- including the Tokyo String Quartet and the Guarneri String Quartet –- the members of the Anonymous Four have reached they age where they are tired of endless touring, recording some 20 albums and now want to settle down and into other things.

So the group will disband at the end of the 2015-16 season. They said they would do so once before, about a decade ago, but this time they are apparently serious about it.

Who can blame them? Three decades is a long time to spend touring on the road, selecting and rehearsing  repertoire, and recording songs in a studio. At bottom is one of the group’s many YouTube videos, the done with the most hits (over 100,000) that features Medieval English chant and  polyphony. It really spotlights the purity and clarity of their a cappella  singing and how there is absolutely no weak link in their chain of music. But many others are also noteworthy and deserve listening, including recordings of Hildegard von Bingen and “Shall We Gather at The River” are among  the group’s popular audio-visual samples..

Here is a link to the group’s own website:

http://www.anonymous4.com

Here are stories about the Anonymous Four, the breakup, retirement and the group’s history, with a good sampling of their range from Medieval and Renaissance music to colonial American music (below) and contemporary compositions and commissions. Much of what they sang in Madison came from the best-seedling CD “American Angels.”

MEMF Anonymous 4 American Angels CD

Here is a link to the outstanding story on NPR and its first-rate blog Deceptive Cadence” that also features an exclusive preview of their last CD recording:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/05/13/311087203/anonymous-4-breaking-up-is-hard-to-do-but-theyre-doing-it

LESSONS?

Increasing, I think there is a lesson to be learned here.

At a time when so many local performing groups and arts presenters, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, keep offering many of the same soloists –- both because they are reliable and dependably excellent performers and because they are affordable -– it is a refreshing reminder than presenting new soloists and new performers is laudable in itself.

We need to experience new performers. We never know when a single performer or even an ensemble will die or retire or become too expensive or whatever. But if we have heard them, then at least we can say: I am glad I had a chance to hear them live before it was too late.

And, boy, I am glad I had a chance to hear the Anonymous Four not only through recordings, but also in person.

And as many readers pointed out during the current discord and controversy about Wisconsin Public Radio canceling the live statewide broadcast of “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” after 36 years, there is a huge difference between studio and recorded music versus live performances.

Here is a link to the post about the WPR decision. Be sure to read the post – it brought in more than four times the usual amount of “traffic” or “hits” and readers — but also to read the comments by readers, which set a record for the number and length.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/classical-music-news-wisconsin-public-radio-has-cancelled-the-sunday-afternoon-live-from-the-chazen-free-chamber-music-series-after-36-years-of-success-other-classical-music-from-a/

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Classical music: Fresco Opera Theatre lands a body slam and puts a submission hold on opera and wrestling this Friday and Saturday in its production of “Opera Smackdown” at the Overture Center. And the audience will get to choose the winner!

March 13, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Opera is rarely just opera when the creative talents behind Fresco Opera Theatre decide to do it. Invariably, the Fresco folks come up with some creative and new or unexpected take that combines self-deprecating humor with serious singing and acting talent.

Take the latest project.

Is professional wrestling real competition? Or is it a staged, even faked, competition? And what does real opera’s theatrical qualities have in common with professional wrestling?

But then what does it really matter as long as the participants and fans have fun?

To launch its fourth season, Fresco Opera Theatre’s latest production — called “Opera SmackDown” –- is this coming weekend. It will be held on Friday, March 14, at 8 p.m. and on Saturday, March 15, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the Promenade Hall in the Overture Center. 

Fresco Opera Theatre logo

Here is one description from the preview video that sounds exactly like a Ring Announcer’s hype if you read it out loud:

From all over the country, from all “fachs” (that’s opera lingo for voice categories such as Coloratura, Lyric, Dramatic Soprano), bringing a fresh take on opera for a good portion of the 21st century, Fresco Opera, the worldwide leader in live entertainment brings you Opera SmackDown.

“The SmackDown Champion is the most coveted title in the opera world. There is no parallel, no bigger accolade in the genre. It is the dream of every competitor who ever stepped out on stage. From young artists to seasoned vets, eight singers will endure vocal battles they have trained years to prepare for.

“Who will outperform to seize the spotlight in this collision course with destiny? ONLY the studio audience can, and will, decide. Their vote determines the winner in this live internet broadcast, spanning the globe for all to see!

“These singers will battle each other, sacrifice their bodies, betray colleagues, and embrace the soulless ally that is desperation. To the victor goes the spoils. To the winner, a once in a lifetime chance to become the next heir apparent to the Fresco Opera SmackDown throne!”

Does the winner get to wear one of those really outrageously big and blingy belt buckles too?

wrestling belt

Here is how Jeff Turk, the president of the group’s board of directors who can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom, describes the production and its novel concept:

“SmackDown is a take on the traditional vocal competition, with elements of pro-wrestling thrown in. We came upon this concept given the cut-throat nature and over-the-top presentations of both competitions and wrestling.

“Another twist is that the AUDIENCE will choose the winner. And the winner will receive a cash prize!

“Our goal here is to introduce the masses to opera. We have demonstrated over the years that performing classical music using familiar pop culture references makes it less intimidating for people who may not have any experience in the concert hall.

“I am proud of the fact our organization has inspired countless numbers of people who have had no experience with classical music to embrace it — which is good for all classical performers and organizations in the Madison area.

Tickets are $20.

Here are some links.

To the Fresco Website and preview video:

http://www.frescooperatheatre.com

http://www.frescooperatheatre.com/upcoming-productions.html

To the Overture Center for tickets:

http://overturecenter.com/production/opera-smackdown

And here are mini-bios of the contestants, with their nom-de-wrestling, vying for the championship:

Fresco Opera Theatre cast for Opera SmackDown

Mezzo Soprano Allison Waggener (Primal) recently won praise from reviewers for her “fine legato” and “strength and vocal beauty” as Annio in dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s New York production of Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito.”   Other highlights from her 2012-2013 season include the roles of Miss Pooder in the Texas premiere of “The Hotel Casablanca” with Abilene Opera and Hansel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” with Opera Oggi.

Diana Kelly Eiler (The Valkyrie) majored in vocal performance at Heidelberg College, where she received the Ohl Prize and Hoernemann academic awards, as well as making her professional debuts with the Toledo Opera in “Babes in Toyland” and Findlay Light Opera in “The Gondoliers” and “Die Fledermaus” while still a student. She was a N.A.T.S. Great Lakes Regional winner, Jessye Norman Award recipient, and semi-finalist in the Friedrich Schorr Opera Star Search.

George Abbott (Canto Libre) has 20 years of singing performance experience starting with the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio at age nine. His credits include singing with: Madison Bach Musicians, Fresco Opera Theater, University Theater, Music Theater of Madison, Middleton Players Theater, Madison Opera Chorus, and Madison Choral Project.

J. Adam Shelton (The Gladiator), lyric tenor, recently performed as the Leading Man Ghost in Fresco Opera’s Paranormal Playhouse. During this season, he will finish his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin where his dissertation, “The Singing Dream: A 21st Century Critical Edition of Tauberlieder”, explores the compositions of the great Austrian tenor, Richard Tauber.

Madison native Rachel Edie Warrick (Vox) is thrilled to be singing her second show with Fresco Opera. Rachel is a versatile performer who has sung with Madison Opera, Opera for the Young, Madison Choral Project and the Madison Bach Musicians. Rachel has also been a soloist throughout the Midwest in Handel’s “Messiah” and “Alexander’s Feast,” J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass, Magnificat, and “St. Matthew Passion,” the Mozart Vespers, and Haydn’s “The Creation.”

Soprano Erin Sura (Toxin) has recently been seen performing the role of Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni” with East Side Chamber Players, and in the Skylight Opera Theatre’s production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” in addition to appearing as a soprano soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Concord Chamber Orchestra, and Vivaldi’s Gloria with the South Shore Chorale.

Soprano CatieLeigh Laszewski(Asylum) is currently completing a Master of Music degree at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. With UW Opera, she has performed the role of Caterina in Mascagni’s “L’amico Fritz” and scenes from “Die Fledermaus” (Rosalinda), Bizet’s “Carmen” (Frasquita), “Hansel and Gretel” (Gretal), and Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” (Melisande) in Opera Workshop.

Caroline Wright (The Boss), Soprano, received her vocal training at Illinois Wesleyan University and the University of Wisconsin – Madison. While studying, Caroline performed roles such as Lauretta from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” the title role from Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” and Donna Anna from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J37IEOXiRGI

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