The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
2 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


Posted in Classical music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players perform an all-Schubert concert on Saturday night. On Sunday afternoon, Opera Props presents singers in a benefit concert to support the opera program at the UW-Madison

September 13, 2018
5 Comments

ALERT: On this Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., in the Madison Christian Community Church at 7118 Old Sauk Road on Madison’s far west side, Opera Props will present a benefit concert to raise money for the UW-Madison’s opera program and University Opera.

Student singers and piano accompanist Daniel Fung will perform arias and songs. But the spotlight will shine on University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna soprano Julia Rottmayer, who is a new faculty member at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. (Sorry, no specific program is given and no names of composers and works are mentioned.)

Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door with student tickets costing $10. Tickets include a reception with local Gail Ambrosius chocolate, fruit, cheese and wine. For more information, go to: https://www.uwoperaprops.org

By Jacob Stockinger

Why is The Ear increasingly drawn to the music of Franz Schubert (below) over, say, the music of his contemporary and idol Ludwig van Beethoven? It seems to be more than its sheer beauty and lyricism.  It also seems to possess a certain warmth or human quality that he finds irresistible, poignant and restorative, especially if it is true, as the Buddha said, life is suffering.

In any case, The Ear is not alone.

The Madison-based Mosaic Chamber Players (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) will open their new and ambitious season this coming Saturday night with a concert of music by Franz Schubert.

The all-Schubert concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the  chapel of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium — NOT at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, as was incorrectly stated earlier in this blog post.

The program includes two Sonatinas for Violin and Piano in D Major, D. 384, and A minor, D. 385; the famous “Arpeggione” Sonata, D. 821, performed on the cello with piano; and the lovely and songful Adagio or “Notturno” (Nocturne) for Piano Trio, D. 897, which you can hear with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Daniil Trifonov, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Tickets cost $15 for adults; $10 for seniors; and $5 for students. Cash and checks only will be accepted; no credit cards.

Members of the Mosaic Chamber Players are: founder and pianist Jess Salek (below top); violinist Wes Luke (below second), who plays with the Ancora String Quartet and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; violinist Laura Burns (below third), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet; and cellist Kyle Price (below bottom), who founded the Caroga Lake Music Festival in New York State and is pursuing his doctoral degree at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music with distinction and who was a member of the graduate student Hunt Quartet while he studied for his master’s.

A reception will follow the concert.

For more information about the Mosaic Chamber Players and about their new season, which includes some very varied composers but no specific titles of works, go to: http://www.mosaicchamberplayers.com

What do you find so appealing and so special about the music of Schubert?

What is your favorite Schubert work?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section with a link, if possible, to a YouTube video performance.

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Classical music: Two new memoirs and a new recording are revealing but uneven in marking the centennial of Leonard Bernstein

July 28, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

We are only a month away from the centennial of the birthday of conductor, composer, educator and pianist Leonard Bernstein, which will be celebrated on Saturday, Aug. 25. Larry Wells, who is The Opera Guy for The Ear, recently assessed three of the many works – two new books of memoirs and one new recording — reexamining the life, career and legacy of Leonard Bernstein.

By Larry Wells

During this year commemorating the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell), one need only consult https://leonardbernstein.com to find a day-by-day calendar of performances of his works.

As well as world-wide opportunities to hear his works -– even in Madison — there have been two recent books about Bernstein and a new recording of his final opera, “A Quiet Place,” that might be worth your time.

“A Quiet Place” was premiered in Houston as a sequel to his earlier opera “Trouble in Tahiti.” These first performances were conducted by our own John DeMain, the longtime artistic director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Madison Opera.

This nearly two-hour one-act opera dealing with incest, bisexuality, alcoholism and psychosis did not please the critics either for its libretto or for its music.

Soon thereafter Bernstein refashioned the opera by inserting “Trouble in Tahiti” in the middle and cutting some music. His subsequent recording has always baffled me because the music is so uninteresting and the casting is so haphazard.

The new recording on the Decca label (below) is of yet another version devised by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Reducing the orchestration to a chamber ensemble of 18 players, removing “Trouble in Tahiti,” and restoring some of the cuts, this recording by Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra allows us to hear most of the original version of the opera.

(To read Sunderland’s analysis of his edition, check https://leonardbernstein.com/uploads/pages/files/PFR_2013_FW.pdf.)

The new recording is a valiant attempt by Nagano (below) to breathe some life into this dreary work, but I remain unconvinced that “A Quiet Place” is any more than a failed, final stab by a composer most of whose work I admire very much.

Charlie Harmon was Bernstein’s personal assistant, and his recent memoir ”On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius” (below) goes a long way in explaining the failure of “A Quiet Place.” (You can hear the Postlude to Act I of “A Quiet Place” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To hear Harmon tell it, by this time in Bernstein’s life the maestro depended on drugs to go to sleep, drugs to keep himself awake, and alcohol in excess.  He also had a penchant for younger men.

The picture he paints of a troubled genius is rather pathetic, and Bernstein comes across as thoughtless, self-centered and exasperating. When Harmon (below, on the right with Bernstein) writes of his shock at being groped by Bernstein, I had to wonder what else he had expected. Still, it is an entertaining read.

Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein has recently published  “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (below) Here we get a glimpse into Bernstein’s family life. The portrait of his troubled relationship with his long-suffering wife Felicia Montealegre is particularly interesting.

I heard Jamie Bernstein (below) speak recently in Tucson, and she told amazing anecdotes about Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and William Schuman.

Little of that appears in the book. She assumes that the reader is interested in her own love life and her failed pop music career. I would have preferred to read more about the many fascinating people who surrounded Bernstein and less about her privileged and entitled life.

I have always been a big fan of Bernstein. I admired him as a conductor, teacher and composer. Anyone who has even a nominal interest in the man will find both of the recent memoirs at least diverting. The recording of “A Quiet Place,” however, is only for the true devotees.


Posted in Classical music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Classical music: What music do you listen to when you are sick – if any?

February 10, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

About a week ago, The Ear asked how the terrible flu that is going around has affected the classical music scene for both players and audiences.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/02/03/classical-music-how-is-the-bad-flu-epidemic-affecting-classical-music-in-madison/

Since then, the flu has only gotten worse and it still shows no sign of peaking. More deaths of children and the elderly have been reported.

And now hospitals and emergency rooms are reaching capacity or exceeding it. They are getting understaffed as doctors, nurses and others also come down with the flu and can’t work.

But it got The Ear to thinking:

When you get sick, do you listen to music?

Does it make you feel any better?

Or distract you?

What kind of music — if any – do you prefer to listen when you are sick: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern or Contemporary?

And why do you like it?

Are there specific composers or pieces you turn to when you are sick?

The Ear often listens to Baroque music for the reason he listens to it in the morning: It is upbeat and generally seems to impart energy without taxing your attention span too much.

In fact, he particularly partial to violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and the keyboard concertos (below) of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Mahler and Bruckner symphonies or Shostakovich string quartets are just too overwhelming and dark to be salutary. But that is just one person’s opinion.

So given how many people are suffering with the flu or other sickness these days, what advice and illness and listening to music would you give?

Leave a recommendation in the COMMENT section – with a link to a YouTube performance, if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Madison Summer Choir performs a program of music that expresses suffering, oppression and resistance this Wednesday night at UW-Madison

June 25, 2017
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Summer Choir (below) will present its ninth annual concert, “Art: The Timeless Resistance – The Voice of the Oppressed,” on this coming Wednesday night, June 28, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall of the UW-Madison’s Mosse Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St.

The suggested ticket donation is $15.

The concert brings together a variety of works that have served as an outlet for suffering peoples, works that gave them a voice where they otherwise had none.

The concert will begin with Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, a traditional Spiritual arranged by Jay Althouse.

This is followed by Miriam’s Song of Triumph, composed by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) very near the end of his short life to a German text (Mirjams Siegesgesang) by Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer. The text and music describe the Exodus and the celebration of Miriam and the Israelites after fleeing Egypt. (You can hear the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The first half ends with two shorter works again in English, There Will be Rest, a setting of a poem by Sara Teasdale by Frank Ticheli (below top), of the University of Southern California,  and How Can I Keep from Singing? by Baptist minister and American literature professor Robert Lowry (1826-1899, below bottom), as arranged in 2010 by Taylor Davis.

The choir will be accompanied by oboist Malia Huntsman and concertmaster Elspeth Stalter-Clouse.

The second half of the program is devoted to the Mass in C (1807) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and will be performed with full orchestra.

The choir was founded by UW-Madison graduate and artistic director Ben Luedcke (below) – who now teaches at Monmouth College — after the UW Summer Choir was eliminated due to budget constraints.

The Madison Summer Choir is an auditioned choir of 60 to 70 voices that performs a cappella works, piano-accompanied works and choral-orchestral works in a short season at the beginning of summer.

This student and community singing opportunity and tradition continue thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our singers and our audience to fund our complete existence in six weeks.

Go to madisonsummerchoir.org to learn more.


Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians perform Bach’s “St. John Passion” this Friday night and Saturday night in authentic early music style

April 11, 2017
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians (below), which specializes in authentic period performances of early music, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” this coming Friday  and Saturday nights, both at 7:30 p.m., in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

On both nights at 6:45 p.m., MBM founder and music director Trevor Stephenson (below) will give a free pre-concert lecture on the “Structure and Performance History of the St. John Passion.” In his remarks, Stephenson said he will discuss the question of anti-Semitism in the famous work.

(NOTE: Stephenson and some of the players will also be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland TODAY at noon.)

At the end of Part I, the Rev. Michael Schuler of the Unitarian Society will give a talk focusing on “Theological Reflections on Bach and the St. John Passion.”

This is only the second time the work has been performed in historical style in the state of Wisconsin. For more information and explanation, see the story in the Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/st-john-passion-to-be-performed-on-all-historical-period/article_0e6e3d51-c03e-5803-9230-faed6a48ed1d.html

Tickets are $28-$33 and are available online, at Orange Tree Imports and at the door. Ticket information is at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Trevor Stephenson writes the following about the work and the performance:

Bach was 38 years old when he composed the monumental St. John Passion during his initial year of employment in Leipzig, 1723-24. The work was first performed at the Nikolai Church during the Good Friday service on April 7, 1724.

As was the custom, no concerted music had been played in church during the previous six weeks of Lent, and the airing of the St. John Passion ― music of unprecedented complexity, lasting for over two hours — must have had an overwhelming effect on the fresh ears and devoted souls of the parishioners.

From its outset—with the whirling gear-like figures in the strings beneath the moiling of the oboes—the St. John Passion has an otherworldly aura of a story that has been foretold. Bach’s genius is in how he balances this inevitability with a sense of forward dramatic thrust: the passion story must happen, has already happened, but it also must be played out in real-time by living people, step by painful step. Time is at once both linear and circular. (Below is the manuscript for the “St. John Passion.”)

I believe that the objective of Bach (below) in setting the St. John Passion was to tell as vividly as possible the story of Jesus’ cruel earthly demise while at the same time tempering this vividness with frequent textual reminders, as well as an overarching tone, that convey the firm belief that Jesus’ Passion had not only been prophesied long before his birth but that Jesus’ suffering and death on earth was the only solution for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins.

 

The Evangelist John is our guide for the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. John sings his narration in the dry and angular recitative style, addressing the audience directly. He summarizes some scenes and introduces others, which are then played out in present-tense tableau format by various characters: Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Court officers, the angry mob.

Bach uses two techniques to pause and comment upon the narrative: first, with arias for solo voices and instrumental obbligato, that employ freely-composed poetry to reflect upon the story in a personal way — like the thoughts of someone observing the action; and second, by chorales which use tunes and texts that would have been familiar to Bach’s parishioners to elicit a broader communal response to the passion story. Many of the chorales are like a spiritual balm, providing moments of much needed rest throughout the work.

For the upcoming April 14 and 15 concerts of the St. John Passion on Good Friday and Holy Saturday ― the Madison Bach Musicians has endeavored as much as possible to recreate the early 18th-century sound world of that first Leipzig performance in 1724. MBM will use a 17-member baroque orchestra, conducted by UW-Madison bassoonist and performance-practice specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill).

The orchestra will play entirely on 18th-century style instruments:

  • Gut-strung violins, violas, cellos, and bass played with baroque bows which facilitate articulation and phrase grouping
  • Early 18th-century single-keyed wooden traverso flutes and single-keyed wooden oboes―uniquely warm-sounding and clear-toned. Plus the baroque ancestor of the modern English horn, the tenor oboe da caccia
  • A baroque chamber organ with wooden pipes tuned in 18th-century Well Temperament
  • And specialty instruments—even by 18th-century standards. The viola da gamba, featured during the tombeau– or tomb-like Es ist vollbracht (It is fulfilled) aria heard after Jesus’ death; and two violas d’amore, delicate and velvet toned, replete with sympathetic strings for a haunting after-glow of sound. (You can hear that aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These instruments will join with 10 outstanding vocalists—specialists in singing both solo and choral baroque repertoire.

Internationally recognized, and Grammy Award winning tenor, Dann Coakwell (below, in a photo by Mary Gordon) will sing the part of John the Evangelist.

The Passion will be sung in its original German; but an English translation of the text will be projected in supertitles scene-by-scene throughout the performance.

MBM is thrilled to be presenting this masterwork in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a  photo by Zane Williams) at First Unitarian Society, a space beautifully suited to early music. The sightlines are superb, and the acoustics offer a great balance of clarity, crispness, and spaciousness.

Seating is limited, so advance ticket purchase is suggested.


    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,186 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,023,066 hits
%d bloggers like this: