The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions

November 6, 2019
7 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The experienced Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/28/classical-music-the-madison-opera-performs-verdis-la-traviata-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-in-overture-hall/

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.


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Classical music: Happy Birthday to Lenny at 100! Here are some ways to celebrate today’s Bernstein centennial

August 25, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One hundred years ago today, the versatile and world-celebrated American musician Leonard Bernstein (below) was born.

For most of his adult life, starting with his meteoric rise after his nationally broadcast debut with the New York Philharmonic, Lenny remained an international star that has continued to shine brightly long after his death at 72 in 1990.

When his father Sam was asked why he wouldn’t pay for young Lenny’s piano lessons and why he resisted the idea of a career in music for his son, he said simply: “I didn’t know he would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein.”

Lenny! The name itself is shorthand for a phenomenon, for musical greatness as a conductor, composer (below, in 1955), pianist, educator, popularizer, advocate, humanitarian and proselytizer, and so much more.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia biography where you can check out the astonishing extent of Lenny’s career and his many firsts, from being the first major American-born and American-trained conductor — he studied at Harvard University and the Curtis Institute of Music — to his revival of Gustav Mahler:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Bernstein

You should also view the engaging YouTube video at the bottom.

So eager have the media been to mark the centennial of Leonard Bernstein, one might well ask: “Have you had enough Lenny yet?”

New recordings and compilations of recordings have been issued and reissued.

Numerous books have been published.

Many new photos of the dramatic, expressive and photogenic Lenny (below, by Paul de Hueck) have emerged.

TV stations have discussed him and Turner Classic Movies rebroadcast several of his “Young People’s Concerts.”

For weeks, radio stations have been drowning us with his various performances, especially his performances of his own Overture to “Candide.”

Still, today is the actual Leonard Bernstein centennial and the culmination of the build-up and hype, and if you haven’t paid attention before today, chances are you wind find Encounters with Lenny unavoidable this weekend. 

Yet if you pay attention, you are sure to learn new things about Lenny who seems an inexhaustible supply of insights and interesting information, a man of productive contradictions.

With that in mind, The Ear has just a few suggestions for this weekend, with other tributes coming during the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin’s Mead Witter School of Music and other music groups and individuals.

You can start by listening to the radio.

For most of the daytime today Wisconsin Public Radio with pay homage to Lenny. It will start at 10 a.m. with Classics by Request when listeners will ask to hear favorite pieces and offer personal thoughts and memories. After that a couple of more hours of Bernstein’s music will be broadcast on WPR.

Then on Sunday at 2 p.m., WPR host Norman Gilliland (below top) will interview Madison Symphony Orchestra conductor John DeMain (below bottom, by Prasad) about working with Lenny.

Here, thanks to National Public Radio (NPR), is the best short overview that The Ear has heard so far:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/08/24/641208843/the-complex-life-of-leonard-bernstein-a-once-in-a-century-talent

Want to know more about Lenny the Man as well as Lenny the Musician?

Try this review from The New Yorker  by David Denby of daughter Jamie Bernstein’s book (below) that has juicy anecdotes and new information about growing up with her famous father.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/06/25/leonard-bernstein-through-his-daughters-eyes

And here, from Time magazine, is the little known story of how Lenny the Humanitarian conducted an orchestra of Holocaust survivors (below):

http://time.com/5376731/leonard-bernstein-holocaust-survivors-concert/

What is your favorite tribute to Bernstein so far? Leave a link in the COMMENT section if you can.

What is you favorite composition by Bernstein?

What is your favorite performance by Bernstein?

What would you like to say or tell others about Leonard Bernstein?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: What should — and shouldn’t — the #MeToo movement mean for women in the opera world?

June 16, 2018
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It is clear now that just about all aspects of life and culture in the United States are being affected more and more by the #MeToo movement that seeks to expose, punish, correct and prevent sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, sexual assault, sexual abuse and gender inequality in general.

But what does that mean specifically for the notoriously patriarchal and misogynistic opera world – meaning for the operas themselves and their themes, plots, characters and composers as well as for the people who put them on?

How, for example, should one now think of “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? (The womanizing Don Juan is seen below in a production of “Don Giovanni” by the Metropolitan Opera.)

A recent discussion on National Public Radio (NPR) covered many dimensions of the problem, and The Ear found what was said fascinating although he didn’t agree with everything.

One Italian production went so far as to change the ending of a famous and popular opera – Bizet’s “Carmen” — in order to redeem the doomed heroine.

That seems excessive to The Ear, something that recalls the 17th-century writer Nahum Tate who rewrote the tragedy “King Lear” by Shakespeare to give it a happy ending. (You can hear the original ending of “Carmen” in the YouTube video at the bottom. The 2009 production by the Metropolitan Opera features Roberto Alagna and Elina Garanca.)

It brings up the question: How far should one go in imposing contemporary values on the past? And does rejecting an artist also mean rejecting that artist’s work?

Read the edited transcript or listen to the entire 8-minute discussion for yourself. Besides the female host (Lulu Garcia-Navarro), three women – two singers (Aleks Romano and Leah Hawkins) and one administrator (Kim Witman) – ask questions and give their opinions and thoughts.

Here is a link to the story that was posted on the NPR blog “Deceptive Cadence”:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/05/27/614470629/my-voice-should-be-heard-metoo-and-the-women-of-opera

Then decide what you think you would like to see done to address the concerns of the #MeToo movement in the opera world, and what is allowed and not allowed to you.

And let us know in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Organist Greg Zelek, of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will give a FREE celebratory recital at First United Methodist Church this coming Tuesday night

November 10, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

“Greg Zelek (below), the new principal organist of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Curator of the Overture Concert Organ and Series, will present a FREE public organ recital on this coming Tuesday night, Nov. 14, at 7 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, 203 Wisconsin Avenue, in downtown Madison.

“The evening’s program of masterpieces includes: the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, by Johann Sebastian Bach; the Organ Sonata in F minor, Op. 65, No. 1, by Felix Mendelssohn; the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, by J.S. Bach (heard performed by Zelek in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the Organ Sonata in D minor, Op. 42, No. 1, by Alexandre Guilmant.

“A public reception follows the recital where people can share their thoughts about the program and meet the artist.

“Zelek says he relishes the creative aspect of playing the organ. Because no two instruments are alike, every time he sits down at a new console he reinvents the repertoire that he has played thousands of times for that specific instrument and that specific space.

“Zelek adds: “It gives me the opportunity to be as creative as possible when it comes to the selecting of different sounds and colors for each individual instrument and composition.”

“The First Church organ console (below top), as well as the one (below bottom) at the Overture Center, is in front of the audience, offering the organist opportunities to interact and engage with them.

“I speak to the audience in between pieces,” Zelek explains. “Having a greater understanding of the music sheds light onto its immense beauty and enhances the listener’s appreciation of the performance.

“The organ is also such a physical instrument. When the audience can see what the organist is doing, it draws everybody in. There is so much going on. It’s not just the hands and the feet, but also the different buttons we’re pushing and sounds we’re generating from the instrument. It is a full body workout when I play! The audience should never be bored.”

“Zelek’s recital is part of the 180th anniversary celebration of First United Methodist Church as well as the 25th anniversary of its Austin organ.

“Admission for the recital is FREE with donation envelopes available to support The Arts program at First Church. The church has a deep tradition in featuring varied musical offerings and provides much needed rehearsal and performing space for local music and performing arts groups.”


Classical music: Does anyone else feel put off by the amount of requests for money from music organizations?

October 22, 2017
12 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It happened again this weekend.

The Ear got two more mailings from local music groups.

And both solicited money – again.

It seems like all communications these days include a plea for money, more money.

Up to a point, The Ear understands why charities and non-profits seek donations and he doesn’t mind it.

But it is beginning to happen so often and to feel so off-putting that it is taking the focus away from the music.

It reminds The Ear of when he used to contribute to such worthwhile groups as Amnesty InternationalDoctors Without Borders and the ACLU.

A generous yearly donation never seemed enough.

Every month some new “emergency” arose and they came back for more. After a while, you started to feel like a sucker, or at least a bottomless well in their eyes.

The only solution was to end the annual donation and get off the mailing list.

Now, much of the music business is starting to feel just that – too much business and too little music.

The commercialism is starting to feel overwhelming and alienating, especially when one already pays hefty prices for some tickets.

Is The Ear alone?

Should he feel differently?

Or do others feel the same way?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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