The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Trevor Stephenson announces the new season of the Madison Bach Musicians on YouTube. It features smaller concerts and familiar comfort music

May 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

At a time when so many concerts are being canceled, it is especially welcome when a local ensemble announces plans for the 2020-21 season.

To announce the 17th season of the Madison Bach Musicians — a period-instrument group that uses historically informed performance practices — the founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below), who also plays the harpsichord, fortepiano and piano, has made and posted a 13-1/2 minute YouTube video.

The season will also be posted on the MBM website in early June, and will also be announced with more details about times and ticket prices via email and postal mailings.

In the video, Stephenson plays the harpsichord. He opens the video with the familiar Aria from the “Goldberg” Variations and closes with two contrasting Gavottes from the English Suite in G minor.

As usual, Stephenson offers insights in the programs that feature some very well-known and appealing works that are sure to attract audiences anxious to once again experience the comfort of hearing familiar music performed live.

One thing Stephenson does not say is that there seems to be fewer ambitious programs and fewer imported guest artists. It’s only a guess, but The Ear suspects that that is because it is less expensive to stage smaller concerts and it also allows for easier cancellation, should that be required by a continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

If the speculation proves true, such an adaptive move is smart and makes great sense artistically, financially and socially given the coronavirus public health crisis.

After all, this past spring the MBM had to cancel a much anticipated, expensive and very ambitious production, with many out-of-town guests artists, of the “Vespers of 1610” by Claudio Monteverdi. Nonetheless, MBM tried to pay as much as it could afford to the musicians, who are unsalaried “gig” workers who usually don’t qualify for unemployment payments.

“Hope and Joy” is a timely, welcome and much-needed theme of the new season.

The new season starts on Saturday night, Oct. 3, at Grace Episcopal Church downtown on the Capitol Square, and then Sunday afternoon, Oct. 4, at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton.

The program is Haydn and Mozart: songs composed in English and German by Haydn plus songs by Mozart; the great violin sonata in E minor by Mozart; and two keyboard trios, one in C major by Haydn and one in G major by Mozart.

Only four players will be required. They include: Stephenson on the fortepiano; concertmaster Kangwon Kim on baroque violin; James Waldo on a Classical-era cello; and soprano Morgan Balfour (below), who won the 2019 Handel Aria Competition in Madison.

On Saturday night, Dec. 12, in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, near Camp Randall Stadium, MBM will perform its 10th annual holiday concert of seasonal music.

The program includes several selections from the “Christmas Oratorio” by Johann Sebastian Bach; a Vivaldi concerto for bassoon with UW-Madison professor Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) as soloist; and the popular “Christmas Concerto” by Arcangelo Corelli.

On Saturday night, April 24, at Grace Episcopal Church and Sunday afternoon, April 25, at Holy Wisdom Monastery, the MBM will perform a concert of German Baroque masterworks with the internationally renowned baroque violinist Marc Destrubé (below).

The program features Handel and Bach but also composers who are not often played today but who were well known to and respected by Bach and his contemporaries.

Specifically, there will be a suite by Christoph Graupner (below top) and a work by Carl Heinrich Graun (below bottom).

There will also be a concerto grosso by George Frideric Handel and two very well-known concertos by Bach – the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and the Concerto for Two Violins.

Here is the complete video:

What do you think of the Madison Bach Musicians’ new season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is May 5  — Cinco de Mayo. And here is a work by Mexican composer Gustavo Campa to celebrate the holiday

May 5, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is May 5 – the colorful Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo.

If you don’t know the origins of the holiday and what events sparked it, here is a link to the Wikipedia entry:

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

Usually the music that celebrates the holiday is popular music or folk music – including mariachi bands and guitar music.

But there is also a good amount of classical music by Mexican composers that can mark the occasion.

In past years, this blog has featured Mexican performing artists such as the terrific pianist Jorge Federico Osorio and the most famous Mexican composer, Carlos Chavez (below, in a photo by Paul Strand).

But there are many others.

Perhaps programming and performing more Mexican and Latin American composers and music would help attract Latinx listeners to concert halls once they reopen.

In any case, here is a link to a sampler or compilation of Mexican music found on Spotify:

https://www.classicalmusicindy.org/cinco-de-mayo-playlist/

And here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, is a lovely “Melody” for violin and orchestra, with a photo essay, by the Mexican composer Gustavo Campa (below) along with a link to his biography:

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

Happy Cinco de Mayo!


Classical music: Madison Opera announces its 2020-21 season and plans for Opera in the Park on July 25. Plus, today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. What music would you choose to mark the event?

April 22, 2020
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ALERT: Today, April 22, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which was founded by Gaylord Nelson, a former Wisconsin governor and senator. To celebrate it, in the YouTube video at the bottom is “The Earth Prelude” — a long work, both Neo-classical and minimalist, with beautiful photos, by the best-selling, award-winning Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. It has more than 2.3 million views.

What music would you listen to to mark the event? Leave suggestions with YouTube links, if possible, in the Comment section.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera has just announced its upcoming 2020-21 season.

As usual, there are three works. The fall and spring operas take place in Overture Hall and the winter production, a Broadway musical, will use the Capitol Theater.

Below are the titles with links to Wikipedia entries for more information about the works and their creators:

Here are the titles:

“Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour) – with the popular “Anvil Chorus” — by Giuseppe Verdi (below) in Overture Hall on Friday night, Nov. 6, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 8, at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in Italian with projected English translations.

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

“She Loves Me” with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (below) – the same team that created “Fiddler on the Roof” — in the Capitol Theater on Friday night, Jan. 29, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Jan. 31, at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in English with projected text.

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

“The Marriage of Figaro,” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below) in Overture Hall on Friday night, April 30, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, May 2, at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in Italian with projected English translations.

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

You can see a short preview peek — with music but no word about casts, sets or production details — on Vimeo by using the following link: https://vimeo.com/398921274

For more forthcoming information about the season, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org

OPERA IN THE PARK

You may recall that this spring the Madison Opera had to cancel its production of “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Jacques Offenbach because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What about this summer’s 19th annual Opera in the Park (below, in a photo by James Gill)?

It is still slated for Saturday, July 25, in Garner Park, on Madison’s far west side, with a rain date of Sunday, July 26.

But the opera company is being understandably cautious and says: “At this time, we are proceeding with Opera in the Park as scheduled.

“The safety and wellbeing of our community are our top priority, and we are closely following the guidelines and recommendations of public health officials. We are prepared to make necessary decisions in response to rapidly changing conditions.

“We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate these circumstances.”

For updates and more information about Opera in the Park, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2019-2020-season/oitp2020/

 


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Classical music: This summer’s Madison Early Music Festival in July has been cancelled and postponed until next summer

April 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) to share:

Dear MEMF Family,

Due to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s decision to

suspend in-person courses, workshops and conferences

for the summer term because of the ongoing COVID-19

pandemic, the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF)

has been postponed until July 10–17, 2021.

 

This extraordinary situation has affected all of us and

we will miss seeing you this summer. Updates will be

posted on our website as they are available.

 

 

 

As you can imagine, this was a difficult decision

but a necessary one. We will miss sharing

the Burgundian experience with everyone —

MEMF is always the highlight of our summer.

 

We already miss our community of participants

gathering together in Madison, listening to concerts

in the new Hamel Music Center, learning from

our extraordinary faculty, dancing together in Great Hall

and relaxing on the Union Terrace. (In the YouTube video

at the bottom is an excerpt from the All-Festival Concert last year.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The good news is, we have decided to simply move

the scheduled program forward to next season.

We sincerely hope that The Good, the Bold and the

Fearless: Musical Life at the Burgundian Court

will feature the same guest artists and faculty next year

and we hope you will be able to join us in 2021.

 

In the meantime, the Madison Early Music Festival

will continue to operate. For those who have already

registered, we will contact you about issuing refunds

and answering any other questions you might have.

 

Finally, we appreciate your support — you are the reason

that MEMF continues to offer such extraordinary programming,

concerts and instruction year after year. But we appreciate it

even more now.

 

If you can make a donation to help offset some

of the costs that this year’s Festival can’t recoup,

we would be extremely grateful. Your gift today

will ensure that we can return “better than ever” next year.

 

Please stay safe and healthy,

Cheryl, Paul and Sarah

Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe, Co-Artistic Directors (below)

Sarah Marty, Program Director

 


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Classical music: The Virtual Bach Around the Clock 2020 festival ends today. Here’s how to catch up on the 10 days of making Baroque music

April 7, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you recall, this year’s 12-hour Bach Around the Clock festival – a platform for students, amateurs and professional musicians to celebrate the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) — was scheduled to take place at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Saturday, March 28.

Faced with cancellation of the annual free event because of the public health dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing, the organizers decided to try going virtual and hold the festival online by asking performers to send in short videos made at home.

And it worked.

“From what we have heard, it has been a very rewarding experience for both the performers who sent in videos and for the people who watched and listened to them,” says violist and BATC artistic director Marika Fischer Hoyt (below).

The cost of going virtual was not great, but it took lot of time and hard work, admits Fischer Hoyt, who says she spent between 7 and 10 hours a day to post each day’s Bach video.

It was hard especially at the beginning, she notes, when she had to learn how to use software programs, such as iMovie, to make and then upload and post the videos.

She didn’t just organize the online festival. She also performed and provided gracious introductions to the program for each day.

Lately, the videos average about 20 minutes – your Daily Minimum Requirement of Bach, as the witty Wisconsin Public Radio host Anders Yocom would say. But they were longer at the beginning when more videos were sent in. Towards the end, the festival even used some photos and audio recordings from past years to round out programs.

But the reach of the virtual festival, intended to be local, was wider than Fischer Hoyt had expected. Musicians replied and participated from Florida, Minnesota and – as you can hear today – from Costa Rica.

All the effort worked.

In one of the major victories against all the coronavirus cancellations and postponements in the Madison music scene, the Virtual Bach Around the Clock 2020 brought the public beautiful Baroque music by voices, strings, keyboards and winds in cantatas, partitas, preludes and fugues, sonatas and suites.

Listening to just one a day would be a good way to spread out and savor the joy of the festival for 10 days while you self-isolate and shelter in place at home.

You can find the videos on YouTube. In the search bar, just type in Virtual Bach Around the Clock 2020, Madison, Wisconsin.

But a much easier and more organized way can be found here on the festival’s home website, which lists the videos in chronological order and links to them: https://bachclock.com/audience-listening-viewing

Try listening to them and tell us what you think about the individual videos and performances — do you have a favorite? — and about mounting the virtual festival.

And, if you like, leave a note of thanks in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

Here is Day 5:

 


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Classical music: Today is World Piano Day. Why do you love the piano? Do you have a favorite piano piece? A favorite pianist? Something to say about taking piano lessons? Want to thank your piano teacher? The Ear wants to hear

March 28, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Saturday, March 28, 2020 – is World Piano Day.

The international celebration is fitting because today happens to be Day 88 of the year – a timely parallel to the fact that most pianos have 88 keys.

Here is a link to the official website with a list of international events and other links to playlists of piano music on SoundCloud and Spotify: https://www.pianoday.org

Here is a link to the virtual live streaming piano festival — starting at 3 p.m. Central European Time (CET), which is 6 hours ahead of Central Daylight Time or at 9 a.m. CDT) — by the record label  Deutsche Grammophon: https://www.udiscovermusic.com/classical-news/deutsche-grammophon-world-piano-day-livestream/


A lot of us took piano lessons.

So today seems like a good occasion to say something about the role of the piano in your life.

Why do you love the piano? The sound? The physical act of playing? The vast repertoire?

Maybe you want to mention a specific piano piece that made a difference in your life, as the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39, by Chopin did for The Ear. (You can hear Arthur Rubinstein play it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Maybe you have a favorite piano piece or piano composer you like to listen to?

Maybe you wished you had stopped lessons earlier or continued them longer?

Would you like to say thank you to your piano teacher?

Maybe you have memories – good or bad — of a recital you gave?

Who is your favorite pianist from the past – maybe Van Cliburn or Vladimir Horowitz (below), Sviatoslav Richter or Dame Myra Hess?

Which pianist today would you recommend to others? Daniil Trifonov or Haochen Zhang, Simone Dinnerstein (below) or Maria Joao Pires?

Those suggestions hardly exhaust the possibilities. So be creative and leave a Comment with a YouTube link, if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Spring arrives today. Here is music to lift your spirits. What music do you like to greet spring?

March 19, 2020
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ALERT: All events, including worship, are canceled at Luther Memorial Church “until further notice,” and that includes the monthly free Just Bach concert scheduled for noon on next Wednesday, March 25. Organizers say they hope the church reopens in time for the Just Bach concert scheduled for April 15.

By Jacob Stockinger

Spring arrives today – Thursday, March 19 – at last!

The Vernal Equinox will occur at 10:49 p.m. CDT.

Given all the fear and anxiety, isolation and discomfort caused by both the coronavirus and self-quarantining at home, maybe some music inspired by spring will lift your spirits.

At the bottom is a two-hour compilation – with more than a million hits – from YouTube with bright and upbeat, tuneful and melodic spring-like music.

The composers are Baroque, Classical and Romantic and include Bach, Corelli and Vivaldi; Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky; waltzes by Strauss; and songs without words by Mendelssohn and Grieg.

But the choice of spring music is endless, as you can no doubt also hear by listening to Wisconsin Public Radio today.

Is there a special piece you like to hear when you greet the arrival of spring?

Please leave the composer, title, performer and, if possible, a YouTube link, in the Comment section.

 


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Classical music: With live concerts cancelled, what will you do for music? The Ear has some suggestions but wants to hear your ideas

March 16, 2020
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ALERT 1: It’s official. The Madison Symphony Orchestra has cancelled its performances of Dvorak’s Requiem on April 3, 4 and 5. Sometime this week, according to the MSO website, the administration will inform ticket holders about what they can do.

ALERT 2: The Mosaic Chamber Players have cancelled their performance of Beethoven Piano Trios on March 21 at the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

By Jacob Stockinger

Now that live concerts and performances have been cancelled for the near future – thanks to the threat of the pandemic of the coronavirus and COVID-19 — music-lovers are faced with a problem:

What will we – especially those of us who are isolated at home for long periods of time — do to continue to listen to music?

Perhaps you have a large CD collection you can turn to. Or perhaps you subscribe to a streaming service such as Apple Music, SoundCloud, Amazon Music or another one.

Don’t forget local sources such as Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT-FM 89.9, both of which generously broadcast classical music, from the Renaissance to contemporary music, and often feature local performers.

Here is a link to Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR): https://www.wpr.org

Here is a link to WORT 88.9 FM: https://www.wortfm.org

There are also many other choices.

Happily, there is YouTube with its mammoth collection of free musical performances and videos. You can surf YouTube for new music and classic music, contemporary performers and historic performers, excerpts and complete works.

Here is a link: https://www.youtube.com

Those who are students or amateurs might use the time to sing – like those marvelous, uplifting Italians making music from their balconies during the crisis – or practice and play an instrument at home.

But other organizations – solo performers, chamber music ensembles, symphony orchestras, opera houses – are also trying to meet the challenge by providing FREE public access to their archives.

And it’s a good time for that.

Music can bring us together in this crisis.

Music can help us relax, and fight against the current panic and anxiety.

It’s also a good time to have a music project. Maybe you want to explore all the many symphonies or string quartets of Haydn, or perhaps the 550 keyboard sonatas by Scarlatti, or perhaps the many, many songs of Franz Schubert.

Here are some suggestions offered as possible guidance:

Here is what critics for The New York Times, including senior critic Anthony Tommasini (below) who likes Van Cliburn playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, will do: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/arts/music/coronavirus-classical-music.html

If you are an opera lover, you might want to know that, starting today, the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City will be streaming for FREE a different opera every day or night.

The productions are video recordings of operas that have been broadcast over past years in the “Live in HD” program. The titles are listed by the week and here is a link:

https://operawire.com/metropolitan-opera-to-offer-up-nightly-met-opera-streams/

If you like orchestral music, it is hard to beat the Berlin Philharmonic – considered by many critics to be the best symphony orchestra in the world — which is also opening up its archives for FREE.

Here is a background story with a link: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/coronavirus-concerts-the-music-world-contends-with-the-pandemic

Here is another link, from Norman Lebrecht’s blog “Slipped Disc,” to the Berlin Philharmonic along with some other suggestions, including the Vienna State Opera: https://slippedisc.com/2020/03/your-guide-to-the-new-world-of-free-streaming/

And if you like chamber music, you can’t beat the FREE performances being offered by the acclaimed Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, some of whom recently performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater and with the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra: https://www.chambermusicsociety.org/watch-and-listen/

But what about you?

What will you listen to?

Where will you go to find classical music to listen to?

Do you have certain projects, perhaps even one to recommend?

How will you cope with the absence of live concerts?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” is a musical treat despite its outdated story. Performances remain this afternoon and Tuesday night

March 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for this blog – took in the University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” Friday night at Music Hall on Bascom Hill and filed this review. (Performance photos are by Michael R. Anderson.)

By Larry Wells

I attended the opening night of University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” (So Do They All or Such Are Women).

Considered a musical masterpiece, the opera features a cast of six singers who participate in a comedy about love and fidelity. (Below, from left, are Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi, Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando, James Harrington as Don Alfonso, Kelsey Wang as Despina, Kevin Green as Guglielmo and Chloe Agostino as Dorabella.)

In director David Ronis’ attempt to make the story more timely, the action took place in a vaguely early 20th-century setting – the Roaring Twenties, to be precise — suggested by the women’s costumes and the art deco set.

Two of the men, who are called off to war, brandished swords, which I believe were not widely used in World War I. (Below, from left, are Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando, James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Kevin Green as Guglielmo in the opening scene from Act I.)

In any event, an attempt to make an historic artifact with its incumbent unenlightened views of women relevant to the 21st century may be fruitless, and I believe that audiences today recognize the archaic attitudes expressed therein as comic and dated.

That sexist manipulation needs to be discussed today, as suggested in the director’s notes, and that women’s “agency” — to quote an overused academic term — remains an issue today is the tragedy. This comedy goes only a small distance in helping us realize that some things have not changed, even though many have.

But on to the performance.

The three female characters (below) included the vocally stunning Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi. Her “Come scoglio” was a showstopper. (Below, from left, are Chloe Agostino as Dorabella and Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi in their Act I duet.)

Chloe Agostino’s sweet soprano perfectly reflected her Dorabella, and Anja Pustaver’s comic turn as Despina revealed an interesting voice that reminded me of Reri Grist’s Oscar in the Erich Leinsdorf recording of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” – which is a compliment, albeit possibly obscure.

Kevin Green as Guglielmo grew on me as the evening progressed and as he became more confident. But the standout was James Harrington as Don Alfonso. I feel that he is a major talent in our midst. (Below in the foreground are Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi and Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando; in the background are James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Kevin Green as Guglielmo.)

Green and his partner, Benjamin Hopkins’ Ferrando, had to don disguises in order to tempt each other’s intended. In the libretto they disguise themselves as Albanians.

In what I can only hope was a nod to political correctness in order to spare the feelings of our Albanian brothers, they disguised themselves in this production as lumberjacks clad in flannel shirts and denim jeans — which was incongruously absurd but amusing at the same time. (Below,Kelsey Wang, left, as Despina examines Benjamin Hopkins as the Albanian Ferrando in a fake medical examination during the finale of Act I.)

The vocalists shone most in their many ensembles – duets, trios, quartets and sextets. The blendings of the various voices were always harmonious. The trio “Soave sia il vento” (Gentle Be the Breeze) — featuring Rosché, Agostino and Harrington (below) — was sublime and worth the price of admission on its own. (Below, from left, are Chloe Agostino as Dorabella, James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Cayla Rosché  as Fiordiligi in the famous Act I trio “Soave sia il vento,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The UW Symphony Orchestra was ably and nobly led by new conductor Oriol Sans (below) whose hiring proved to be a major coup for the university. Everything I’ve heard him conduct so far has been excellent, and this performance was no exception.

The harpsichord continuo by Thomas Kasdorf (below) was captivating in its nuance and effortlessness – very impressive.

I enjoyed the abstract unit set designed by Joseph Varga and complemented by the effective lighting designed by Zak Stowe.

In all, it was an evening primarily in which to close one’s eyes and listen.

Repeat performances, with alternating cast members, take place this afternoon – Sunday, March 1 – at 2 p.m. and again on Tuesday night, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. Running time is about 3 hours with one intermission. The opera is sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors and $10 for students. For more information about the opera, the cast and the production, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2020/02/10/cosi-fan-tutte/

 


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Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
4 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Posted in Classical music
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