The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s first-ever “Sweeney Todd” excels in singing and stage work. It also draws striking parallels between Victorian England and contemporary America. The last performance is today at 2:30.

February 8, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. He has been named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website here (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest preview review of this weekend’s three performances of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” by the Madison Opera in the Capitol Theater in the Overture Center.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below) with production photos by James Gill:

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 masterpiece of musical theater tells the gruesome legend of Benjamin Barker, now Sweeney Todd, returned to London after unjust imprisonment to take revenge on the judge who wronged him and stole his daughter. With his baker accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, he slaughters unsuspecting Londoners and has their bodies baked into meat pies.

The Madison Opera presents it for the first time this weekend in all its sonic splendor, with a larger orchestra than the typical Broadway band, placed on stage, plus a cast of powerful voices and gifted actors.

The new production, also the directorial debut of UW-Madison theater professor Norma Saldivar (below, in a photo from Madison Magazine), is a triumph of atmosphere. From haunting and evocative lighting (Hideaki Tsutsi) with flashes of red to accompany the many otherwise bloodless murders, to a versatile and visually striking Victorian-industrial set (Joseph Varga), the visual side was appropriately dramatic.

Norma Saldivar color

The stark soundscape that makes the piece so successful was the product of crisp, energetic playing from members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John DeMain, who is both the Music Director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Artistic Director of the Madison Opera.

The music featured a prominent organ part that was performed with dramatic flair by UW alumnus composer Scott Gendel and arresting singing from the Madison Opera Chorus that is directed by Anthony Cao. If the choral blocking was somewhat static, it lent additional emphasis to the jerky, mechanistic motions that were used sparingly, but to great effect.

Meredith Arwardy as Mrs. Lovett and Corey Crider as Sweeney Todd with crowd chorus James Gill

What sets this apart from the 2007 Hollywood film version directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp in the title role, or even from a typical Broadway production, is the singing — even if it was uncharacteristically amplified electronically in tis production.

Sondheim’s score treads the line between opera and musical theater, making unusually great demands on the vocalists. Madison Opera’s cast came through magnificently.

In the leads, Corey Crider (below, as Sweeney Todd) and Meredith Arwady (Mrs. Lovett) both excelled in their Madison Opera debuts.

Arwady’s comic instincts are superb — her duets with Crider (“A Little Priest” and “By the Sea”) were hysterical. (With regard to the former, I confess I have a soft spot for good puns.)

Crider’s powerful baritone modulated through tenderness, rage, bitterness, and insane glee with subtle precision, and he brought no small measure of dramatic flair to the role.

Corey Crider as Sweeney Todd   CR James Gill

The show has a cast full of tenors, all of whom excelled. Robert Goderich (Adolfo Pirelli) was hilariously over the top in both his character acting and the Italianate tenor writing, which he pulled off with aplomb, and Daniel Shirley’s smooth lyricism as Anthony Hope (bottom right, with Jeni Houser on far left and Michael Etzwiler in the middle) was especially lovely. Thomas Leighton’s solos stood out from the chorus for their particular beauty.

Seeney Todd  Jeni Houser as Johanna, Michael Etzwiler as Birdseller, Daniel Shirley as Anthony Hope GR James Gill

The young Joshua Sanders (below center), a company veteran despite his age, was outstanding in his first major role as Tobias Ragg. From his enthusiastic sales patter in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” to gentle tenderness in the show-stealing “Not While I’m Around” — heard sung by Neil Patrick Harris in a YouTube video at the bottom — to the deranged mania of the final scene, both his acting skill and immense vocal talent shone throughout the evening.

Sweeney Todd   Joshua Sanders as Tobias Ragg and Meredith Arwady as Mrs. Lovett CR James Gill

My attention Friday night was drawn to the social commentary in the show.

Sweeney Todd’s murderous frenzy is overlaid with a critique of the social order in Victorian London — not so distant from that of today: “The history of the world, my sweet/Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat” It is also not far from Bertolt Brecht‘s moralizing in “The Threepenny Opera,” which says “Even saintly folk will act like sinners/Until they’ve had their customary dinners.”

Through the same lens, we see Mrs. Lovett (played played by Meredith Arwady, below) in particular swayed by the social mobility brought on by newfound prosperity: her change of costume in the second act, coupled with fresh wallpaper and a brand-new harmonium in the parlor, suggest that once she becomes one of the ones “who gets to eat,” her priorities align more and more with the upper class she seemed to despise before.

Meredith Arwady

Whether you come for the social critique, the powerful music, the skillful acting, or if you just want a good Gothic thrill, this weekend’s “Sweeney Todd” will deliver.

It joins the long list of Madison Opera’s successes in recent seasons, and you might just consider catching the last show this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater.

 

 


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra turns this weekend to George Gershwin and his legacy with Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Arlen to close out its 88th season and conductor John DeMain’s 20th anniversary.

April 28, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

The big musical event this week is that The Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) will close out its 88th season and music director-conductor John DeMain’s 20th anniversary season.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The MSO will do so by turning to George Gershwin and his legacy with composers Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Arlen in three performances this weekend.

The program includes: the “Catfish Row Suite” from Porgy and Bess”; the “I Got Rhythm” Variations for Piano and Orchestra (at the bottom in a historic YouTube video played by the composer who also introduces the work); a series of Gershwin’s most memorable songs for the stage including “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “By Strauss,” “Embraceable You,” “S’Wonderful” and “Somebody Loves Me”;  Leonard Bernstein’s Overture and “Glitter and Be Gay” from his opera “Candide” and the Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” as well as a love duet from the classic musical. Songs include Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.”

The performances are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16.50 to $82.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or go to the box office in person to save service fees or visit:

http://ev12.evenue.net/cgi-bin/ncommerce3/SEGetGroupList?groupCode=MSO&linkID=overture&shopperContext=&caller=&appCode

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Full-time students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Of course some purists might carp this program is really a Pops Concert disguised as a serious symphony orchestra fare. But the symphony has seats to fill. And whenever John DeMain programs and conducts the music of Gershwin, the results are spectacular and popular. After all, DeMain (below) won a Grammy for his recording of Gershwin’s operas “Porgy and Bess” and then was featured in a live performance of the same work on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

In addition, Gershwin worked closely with composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein (below) on Bernstein’s own operas.

Leonard Bernstein 1971

Says music director and conductor John DeMain: “I’m a big fan of George Gershwin (below) for obvious reasons. For me, he embodies what it means to be an American musician. Trained in the classics, but deeply connected to the music of his country, Gershwin fused American folk music and jazz into a concert format that continues to thrill and resonate with audiences all over the world to this present day. “Porgy and Bess” is such a monumental achievement in this regard as well. It focuses on our African-American culture, and uses the music of spirituals and jazz to form its leitmotifs. It is again universal, and distinctly American.

DeMain adds: “Actually, what composer wasn’t influenced by Gershwin? At our May concert there isn’t remotely enough time to do a survey of all who came under Gershwin’s direct or indirect influence, but Harold Arlen, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (below bottom, inane NPR photo) were definitely among those who carried on the music theater tradition that Gershwin was such a master at.”

gershwin with pipe

stephen-sondheim-aa58e636211efdc134e6540533fff5cc52c73909-s6-c30

Several other reasons add to the appeal.

Garrick Olsen (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is a young and very promising local pianist who won the Bolz Young Artist Competition, when, broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio, he performed Maurice Ravel’s  difficult Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with the MSO in the Final Forte competition. He will also compete in the upcoming Piano Arts Competition in Milwaukee.

Garrick Olsen in tux by Greg Anderson

Soprano Emily Birsan, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music before going into the training program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She has been appearing in a lot of local production from University Opera and Candid Concert Opera and the Madison Opera to the Middleton Community Orchestra

Emily Birsan less tarty 2 NoCredit

Mezzo-soprano Karen Olivo (below top) is a Tony Award-winning singer and actor who recently relocated to Madison.

Karen Olivo with Tony Award.jpg

And baritone Ron Raines (below bottom) has a lot buzz associated with him.

ron raines

Here is a link to the general MSO website with more information about the soloists and the program as well as audio samples of the repertoire:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/gershwin

And here is a link to comprehensive program notes by MSO trombonist and University of Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen:

http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenj/MSO/NOTES/1314/8.May14.html

Major funding for this concert is provided by an anonymous friend and BMO Private Bank. Additional Funds are provided by Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Capitol Lakes, Mildred and Marv Conney, Terry Haller, J.P. Cullen and Sons, Inc., Ann Lindsey and Charles Snowdon, Tom and Nancy Mohs, and the Wisconsin Arts Board.

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Classical music Q&A: “Dead Man Walking” is morally complex and dramatic, not didactic, work — neither “issue art” nor a “lecture opera” — says librettist and dramatist Terrence McNally. The Madison Opera will perform it this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

April 24, 2014
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Avenue, features “Kassia and Friends” -– music for two sopranos, piano, violin, trumpet and bassoon. The program includes music by George Frideric Handel, Barbara Harbach, Lori Laitman, Alessandro Melani, Thomas Pasatieri and Eric Whitacre.

FUS1jake

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post, an interview with the award-winning playwright and opera librettist Terrence McNally, is by guest blogger Michael Muckian (below). He is a long-time Wisconsin music journalist who covers everything from grand opera to the Grateful Dead. He writes about theater, art, food, wine and travel, as well as financial services and other business topics. He is currently a freelance writer and independent corporate communications consultant.

This weekend, the Madison Opera will present Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at 8 p.m. this Friday, April 25, and at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday, April 27 in Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison.

The opera will be sung in English with project text in surtitles. Tickets are $18 to $121. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org.

The opera does have a Parental Advisory because it contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language, and is not recommended for anyone under age 18.

PLEASE NOTE: Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie will be in Madison and offer a FREE public discussion TONIGHT at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue. No reservations are needed.

Michael Muckian color mug

By Michael Muckian

Terrence McNally rose to fame as a playwright, musical theater writer and eventually, an operatic librettist. His best-known works are “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Corpus Christ,” “Master Class” and the musical adaptation of “Ragtime.” He is the winner of four Tony Awards, an Emmy Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships and numerous other honors. “Dead Man Walking,” written in collaboration with composer Jake Heggie, is one of his first operas.

Terrence McNally

What attracted you to “Dead Man Walking”? How hard was it to adapt Sister Helen Prejean’s work?

I wanted to write an opera based on issues — moral, political, social — that would engage a contemporary audience. I also wanted two strong central characters. Most contemporary operas are chastised for insufficiently compelling or interesting librettos. Sister Helen’s life and struggles for saving the life of condemned people had all the elements I was looking for.

The libretto is based on the idea of her life, not an actual character she dealt with. It is not based on the film, either. Joseph de Rocher and his mother are my creations. The opera is a response to the book and obviously resonates with memories of the film but it is not an adaptation of either one, the way that, say “Ragtime,” is an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

What were the key themes you felt necessary to include in the opera?

The opera is about forgiveness. The issue of the death penalty is for the audience to wrestle with for themselves after they have experienced the opera. That said, it’s not an “issue” piece of art. It’s about love and forgiveness and facing the truth. (Below is a photo by James Gill of Daniela Mack playing Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes playing  Joseph DeRocher in the Madison Opera’s upcoming production.)

Dead Man Walking Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes

Did any of themes or experiences in the opera touch you personally? Did you have any personal experiences you drew on when writing the opera?

I think any intelligent American has a complex response to organized religion, our legal system and our own relationship to the less fortunate members of American life. Sister Helen (below) is proof that you can be a devout member of a religious belief system AND an activist for reform and have a huge and loving heart. She is one of my role models.  It is an honor — and challenge — to emulate and to know her.  Jake (Heggie) and I are very proud that she is proud of the opera we have made of her and her life’s work.

Sister Helen Prejean

Dead Man Walking” is an opera about social justice or, if you will, social injustice. Did writing he opera change or enhance your opinion of capital punishment?

I still wrestle with it. Intellectually and morally, it’s easy to be against it. But some crimes are so heinous my knee-jerk response still surprises me. Writing this libretto set me on a journey that is still unfolding.

How did you interact with Jake Heggie (below)? Was it libretto first, music after or did the two of you work more collaboratively?

We had many long discussions before I sat down alone to write the first draft and then we talked about that.

Jake Heggie

How does “Dead Man Walking” stand as a tale of redemption? Are there any victors in this story, or is everyone a victim?

I have answers to those questions, but I prefer the audience to answer those questions for themselves. This is not a lecture opera. It’s a human drama. We want people to think and feel. I love the ending. The mechanical sounds of the Death Machine followed by an a cappella human voice. I don’t think the orchestra plays for the last several minutes. I’d call that pretty fuckin’ innovative. (You can hear the Prelude and Prologue to “Dead Man Walking” in a YouTube video at the bottom)

What lessons can be learned from the opera?

That unconditional love and the truth shall set you free.

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Classical music: Community participation is vital to the arts. The Madison Symphony Orchestra elects new officers and directors. And it plans a special gala fundraising dinner for the public on Friday, Sept. 20, to mark the beginning of music director John DeMain’s 20th anniversary season with the MSO.

August 26, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

I have nothing really profound or subjective to share  today.

I just want to pass along to two pieces of news from the Madison Symphony Orchestra that I deem worthy of being covered.

The first is that the MSO has elected a new board of directors, including former UW-Chancellor, Provost and engineering professor John Wiley – an amateur pianist and avid classical music fan – as President of the MSO.

I share this press release in the belief that more members of the community need to know how such important cultural institutions depend on participation from the public it serves — from us. Indeed, many of the names, I suspect will be familiar to you from other contexts, whether commercial, educational, artistic, political, social or legal.

Here is the press release:

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA BOARD ANNOUNCES NEW OFFICERS AND DIRECTORS

“The Madison Symphony Orchestra Board recently elected former University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor John Wiley as its Board president along with other officers and new directors to serve a three-year term. The Board consists of 39 elected directors plus several ex-officio directors, who also have voting privileges.

“The following are the newly-elected officers and directors for the 2013-2016 seasons:

President:  John Wiley (below), former chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

John Wiley

Vice President: Elliott Abramson, former law professor

Vice President: Mary Lang Sollinger (below), community leader, fundraiser and volunteer

mary lang sollinger

Vice President: Lynn Stathas, shareholder, Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren

Secretary: Anders Yocom (below, in a photo by Jim Gill), music host, Wisconsin Public Radio

anders yocom studio  head shot cr Jim Gill

Treasurer: Jeffrey Ticknor, managing director, BMO Harris Bank

Directors, newly elected are:

Darrell Behnke, market leader, The Private Client Reserve of U.S. Bank

Rosemarie Blancke, vice president, Madison Symphony Orchestra League; life member, Max Kade Institute

Lorrie Keating-Heineman, director of development, University of Wisconsin Foundation; former secretary, Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions

Gary Mecklenburg, executive partner, Waud Capital Partners, L.L.C.

Fred Mohs (below), past president, Madison Symphony Orchestra, Inc.; partner, Mohs, MacDonald, Widder, Paradise and Van Note

Fred Mohs 2008

Beverly Simone (below), president emeritus, Madison Area Technical College

Beverly Simone

Mary Alice Wimmer, former professor of art, University of Wisconsin System; community volunteer

mary alice wimmer

For more information about the Madison Symphony Orchestra Board, its other directors and advisors, visit: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/contact#board

The MSO will mark its 88th concert season in 2013-2014 by celebrating the 20th anniversary of John DeMain as music director.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (below in Overture Hall) engages audiences of all ages and backgrounds in live classical music through a full season of concerts with established and emerging soloists of international renown, an organ concert series, and diverse educational and community programs. Learn more at: www.madisonsymphony.org

mso from above

Also important to announce is that a special gala fundraising dinner will be held a week before the opening concert of the season to mark music director and maestro John DeMain’s 20th season with the MSO. (DeMain, who trained at the Juilliard School, came to Madison from the Houston Grand Opera after the retirement of Roland Johnson, who died last year.)

Here is that announcement:

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA GALA CELEBRATES 20 YEARS WITH JOHN DEMAIN

Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Gala on Friday, Sept. 20, at 6 p.m. at the Overture Center will honor its Music Director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) and his 20 years of musical contributions to the Madison arts scene.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

An elegant evening of gourmet food, music by world-renowned University of Wisconsin-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below) and members of the Symphony, and a video tribute will celebrate Grammy and Tony Award-winning maestro John DeMain.

ChristopherTaylorNoCredit

The Madison Symphony Orchestra League and the Madison Symphony Orchestra Board are hosting the Gala, which is open to the public.

Limited seats are available and reservations are due Sept. 9. To learn more and to register, visit: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/gala

video


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