The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Celebrate Commencement Day 2018 with Brahms and Elgar

May 12, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is The Big Day – Graduation or Commencement Day 2018 — at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The weather may be too rainy and too cold, but there is little choice as an alternative to the huge outdoor ceremony for thousands of graduates, plus friends and family, at Camp Randall Stadium (below) unless there is lightning or dangerous weather that could delay and cancel the ceremony.

Still, there is some great music to celebrate with and perhaps warm up with.

If you have a favorite suggestion for graduation music, leave the name of the composer and work, along with a link to a YouTube video if possible, in the COMMENT section below.

In the mean time, here are the two most famous works that will perhaps stir you or even warm you.

First is the Academic Festival Overture, which uses a student drinking song, that was composed by Johannes Brahms when he received an honorary degree.

And what would any graduation be without the traditional old standby that still never fails to touch most of those who hear it: the stately Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 — one of five composed and then used for a royal coronation –by Sir Edward Elgar

Congratulations to the Class of 2018.

This post is for you.

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Classical music: The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble teams up with the new Madison Youth Viol Consort for a concert on Saturday night. Plus a FREE organ recital is Friday night

April 19, 2018
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ALERT: On this Friday night at 7 p.m. in Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, on the Capitol Square, Grace Presents is offering a FREE organ recital by Jackson Borges of Delaware. Sorry, no word on composers or pieces.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below) invites you to a concert of baroque chamber music, featuring the Madison Youth Viol Consort.

The concert is this Saturday night, April 21, at 7:30 p.m. in Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below), 1833 Regent Street, Madison

Tickets at the door only are $20 ($10 for students). For more information, go to www.wisconsinbaroque.org

A reception will be held after the concert at 2422 Kendall Ave., second floor.

Regular members of the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble are Mimmi Fulmer, soprano; Brett Lipshutz, traverse flute; Eric Miller, viola da gamba; Sigrun Paust, recorder; Charlie Rasmussen, baroque cello; Consuelo Sañudo, mezzo-soprano; Monica Steger, traverse flute, harpsichord and recorder; Anton TenWolde, baroque cello; and Max Yount, harpsichord.

The Madison Youth Viol Consort (MYVC) is the brain child of Eric Miller (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and is a part of the Viola da Gamba Society of America’s nationwide Consort Loan Program.

The mission of the MYVC is two-fold: 1. To introduce the viola da gamba, its repertoire and historically informed playing techniques to young musicians in Madison, grades 8-12 through an artistic chamber music experience; and 2. To increase community awareness in Madison of the Viola da Gamba and its repertoire.

The MYVC currently has five instruments on loan: two bass viols, a tenor viol, and two treble viols. Current members are all accomplished student musicians in grades 8-12 from the Madison area: Charles Deck, Mateo Guaio, Nathaniel Johnson, Anika Olson, and Miriam Syvertsen.

The MYVC will be performing two pieces from the English consort song tradition along with WBE’s vocalists, Consuelo Sanudo and Mimmi Fulmer. “Come to me, grief, for ever” by William Byrd, and “The Silver Swan” by Orlando Gibbons.

As for the WBE, they say: “Playing on period instruments from original notation, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble brings the sound and character of the 17th and 18th centuries to life, often shedding light upon lesser known compositions and composers.”

Here is the complete program:

Antonio Vivaldi  – “Cento donzelle festose e belle” (A hundred maidens, cheerful and fair)

Georg Philipp Telemann – Fantasia No. 3 for viola da gamba, TWV 40:28 (1735)

Giuseppe Ferdinando Brivio – Trio Sonata for two traversi and basso continuo, Op. 2, No. 4

Unico van Wassenaer – Sonata No. 3 for recorder and basso continuo (ca. 1714)

William Byrd – “Come to me, Grief, forever”

Orlando Gibbons – “The Silver Swan”

INTERMISSION

Luigi Boccherini – Sonata No. 3 for the violoncello, G5

Giovanni Ghizzolo – “Perche piangi, Pastore?” (Why do you weep, shepherd); “Qual di nova bellezza” (As of new beauty..);

Adriano Banchiero – Magnificat (1613)

Michel Pignolet de Montéclair – Duo for traversi without bass

Georg Philipp Telemann – Quartet, TWV 43:G10 (in YouTube video below)


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Classical music: The UW’s fifth annual Schubertiade traced the composer’s entire career with lovely singing and beautiful playing

January 31, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The annual “Schubertiade” has become not only a firm tradition but also invariably one of the highlights of each season. And so it was again on last Sunday afternoon on-stage at the UW-Madison’s Mills Hall.

These programs have been organized, run and performed by that magnificent couple (below), Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes.

Each plays the piano and Martha also sings (below).

For this year’s fifth annual Schubertiade, the program was not just a replica of the musicales that Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and his friends would enjoy. It was instead an extra-long venture (running almost three hours) in chronological comprehensiveness, offering one or more selections from each successive year of the composer’s creative span (1812-28). It was funded this year, by the way, by the generous Ann Boyer.

The result was a mixture of 21 solo songs, three vocal ensembles, two chamber works and three pieces for four-hand piano duo—the last played, of course, by our founding couple.

There was one guest singer, mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below), a sensitive artist who teaches at UW-Whitewater, but whose vibrato was somewhat excessive. Otherwise, the performers were faculty members or students at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, and all of them were simply wonderful.

Of the two instrumental ensemble pieces, one was an adaptation of Schubert’s Sonatina written for violin and piano but played in an adaptation for cello by Parry Karp (below).

The other was the superb Quartettsatz (Quartet Movement), played with mature power by the Hunt Quartet (below), made up of graduate students.

The three ensemble items were delightful novelties. The first was Schubert’s rewrite of a trio, Die Advokaten (below), in which two lawyers squeeze their fees out of a rich client.

Another was a charming soprano duet. The third was a vocal quartet with piano, Des Tages Weihe (Consecration of the Day), rich in ensemble beauty. (You can hear the piece on the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The songs were also a mix of very familiar and rarely heard, so many of them rich experiences. It is daunting to single out exceptional ones, for there was so much lovely singing and there were so many masterpieces. Personally, I found myself particularly moved by the absolutely gripping performance of Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) by soprano Claire Powling (below).

And I really admired the beautiful singing of young soprano Talia Engstrom and veteran tenor Benjamin Liupiaogo. Beyond the solo performances, though, was an interesting expansion of the Erlkönig done by four singers cast in distinct “roles” in the text.

After the whole company took bows (below), there was the customary finale in the song An die Musik (To Music) in which the audience joined the singers.

Long may this wonderful Schubertian tribute that the founding couple has created continue!


Classical music: On Friday night, UW bassoonist Marc Vallon and friends perform a FREE concert of music from the Baroque and modern eras. You can also hear a FREE concert of songs and guitar music at noon.

January 25, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Although the major classical music event on Friday is the concert, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, with violinist-wife and cellist-husband soloists Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Leonardo Altino, there are two other concerts worth noting.

This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature guitarists and singers Helen Avakian and Dave Irwin (below). They will perform music by Peter Mayer and Enrique Correa as well as traditional Greek music.

On Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, UW-Madison bassoonist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) and friends will perform a faculty recital of music from the Baroque and modern eras, including arrangements by Vallon himself.

The other performers are: John Chappell Stowe, harpsichord; Aaron Hill and Zachary Pulse, oboe; Daniel Fung and Satoko Hayami, piano; and David Scholl, contrabass.

The program includes:

Franz Schubert: Sonatina for Violin D. 384 (written in 1816) by Franz Schubert

Jan Dismas Zelenka (below ): Sonata No. 5 for two oboes, bassoon and continuo, ZWV 181 (1720-22), which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

INTERMISSION

Marc Vallon: Cantus II for bassoon and piano (2017)

Béla Bartók (below), Five Romanian Folk Songs (1907-1910), arranged by Marc Vallon. Bagpipers-Bear Dance- The Peacock- Lamento- White Lily

Various authors, Three English songs (ca. 1965) arranged by Marc Vallon


Classical music: Today is Christmas Day 2017. The Ear’s gift is a concert of 16th-century British holiday music from Stile Antico and NPR

December 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Day, 2017.

As always, the holiday season has seen an outstanding time for choral music.

We all have our favorites, including the “Christmas Oratorio” by Johann Sebastian Bach and the oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel. Add in traditional music and carols, hymns and then Baroque instrumental music by Vivaldi and Corelli among others. The choices are vast.

But this year The Ear wandered across something new and relatively unknown.

It is almost a one-hour-long concert of 16th-century British holiday music from the Tudor era.

The performers are the award-winning, 13-member a cappella early music group Stile Antico (below, in a  photo by Marco Borggreve).

The featured composers in this concert that has been posted on the Deceptive Cadence” blog by NPR (National Public Radio) include Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

Here it is:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2012/12/03/166416569/a-choral-christmas-with-stile-antico

Enjoy!

And Merry Christmas to all!


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra draws its largest crowd yet as it rings in the New Year with Viennese waltzes, ethnic dances and violin showpieces

December 22, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below)  had the last word of the December holiday season with a distinctly non-Christmas program.

To be sure, it was not a typical concert devoted to a tiny handful of major works. Rather, conductor Kyle Knox (below) devised something a cut above simplistic “pops” programming, with a clutch of nearly a dozen short works, each one of charm and substance—more like what Sir Thomas Beecham used to call “lollipops.”

The opener was a group of three selections from Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet Swan Lake. There followed three of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms intermingled with two of the Slavonic Dances by Dvorak, in their orchestral versions.

The first half then closed with the first of two pieces featuring the conductor’s wife, violinist Naha Greenholtz (below), who is also the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. This was a kind of mini-concerto tidbit by Tchaikovsky, his Danse Russe.

The high point of the program’s second half was the second violin solo for Greenholz. Ravel’s Tzigane is a contemplation of Gypsy style. It begins with a wild unaccompanied solo for the violin, to which the orchestra then joins in a colorful set of variations. Here the playing by Greenholz was simply dazzling.

(You can hear Ravel’s virtuosic “Tzigane” — played by superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Otherwise, the second half of the program was a bit of old Vienna, via Johann Strauss II, perhaps hinting at that city’s famous New Year’s Concert.

Setting the scene was the overture to Die Fledermaus. Knox’s direction throughout showed a lot of hard work to bring off all the selections with precision, but I often felt that he strove mainly for exuberance at the cost of subtleties. Notably in this overture, it seemed to me that the strings, especially the violins, sounded a bit coarse, certainly below their best ensemble polish.

But doubts were certainly dispelled with one Strauss miniature, the Persian March, followed by that noblest of the composer’s achievements, the Kaiserwalzer or Emperor Waltz.

All in all, this worked as a responsible seasonal treat. It seemed to me that it drew the largest audience that the Middleton Community Orchestra has yet had, and this audience simply loved everything.

So, if you will, Happy New Year!


Classical music: Two performances of the annual Winter Choral Concert, to benefit the homeless, are this Sunday afternoon at 2 and 4. Other UW groups also perform during a busy end-of-semester week

November 29, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

As always happens towards the end of a semester, the tempo of the performances at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music picks up and accelerates.

One highlight this week is two performances of a traditional choral concert.

Under conductor and UW choral program director Beverly Taylor (below), six of seven UW-Madison choirs — Chorale, Concert Choir, Madrigal Singers, University Chorus, Women’s Chorus, Masters Singers – will perform their annual winter concert twice this Sunday afternoon.

The two performances, at 2 and 4 p.m., will be at Luther Memorial Church, located at 1021 University Avenue.

Consider arriving early since these concerts are often very well attended.

Choirs will perform choral works as individual ensembles and jointly.

Holiday carols are part of the program and concert-goers are invited to sing along.

Sorry, but no composers or titles of works have been provided.

Professor John Chappell Stowe (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) will perform organ music for the season.

A free-will offering is accepted at the end of the program with proceeds after expenses donated to “The Road Home,” an organization that provides housing and food to homeless families.

THURSDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, guest artists flutist Patricia Surman (below) and pianist Michel Keller will give a FREE recital. There is no word on the program, but if you want to know more background about the two musicians, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/guest-recital-patricia-surman-flute/

FRIDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW bassoonist Marc Vallon (below top, in a photo by James Gill) will perform a FREE program called “Breaking New Ground” that features the music of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, Anton Webern and Yannis Xenakis among others. UW pianist Christopher Taylor (below bottom) will also play the last piano sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, by Ludwig van Beethoven.

For the complete program, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/breaking-ground-with-marc-vallon-and-friends/

 

SATURDAY

At 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the All-University Strings (below in a photo by Jeff Miller of the UW-Madison), which is made up of students from all fields and not just music, will perform a FREE concert under conductor Matt Chan. No word on composers or works on the program.

SUNDAY

At 12:30 p.m. in the Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the Chazen Museum of Art, the Wingra Wind Quartet will perform on “Sunday Live at the Chazen.” Admission is free.

The program includes: “Piano Piece” by Richard Strauss and arranged by Marc Vall0n; Wind Quintet by Theodor Blumer; “Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for Woodwind Quartet” by Elliott Carter; “Opus Number Zoo” by Luciano Berio.

Members (below, from left, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) are: Marc Vallon, bassoon; Timothy Hagen, flute;  Alicia Lee, clarinet; Aaron Hill, oboe; and Joanna Schulz, horn.

You can digitally stream the concert live by going to this website: https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/about/news/in-the-news/sunday-afternoon-live-with-the-wingra-wind-quintet/

For more background about the Wingra Wood Quintet, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/wingra-woodwind-quintet/

At 1 p.m in Mills Hall, the UW Concert Band (below top), under conductor Scott Teeple, will perform a FREE concert.The program features UW trombonist Mark Hetzler (below bottom). The program includes “Psalm for Band” by Vincent Persichetti (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom)  “Silver Lining” by Anne McAninch, a UW doctoral student in composition; and “Falling” by Mark Hetzler.

At 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, University Bands will perform a FREE concert. No word on the program.

MONDAY

At 8:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, the UW Early Music Ensemble, under director Jeanne Swack will mark the 250th anniversary of the death of Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (below) by performing music of Telemann, Johann Joachim Quantz, Barbara Strozzi and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. No word on a specific program. For more information, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/early-music-ensemble-3/


Classical music: The annual sold-out Christmas concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, guest artists and local groups is this coming weekend

November 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and the Music Director John DeMain will kick off the 2017 holiday season this weekend with the annual “A Madison Symphony Christmas.”

The holiday celebration is filled with traditions from caroling in the lobby before the concert to the closing sing-along, where John DeMain (below) and the Madison Symphony Orchestra don their Santa hats.

Christmas classics are interwoven with new holiday music. Guest artists soprano Emily Pogorelc and tenor Eric Barry join DeMain, the MSO, the Madison Symphony Chorus, Madison Youth Choirs, and Mount Zion Gospel Choir on stage for the family-friendly celebration.

The concerts are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday, Dec. 1, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 3, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $18-$90. See below for details.

The program features an array of music including Joy to the World by Georg Frideric Handel; Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor with the Madison Symphony Chorus (below); Mozart’s Mass in C minor with Emily Pogorelc; John Rutter’s Shepherd’s Pipe Carol (heard in the YouTube video at the botttom) with the Madison Youth Choirs; Do You Hear What I Hear?; the Seven Joys of Christmas; Leotha and Tamera Stanley’s Christmas Peace with the Mount Zion Gospel Choir.

In addition, sing-a-longs that include O Come, All Ye Faithful, Away in a Manger, The First Noel, Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Praised for her “lively, incisive soprano” by the New York Times, soprano Emily Pogorelc (below) currently attends the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. A native of Milwaukee, Pogorelc has performed with the Opera Philadelphia, Glimmerglass Opera Festival, Curtis Opera Theatre, and the Florentine Opera. She has won first place in numerous competitions, and was featured on National Public Radio’s From the Top.

Winner of the Bel Canto Prize at the 2016 Maryland Lyric Opera Competition, Spanish-American tenor Eric Barry (below) is “making an impressive mark” on opera and concert stages “with a clear timbre, evenness of projection and exceptional sensitivity” (Opera News).

His engagements have included performances with the Shreveport Opera, Boston Midsummer Opera, Opera Memphis, North Carolina Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, and the Teatro Comunale di Sulmona along with music festivals around the world. He returns to the MSO after appearing as a featured soloist in 2015.

The Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) gave its first public performance on February 23, 1928, and has performed regularly with the Madison Symphony Orchestra ever since. The Chorus is comprised of more than 150 volunteer musicians who come from all walks of life and enjoy combining their artistic talent.

Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC, below) inspires enjoyment, learning, and social development through the study and performance of high-quality and diverse choral literature.

The oldest youth choir organization in Wisconsin, MYC serves more than 1,000 young people, ages 7–18, in a wide variety of choral programs. In addition to a public concert series, MYC conducts an annual spring tour of schools and retirement centers, performing for more than 7,000 students and senior citizens annually.

Under the leadership of Leotha Stanley and his wife, Tamera Stanley, the Mount Zion Gospel Choir (below, in a photo by Bob Rashid) has been a part of the MSO Christmas concerts since 2005.

The choir is primarily comprised of members from Mount Zion Baptist Church and includes representatives from other churches as well. It has traveled extensively throughout the Midwest and has toured to Europe, singing in France and Germany. 

Concertgoers are encouraged to arrive 45 minutes before the concert begins to join the Madison Symphony Chorus as they lead a selection of Christmas carols in the festively lit lobby at Overture Hall.

Adds the MSO: These concerts typically sell out, so early ticket purchases are encouraged.

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734.

For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $18 tickets.

More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Major funding for the Christmas concert is provided by: American Printing, Nedrebo’s Formalwear, John W. Thompson and Jane A. Bartell, Maurice and Arlene Reese Family Foundation, BMO Wealth Management, Hooper Foundation/General Heating & Air Conditioning, Judith and Nick Topitzes, and An Anonymous Friend. Additional funding provided by Colony Brands, Inc. J.H. Findorff & Son, Inc., Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren s.c., the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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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
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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: Despite overly traditional staging, the Madison Opera’s “Carmen” beguiled and bewitched through the outstanding singing

November 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy attended Sunday’s sold-out performance of “Carmen” by the Madison Opera and filed the following review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

When I learned that Madison Opera was going to produce Bizet‘s “Carmen,” I was not surprised. It is annually one of the most frequently performed operas internationally, and it is a surefire vehicle for filling seats. It is safe.

On the other hand, once one watches repeated performances of an old favorite, the appeal can diminish. One advantage of an opera is that novel approaches to the production can prevent a warhorse from becoming stale.

I would love to say that the approach both musically and dramatically to this production of “Carmen” broke new ground, but it did not. In fact, the production was as traditional as could be. (Below is the main set, rented from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I attended a performance of “Carmen” in Tucson a couple of years ago, and the conductor Keitaro Harada breathed new life into the familiar music through interesting tempi and finely nuanced dynamics.

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo  by Prasad) conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a perfectly fine and occasionally uplifting manner, but there was little new to learn from his approach. The purely instrumental entr’actes shimmered, but during the rest of the opera the singing was at the forefront.

Maestro Harada (below), whom Madison should be actively courting, is currently conducting “Carmen” in Sofia, and the accompanying publicity clip in the YouTube video at the bottom (bear with the Bulgarian commentary) shows that the production is unconventional in its approach although it clearly is still “Carmen.” I would have enjoyed something other than the ultra-traditional staging and sets experienced here in Madison.

At times the production was so hackneyed and hokey that I chuckled to myself – ersatz flamenco dancing, the fluttering of fans, all of the cigarette factory girls with cigarettes dangling from their lips, unconvincing fight scenes, annoying children running across the stage, dreary costumes that hardly reminded me of Seville. And I could go on.

Yet “Carmen” has a way of drawing one in despite oneself. The music is marvelous, and the singing was uniformly excellent.

The four principals were luminous both in their solo pieces and ensembles. Cecelia Violetta López as Micaëla (below right) was lustrous in her two arias as well as in her duet with Sean Panikkar’s Don José (below left).

Panikkar started the performance off with little flair, but from the time he became besotted with Carmen toward the end of the first act he was on fire. He then maintained a high degree of passion and zest in his vocal performance.

Corey Crider (below right) was a wonderful Escamillo, singing his toréador role with great élan despite his unfortunate costumes.

And Aleks Romano (below) as Carmen made the most of her complex character. Her singing was luscious, and her acting – particularly her use of her expressive eyes – was terrific.

Likewise, the lesser roles – Thomas Forde as Zuniga, Benjamin Liupaogo as Remendado, Erik Earl Larson as Dancaïre, a radiant Anna Polum as Fransquita, and Megan Le Romero as Mercédès – were equally well sung. The ensemble work in the quintet at the end of Act II and in the card scene was outstanding.

The chorus (below) sounded terrific throughout, although the women’s costumes and the stage direction made the choristers appear ludicrous as times.

When all is said and done, “Carmen” still beguiled me by drawing me into its characters’ complex psychologies and motivations. Likewise, its music still bewitched me in much the same way as Carmen inexplicably bewitched hapless Don José (below).

But I seem to always wish for more – more compelling productions, more daring music making, more risk-taking.

I do look forward to this coming spring’s production of “Florencia en el Amazonas.” The recording is captivating, and the opera’s performances have pleased a wide variety of audiences by all accounts. And it is something new. Hallelujah!

Did you go to “Carmen”? 

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


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