The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet turns in outstanding performances of Beethoven and Shostakovich, and revives a neglected quartet by Danish composer Niels Gade

July 31, 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 radio 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. He also took the performance photos for this review.

By John W. Barker

Whether as a finale to the passing season or as a prelude to the upcoming one, the Ancora String Quartet (below) favored its admirers with a fine summer concert at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street last Saturday night.

The program offered three contrasting works.

It started off boldly with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, a slashing three-movement work of nervous and disturbing energy.

So many of the quartets by Shostakovich (below) are autobiographical, or at least confessional, in character, and this one is a clear expression of both personal anxieties and political apprehensions. The Ancoras tore into it with gusto.

Niels W. Gade (below) is hardly a composer of instant recognizability, but he was at the center of Leipzig’s post-Mendelssohn world and then, when he returned to his native Denmark, he became the dominant figure in its musical life until his death in 1890. This is the bicentennial year of his birth.

Gade has left us some fine orchestral music that deserves frequent hearings. And his true legacy was his advancement — if with reservations — of his prize student, Carl Nielsen.

Gade’s late String Quartet in D, Op. 63, one of his three works in the form, is steeped in the stylistic qualities of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, without quite extending them. Still, it is altogether a listenable work, and we can thank the Ancora players for sharing with us.

The big event, however, was the concluding piece, Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, part of his set of six that marked his brilliant debut as a composer in this form.

Meant to show his extension of the work of Haydn and Mozart in this idiom, this quartet was worked on laboriously by Beethoven, to offer a kaleidoscopic array of moods and structures.

The first movement in particular is a proclamation of his lifelong skill in creating bold entities out of the most minimal motivic material, while the third and fourth movements are hectic displays of energy and imagination.

Perhaps most striking, however, is the slow movement, supposedly reflecting Shakespearian influences. Wonderfully vigorous in all movements, the Ancoras were particularly eloquent in that dark and tragic essay that looks to the tomb scene in “Romeo and Juliet.” (You can hear the slow second movement, played by the Takacs Quartet, which will perform next season at the Wisconsin Union Theater, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It has become the custom with this group for one member to give a brief spoken introduction to each composition, and that practice worked particularly well for this program, giving the audience a comfortable sense of welcome and valuably pointing up things to listen for. (Below is violist Marika Fischer Hoyt explaining and deconstructing the Beethoven quartet.)

If you missed the concert, the Ancora String Quartet will repeat the program this coming Sunday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. for the “Afternoon Live at the Chazen” program. You can attend the concert in Brittingham Gallery 3 of the Chazen Museum of Art for FREE or live-stream it from the Chazen website.

Here is a link to the website with more information and a portal for streaming:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/visit/programs/#section6

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Classical music: This Saturday night the Ancora String Quartet will perform a program that features works by Beethoven, Shostakovich and Niels Gade

July 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

As it has often done over its 16-year history, the Madison-based Ancora String Quartet (ASQ) will mix a relatively unknown work by a neglected composer into a program of more established chamber music by more well-known composers.

The program it will perform this coming weekend — and then again at “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” on Sunday, Aug. 6 — is no exception.

The program features: the String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, by Dmitri Shostakovich; the String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 63, by Danish composer Niels Wilhelm Gade; and the String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, by Ludwig van Beethoven. (You can hear the melodious opening of the quartet by Niels Gade in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Members of the Ancora String Quartet (below, from left, in a photo by Barry Lewis) are violinists Wes Luke and Robin Ryan; violist Marika Fischer Hoyt; and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb.

Various members the Ancora String Quartet perform with such professional groups as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Bach Musicians;  members also teach both privately and publicly, including at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The first performance takes place this coming Saturday night (NOT Friday night, as mistakenly listed earlier in a erroneous headline),  July 29, at 7:30 p.m., at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent St., on Madison’s near west side. There will be a FREE champagne reception after the concert

Tickets will be available at the door, and are for general seating. Ticket prices are $15 for the general public; $12 for seniors and students; and $6 for children under 12.

NOTE: The Ancora String Quartet will perform the same program on “Sunday Afternoon Live From The Chazen” in Brittingham Gallery No. 3  at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, Aug. 6, starting at 12:30 p.m. It will be live-streamed that day from the museum’s website,  and then re-broadcast two weeks later at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 20, on WVMO, 98.7 FM, the “Voice of Monona.”

Here is a description of the program from the quartet:

“The ASQ offers a summer program of music from Europe’s northern, eastern and western corners. The Danish composer Niels Gade (below) reveals influences of Mendelssohn and Schumann in his lyrical and dreamy quartet. Seemingly from another planet, Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 7 is a masterpiece of ambivalent modernist paranoia, telling his story with brevity and wit.

“Last on the program is Beethoven’s first published string quartet, written on the cusp of the 18th century. It combines Haydn’s witty Classicism, and Mozart’s lyricism,​ with a vigor, brilliance and expansive vision that is Beethoven’s own. The second movement Adagio depicts in stark terms the tragic tomb scene from Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet,” while the other movements are distinguished by confidence, contrast, and contrapuntal complexity. ”

For more information about the performance and the quartet, including detailed biographies, go to:

http://ancoraquartet.com


Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians announces its 14th season with music by Vivaldi, Bach and Purcell

July 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from founder, artistic director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson about the upcoming season of the Madison Bach Musicians (below):

“This season we are thrilled to present three wonderfully diverse programs of baroque masterworks.

“We’ll start in September with Imitation, exploring the Baroque fugal art of Antonio Vivaldi (below top) and Johann Sebastian Bach (below bottom) — with guest cellist Steuart Pincombe.

“December marks MBM’s seventh annual Baroque Holiday Concert (below, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer). This year we’ll feature Johann Sebastian Bach’s elegant Cantata 32 plus Vivaldi’s dramatic Winter from the Four Seasons.

“To cap it all off in April, we’ll test the limits of comic-tragic juxtaposition with a double-billing: Bach’s highly-caffeinated Coffee Cantata paired with the heart-rending operatic masterpiece Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell (below).

“Please join us as we explore this wonderful repertoire on period instruments in acoustically magnificent settings reminiscent of Baroque performance spaces.

“We invite you to become a Madison Bach Musicians season subscriber. As a subscriber, you will receive the largest savings on ticket prices, preferred seating, and easy online ordering. And this year we’re offering some exciting new subscription options, including a 2-concert package ($62, $55 for seniors 65 and over, $32 for students with ID) or 3-concert package ($90, $80 for seniors 65 plus, $45 for students with ID), and a very economical student subscription rate.

“Ticket sales make up our most reliable and vital funding source. Your support through season subscriptions gives us the financial security to produce these creative and artistically ambitious programs. I hope you will consider subscribing to this series of outstanding musical events.

“Thanks for supporting baroque music in Madison.

See you at the concerts!
Trevor Stephenson, Artist Director (below)”

September 23 and 24 

Bach and Vivaldi: Imitation; with soloist Steuart Pincombe, baroque cello

Saturday, September 23, 2017; 6:45 p.m. lecture, 7:30 p.m. concert;
First Unitarian Society of Madison–Atrium Auditorium

Sunday, September 24, 2017; 2:45 p.m. lecture, 3:30 p.m. concert; Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton

Join us in this exploration of fugues and imitation from Bach and Vivaldi–two masters of the Baroque! Fugues are created when a musical line is introduced by one voice and then repeated with slight variations by any number of other voices. It’s always an amazing experience for audiences to hear and see how the different voices interact. Vivaldi has simplicity and Bach the complexity, but both play the fugue game with equal vigor.

Madison Bach Musicians is thrilled to have cellist Steuart Pincombe (below) returning for this season’s opening concert. Steuart can be heard in concert venues across Europe and quite possibly around the corner in your local brewery or cafe. Wherever he performs, Steuart aims to engage with his audience through creative presentations of the classical repertoire. Don’t miss this spectacular season opener.

December 9 

Baroque Holiday Concert; Saturday, December 9, 2017; 7:15 p.m. lecture, 8 p.m. concert; First Congregational United Church of Christ

Our seventh annual Baroque Holiday Concert will once again be held in the beautiful and sonorous sanctuary of the First Congregational Church.

Soprano soloist Alisa Jordheim (below top) will be joined by oboist Aaron Hill and a baroque string ensemble in Bach’s lyrical masterpiece Cantata BWV 32 Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen. And MBM concertmaster Kangwon Kim (below bottom) will be the featured violin soloist in Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

April 7 & 8 

Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas and Bach’s Coffee Cantata, BWV 211

Saturday, April 7, 2018; 6:45 p.m. lecture, 7:30 p.m. concert

Sunday, April 8, 2018; 2:45 p.m. lecture, 3:30 p.m. concert

First Unitarian Society Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams)

MBM will conclude the season with period performances of the tragic operatic masterpiece, Dido & Aeneas, by Henry Purcell (below) paired in a double-billing with one of J. S. Bach’s rare comic outings, the mischievous Coffee Cantata―where substance-preoccupation (coffee, no less) and family dynamics collide.

We are pleased to offer the production of Dido and Aeneas as a semi-staged baroque opera featuring outstanding soloists, a full baroque orchestra, and beautiful dancing sequences ―thanks to the collaboration of director David Ronis (below top, in a photo by like Delalio) artistic director of the University Opera), Karen McShane–Hellenbrand (UW-Madison Dance Department), and baroque-performance specialist conductor and UW-Madison bassoon professor Marc Vallon (below bottom, in a photo by James Gill).

Come hear spectacular vocal soloists, a sumptuous chorus, gut-strung violins, violas and cellos, viola da gamba, lute, harpsichord, baroque flute―and an amazing wind machine. (You can hear “Dido’s Lament” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information and to see the season brochure, go to:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1nPBhC1sb3WWDZ5RG9CQ3VpSlNkVFM2d3AxQ3JiZmthQlNZ/view


Classical music: The UW Concert Choir, Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra will perform world premieres, local premieres and new music in three concerts this weekend

April 26, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following messages from UW composer Laura Schwendinger and from Beverly Taylor, the director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music who is also the assistant conductor and chorus director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

Writes conductor Beverly Taylor: This is a busy and musically fascinating weekend for me coming up.

On Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, there is a special concert by the Concert Choir (below) on the subject of Art Born of Tragedy, with the acclaimed guest cellist Matt Haimovitz.

Tickets are $15, $5 for students. For more information about tickets as well as the performers and the program, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-choir-4-matt-haimovitz/

Then in Mills Hall at 8 p.m. on Saturday night and at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday night, there are two performances of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed by the 20th-century composer Paul Hindemith by the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra (below). It is a work that to my knowledge has never been performed in Madison.

Tickets are $15, $8 for students. For more information about obtaining tickets and about the concert, visit:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union-uw-symphony-orchestra/

Here is more information about the events:

CONCERT CHOIR

The Concert Choir performance explores in music of several centuries the theme of “Art Born of Tragedy” — how outside events can be the spark that causes the creation of works of substance that range from the gentle and comforting to rage and despair.

We will sing music from the Renaissance: part of the Thomas Tallis’ “Lamentations of Jeremiah (on the ancient destruction of Jerusalem),” and a John Wilbye madrigal “Draw on Sweet Night for a Broken Heart.”

We will present three works from modern composers: one is a world premiere by the prize-winning composer Laura Schwendinger (below top), my colleague at the UW-Madison, for viola — played by Sally Chisholm (below bottom) of the UW Pro Arte Quartet — and wordless chorus. It is called “For Paris” in memory of those killed in the Paris terrorist bombings of 2015.

(Adds composer Laura Schwendinger: “The viola starts this short work by referencing only for a moment the merest idea of a ‘musette song,’ one that might be heard on an evening in a Paris cafe. The choir enters with a simple refrain that repeats again and again, each time with a little more material, as an unanswered question of sorts. Each time the viola reenters the texture, the music becomes more pressing in a poignant manner, until it arrives in its highest register, only to resolve with the choir as it quietly acquiesces in the knowledge that the answer may not be known.”)

We will present a short “O vos omnes” (O you who pass by) written by Pennsylvania composer Joseph Gregorio (below), composed in memory of a Chinese girl hit by a car and left to die.

The third piece is a reprise of “Après moi, le deluge” by Luna Pearl Woolf (below top), which we premiered and recorded 11 years ago. We are lucky to have back the wonderful internationally known cellist Matt Haimovitz (below bottom), who premiered this work with it. The text, written by poet Eleanor Wilner, mixes the Noah story with the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

The term “Après moi, le deluge” is a term attributed to Louis XV or his mistress Madame Pompadour, and means “after me the flood” — referring either to the chaos after his reign, or that what happens afterword bears no importance for him.

The work has four different moods like a symphony — with strong themes at the start and cries for help, followed by the slow movement despair, a scherzo-like depiction of havoc, and a final movement that is like a New Orleans funeral, upbeat and Dixieland.

Throughout the program we also present spirituals that depict loneliness or salvation from trouble.

UW CHORAL UNION

In certain ways, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed resembles the Concert Choir concert in that it contains a number of moods and styles as well, under a dark title. The subtitle of the work is “a Requiem for Those We Love.”

It was commissioned by the great choral and orchestral conductor Robert Shaw as a tribute to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his death and the train ride that carried him from Warm Springs, Georgia, to Washington, D.C.

The text that Paul Hindemith (below top) chose is by Walt Whitman (below bottom), who wrote his poem on the death of Abraham Lincoln, and the funeral train from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois.

Whitman’s grief is combined with pride and joy in the countryside that the train traverses, and his feelings find an outlet in the thrush that sings out its song. His sense of a sustaining universe is a contrast to his depiction of the despair and ravages of the Civil War.

Hindemith’s calling the work a “Requiem for Those We Love,” puts it, like the Brahms’ “German” Requiem, into a class of non-liturgical requiems — that is, the texts are not those that are part of the Catholic Mass for the Dead, but are other selected texts of joy or remembrance.

Hindemith’s style can loosely be described as tonal that veers away into dissonance and returns again to the home key. The Prelude and opening movement are dark; the solo songs of baritone (James Held, below top) and mezzo-soprano (Jennifer D’Agostino, below bottom) are marvelous; the fugue on the glories of America is glorious and other sections are soft and tender. (NOTE: You can hear the orchestral prelude of the work, with composer Paul Hindemith conducting the New York Philharmonic, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The work is hard for both chorus and orchestra, but well worth the effort. The piece is about 80 minutes long and will be performed without interruption. It’s a work I’ve always wanted to do, having heard it performed at Tanglewood many years ago. I’m delighted to have the chance now.


Classical music education: This Sunday the Madison Youth Choirs will present their Winter Concert Series celebrating “Shakespeare 400 “

December 6, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

This winter, the Madison Youth Choirs are joining cultural institutions around the world by celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (below) and his ongoing legacy.

shakespeare BW

Singers of various ages will perform musical settings from the plays Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest by composers including William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Henry Purcell, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Benjamin Britten, Giuseppe Verdi, Cesar Franck, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi, John Rutter and others.

Examining the role that motif, tension, structure and rhythm play in the repertoire and Shakespeare’s vast body of work, the choirs will explore the elements that combine to create compelling art that stands the test of time.

madison-youth-choirs-shakepeare-400-logo

The MYC Winter Concerts, “Shakespeare 400,” will take place this Sunday, Dec. 11, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ (below), 1609 University Ave., near Camp Randall stadium.

Here is the schedule: 1:30 p.m. Girl choirs; 4 p.m. Boy choirs; 7 p.m. High School Ensembles

Tickets will be available at the door. Admission to each of the three concerts is $10 for the general public, $5 for students 7-18, and free for children under 7

Madison Youth Choirs Winter Concert 2014

PROGRAMS

Here is the repertoire for the MYC 2016 Winter Concert Series “Shakespeare 400”:

1:30 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Girlchoirs)

Choraliers

“Hey Ho! To the Greenwood” by William Byrd

“Spirits” by Douglas Beam

“Orpheus With His Lute” by Ralph Vaughan Williams

“Double, Double Toil and Trouble” by Leeann Starkey

photo

Con Gioia

“When Icicles Hang by the Wall” by David Lantz III

“You Spotted Snakes” by Toby Young

“Ban Ban Caliban” by Dan Forrest

Capriccio

“Hark! The Echoing Air” by Henry Purcell

“Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” by Sarah Quartel

“Philomel with Melody” and “I Will Wind Thee in My Arms” by Cary Ratliff

“It Was a Lover and His Lass” by John Rutter

Cantabile

When Icicles Hang” by Stephen Hatfield

“Che faceste” from Macbeth (sung in Italian) by Giuseppi Verdi

Madison Youth Choirs 2

4 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Boychoirs)

Combined Boychoirs

“One December, Bright and Clear” Traditional Catalonian carol, arr. By Wilberg

“Panis Angelicus” by Cesar Franck

Purcell

“Chairs to Mend” by William Hayes

“Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” by John Rutter (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom)

“The Coasts of High Barbary” Traditional English sea song, arr. By Julseth-Heinrich

Britten

“Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” by Roger Quilter

“Full Fathom Five” by John Ireland

“Who is Silvia” by Franz Schubert

Holst

“Full Fathom Five” by Robert Johnson

“Sing We and Chant It” by Thomas Morley

Ragazzi

“Come Away, Death” by Gerald Finzi

“The Witching Hour” by Brandon Ayres

Madison Youth Choirs Con Gioia Karen Holland

7 p.m. Concert (Featuring High School Ensembles)

Cantilena

“The Willow Song” by Arthur Sullivan

“Willow, Willow, Willow” by Charles H.H. Parry

“Fair Oriana Seeming to Wink at Folly” by Robert Jones

“You Spotted Snakes” (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) by Felix Mendelssohn

“Give Them Thy Fingers” by Stefan Kalmer

Ragazzi

“Four Arms, Two Necks, One Wreathing” by Thomas Weelkes

“Come Away, Death” by Gerald Finzi

“And Draw Her Home with Music” by Nancy Hill Cobb

“The Witching Hour” by Brandon Ayres

Cantabile

“Che faceste” from Macbeth (sung in Italian) by Giuseppi Verdi

“Come Away, Death” by Roger Quilter

Selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten

“When Icicles Hang” by Stephen Hatfield

Cantabile and Ragazzi

“Ave Verum Corpus” by William Byrd

“Jingle, Bells!” by James Pierpont, arr. by David Wilcocks

madison-youth-choirs-older-boys-2016

These concerts are generously endowed by the Diane Ballweg Performance Fund with additional support from the American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank and the Wisconsin Arts Board.

About the Madison Youth Choirs (MYC): Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community.

Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self-confidence, personal responsibility, and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond.

For further information, contact: Nicole Sparacino, Madison Youth Choirs, Nicole@madisonyouthchoirs.org or call (608) 238-7464


Classical music: Madison Opera’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” excelled in singing, orchestral playing, drama and other aspects that redeemed a largely unmemorable work. Plus, what is good music for Veterans Day?

November 11, 2016
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ALERT: Today is Veterans Day. What piece of classical music should be played to mark the event? The Ear suggests the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Leave your choice in the COMMENT section.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post features a guest review of Madison Opera’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Larry Wells. Wells has been enjoying opera since he was a youngster. He subscribed to the San Francisco Opera for nearly 20 years, where he last saw “Romeo and Juliet,” sung by Alfredo Kraus and Ruth Ann Swenson

More recently he lived in Tokyo and attended many memorable performances there over nearly 20 years. These included Richard Strauss rarities such as “Die Ägyptische Helena” and “Die Liebe der Danae” as well as the world’s strangest Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner and a space-age production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” featuring Alessandra Marc singing “In questa reggia” while encased in an inverted cone.

By Larry Wells

Last Sunday’s matinee performance of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Madison Opera at the Overture Center was a feast for the eyes. The costumes, sets, lighting and staging were consistently arresting. (Performance photos are by James Gill.)

But we go to the opera for music and drama.

The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is well known. Gounod’s opera substitutes the tragedy with melodrama, and therein lies one of the work’s flaws. Despite sword fights, posturings and threats as well as one of opera’s lengthiest death scenes, one leaves the theater thinking that a vast amount of theatrical resources have been squandered on something insubstantial.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sword-fight

However, despite its dramatic flaws, the opera’s music has somehow endured. And Sunday’s performance milked the most out of the music that could have been expected.

The star of the show was the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the expert direction of Maestro John DeMain (below). He knows how to pace a performance, how to build an exciting climax and how to highlight a solo instrument.

He is an incredibly intelligent conductor, and we are fortunate to have him in Madison. I want to make special mention of the beautiful harp playing, which, according to the program, was accomplished by Jenny DeRoche.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The second star on the stage was the Madison Opera Chorus (below). The chorus plays a significant part in many of the opera’s scenes, and the singing was stirring when it needed to be and tender when it was called for.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-chrous-and-set

As for the soloists, highest praise must go to UW-Madison alumna soprano Emily Birsan (below right) for her portrayal of Juliet. Her solo arias, particularly her big number in the first act as well as her subsequent lament, were stunning.

Her Romeo, tenor John Irvin (below left), sounded a little forced during his forte moments, but he sang magnificently in his quiet farewell to Juliet after their balcony scene. (You can hear the famous balcony scene, sung by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-john-irvin-and-emily-birsan

Their voices blended beautifully in the opera’s multiple duets. And the wedding quartet, where they were joined by Allisanne Apple’s nurse (below, rear right) and Liam Moran’s Friar Lawrence (below, middle center), was a highlight of the performance.

madison-opera-romoeo-and-juliet-friar-and-nurse

The opera abounds with minor characters, all of which were ably portrayed. Special mention should be made of Stephanie Lauricella (below, far right) for her fantastic moments as Romeo’s page; Madison’s Allisanne Apple for her amusing portrayal of Juliet’s nurse Gertrude; Sidney Outlaw (below, second from left) as a robust Mercutio; and Philip Skinner as a powerful Lord Capulet.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sidnay-outlaw-left-and-page-right

I have wondered why this opera is still performed. Its music is lovely but unmemorable, and its dramatic impact is tenuous.

I left the performance thinking that it had been a good afternoon at the theater – certainly more interesting than the Packers’ game – but wishing that one of a couple dozen more meaty operas had been performed in its place.

Since we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, how much more interesting would have been Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”? 


Classical music: What are the differences in directing “Romeo and Juliet” as an opera and as a play? Madison Opera stages the opera this weekend

November 2, 2016
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features acoustic guitarists Helen Avakian and Dave Irwin in music by Ralph Towner, Giberto Gil and Helen Avakian. The concert takes place from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Opera will stage Charles Gounod’s operaRomeo and Juliet.” Performances in Overture Hall are on Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Here is a link with many more details about the performances, the play, the cast and tickets:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/11/01/classical-music-madison-opera-stages-charles-gounods-opera-romeo-and-juliet-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-to-celebrate-the-400th-anniversary-of-the-death-of-willia/

Stage director Doug Scholz-Carlson (below), the artistic director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival who has directed “Romeo and Juliet” as both an opera and a play, agreed to an email interview with The Ear about the differences:

douglas-scholz-carlson

You have directed “Romeo and Juliet” as both a play and an opera. How do the two experiences differ, and what are your most favorite and least favorite parts of doing each?

The opera is based closely on the play, so much of what is essential remains true for both versions.

The biggest difference for me is that the opera focuses on the emotional heart of the love story. Thanks to the music by Gounod (below), the audience experiences what it feels like to be young, impulsive and in love.

The music can reach our emotions directly, so that the opera becomes a truly personal experience for the audience. I don’t think you can see the opera and not find yourself transported to that time in your life when you first fell in love. Romeo and Juliet sing a moving duet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Because of the important role of the chorus, the opera also gives the audience the sense of the entire community that surrounds the young people. We see the tragedy through the eyes of the adults in the families who are unable, or unwilling, to help their children grow up.

The play by Shakespeare offers more subtlety in the journey of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship and more context for the adults in their lives. While the opera offers a huge emotional experience through the two main characters, the play creates more nuances in the relationships between many individuals in the story.

In our production, I hope audiences will discover that we have added back many of these relationships through visual storytelling.

Charles Gounod

What should audiences know about how Gounod’s opera differs from Shakespeare’s play? Do you have a personal preference between the two and why?

I don’t have a preference. I truly love them both for different reasons.

I love the wordplay in the tragedy by Shakespeare (below). Each character is sketched clearly and specifically through the way they use language. We see in the language why Romeo and Juliet find the perfect match in each other. Even smaller characters like the servant Peter have a full life in the play.

The play has a relentless energy. There are so many times in the story that things could turn out well — and so many ways in which the two lovers might never have met. You come away from the play with a profound sense that the combination of events that make up our lives is, in a way, a miracle.

Through Gounod’s music, the opera delivers an emotional experience that can’t be duplicated in any other way in the theater.

I’d be tempted to draw the distinction that the play appeals to the head while the opera appeals to the heart — but that would be unfair to both. Both the play and the opera are a complete experience. They are both profound ways to experience a timeless story.

shakespeare BW

What else would you like to say about this production in specific or about “Romeo and Juliet” in general?

We keep telling and retelling the story of Romeo and Juliet because it plays out our worst fears. What happens when what we hate becomes more important than what we love? I imagine we’ve all been asking ourselves that question given the current political environment.

Neither the opera nor the play ever explains why the Capulets hate the Montagues.

It doesn’t matter. Both families allow their hatred of each other to become more important than their love for their children. The Capulets and Montagues pay a terrible price to learn that lesson, but it is a lesson we all need to learn over and over again.


Classical music: Madison Opera stages Charles Gounod’s opera “Romeo and Juliet” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare

November 1, 2016
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera will present Charles Gounod’s “Romeo & Juliet” on this Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center.

It will be sung in French with English subtitles and will last about three hours with one intermission.

Tickets are $18-$130.

With soaring arias, impassioned scenes and plenty of sword fights, Gounod’s gorgeous opera brings the famous tragic tale of young love to vivid life.

Set in 14th century Verona, Italy, the opera follows the story of Shakespeare’s legendary star-crossed lovers. The Montague and Capulet families are caught in a centuries-old feud.

One evening, Romeo Montague and his friends attend a Capulet ball in disguise. The moment Romeo spots Juliet Capulet, he falls in love, and she returns his feelings. Believing they are meant for one another, they proclaim their love, setting in motion a chain of events that will change both their families.

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous love stories in Western literature,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of Madison Opera. “Gounod’s operatic version of it is equally beloved, and it’s exciting to present an amazing cast that brings such vocal and dramatic depth to their story.

“I’m also delighted that we are performing the opera the same weekend that Shakespeare’s First Folio goes on display at the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s Chazen Museum of Art, enabling our community to enjoy a very Shakespearean weekend.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Gounod’s operatic adaption of the tragedy of “Romeo & Juliet” premiered in 1867 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris. While Gounod is now better known for “Faust,” “Romeo and Juliet” was a bigger success at its premiere, and has stayed in the repertoire for 150 years due to its beautiful music, genuine passion mingled with wit, and exciting fight scenes.

“Having conducted Gounod’s Faust so often, I’m thrilled to finally have the opportunity to conduct his romantic masterpiece,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the artistic director of Madison Opera who will conduct the two performances.

“The vocal and orchestral writing is lyrical and downright gorgeous,” DeMain adds. “We have a glorious cast, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony.  What more could a conductor ask for!” (You can hear Anna Netrebko sing Juliet’s famous aria “Je veux vivre” — “I want to live” – in the popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

John Irvin (below top) and Emily Birsan (below bottom) return to sing the title roles of Romeo and Juliet.  Irvin sang Count Almaviva in the 2015 production of The Barber of Seville, while Birsan returns from singing at Opera in the Park 2016 and Musetta in last season’s La Bohème.

john-irvin

Emily Birsan 2016

Sidney Outlaw, who sang at this past summer’s Opera in the Park, makes his mainstage debut as Romeo’s friend, Mercutio.  Liam Moran, who sang Colline in last season’s La Bohème, sings Frère Laurent, who unites the two lovers in the hope of uniting their families. Madisonian Allisanne Apple (below) returns as Gertrude, Juliet’s nurse.

Alisanne Apple BW mug

Making their debuts are Stephanie Lauricella as Romeo’s page, Stephano; Chris Carr as Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin; Philip Skinner as Lord Capulet; and Benjamin Sieverding as the Duke of VeronaFormer Madison Opera Studio Artist Nathaniel Hill returns as Gregorio, while current Studio Artist James Held sings the role of Paris.

Directing this traditional staging is Doug Scholz-Carlson (below), who directed Gioaccchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land” and Benjamin Britten‘s “The Turn of the Screw” for Madison Opera. Scholz-Carlson is the artistic director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival and has directed the original “Romeo and Juliet,” among many Shakespeare plays.

He will discuss the differences between staging “Romeo and Juliet” as a play and as an opera in another posting tomorrow.

douglas-scholz-carlson

For more information about the production, the cast and tickets, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/romeo-and-juliet/


Classical music: New York Polyphony opens the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival with a perfectly rendered composite portrait of Elizabethan sacred music. Plus, the winners of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition are announced

July 11, 2016
2 Comments

ALERT: In case you haven’t yet heard, the winners (below) of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition, held on Friday night in Mills Hall and accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians, have been announced.

Eric Jurenas (center), countertenor, won First Prize; Christina Kay (right), soprano, won Second Prize; and Nola Richardson (left), soprano, won Third Prize and Audience Favorite.

Handel Aria winners 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear left the concert hall thinking: Well, this will be an easy review to write.

Just give it an A-plus.

An easy A-plus.

On Saturday night, the acclaimed a cappella quartet New York Polyphony (below) opened the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) with a flawless performance.

new york polyphony

This year, the MEMF is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of poet and playwright William Shakespeare (below top) and the 45-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I (below bottom), who oversaw the English Renaissance.

shakespeare BW

Queen Elizabeth I

And the program – performed before a large house of perhaps 450 or 500 enthusiastic listeners — was perfectly in keeping with the festival’s theme. It used sacred music rather than stage music or secular music, which will be featured later in this week of concerts, workshops and pre-concert lectures.

In fact, the program of New York Polyphony was based on two of the group’s best-selling CDs for BIS Records and AVIE Records: “Tudor City” and “Times Goes by Turns.” It was roughly divided into two masses, one on each half. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Adding to the variety was that each Anglican or Roman Catholic-based mass was a composite, with various sections made up like movements written by different composers. Thrown in for good measure were two separate short pieces, the “Ave Maria Mater Dei” by William Cornysh and the “Ave verum corpus” of William Byrd.

The Mass on the first half featured music by Byrd, John Dunstable, Walter Lambe and Thomas Tallis. The second half featured works music by Tallis, John Pyamour, John Plummer and excerpts from the Worcester Fragments. The section were typical: the Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

There was nothing fancy about this concert, which marked the Wisconsin debut of New York Polyphony and which spotlighted superbly quiet virtuosity. The four dark-suited men, who occasionally split up, just stood on stage and opened their mouths and sang flawlessly with unerring pitch and superb diction.

New York Polyphony MEMF 2016

A cappella or unaccompanied singing is hard work, but the four men made it seem easy. The countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass each showed confidence and talent plus the ability to project clarity while not overshadowing each other. This was first-class singing.

The beautiful polyphony of the lines was wondrous to behold even, if like The Ear, sacred music from this era – with its chant-like rather than melodic qualities – is not your favorite fare.

New York Polyphony provided a good harbinger of the treats that will come this week at the MEMF from groups like the Newberry Consort of Chicago with soprano Ellen Hargis (below top) and the Baltimore Consort (below bottom) as well as from the faculty and workshop participants. On Friday night is an appealing program that focuses on Shakespeare’s sonnets and music.

MEMF newberry consort

Baltimore Consort

And on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., with a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m., will be the All-Festival concert. That is always a must-hear great sampler of what you perhaps couldn’t get to earlier in the week. This year, it will feature the music as used in a typical Elizabethan day.

Here is a link to the MEMF website:

https://artsinstitute.wisc.edu/memf/

And here is a link the website of New York Polyphony if you want to hear more:

http://www.newyorkpolyphony.com


Classical music: How well did Western classical music fare in China during the Cultural Revolution compared to today?

July 10, 2016
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Western classical music seems to be thriving in the new China.

The Ear sees Lang Lang — the world’s highest paid classical pianist — and Yundi Li and all the Chinese winners of major competitions, and he reads that there are more piano students in China than in all of Western Europe, North America and South America combined.

But the path to such success wasn’t easy.

In fact it was downright tragic during the Cultural Revolution waged by Chairman Mao Zedong – with dramatic stories and figures that may be worthy of an opera or two. (Below is a poster from the Cultural Revolution.)

Cultural Revolution poster

Anyway, weekends are a good time for reading longer pieces.

So here is a fine and eye-opening story The Ear liked. It comes from The Guardian newspaper in the UK. It even ponders the question of whether the more cerebral and intellectual Johann Sebastian Bach will soon replace the more dramatic and emotional Ludwig van Beethoven as China’s favorite classical composer.

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jul/08/after-the-cultural-revolution-what-western-classical-music-means-in-china


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