The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Two new memoirs and a new recording are revealing but uneven in marking the centennial of Leonard Bernstein

July 28, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

We are only a month away from the centennial of the birthday of conductor, composer, educator and pianist Leonard Bernstein, which will be celebrated on Saturday, Aug. 25. Larry Wells, who is The Opera Guy for The Ear, recently assessed three of the many works – two new books of memoirs and one new recording — reexamining the life, career and legacy of Leonard Bernstein.

By Larry Wells

During this year commemorating the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell), one need only consult https://leonardbernstein.com to find a day-by-day calendar of performances of his works.

As well as world-wide opportunities to hear his works -– even in Madison — there have been two recent books about Bernstein and a new recording of his final opera, “A Quiet Place,” that might be worth your time.

“A Quiet Place” was premiered in Houston as a sequel to his earlier opera “Trouble in Tahiti.” These first performances were conducted by our own John DeMain, the longtime artistic director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Madison Opera.

This nearly two-hour one-act opera dealing with incest, bisexuality, alcoholism and psychosis did not please the critics either for its libretto or for its music.

Soon thereafter Bernstein refashioned the opera by inserting “Trouble in Tahiti” in the middle and cutting some music. His subsequent recording has always baffled me because the music is so uninteresting and the casting is so haphazard.

The new recording on the Decca label (below) is of yet another version devised by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Reducing the orchestration to a chamber ensemble of 18 players, removing “Trouble in Tahiti,” and restoring some of the cuts, this recording by Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra allows us to hear most of the original version of the opera.

(To read Sunderland’s analysis of his edition, check https://leonardbernstein.com/uploads/pages/files/PFR_2013_FW.pdf.)

The new recording is a valiant attempt by Nagano (below) to breathe some life into this dreary work, but I remain unconvinced that “A Quiet Place” is any more than a failed, final stab by a composer most of whose work I admire very much.

Charlie Harmon was Bernstein’s personal assistant, and his recent memoir ”On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius” (below) goes a long way in explaining the failure of “A Quiet Place.” (You can hear the Postlude to Act I of “A Quiet Place” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To hear Harmon tell it, by this time in Bernstein’s life the maestro depended on drugs to go to sleep, drugs to keep himself awake, and alcohol in excess.  He also had a penchant for younger men.

The picture he paints of a troubled genius is rather pathetic, and Bernstein comes across as thoughtless, self-centered and exasperating. When Harmon (below, on the right with Bernstein) writes of his shock at being groped by Bernstein, I had to wonder what else he had expected. Still, it is an entertaining read.

Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein has recently published  “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (below) Here we get a glimpse into Bernstein’s family life. The portrait of his troubled relationship with his long-suffering wife Felicia Montealegre is particularly interesting.

I heard Jamie Bernstein (below) speak recently in Tucson, and she told amazing anecdotes about Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and William Schuman.

Little of that appears in the book. She assumes that the reader is interested in her own love life and her failed pop music career. I would have preferred to read more about the many fascinating people who surrounded Bernstein and less about her privileged and entitled life.

I have always been a big fan of Bernstein. I admired him as a conductor, teacher and composer. Anyone who has even a nominal interest in the man will find both of the recent memoirs at least diverting. The recording of “A Quiet Place,” however, is only for the true devotees.

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Classical music: Tucson celebrates the Leonard Bernstein centennial. Why not Madison?

February 17, 2018
5 Comments

Editor’s note: Larry Wells, better known as The Opera Guy who writes for this blog, recently spent time in Tucson, Arizona, where he attended many events celebrating the Leonard Bernstein centennial.

Tucson isn’t alone. This fall has seen many similar celebrations, including those in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee. But curiously there has been little in Madison.

Perhaps that will change next season. At least this week will see a FREE concert by the UW-Madison Wind Ensemble this Wednesday night, Feb. 21, in Mills Hall. The mixed program with other composers features “Profanation” from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1.

Here is a link with more information and the program:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wind-ensemble-2/

And here are observations about the Tucson celebration:

By Larry Wells

I recently spent a few weeks in Tucson. Part of that time happily coincided with the annual Tucson Desert Song Festival which this year commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell).

I was able to attend 13 of the performances and was struck by the consistently intelligent programming, large audiences, and high performance standards.

Many of the events were held at the Fred Fox School of Music at the University of Arizona. Some of these involved talented student and faculty singers performing Bernstein’s Broadway songs as well as his more serious vocal works. The venue also hosted outstanding recitals by Metropolitan Opera veterans Jennifer Johnson Cano (below top) and Lisette Oropesa (below bottom).

One of the highlights was a recital by dual pianists Steven Bleier (below top, on right) and Michael Barrett (below top, on left), founders of the New York Festival of Song. Their program included Bernstein’s final song cycle “Arias and Barcarolles” featuring the very talented Joshua Jeremiah (below middle) and Rebecca Jo Loeb (below bottom).

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra (below), under the direction of its new conductor José Luis Gomez,  filled the cavernous Tucson Music Hall for two performances of Bernstein’s underperformed Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish.” Joined by the symphony’s outstanding chorus, the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, and soprano Kelley Nassief this monumental work was electrifying. The many percussionists were given a good aerobic workout, and the audience seemed hypnotized.

The only flaw was the narration rewritten and delivered by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie. The original narration by the composer is a monologue between a man and his god. Ms. Bernstein’s narration changed the tone to that of a daughter speaking about her father.

For someone familiar with the work, I felt somewhat cheated that I was not hearing the work as it had been composed. Still it was a total delight to hear a live performance of a work that should be heard far more often than it is.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra offered a second program which featured a sparkling performance of Bernstein’s opera “Trouble in Tahiti” with the widely-praised, and rightly so, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (below in a photo by Dario Acosta).

Ballet Tucson offered a somewhat strange program featuring Bernstein songs beautifully performed by Cadie Jordan (below top) and David Margulis (below bottom, in a photo by Kristin Hoebermann). Sometimes they were accompanied by dancers and sometimes not.

Then, after a number of these songs, a recording came on of portions of the suite from Bernstein’s score for the film “On the Waterfront” with dancers performing a sort of “Romeo and Juliet” narrative. It didn’t seem to make any cohesive sense, but it was fun to watch and the quality of the music never faltered.

Two other large events were the Arizona Opera’s “Candide” and Tucson’s resident chorus True Concord’s MASS.

I attended the premiere of “Candide” (below) which was also performed in the vast Tucson Music Hall. I had only seen it performed once before, and that was the charming, witty, and intimate Harold Prince version. The Tucson version was one of the overlong operatic versions that featured additional musical numbers, which was a good thing, but wordy spoken dialogue that was unfortunately under-amplified. Therefore, unless someone was very familiar with the work, the production was a long string of seemingly unrelated musical numbers linked by incomprehensible spoken dialogue.

The dialogues themselves are very witty, but since they were not accompanied by supertitles as was the singing, the performance was seriously flawed. Still the singing was excellent, with special praise for Katrina Galka’s Cunegonde, and the staging was colorful and often amusing. Hopefully the sound issues were rectified for the following four performances. (You can hear the famous Overture to “Candide”– conducted by the composer —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

MASS (poster with scenes is below) was performed in what is termed as the ‘Chamber Version.’ I was apprehensive that somehow the musical content would be diminished, but my worries turned out to be unfounded and the performance was uniformly dynamic and engaging. True Concord is an outstanding choral group, and its leader Eric Holtan led a thoroughly engaging and moving performance of this monumental work. I was so taken by the first performance that I attended the second as well. Both performances filled the huge Centennial Hall.

Besides the orchestra and chorus the work features a celebrant, in this case the appropriately named Jubilant Sykes, an ensemble of vocal soloists, a boys chorus and dancers. The choreographers decided to add an additional layer of complexity to an already complex work by having some of the dancers portray Rose, Jacqueline and Caroline Kennedy as well as what I think was supposed to be the spirit of JFK. This was not part of the original work, and I felt it was superfluous to an already multifaceted work. But the audience loved it all, and it turns out that Madison is not the only city that seems to give everything a standing ovation.

The takeaway moment of the festival occurred during a discussion involving composer Dan Asia, the festival director and conductor George Hanson, and Jamie Bernstein. When asked how younger audiences can be lured into concert halls, all three of them immediately concurred that the answer is to program 20th-century music. They claim that any time 20th-century music is programmed, ticket sales increase. My experience at this festival was that large venues were consistently filled with audiences of all ages.

This is something for Madison to think about.


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

November 7, 2017
16 Comments

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.


Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Tales of Hoffmann” proved a musical and theatrical delight from beginning to end. Plus, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble performs Saturday night

April 22, 2016
2 Comments

ALERT: This Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Gates of Heaven Synagogue, 300 East Gorham Street in James Madison Park, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble will perform a concert of music by Claudio Monteverdi, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, Francois Couperin and others. Tickets at the door are $20 for the public, $10 for students. A free reception with the musicians follows at 2422 Kendall Avenue, second floor. For more information about the performers and the program, visit www.wisconsinbaroque.org

By Jacob Stockinger

Editor’s note: The Ear’s good friend and knowledgeable classical music fan Larry Wells offered the following review of last weekend’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” by the Madison Opera. Production photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.

By Larry Wells

I had been looking forward to Madison Opera’s production of “The Tales of Hoffmann” by Jacques Offenbach (below) ever since it was announced.

Jacques Offenbach seated

The opera is a particular favorite of mine, and I’ve seen a number of productions in larger houses, most recently in Tokyo and most memorably a production at the San Francisco Opera 30 years ago with Placido Domingo and James Morris.

I was interested to see how Madison Opera would approach this somewhat theatrically difficult work, and Sunday’s performance was a delight from beginning to end.

First, the singing.

The cast was consistently strong, and each singer could be mentioned in a positive vein. So, I single out three who particularly stood out.

The star of the show, for me, was coloratura soprano Jeni Hauser (below, center, in white) as Olympia, the doll. Her vocal pyrotechnics were sensational. She would be a wonderful Zerbinetta, and I would enjoy seeing her tackle Baby Doe. She is a very funny physical comic actress, and she was simply wonderful.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Doll Olympia Jeni Hauser CR James Gill

Morgan Smith (below) as Hoffmann’s four nemeses was excellent possessing a strong, deep bass-baritone. As a side note, he is the second singer I’ve seen and heard recently in Wisconsin who will be featured in Tucson Opera’s upcoming premiere of “Riders of the Purple Sage,” the other being Keith Phares who was in Florentine Opera’s recent production of Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers.” It will be conducted by Keitaro Harada, who is a talent to watch.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Morgan Smith CR James Gill

The third standout was mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (below) as Hoffmann’s Muse and attendant. She was outstanding vocally and fun to watch.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Adriana Zabala The Muse JAMES GILL

Hoffmann was sung by tenor Harold Meers (below right, in suit).  For an exhausting role, Meers toughed it out and, when singing full voice, was resonant and lyrical.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Harold Meers on right CR James Gill

The production was set in a well-stocked bar, and Hoffmann’s series of bad choices in love appeared fueled by alcohol.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set CR James Gill

The set, from the Virginia Opera, and costumes were dazzling, particularly in the Giulietta act, which in a departure from the productions I’ve seen, was the third act. I felt that the change of the order of the acts made a lot of sense dramatically.

And I loved the use by stage director Kristine McIntyre of the Roaring Twenties theme – flappers and Charlestons, along with gondolas, fog and a bit of German Expressionism. Total fun.

Madison Opera Hoffmann Gondola CR James Gill

Madison Opera Hoffmann Morgan Smith in cape CR James Gill

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was excellent throughout, and Maestro John DeMain is a treasure whom Madison is extremely fortunate to have. His sense of timing and dynamics is a wonder.

My favorite moment of the opera is the ensemble in the Giulietta scene “Hélas Mon Coeur,” and its performance Sunday nearly brought me to tears. In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear that music performed by Placido Domingo and the remarkable Agnes Baltsa.

So, bravo Madison Opera, for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon at the opera. I heard several people say that it was a long one — three hours — but for me the time flew.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since reviews are subjective, for purposes of comparison here is a link to John W. Barker’s rave review that just appeared in Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/arts/stage/tales-of-hoffman-madison-opera/


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