The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here are memorable local concerts in 2016 from critic John W. Barker and The Ear. What ones would you add?

January 4, 2017
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ALERT: The FREE Friday Noon Musicales at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, resume this week after a break for Christmas, New Year’s and other holidays. This Friday, from 12:15 to 1 p.m., pianist Olivia Musat will perform music by Olivier Messiaen, Isaac Albeniz and Paul Constantinesco.

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems a tradition throughout the media to offer a roundup of the Year’s Best with a local slant.

The Ear already offered a national and international roundup. Here is a link to that, especially to the surprisingly rich roundup that he unexpectedly found on Wikipedia:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/02/classical-music-wikipedia-and-wfmt-in-chicago-offer-a-review-of-classical-music-of-2016-that-includes-important-performances-new-music-and-deaths/

For a more local perspective, The Ear trusts and generally agrees with critic John W. Barker (below), who writes frequently for this blog and more often for Isthmus.

John-Barker

Here is a link to Barker’s list of memorable concerts in the Madison area, Because Isthmus mixes classical with other genres like pop, folk and jazz, you have to scroll down to “Classical cornucopia”:

http://isthmus.com/music/year-in-music-2016/

Although I agree with all the concerts that Barker mentions, he left out some that The Ear really loved. One was the absolutely riveting and moving performance in November by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain of the momentous Fifth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich.

For example just about everything that the Pro Arte Quartet does at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music is first-rate and memorable, whether they play in Mills Hall or on “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen Museum of Art.”

But this past fall, a free noontime concert by the Pro Arte with legendary pianist Leon Fleisher especially stood out. Together (below), they performed the Piano Quintet in F Minor by Johannes Brahms – an unquestionable masterpiece in an unforgettable performance.

leon-fleisher-and-pro-arte-quartet-2016

The Ear would also add two events, both violin recitals, at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Last spring Hilary Hahn (below top, in a photo by Peter Miller) turned in a stunningly superb recital. Then this fall, superstar Joshua Bell (below bottom) did the same. Both artists displayed terrific musicality combined with terrific virtuosity in generous and first-rate, ambitious programs.

Hilary Hahn 2016 CR Peter Miller

joshua-bell-2016

He would add several summer concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, especially the sizzling dueling violin concert (below) where the BDDS interspersed “The Four Seasons” buy Antonio Vivaldi with “The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires” by Astor Piazzolla.

axel-strauss-bdds-2016-piazzolla

The Ear would also add an experimental concert at which UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below) unveiled his reworked two-keyboard “Hyperpiano.” While the concert, which featured the “Goldberg” Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach, wasn’t successful musically, it certainly was intriguing, unusual and highly memorable, even with imperfect digital technology.

Hyperpiano stage

And The Ear also recalls a fine concert by the Rhapsodie Quartet (below) of the Madison Symphony Orchestra at the Overture Center.

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

And let’s not forget the University Opera’s production of “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi that was impressively and successfully updated to Hollywood by director David Ronis.

uw-falstaff-benjamin-schultz-left-paul-rowe-and-jiabao-zhang

The Ear is sure there are more memorable concerts that escape him right now. Madison just features so much wonderful music-making in the course of a year.

Moreover, The Ear is also sure you have your favorites – whether they are individual plays; small chamber music groups such as duos, string quartets and piano trios; larger ensembles like the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Union Theater; or entire events like the UW Brass Festival.

I am sure that fans of the innovative percussion group Clocks in Motion and the acclaimed Madison Choral Project have a concert or two to nominate.

So please use the COMMENT section to tell us what were your most memorable classical concerts in Madison during 2016.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: University Opera’s updated Hollywood production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” proves a triumph on all counts. Plus, FREE Opera Scenes concert is Tuesday night

November 20, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest review by The Opera Guy of Giuseppe’s Verdi’s “Falstaff” as staged by the University Opera. Performance photos are by Michael Anderson.

By Larry Wells

In the past few years I’ve seen Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” set in the Spanish Civil War, Wagner’s Ring cycle re-imagined as the history of cinema, and Puccini’s “Turandot” presented as a performance by a traveling circus.

Thus, Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ set in 1930’s Hollywood seemed a reasonable reinterpretation, and so it proved at its final performance Tuesday evening by University Opera.

“Falstaff,” drawn from three plays by Shakespeare, is Verdi’s final opera and a rare comedy. More importantly, gone are his familiar forms of a recitative followed by an aria with lots of oom-pa-pa orchestral accompaniment, now replaced with a conversational style that to me shows Wagner’s influence. It just doesn’t sound like Verdi, but it certainly sounds good.

I felt that the whole evening was a triumph.

The sets were beautifully dressed, the costumes were excellent and the lighting was effective.

uw-falstaff-set-and-cast-michael-anderson

The UW Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Smith, played wonderfully, although from where I sat the sound was occasionally muffled.

Thank goodness a new music building is being built, and I trust that there will be a theater within it that will accommodate operatic performances. The current Music Hall has its limitations, one being that much of the orchestra was playing underneath the stage and another being that for some reason the theater’s temperature cannot be controlled. It was stiflingly hot during the performance.

As for the singing and acting, the cast I saw was uniformly strong. Falstaff, performed by UW-Madison faculty member Paul Rowe (below), was very robust and was particularly affecting during his act III soliloquy. The Ear mentioned to me his Oliver Hardy mannerisms, and once I noticed that I was constantly amused.

uw-falstaff-paul-rowe

Yanzelmalee Rivera as Alice was hilarious in her seduction scene and really came alive in Act III. Courtney Kayser as Meg was a compelling comic actress. Rebecca Buechel’s Mistress Quickly was an equally adept comic actress and had an excellent voice. Emily Weaver as Nannetta was a beautiful singer who shone in her third act moments as Queen of the Fairies. These four women had some outstanding ensemble moments, and I was constantly diverted by their antics as they outwitted the men.

Among the hapless male characters, Brian Schneider was a standout as Ford and the deep voice of Benjamin Schultz (below left, with Paul Rowe and Jiabao Zhang) made the minor character Pistola noticeable whenever he was on stage.

uw-falstaff-benjamin-schultz-left-paul-rowe-and-jiabao-zhang

But the voice of the evening belonged to tenor José Daniel Muñiz (below right) as Fenton. He excelled not only in his solo moments but blended extremely well with his paramour Nannetta (Claire Powling, below left).

uw-falstaff-jose-muniz-and-claire-powling

The outstanding ensemble work exhibited throughout the opera culminated in the grand fugue at the end of the opera, and the nearly full-house audience was blown away by those final moments. (You can hear the fugal finale, conducted by Sir George Solti, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The 1930’s Hollywood concept worked well. It seemed completely fitting and was undoubtedly more amusing than it would have been had the opera been set in the time of Henry IV.

“Well done” to the University Opera’s new full-time director David Ronis (below center) for his imagination and direction. I look forward to his production of Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” in early March.

uw-falstaff-david-ronis

And since this University Opera production and other events are being presented to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the exhibition of a First Folio at the Chazen Museum of Art, I want to put in a plug for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love” which has almost exactly the same plot as “Falstaff” and is woefully underperformed.

I also want to draw your attention the FREE Opera Scenes concert by University Opera that will be presented this Tuesday night, Nov. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall. Featured are singers, with piano accompaniment, in scenes from: Charles Gounod’s “Faust”; Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea“; Giacomo Puccini‘s “La Rondine”; Leonard Bernstein‘s “Trouble in Tahiti”; Gioacchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”;  Dominick Argento’s “Postcard From Morocco”; and Marc Blitzstein’s”Regina.” 


Classical music: University Opera will stage Verdi’s “Falstaff” – updated to Hollywood in the 1930s — this Friday night, Sunday afternoon and next Tuesday night. Plus, UW-Madison composition and music students perform a FREE recital of new music Wednesday night.

November 7, 2016
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ALERT: Students in the Composition Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music will present their new music in a FREE recital this Wednesday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. The performances of original works feature UW-Madison music students and the composers themselves.

By Jacob Stockinger

University Opera will offer its first production of the season in three performances this weekend and early next week.

It is “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi. The work is the composer’s last opera and is often considered to be his greatest masterpiece.

falstaff-poster-university-opera

It is based on “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Henry IV” and “Henry V” and is being staged in homage to the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare

The production also coincides with the exhibit of a First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays that is currently at the UW-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art.

In his first production since becoming the full-time and permanent director of University Opera, former interim director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) is re-imagining the opera as taking place in Hollywood of the 1930s, where Falstaff is a silent movie actor who is out of work with the advent of “talkies.”

David Ronis color CR Luke DeLalio

“Falstaff” will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.

UW-Madison professor James Smith will conduct the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the opera’s finale from a Metropolitan Opera‘s traditional production under James Levine in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

UW-Madison professor and baritone Paul Rowe (below)  will sing the title role. But the production, including the cast, sets, costumes and lighting, involves more than 90 UW-Madison students.

Schubertiade 2014 Paul Rowe baritone BIG

Performances in Music Hall, at the bottom of Bascom Hill, are on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. and next Tuesday night, Nov. 15, at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors; and $10 for UW-Madison students.

On Friday, there will also be a panel discussion at 6 p.m. before the performance.

For much more information about the production and the panel discussion, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2016/10/04/university-opera-falstaff-2016/


Classical music: UW-Madison opera students are on display at a concert this Sunday afternoon along with guest professional and UW opera graduate Lindsay Metzger

September 15, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from UW Opera Props, the support organization for University Opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

We invite you to attend a benefit concert showcasing the University of Wisconsin-Madison opera program’s talented students, along with special guest artist, distinguished alumna and mezzo-soprano, Lindsay Metzger (below top) who will be accompanied by pianist Daniel Fung (below bottom).

lindsay-metzger-1

daniel-fung

Please join us for a program of songs and arias, followed by a reception. Enjoy conversation with the singers, faculty and other musical friends, along with light refreshments including artisanal cheeses, fruit, wine, juices and chocolatier Gail Ambrosius’s delicious creations.

The concert is this Sunday, Sept. 18, at 3 p.m. followed by light refreshments and conversation. Sorry, no word about the composers or works to be sung.

The concert will take place in the Landmark Auditorium at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society of Madison Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, Madison

Admission is a contribution of $25 in advance ($30 at the door), and $10 for students. All proceeds go to UW Opera student scholarships.

For more information, visit:

https://www.facebook.com/events/1838139499750385

http://www.uwoperaprops.org/uw-opera-props-student-showcase-concert/

Lindsay Metzger (below) hails from Mundelein, Illinois. She spent two summers as an apprentice artist with Des Moines Metro Opera and was a studio artist in 2014-15 with Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera (Gannett in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore).

lindsay-metzger-2

Among her other recent portrayals have been Daphne/Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s La descente d’Orphée aux enfers (Chicago’s Haymarket Opera Company), Cherubino in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (La Musica Lirica in Novafeltria, Italy), Nella in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (DuPage Opera Theatre), the title role in Handel’s Ariodante, Béatrice in Berlioz’ Béatrice et Bénédict, and Beppe in Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz (all at the University of Wisconsin-Madison).

With Lyric Unlimited’s community-engagement program “Opera in the Neighborhoods,” Metzger was heard in the title role in Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

A soloist featured frequently in numerous Chicago-area venues, Metzger debuted with the Grant Park Symphony singing the soprano solo in Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem.

She was awarded the Paul Collins Fellowship from University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Virginia Cooper Meier Award from the Musicians’ Club of Women, and an Encouragement Award from the Metropolitan Opera National Council District Auditions.

Metzger is an alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and DePaul University. Last season at Lyric she was featured in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (debut) and Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. In the 2016-17 season the mezzo-soprano will perform in Massenet’s Don Quichotte and Bizet’s Carmen.


Classical music: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) closes out its existence this Friday night.

August 16, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear notes with sadness the passing of a fine and inspiring institution that has fostered music education.

It is the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (below), also known as MAYCO, and this Friday night it will give its 10th – and final – performance.

MAYCO Aug. 2014 1

The concert is this Friday night at 8 p.m. (NOT 7:30 p.m. as originally announced) in the Artrium auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison (NOT Music Hall). Admission is $10 for the public, with students getting in for a free-will donation.

Much about the final concert follows a familiar pattern.

For one, old classics will be mixed with new music.

In this case, the old classics are the Overture to the operas “The Barber of Seville” by Giachino Rossini and the famously forceful Fifth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven. (You can get a taste of both the symphony and MAYCO in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The new work is the world premiere of “is a is a is b is” by Ben Davis (below), a graduate of the UW-Madison.

ben davis

Also in keeping with MAYCO’S past, it will conducted by its founder and music director Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below), who founded it while he was still a student at East High School in Madison.

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

Since then Utevsky graduated this past May from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he majored in viola, conducting and singing, even appearing in baritone roles in several University Opera productions and giving a lieder recital.

All that plus he proved a talented reviewer and writer for this blog, especially when he chronicled tour of Vienna, Prague and Budapest by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) several years ago. You can read his writing by using the search engine in this blog. Just type in his name.

Why is MAYCO coming to an end?

Utevsky says simply and without bitterness that it is time for him to move on. He is taking off a year before pursuing graduate studies.

You can see what an achievement MAYCO provided – with lists of repertoire, composers and performers –by going to its home website:

http://www.mayco.org/#!concerts/cnnz


Classical music: It’s now official – David Ronis is the new director of University Opera at the UW-Madison. And here are the two operas he will stage for next season.

June 8, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

With the long-awaited publication of a press release, it is finally official: Guest interim director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) has been named the permanent director of the University Opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

David Ronis color CR Luke DeLalio

Initially, frustrated with the slow pace of the final paperwork announcing a decision that was made in March, Ronis announced his own appointment in an informal posting on Facebook in mid-May.

Here was The Ear’s post about that:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/05/17/classical-music-con-vivo-concludes-its-14th-season-this-saturday-night-with-septets-and-quintets-by-beethoven-dvorak-max-reger-and-carl-nielsen/

But now comes the full UW-Madison press release with lots of background about Ronis, who hails from New York City and was chosen after a nationwide search:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2016/05/26/david-ronis-appointed-as-university-operas-permanent-director/

The Ear has also learned the first two productions that Ronis will stage during the 2016-17 season:

In honor of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the University Opera will stage “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi on Nov. 11, 13 and 15. (That is also the focus of this year’s Madison Early Music Festival in July; and the Chazen Museum of Art will host a touring copy of the First Folio in the fall.) 

Then on April 3, 5 and 7 the University Opera will stage “The Turn of the Screw,” by Benjamin Britten, based on the ghost story-like  novella by Henry James.


Classical music: David Ronis is the new opera director at UW-Madison. Con Vivo concludes its 14th season this Saturday night with septets and quintets by Beethoven, Dvorak, Max Reger and Carl Nielsen.

May 17, 2016
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NEWS ALERT: David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) — who has been an interim director for two years — is the new director of University Opera. He was chosen from a nationwide search, and has posted the following news on his Facebook page:

“For some reason, I’ve been resisting posting my big news, now a couple of months old. But perhaps it’s time. I’ve been appointed the inaugural Karen K. Bishop Director of Opera at University of Wisconsin-Madison! It’s truly humbling to be going into an endowed chair established in memory of such a dear, wonderful, talented, and dedicated soul. This endowment will enable us to continue to develop the exemplary opera program at UW-Madison in all kinds of directions. Stay tuned!”

David Ronis color CR Luke DeLalio

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following note to pass along:

Con Vivo!…music with life (below) presents a chamber music concert entitled “Five by Seven” on this Saturday, May 21, at 7:30 p.m. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., across from Camp Randall.

Con Vivo 2016

Tickets can be purchased at the door for $18 for adults and $15 for seniors and students.

Con Vivo!’s spring concert “Five by Seven” features septets and quintets for winds, strings and organ.

The program includes the Septet, Op. 20, by Ludwig van Beethoven, and the folk-like Bagatelles, Op. 47, for strings and organ by Antonin Dvorak. (You can sample Dvorak’s tuneful Bagatelles in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Additional pieces include the story of a lover’s unrequited love in the quintet “Serenata in vano” by Danish composer Carl Nielsen below top) and the miniature “Lyrical Andante” by the German composer Max Reger (below bottom), whose centennial was just marked.

Carl Nielsen at piano

Max Reger

Audience members are invited to join Con Vivo! musicians after the concert for a free reception to discuss the music.

Artistic Director Robert Taylor said: “With Con Vivo!’s spring concert, we conclude our 14th season with exceptional music that combines the wonderful sounds of winds, strings and organ. Our Madison audience will be able to hear our musicians up close and personal playing music of extreme delight and depth.”

Con Vivo! is a professional chamber music ensemble comprised of Madison area musicians assembled from the ranks of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and various other performing groups familiar to Madison audiences.


Classical music: Longtime musical partners singer Kathleen Otterson and pianist Jamie Schmidt close out the season of FREE Noon Musicales this Friday.

May 11, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear received the following note from Edgewood College faculty singer Kathleen Otterson and thought it worth passing along because of its timeliness and local interest:

I’d like to share a little information about the final Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison on this Friday, May 13.

I’m sorry that I don’t have a photo of pianist Jamie Schmidt and me together, but I’ve included a photo of myself and a collage of some of our printed programs (below) from over the years.

Kathleen Otterson Jamie Schmidt programs

Here is our background:

Mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson and pianist Jamie Schmidt met while students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, and gave their first collaborative concert in 1996 at UW-Oshkosh, where Otterson was a member of the voice faculty.

Over the next 13 years, there were many more concerts for the duo around Wisconsin and in the Chicago area after Schmidt moved there to serve as Music Director at the American Girl Place Theater.

Kathleen Otterson (below) has been a member of the Edgewood College faculty since 1999, and Music Director at Christ Presbyterian Church since 2001.

Kathleen Otterson color

Jamie Schmidt (below) has been touring all over the country, along with his wife and two young children, with “The Lion King,” which arrived in Madison on May 9 for a lengthy run at the Overture Center.

jamie schmidt

The two musicians will reunite to present the final Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive, on Friday, May 13.

The program includes favorites from the years of their concertizing together:  German Lieder, or art songs, by Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler; and American songs by Ned Rorem, Samuel Barber, Chris DeBlasio, Dominick Argento and others.

A very special part of the program is an excerpt from the song cycle “No Place, No Time,” composed by University Opera founder and UW-Madison Professor Emeritus Karlos Moser (below left, with his wife Melinda Moser), to texts of the Persian poet Rumi. Otterson and Schmidt commissioned this work from their teacher and mentor, which also features bassist, Ben Ferris.

Karlos and Melinda Moser

The Friday Noon Musicales run from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium, 900 University Bay Drive, and are open to the public, FREE of charge.

 


Classical music: The new opera “Fallujah” is based on the Iraq War. Will the Madison Opera or the University Opera be interested in staging it? Plus, this afternoon is your last chance to hear “Carmina Burana” performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Read three rave reviews.

May 1, 2016
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ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in “Carmina Burana” in the MSO’s spectacular season-closing program. Read three rave reviews by local critics:

Here is what John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/big-orchestra-monuments/

Here is what Greg Hettmansberger wrote for Madison Magazine and his blog WhatGregSays:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2016/04/30/farewells-to-a-season-and-some-friends/

And here is what Jessica Courtier wrote for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/concert-review-mso-offers-spectacular-finale-to-season-with-respighi/article_3ac27a49-8212-5983-855b-245dd011deef.html

By Jacob Stockinger

Who says you can’t mix art and current events?

Especially if the current events also count as history, which has often been an inspiration for fiction and art.

Iraq and Afghanistan — the United States’ longest wars — are back in the news again making big headlines. And PTSD or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a story that never goes away.

But not all of the news has to do with politics, suicide bombings, increased troop commitments and fierce fighting in a civil war.

It also has to do with art.

Specifically, opera — that potent combination of theater and music.

The Long Beach Opera commissioned and recently premiered a new chamber opera based on the Iraq War and PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder), and us based on the life and work of U.S. Marine Christian Ellis . It is called “Fallujah” and it is the first such opera to be written. (A photo below is by Keith Ian Polakoff for the Long Beach Opera.)

You can hear librettist Heather Raffo and composer Tobin Stokes discuss the opera in the YouTube video at the bottom.

fallujah iraq opera Keith Ian Polakoff Long Beach Opera

It makes The Ear wonder if it might find its way into an upcoming season of the Madison Opera, which tends to use its smaller winter productions to stage works that are newer, smaller, more adventurous and more exploratory.

Or maybe the University Opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music might find it a good choice for a student production?

Anyway, here is a fine write-up that you can find on NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/03/18/470973622/an-iraq-war-opera-finds-a-vein-of-empathy


Classical music: University Opera’s entertaining production of “Transformations” features a wonderful student cast and great resourcefulness. The last performance is TONIGHT at 7:30. Plus, the UW Chamber Orchestra performs a FREE concert Wednesday night.

March 15, 2016
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ALERT: The UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra, under its director James Smith, will give a FREE performance on this Wednesday night at 7:30 in Mills Hall. The program features the Divertimento for Strings by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara; the Divertimento, by Bela Bartok; and Elegy (string orchestra version), by the late American composer Elliott Carter.

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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Among the works of the prolific American composer Conrad Susa (1935-2013) were five operas. The last of them (1994) was The Dangerous Liaisons, after the scandalous 18th-century French novel by Choderlos de Laclos.

Susa’s first, Transformations (1973), was utterly different, a true novelty. He called it a “chamber opera” but one might wonder if it is really an opera at all, by conventional standards of lyric theater.

(NOTE: The last performance of the University Opera’s current production of “Transformations” is TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall. Admission is $25 for the general public, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.)

To begin with, the work has no real libretto, but rather represents Susa’s settings of eight of the poems in a collection of the same title published in 1971 by the brilliant but mentally troubled Anne Sexton (below, 1928-1974). Her book contained 17 poems, each representing a reframing of one of the Grimm folk tales.

anne sexton

Of those 17, Susa (below) selected 10 for his Transformations, setting them as they stand and putting them in his own sequence.

Conrad Susa

The work is scored for eight singers, supported by an ensemble of eight instrumentalists.

Sexton’s saucy texts are both reflective and narrative, but they do not create consistent “roles.” Through solos and ensembles, the singers give out those texts, with selective opportunities for character representation.

The vocal writing is often quite daring, always very clever and witty, but hardly melodic in traditional ways, while the instrumental contributions are spikey, often provocative, and sometimes allusive. There is not a single melody to remember, but the effect of this “ensemble opera” is consistently absorbing, and entertaining.

Transformations has been Susa’s most successful and widely performed work. This 2016 production is in fact the third to have been given by the University Opera at the UW-Madison. The first was mounted under Karlos Moser in 1976, there years after the premiere performance by the Minnesota Opera and it was the second new production anywhere. Moser repeated it in 1991.

Now we have had the realization of it by interim University Opera director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio).

David Ronis color CR Luke DeLalio

In the Minnesota Opera production, the successive episodes are launched in a set representing an insane asylum. Moser studiously avoided that in his productions.Ronis has used instead an urban office or room that serves as a space for a kind of group therapy session.

At first thought, it seems an unnecessary imposition. (Yes, Sexton, who is represented in the piece, did spend some time in mental institutions, before the last of her suicide attempts was successful.) In point of fact, however, little is made of such a setting as the production progresses, so it does not much matter one way or the other.

What marks this production, however, is Ronis’ unflagging resourcefulness in devising movements and gestures for his singers to constantly point up details in the story-telling.

And he has a simply wonderful cast of young singers to carry out his direction. Because of inevitable weekend schedule crunches, I had to attend the Sunday afternoon performance, at which Cayla Bosché was the robust portrayer of Sexton and some problematical mothers.

High soprano Nicole Heinen (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) represented Snow White and numerous princesses or virginal types. Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Beuchel was particularly delightful as the Witch to Hansel and Gretel.

Dress Rehearsal for "Transformations"

Tenor Dennis Gotkowsky was deliciously arch as Rumpelstiltskin, and tenor William Ottow (below, lying down, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) cleverly represented a number of princes. Tenor Michael Hoke, baritone Brian Schneider, and bass Benjamin Schultz were all admirable in their varied assignments.

Transformations William Ottow and Rebecca Beuchel CR Michael r. Anderson

Under the leadership of conductor Kyle Knox (below), a gifted and busy graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the instrumentalists gave pointed support throughout.

Kyle Knox 2

Not a big-hit item, then, as the rather thin attendance on Sunday afternoon suggested—not something for those who seek Mozart, Verdi and Puccini.

But it is a very enjoyable novelty that really does warrant presentation, as this new production amply demonstrated.

In this photo by Michael R. Anderson, cast members include Brian Schneider, Rebecca Buechel, Cayla Rosche (foreground, as Anne Sexton), William Ottow, and Nicole Heinen in Transformations.

Dress Rehearsal for "Transformations"


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