The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


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Classical music: Prize-winning UW-Madison conductor Chad Hutchinson talks about the FREE and unusual all-American, all-20th century concert he will perform with the UW Symphony Orchestra this Friday night

October 9, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Chad Hutchinson (below) is starting his second season at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music by putting his own stamp on programming with an intriguing, all-American and all-20th-century concert that combines music for the concert hall with music for plays and films.

The FREE concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra is in Mills Hall this Friday night, Oct. 12, and starts at 8 p.m. with an informal pre-concert talk by Hutchinson (below) at 7:30 p.m.

Hutchison recently won one first prize and two second prizes from The American Prize for work he did – in opera conducting, orchestral conducting and orchestral programming — at the University of Minnesota and the University of South Dakota.

For more details, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-madison-symphony-orchestra-3/

The Ear asked Hutchinson how, after his first year, he feels about the UW-Madison.

He answered: “What makes the UW-Madison special is the camaraderie and support of the students, faculty and staff across the numerous disciplines within the Mead Witter School of Music.

“I’m thrilled to be back working with the orchestra (below), opera and conducting students and collaborating with the amazing faculty here. Seeing the “light bulb” moments when students realize and achieve a new level of competency for themselves and the ensemble is the best part of the profession.”

Here are his thoughts about the program:

“The UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra opens the 2018-2019 season with a program of three influential American composers. This concert will highlight the juxtaposition of traditional classical music and compositions heavily influenced by folk, jazz and the blues.

“A common thread throughout the concert is the idea of firsts and exploring new ideas as a composer.

“The Overture to “The School for Scandal” (1931) of Samuel Barber (below) was the first piece that he composed for full orchestra and is based on the Restoration comedy by Richard Sheridan.

“This performance will be the debut of one of the Symphony Orchestra’s new doctoral conducting students Ji-Hyun Yim (below). Ji-Hyun (Jenny) comes to Madison after completing a Master’s Degree in Orchestral Conducting from the University of North Texas.

“The second piece on the program is one that I have wanted to program for quite some time. The “Afro-American” Symphony (1930) of William Grant Still (below, in a photo by Carl Van Vechten), his first symphony, is widely regarded as the first large-scale piece of symphonic repertoire composed by an African-American and performed by a major symphony orchestra.

Each movement’s title is influenced by short poems by the 20th-century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (below, in 1890).

“Since the Barber and Still were composed within one year of each other in 1930-1931, I wanted to show the dichotomy of the straight-ahead classical world and the other side of classical music in the late 1920s and 1930s that was being heavily influenced by the more popular music of the time.

“Lastly, we feature the first and only film music that Bernstein composed. “On the Waterfront” (1954), an Oscar-winning film directed by Elia Kazan that starred Marlon Brando (below) and Eva Marie Saint, shows Bernstein writing simultaneously for the symphonic hall and the big screen.

“This work will feature UW-Madison professor of saxophone and composition Les Thimmig (below) and will showcase many soloists within the orchestra. While not programmed as often as his music from West Side Story or On the Town, I believe that Bernstein’s unique use of color, rhythm and melody in this work – heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — speak for themselves.”


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Classical music: When you need a quick shot of music, go to “60 Seconds of Classical” on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube

August 23, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Sometimes a minute is all the time you have.

Or all you want or need.

But a quick moment of classical music can still provide the perfect mini-break or pick-me-up or shot-in-the-arm.

Kind of like those Daily Affirmations some people use.

Thanks to gentle nudging by a friend, The Ear has discovered just how to get that mini-fix of music.

It is a site on the social media site Instagram (below).

And the site is called 60secondsofclassical (below), which you can also find in somewhat different formats on Facebook and YouTube

It has terrific diversity and variety, top-quality performers, great music and excellent editing.

It is, in short, a lot of fun.

Almost like a game.

You can subscribe to it and also let the site know what entries you really like or even love.

Don’t read the caption at first.

See if you can identify the performer.

See if you can identify the composer.

See if you can identify the piece.

And see if you know what comes before and after the one-minute snippet.

Anyway there is a full menu of great music, great performers and great performances.

So take a minute — or two or three — and try it.

Check it out.

Then let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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