The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: We should hear more operas sung in English translation – like Wisconsin Public Radio’s live broadcast TODAY at noon of the Metropolitan Opera’s shortened version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”

December 29, 2018

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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear thinks that we in English-speaking countries should hear more operas sung in our native language.

Yes, sung in English – not the original Italian, French or German.

You can see how you’d like it for yourself if you listen at noon TODAY– Saturday, Dec. 29 — to Wisconsin Public Radio. That’s when you can hear the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of its family-friendly production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

The Ear did so and – except for deleting the wonderful overture — loved it.

So, apparently, did a lot others. (You can hear Nathan Gunn in a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

After many years, the production has now become a holiday tradition for the Met to offer children while school is out for the holidays.

And one suspects it is developing new audiences – especially with the colorful staging and costumes by Julie Taymor, who won such acclaim for her staging of “The Lion King” on both the stage and film.

Sure, a lot of purists will probably object to substituting English for the original Italian, French, German and Russian. But it is so freeing and feels so good to understand what you are hearing without the distraction of constantly going back and forth trying to look at both the supertitles and the stage.

It also seems worth a try, given the problems that many opera companies are having competing with the “Live from the Met in HD” productions that you can see in movie theaters for far less money, and the decline of both season subscribers and single tickets.

To be honest, of course even in English you will miss some of the words. That’s the nature of singing. But excellent diction helps. And if you are lucky enough to see the production in person, supertitles in Italian, French German and Spanish and, yes, English are still provided.

It is not a completely new idea. After all, Great Britain has the English National Opera, which performs standard operas by Verdi and Puccini, Monteverdi and Handel, Mozart and Wagner, in English. So, many of the very great operas have already been translated into English and could be staged in English elsewhere.

Here are links where you can learn more about the English National Opera:

Do you question how the text is hurt in translation?

It’s worth remembering that Mozart himself used the vernacular German instead of his usual opera house Italian so that he would reach the general public. Why not do the same today? Translation could make opera much more accessible, less pretentious and more populist.

The same is true for cutting the show down to 100 minutes from almost 3 hours. Let’s just admit that the attention span of the general public is much shorter than it used to be.

Orchestra and chamber music concerts as well as solo recitals are trimming their running times often down to 90 minutes or less, and meet with great approval from the public. Why not try the same approach with opera? Indeed, both the Madison Opera and the University Opera have limited but successful experiences with editing operas and using English.

It is also worth recalling that in translation we read greater words than an opera libretto. If we can translate Homer and Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Proust, why can’t we translate opera librettos? One just has to be sure to find a great translator with a sensitive musical ear– such as American poet Richard Wilbur is with his award-winning, rhyming translations of Moliere’s comedies and Racine’s tragedies. Similarly, American poet J.D. McClatchy has done a fine job with The Met’s “Magic Flute.”

Here is a link to more information about the production, including a synopsis:

And here is a review of the Met’s  “Magic Flute” by Tommasini:

What do you think?

Should more operas be staged in English?

Should long operas be edited?

Why or why not?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: How did a reformation in religion and a revolution in printing change music? The 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) offers answers and samples this week. Part 2 of 2

July 3, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this Saturday and running through the following Saturday, the 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival will explore the profound effects that the Lutheran Reformation and the invention of printing had on Renaissance and Baroque music of the time.

The festival is called “A Cabinet of Curiosities: A Journey to Lübeck.” For a complete listing of programs, lectures, concerts and workshops, with information about tickets, go to:

Soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe — who directs the festival with UW Arts Institute’s Sarah Marty and her husband and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe — recently agreed to do a Q&A with The Ear about the upcoming festival. Here is Part 2 of 2. And, if you missed the beginning, here is a link to Part 1:

How does early north German music differ from its counterparts in, say, Italy, France, Germany and England. What is the historical origin and aesthetic importance of the music from that era in that part of the world?

One of the biggest changes during the Reformation in Germany began with sacred music and the far-reaching changes in the way it served the church. The music of mass, motet, psalm and hymn heard in the great urban cathedrals, cloistered chapels and royal palace churches of Catholicism represented the “otherness” of the divine, a God unreachable by the untutored masses.

Written in an intellectual language which required years of rigorous training to learn and understand, it was only the disciplined, practiced choir boys and men who could perform this sacred polyphony in all its wonder and glory.

Luther sought to traverse this divide. Though he held the existing music of sacred polyphony in high esteem, he felt that music could be used to even greater effect in furthering the education and religious commitment of the people.

Luther (below) chose the hymn form as the principle means to his musical aims. A prolific hymnodist himself, he authored hymns such as the famous “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God“) several settings of which begin the All-Festival concert, attempted to connect existing high art with folk music in a style that would appeal to all classes, clergy and laity, men, women and children. His texts were in the German vernacular in order to convey messages that would be understood by all in a way that the Latin of preexisting hymns were not.

The culmination of those first 100 years of reformed musical development and the composers whose works will be performed throughout the week at MEMF, launched the reformed hymnody of Luther (below) and his followers into the stratosphere of such giants as Heinrich Schütz, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Sebastian Bach (all the Bachs for that matter) and on, a trail that continues to the present day.

What music and composers of that era have been most neglected and least neglected by historians and performers? Does rediscovery of works and composers play a special role this year?

Throughout the week we will be featuring compositions from the Choir Library from the Marienkirche in Lübeck (below) is a collection of music that Lübeck scholar and Buxtehude biographer Kerala Snyder catalogued and reconstructed.

The collection ended up in Vienna in the 19th century, and is a comprehensive data base that includes compositions by German and Italian composers, including Heinrich Schütz, Hermann Schein, Palestrina – the list starts with Agazzari and ends with Zucchini.

Besides the Choir Library compositions, audiences will have an opportunity to hear works of Buxtehude that have never been performed in Madison.

Can you tell us about the program and performers for the All-Festival concert on Saturday, July 14?

The All-Festival Concert (below)  includes all of our workshop participants and faculty. We work together to prepare the concert all week and it is truly a MEMF community project.  The music will be drawn from settings and compositions based on Lutheran chorales such as Ein Feste Burg and from the Choir Library of the Marienkirche.

The concert concludes with Buxtehude’s Missa Brevis and concludes with his grand motet, Benedicam Dominum in omne tempore, written for six contrasting choirs, which Buxtehude surely composed to match the structural design of the Marienkirche. (You can hear the Kyrie from Buxtehude’s “Missa Brevis” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Are there other sessions — guest lectures, certain performers, particular works — that you especially recommend for the general public?

All the planning that goes into each festival leads me to encourage the general public to attend everything. The concert series, lectures and workshop have so much to offer.

Special events include a dance with a live band drawn from the MEMF Faculty with dance instruction by Peggy Murray, Tanzen und Springen,at Memorial Union in the Grand Hall on Thursday night.

The lecture series features some well-known Madison scholars — John W. Barker and J. Michael Allsen, plus Michael Alan Anderson (below top), director of Schola Antiqua and professor of musicology, and Jost Hermand (below bottom), Professor Emeritus at the UW-Madison.

There will be a special exhibit created for MEMF in the lobby of Memorial Library by Jeanette Casey, the Head of the Mills Music Library and Lisa Wettleson of Special Collections at Memorial Library.

This curated display reflects the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The exhibit will be in the lobby of Memorial Library and open to the public through Thursday, July 19, 2018, with a special talk about the exhibit during the festival on Monday, July 9, at 11:30 a.m.  This wonderful partnership allows the library to display rarely seen original and facsimile publications, some dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries within the context of the MEMF theme.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Martin Luther, who was a great lover of music, said: “The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits…”

Join us to hear what Luther was talking about! Get your tickets for the concert series! Attend the lectures! Take some classes! You’ll find a link for all the information about MEMF at

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Classical music: The 18th annual Madison Early Music Festival concludes its look at the Spanish Renaissance with another outstanding “concept concert” featuring all participants

July 19, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Nobody here does “concept concerts” better than the Madison Early Music Festival.

Proof came again last Saturday night in Mills Hall when the large forces of professional faculty members and workshop student participants (both below) joined to present a comprehensive overview of Renaissance music in Spain.

The program featured various combinations, including a quartet (below) as well as choral music and instrumental music. It offered sacred and secular fare, courtly music and folk music, Latin and vernacular Spanish.

Once again, the impressive program was assembled and conducted by Grant Herreid (below top) of the internationally acclaimed Renaissance band Piffaro (below bottom), a popular and regular guest at MEMF. (You can hear Piffaro perform music from the Spanish Renaissance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

As in past years, history, biography, literature, religion and music get layered on top of each other and interwoven among each other. As a formula, from year to year the concept keeps getting refined and keeps succeeding.

In this case, the narration and story line centered on the surprisingly adventurous life of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (below), who wrote the first important novel, “Don Quixote.”

Last year, the festival celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare; this year, it was the 400th anniversary of the death of Cervantes.

The Ear really likes the format. The All-Festival concert ran 75 minutes and was done without intermission. Even if you are not a big fan of such early music, the concert was varied enough and short enough to hold your attention.

Unity was provided by excerpts from various texts of Cervantes, including “Don Quixote” as well as less well-known works. Some of his words were even substituted for other texts in songs and choruses.

The chorus and soloists sounded very well rehearsed, and the large instrumental section – with all those unusual-looking early instruments like sackbuts and shawms – was exceptional.

Herreid kept an outstanding sonic balance between the vocal and instrumental forces throughout the event.

There were quite a few narrators (below) who presented the short texts by Cervantes. And they proved the only weak point. Some people just don’t seem as up to the task as others do.

Perhaps in future years, the festival could pick, say, one man and one woman to alternate in the readings. The audience would have a better sense of their identities, and the effect would be better if the narrators were chosen for their ability to project dramatically and enunciate clearly but with expression – something that proved uneven with so many different narrators taking turns.

The Ear didn’t go to a lot of the festival events. He confesses that he is more a Baroque than a Renaissance person who looks forward to next year’s theme of “A Journey to Lübeck,” with German Renaissance and even Baroque music, especially music by Dietrich Buxtehude. (The 19th annual festival will be held July 7-14, 2018.)

But this final wrap-up concert is proof that even if very early music is not your thing, you shouldn’t miss the final event.

The All-Festival concert really is a MUST-HEAR.

You learn a lot.

And you enjoy even more.

Certainly the audience seemed to agree.

Were you there?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra resurrect Paul Hindemith’s long-neglected 20th-century secular Requiem with fine singing and committed playing

May 2, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 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 photographs below.

By John W. Barker

It is unusual that, within the space of a few days, we have parallel performances of two very untraditional Requiems, ones setting vernacular texts rather than liturgical Latin ones.

The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony(below) performed Paul Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem For those we love” last weekend. And the Madison Symphony Chorus and Orchestra will give us Johannes BrahmsEin deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) this coming weekend, May 5-7.

(NOTE: Here is a link with more information about the three MSO performances this coming weekend:

It is hard to resist the temptation to compare them.

They were, of course, composed about a century apart, in the contexts of very different stylistic eras. They reflect very different aesthetics: High Romantic warmth for Brahms, conservative modernism for Hindemith.

The different texts chosen also determine crucial differences. Brahms selected Luther’s German translations of passages from Scripture, as a broad collage of human consolation and solace, whereas the German-born Hindemith, a naturalized American citizen who fled from Hitler’s Nazism, in a patriotic commemoration of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, chose the long poem of grieving that Walt Whitman (below) wrote over the death of President Abraham Lincoln.

The relatively concise Scriptural texts allowed Brahms to develop rich melodic and contrapuntal elaborations. Hindemith’s determination to set Whitman’s complete poem, of 208 verses in altogether irregular free verse, committed him to keep things in constantly moving continuity, with little chance for pausing and elaborating.

To be sure, Hindemith (below) was never a distinguished lyricist, for all his skills, so his writing is endless declamation by the soloists, backed by strongly cast choral statements. (You can hear famed baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the chorus sing the opening of the Hindemith requiem in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There are many lovely and powerful moments, but they pass by quickly and leave little of memorable expressiveness. There is much clever music here, but in sum total it is more dutiful than beautiful.

The performance in Mills Hall — I heard the one Sunday night — showed a stage packed with musicians. There were two soloists, a chorus of exactly 100 singers, and an orchestra (the UW Symphony) of 67 players, 46 of them on strings. UW choral director and conductor Beverly Taylor (below) drew from all of them deeply committed musical results.

Of the two soloists, soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below left) sang with beauty and expression, but it was baritone James Held (below right) who stole the show, with a ringing voice, superb diction, and a genuine eloquence.

The huge chorus was quite magnificent, well unified, fully serious in its enunciation, and capable of some truly musical sound — and Hindemith, though nowhere near Brahms as a choral composer, gave them some serious challenges. The orchestra sounded a bit rough at the very beginning, but settled into participating strongly in the performance.

Whatever reservations one may have about Hindemith’s score, this Whitman Requiem, one of his last important works and premiered in 1946, is a significant piece. It is far less frequently heard than that by Brahms, and so it is very good that UW choral director Beverly Taylor has brought it to our attention.

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