The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This is a very busy weekend for FREE choral music, band music, chamber music, a brass master class and a Berlioz colloquium at the UW-Madison.

December 1, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This is the time of the academic year, the end of a semester, when performers and venues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music really get a workout.

Take this weekend and especially this coming Sunday, which features seven events.

There will be two popular Winter Choral Concerts at Luther Memorial Church, 1026 University Avenue (below, in  2014) plus performances by the Concert Band and University Bands and a couple of recitals by students. Mills Hall, Morphy Hall and Music Hall will all be in use.

Here is a link to the full Sunday schedule with information about the many concerts, but which, unfortunately, does NOT include programs for the choral concerts and a band concert:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/2016-12-04/

UW Winter Concert 2014

This Friday and Saturday are also busy, though less so.

FRIDAY

At 4 p.m. in Room 2441 of the Mosse Humanities Building is a FREE public colloquium about the pioneering Romantic French composer Hector Berlioz (below).

berlioz

Here is a description by the presenter, Professor Francesca Brittan of Case Western Reserve University:

“Against Melody: Neology, Revolution, and Berliozian Fantasy.”

“Complaints levied against Hector Berlioz’s music during his lifetime (and after) were many: deafening, terrifying, “too literary,” “too imitative.” But by far the most pervasive anxiety voiced by critics revolved around Berlioz’s illegibility. In particular, his music was ungrammatical, failing to adhere to the rules of syntax, the tenets of “proper” melody, and the laws of rhythm.

“These were not just idle or irritated complaints but urgent ones, linked by 19th-century critics to fears of social unraveling and even revolutionary violence. Berlioz’s musico-linguistic perversion, as one reviewer put it, was tantamount to Jacobinism. This strand of the criticism began in earnest with the “Symphonie fantastique,” a work that usually claims our attention for its orchestrational innovations and autobiographical resonances.

“In this talk, I redirect attention to the symphony’s syntax, arguing that melodic-linguistic deformation was at the heart of the work’s radicalism. I link Berlioz’s notions of “natural” grammar (borrowed in part from Victor Hugo) to notions of “natural” sound, and the “natural” rights of man. More broadly, I examine relationships among grammar, revolution, and 19th-century fantasy, between musical neology and the Berliozian imaginary.”

The event is funded by the University Lectures Anonymous Fund.

For more about Francesca Brittan (below) go to:

http://music.case.edu/faculty/francesca-brittan/

francesca-brittan

At 6:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, a student brass quintet will perform a FREE concert of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Malcolm Arnold, Kevin McKee and Victor Ewald. Performers are Nicole Gray, Brandi Pease, Kirsten Haukness, Hayden Victor and Michael Madden.

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall is a FREE public master class with David Wakefield (below), a former member of the American Brass Quintet who now teaches at The Hartt School. Sorry, no program of works to be played.

david-wakefield

At 8:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall is a FREE graduate student concert of chamber music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Rayna Slavova is a second-year Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) student in collaborative piano, studying with professor Martha Fischer.

The all-Mozart program includes the Violin Sonata in F, K. 376, with Biffa Kwok, violin (an excerpt, played by Hilary Hahn, can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); the Piano Duo Sonata in C, K 521, with Alberto Pena, piano; and the Piano Quintet in E flat, K 452, with Juliana Mesa, bassoon, Kai-Ju Ho, clarinet, and Dafydd Bevil, horn.

Mozart old 1782

SATURDAY
At 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University Strings – made up of talented non-music majors — will play a FREE concert. Sorry, no news about the program.

At 4 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall is a FREE Fall concert by the Flute Studio at the UW-Madison. Sorry, no word about the program or players.

At 8:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital in a FREE recital by Seth Bixler who is a senior violinist studying with Professor Soh-Hyun Altino. He will perform works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Peter Tchaikovsky and Eugene Ysaye.


Classical music: Should superstar tenor Placido Domingo retire?

March 28, 2015
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Should Spanish superstar tenor Placido Domingo (below) – who has aged into a baritone as well as a conductor and the artistic director of an opera company – retire?

FRENI

That is the touchy question that was taken up last week by The New York Times senior music critic Anthony Tommasini in his opening night review of Domingo’s performance in the role of the King of Spain Don Carlo (below, in a photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times) in the opera by Giuseppe VerdiErnani,” which was based on the play “Hernani” by French writer Victor Hugo.

Placido Domingo in Ernani at the Met 2015 Sara Krulwich NYT

The production of “Ernani” is taking place at the Metropolitan Opera – hardly a strange stage to the veteran Domingo, who is now 74. James Levine led the orchestra. And Tommasini offered quite specific criticisms to back up his opinion about Domingo. 

Here is a link to the review:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/23/arts/music/review-ernani-with-placido-domingo-a-tussle-to-hold-on-to-a-love.html?_r=0

Read it and weigh in with your own opinion about whether it is time for the great Placido Domingo to retire.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: We are all “Dead Men Walking.” After the tears come the thoughts, as The Ear takes in the Madison Opera.

May 1, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

To my ears and eyes, the reviews were justifiably unanimous: The Madison Opera scored an unqualified artistic success with the two performances of its production last weekend of composer Jake Heggie’s and librettist Terrence McNally’s opera “Dead Man Walking.” (Below, in a photo by James Gill, is the penultimate scene, as the shackled convicted killer prepares for his execution at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola with the prison warden, prison guards and prison chaplain.)

Dead Man Walking near end James GIll

In case you missed those reviews or have forgotten what they said, here is a link to Mikko Utevsky’s review for this blog, along with links to other reviews by John W. Barker fo Isthmus and Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/classical-music-review-madison-operas-dead-man-walking-packs-an-emotional-punch-that-will-leave-you-changed-it-is-that-good-the-last-performance-is-this-afternoon-at-230/

I agree with what all that those discerning reviewers said. But my purpose for writing today is different.

After taking in the powerful musical drama, which stands out and above the Madison Opera’s many previous successes, I found “Dead Man Walking” powerful but also thought-provoking.

It deserves a second later and more considered look, and that is what this posting is. After the tears – and many, if not most, in the audience left with wet faces – came the thoughts. These are mine:

I now understand even better why a prosecutor and a judge in Madison both told me that if Wisconsin had capital punishment, they would no longer practice criminal law. I find I am in complete agreement with them.

The death penalty is just too iffy and wrong  — when the Illinois governor suspended it, Death Row had a wrongful conviction rate higher than 50 percent — too discriminatory and too inhumane. It is simply not worthy of us. Crime does not justify crime.

One particularly touching moment in the opera when was one victim’s father (seated far left in the photo by James Gill of victims’ families witnessing the execution of Joseph De Rocher, who killed the young man and raped and killed the young woman) says that the death of the murderer will not bring him peace about the loss of his daughter.

Dead Man Walking victims families James Gill

That said, I have to add that the opera is not really about capital punishment and the death penalty. It is about love. To be sure, it is not about the romantic or erotic kind of love. It is about “agape,” that more spiritual kind of love that is embodied by Sister Helen Prejean in her relationship with the convicted murderer, and in his with her. It is about the truest, most Christian kind of love -– and I say that as a person who is not at all religious.

If you had to pick one line about what the opera is all about, it would be when spiritual advisor Sister Helen Prejean asks convicted murder Joseph De Rocher to look at her face while he is being executed. “We all deserve to have the last face we see in this world be the face of love.”

In our final moments, isn’t that what we all want and hope for?

Dead Man Walking  Who will walk with me? James Gill

In that sense, I thought later, we are all of us “dead men walking.” We may not know the date, time and reason for our “execution.” And we may not know whether the “death chamber” will be our bedroom, our car, our home, a hospital room, a hospice room or someplace else.

But make no mistake: Mortality is the human condition, and we never or rarely accept it as deserved. Except for severe pain or disability, we all want more and we all die protesting our death and the death of our loved ones. (Below are Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Daniela Mack as Sister Helen Prejean.)

Dead Man Walking  2 Michael Mayes and Daniela Mack

And talk about being art imitating reality – or, as Oscar Wilde said, reality imitating art! And that is another key to the universality of “Dead Man Walking.”

Even as I am writing this, on the radio and in other media are two stories about capital punishment. One is a botched execution of Clayton Lockett that was done with a “new” and unexplained cocktail of lethal drugs cocktail, in Oklahoma. The other is story about a Wisconsin woman who is asking the parole board to pardon the killer of her daughter because she has experienced forgiveness. And, she adds, “forgiveness is not for the criminal, for the other person, but for ourselves.”

That could be right out of “Dead Man Walking,” which may indeed be “issue art” but is hardly a “lecture play” or a didactic treatment of capital punishment. It is a human story, in which all characters are victims of one kind or another.

Which is also why it is hard to accept the fact that “Dead Man Walking” is now 14 years old. It seems as current, as relevant, as today’s news headlines do — or even as tomorrow’s headlines will, and headlines for a long time to come.

Execution chamber

And that takes me to another thought.

So much traditional opera, from George Frideric Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, is historically based on successful drama and plays, sometimes novels or short stories, often by celebrated and successful or popular writers like William Shakespeare, Pierre de Beaumarchais, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams, or from folk-lore and myth, like Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.

But maybe, just maybe, the secret to successful and powerful, emotionally moving contemporary opera, is to rely on controversial non-fiction, to ground the story in reality.

I am generally not an opera fan. Too much of the drama and too many of the plots seem silly or contrived to me. But if you are lucky, the music is strong enough to overcome that handicap. Yet too much contemporary opera lacks that kind of powerful music.

Now I was knocked out by “Dead Man Walking,” but I can’t claim to have walked out of Overture Hall in the Overture Center humming any tune that lingered.

Still, I found Jake Heggie’s very textural and atmospheric music convincing, involving and compelling. True, I kept thinking that Heggie (below), like much of Giuseppe Verdi and especially Wagner, often has a better way with instruments than with voices – at least to my taste.

Jake Heggie

So in all modesty, I want to suggest that Heggie should extract a half-hour long symphonic suite from this opera score for orchestras to perform. It could be much the way composer Daron Hagen distilled an instrumental suite from “Shining Brow,” his operas about Frank Lloyd Wright that was premiered by the Madison Opera. Or Richard Strauss’ sublime suite from “Der Rosenkavalier.”

Certainly, the music has a range of tone from the eerie, fluttering harmonies at the opening up to the powerful rhythms and loud sounds of the death scene climax and finale. Just listen to the excerpts from a production by the Sydney Opera in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Such a suite would also help “Dead Man Walking” reach as large a public as possible – and I would sure like to see that happen.

I also would like to know if others who heard the score agree about that. So leave your opinion about that — or other matters — in the COMMENT section.

There are other things to say.

Terrence McNally (below) is a master librettist, with a refined and practical sense of pacing that includes comic relief. The scene where Sister Helen is caught speeding in a car is not unlike the porter scene in “Macbeth” or the gravedigger’s scene in “Hamlet.” It adds to the humanness of the story and the characters. With such relentless intensity at hand, we need an occasional break.

Terrence McNally

Here are links to the insightful interviews with both composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally that freelance writer Michael Muckian did for this blog:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/classical-music-qa-composer-jake-heggie-talks-about-how-writing-dead-man-walking-changed-his-professional-and-personal-life-and-left-a-mark-on-his-heart-with-the-issue-of-capi/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/classical-music-qa-dead-man-walking-is-dramatic-not-didactic-morally-complex-neither-issue-art-nor-a-lecture-opera-says-librettist-a/

I would also add that rarely has a cast struck me as so superbly matched in terms of quality of singing and acting. The production was the very model of ensemble work –- and I include in my plaudits the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below top, in a photo by James Gill) and its artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below middle, in a photo by Prasad) as well as the Madison Symphony Orchestra musicians, the many solo singers, the Madison Opera Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs and the stage director Kristine McIntyre (below bottom).

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Kristine McIntyre color

I also found the spare sets, on loan from the Eugene Opera in Oregon, appropriate and ingenious in the way they used chain link fencing and metal bars.

What else can I say? Only that at the end of my life, when I am adding up the greatest musical experiences I have ever had, this production of “Dead Man Walking” will rank right near the top.

This blog’s reviewer Mikko Utevsky called the opera life-changing. I would only add that is also life-affirming.

So The Ear says: Thank You to all who made it possible.

You gave us art that we need, not just art that we want.

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