The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: You must hear this – how Debussy provided a soft way to end a season

May 24, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

It seems perfectly normal and natural that big groups like to close their season with a big ending.

So the Madison Symphony Orchestra closed this past season with the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek, which used a lot of brass and a large choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra went for an all-Beethoven program that featured the Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist John O’Conor, and the forceful, driven Fifth Symphony.

Yet there was something particularly soothing and reassuring about the way the Ancora String Quartet (below) closed its 17th season last Friday night. (Member, below from left, are Wes Luke and Robin Ryan, violins; Benjamin Whitcomb, cello; and Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola.

The group opened with a welcome rarity: the fourth and final string quartet by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It proved a fine offering, especially noteworthy for the hymn-like slow movement that brought to mind the open harmonies of Aaron Copland.

But the concert ended ever so quietly and warmly with the only String Quartet, Op. 10, written by French composer Claude Debussy (below).

The poet T.S. Eliot said the world ends not with a bang but a whimper.

But this ending was neither bang nor whimper.

The Ear would call it a sigh, a long and sensual sound bath that left you leaving the performance less with admiration or wonder than with gratitude for the group and for the music.

Plus, it was all the more affecting for the way that violinist Wes Luke (below) clearly explained how the main themes of all movements grow out of one motif and cohere.

The Debussy string quartet, he explained, is one of the most performed and recorded of the entire string quartet repertory. Yet its sensuality always makes it seems so fresh and so French.

The highlight was, as always, the third movement, the slow movement. And as the spring season completes winding down and the summer seasons starts to pick up, here it is for your enjoyment in a YouTube video of the Juilliard String Quartet.

What did you think about the season-closing concerts this spring? Did you have a favorite?

What do you think of the Debussy string quartet?

If you know of a better slow movement from a string quartet, please leave a COMMENT and a link, if possible, to a YouTube performance.

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Classical music: It’s Mother’s Day 2018. The Ear remembers his mom with a Rachmaninoff prelude

May 13, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Mother’s Day 2018.

To celebrate The Ear’s late mom, here is a piece of music with a story to tell with it.

The Ear remembers it well.

He was 13, maybe 14, and living on Long Island, New York.

It was in the afternoon, after school.

His mom was talking to a stranger long-distance on the phone. The conversation, something about preparing wild rice, was with a person in Minnesota.

The Ear was at the piano practicing and playing the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor by the young Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) – the “Bells of Moscow” – which you can hear Evgeny Kissin play in the YouTube video at the bottom.

It was music that The Ear first heard live when a babysitter played it for him. And he immediately fell in love with it.

It was hard to play, a Romantic piece with big loud chords (below is part of the score) and fast passage work. Perfect for a teenager.

Rachmaninoff's Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapi...

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapitulation of the theme, in four staves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was The Ear’s first big piece, the right vehicle for an ambitious young piano student who was anxious to use the piano to make an impression.

Anyway, the person on the other end of the phone heard the piano playing and asked if they could listen a while longer.

Mom said, Sure!

Then she placed the phone near the piano — and beamed with pride at me while gesturing for me to continue playing.

Mom didn’t know a lot of classical music. But she knew her son loved it and she did everything she could to encourage that love.

She also liked this particular Rachmaninoff prelude because it was accessible and dramatic, easy to understand and to appreciate, and most of all because her son liked it and played it.

That’s how moms are.

The other person on the line listened until the end of the prelude, then offered praise and thanks, said good-bye, and hung up.

Mom told that story over many years and always with great pride.

For a long time after, it seemed that particular prelude fell out of fashion – probably because it was too popular and too melodramatic. Even Rachmaninoff grew to despise it and referred to the work disdainfully as “It,” which he often had to play as an encore.

But lately, as often happens to overexposed pieces that fall into neglect, it finally seems to be making something of a comeback.

Several years ago, Garrick Ohlsson played it as an encore after a concerto he performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. These days, The Ear has heard the young up-and-coming, prize-winning young Georgian-British pianist Luka Okros play it on YouTube and Instagram.

Anyway, here it is, offered with fond memories of a proud mom.

Is there a piece of classical music you identify with your mom? Maybe Antonin Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which you can hear on Wisconsin Public Radio‘s “Sunday Brunch” program at about 12:30p.m. today?

Maybe an opera aria or song?

Leave a comment, with a link to a YouTube performance if possible, and let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

Happy Mother’s Day, all!


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra finishes its season with first-time performances of a piano concerto by Mozart and a Slavic Mass by Janacek

May 3, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) concludes its current season with “Mass Appeal,” a program that includes two first-ever performances.

One work is the Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat Major, K. 382, with Christopher O’Riley as the soloist. The other work is the massive “Glagolitic Mass” by the Czech composer Leos Janacek.

The concerts are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday, May 4, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 5, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 6, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets cost $18-$90. Ticket information is lower down.

MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) had the following comments about the program:

“The concert opens with the exhilarating Overture to the opera Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,

“Janacek’s monumental Glagolitic Mass is a very dramatic work. The soloists who are joining us will fill Overture Hall with voluptuous sound, and the Madison Symphony Chorus will bring its high level of professionalism, adding to the thrilling auditory experience that is so characteristic of Janacek. (NOTE: You can hear the dramatic and brassy opening of the Glagolitic Mass in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“This work also features the organ in a movement all its own, and will give our audiences a chance to once again experience the beauty and power of the Overture Concert Organ as played by MSO’s Principal Organist Greg Zelek (below).”

“Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni was completed in 1787. Mozart’s musical genius is evident in the subtle shadings of darkness he injects into even the most outwardly cheerful moments of the overture — which was most recently performed by the MSO in 2003.

“Composed in December of 1785, Piano Concerto No. 22 was the first concerto by Mozart (below) to include clarinets, his favorite woodwind, in its scoring. The concerto is considered to be a particularly elegant work, filled with ornate, often complicated, writing for the soloist that carries a natural sense of aristocratic poise.

“The Glagolitic Mass, considered to be one of the century’s masterworks and Janacek’s finest choral work, has often been viewed as a celebration of Slavic culture. With text in Old Church Slavonic, the five movements correspond to the Roman Catholic Ordinary of the Mass, omitting “Dona nobis pacem” in the Agnus Dei.

“The piece begins and closes with triumphant fanfares dominated by the brass and prominently features the organ throughout.

“Janacek (below) wanted it to be a Mass “without the gloom of the medieval monastic cells in the themes, without the same lines of imitation, without the tangled fugues of Bach, without the pathos of Beethoven, without the playfulness of Haydn,” rather he talks of the inspiration of nature and language.

“Acclaimed for his engaging and deeply committed performances, pianist Christopher O’Riley (below, in a photo by Dan Williams) is known to millions as the host of NPR’s From the Top, which spotlights gifted young classical musicians.

“O’Riley’s repertoire spans a kaleidoscopic array of music from pre-baroque to present-day. He performs around the world and has garnered widespread praise for his untiring efforts to reach new audiences.

Christopher O’Riley has performed as a soloist with virtually all of the major American orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, National Symphony, and San Francisco Symphony. He last appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 1995, making for a highly anticipated return with his performance this season.

Soprano Rebecca Wilson (below, in a photo by Jeremy Lawson) has been praised as a “staggeringly talented singer” by St. Louis Magazine. She has appeared with Union Avenue Opera, in the role of Gutrune in Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) and has performed throughout the Chicago area in many roles.

Hailed as possessing a voice of “spell-binding power and intensity” (The Register-Guard), mezzo-soprano Julie Miller (below, in a photo by Devon Cass) has appeared as a soloist with many orchestras and in many major concert halls across the country.

Tenor Rodrick Dixon (below, in a photo by Dan Demetriad) is a classical crossover artist who possesses a voice of extraordinary range and versatility. His body of work covers 25 years of television, recordings, live theater and concerts, including PBS Specials with tenors Victor Cook, and Thomas Young; “Hallelujah Broadway,” starring his wife, Alfreda Burke; the Miss World Pageant broadcast from China and Washington, D.C., on the “E” channel in 126 countries.

Dixon recently appeared in the annual Freedom Awards. His eclectic discography includes recordings for Sony BMG, EMI Records and Naxos.

Bass Benjamin Sieverding (below, in a photo by Lu Zang) has been recognized by critics nationwide for his “surprising depth” (Boulder Daily Camera), as well as his “natural gift for comedy” and “full, rich sound” (Ann Arbor Observer).

As an active soloist and recitalist, Sieverding performs both regionally and internationally. Sieverding is a three-time district winner and regional finalist of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

The Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) gave its first public performance on February 23, 1928, and has performed regularly with the Madison Symphony Orchestra ever since. The chorus (below) is directed by MSO assistant conductor Beverly Taylor and is comprised of more than 150 volunteer musicians who come from all walks of life and enjoy combining their artistic talent.

One hour before each performance, Beverly Taylor (below), Director of Choral Activities and Professor at the UW-Madison,will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please view the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and retiring UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/8.May18.html

The Symphony recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk (free for all ticket-holders).

Single Tickets for the 2017–2018 season finale May concerts are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $18 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Major funding for the May concerts is provided by Mirror 34 Productions, Fiore Companies, Inc., the Steinhauer Charitable Trust, Diane Ballweg, and WPS Health Solutions. Additional funding provided by Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Forte Research Systems and Nimblify, William Wilcox and Julie Porto, and Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: Edgewood College closes out the concert season with FREE performances of choral, band and guitar music on Friday night and Sunday afternoon

May 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Edgewood College will close out its 90th academic year and the current concert season with two FREE performances this weekend.

On this Friday night, May 4, at 7 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, choral and guitar performances will take place.

The Women’s Choir (below top), directed by Kathleen Otterson (below bottom), performs a wide variety of traditional and modern music specifically for women’s voices.

The Chamber Singers (below top) and the Edgewood Chorale both perform under the direction of Sergei Pavlov (below bottom). The Chorale offers students and Madison-area singers the opportunity to perform larger choral works. The Chamber Singers is Edgewood College’s premier a cappella choral ensemble.

Sorry, no words about composers or works on any of the programs.

The Guitar Ensemble, under the direction of Nathan Wysock (below), is an acoustic guitar group that performs music ranging from medieval dances to modern compositions. Again, there is no word on specific composers or works on the program.

Then on Sunday afternoon, May 6, at 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive. The Edgewood Concert Band and Jazz Ensemble will give their spring concerts.

Admission is free, with a freewill offering to benefit the Luke House Community Meal Program.

The Concert Band is under the direction of Walter Rich (below), and the Jazz Ensemble performs under the direction of Dan Wallach.

No word on composers or works to be performed.


Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” took listeners on an enchanting and moving voyage into love and fine singing of Puccini-like lyricism

May 1, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I looked forward enough to Madison Opera’s premiere production of Daniel Catán’s Spanish-languageFlorencia en el Amazonas” that I attended both performances at Overture Hall this past weekend.

Based on repeated hearings of the recording and numerous favorable reviews of other productions, I was fairly certain that I would be in for a treat. I was not disappointed.

The action takes place on a boat on the Amazon heading for Manaus where the title character Florenica (below), an opera singer of high repute, is to perform.

Other passengers (below), unaware of her presence onboard, also have the opera house as their destination in order to hear her sing.

Rosalba, her unauthorized biographer, and Paula and Alvaro, a bickering older couple, are joined onboard by the Captain, his nephew Arcadio, and a Puckish character Riolobo, who acts as narrator and supervises the magic in this tale of magical realism.

Below, starting at the top and moving clockwise, are: Kanopy Dancers, Ashraf Sewailam (The Captain), Mackenzie Whitney (Arcadio), Rachel Sterrenberg (Rosalba), Elizabeth Caballero (Florencia Grimaldi), Adriana Zabala (Paula), Levi Hernandez (Alvaro) and Nmon Ford (Riolobo)

The boat (our life) floats along the Amazon (life itself) in this parable of longing, regret, the fickleness of love, love lost and regained, and transformation.

Aiding in the unfolding of the tale are water sprites, referred to at times as Amazons. Six willowy dancers from the Kanopy troupe did not seem particularly Amazonian, but their waving of billowy fabric evoked the river and their retrieving twice from the water careless Rosalba’s precious manuscript added to the magic.

Riolobo and the sprites also bring Alvaro back to life after he appears to drown during a storm.  (We should be attentive to water sprites since Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” which also features these denizens, is on the schedule for next year’s season.)

And, in the end, just when you think that all conflicts have been resolved and love is at hand, the boat reaches Manaus only to find it impossible to make landfall due not only to cholera but also to rabies, scurvy, leprosy and beriberi. Florencia’s transformation into a butterfly (below) ends the voyage.

This odd but magical plot is a vehicle for lush, rhapsodic music by a Mexican composer whose life ended too soon. The orchestral and vocal writing featured soaring melodies, which at times reminded me of Puccini had his life extended further into the 20th century. The orchestral writing continually evokes the river and flowing water, reminding me of music of the Impressionists.

John DeMain ably led the wonderfully sounding Madison Symphony Orchestra.  He once again proved himself to be a master of pacing, tempo and dynamics.

The opera was very evenly cast. Nmon Ford (below top on right), as Riolobo, had a rich baritone voice and an impressive physicality. His transformation at the end of the first act into a feather-clad river spirit (below bottom) was hypnotic.

As Rosalba, Rachel Sterrenberg (below, top right), who made a memorable appearance last season as the wife Chan in “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” was a soprano of great flexibility who rendered her character’s opulent melodic lines with mounting ecstasy. Hers was a thrilling performance.

Her foil, full-voiced tenor Mackenzie Whitney (below, bottom left) as Arcadio, produced some of the most Puccini-like moments of sheer soaring lyricism.

Their duets, including a rather dark anti-love duet, were  highlights of the work. Catán’s writing for mixed voices is inspired, and all of the ensemble numbers – duets, a quintet, a septet – are entrancing.

Baritone Levi Hernandez as Alvaro and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala as his wife, Paula, had moments of bickering and moments of tenderness. His robust vocalization perfectly complemented the creamy richness of hers. Zabala’s second act lament was very touching.

Bass Ashraf Sewailam, in his debut appearance with Madison Opera, produced some of the best singing of the show. He was both profound and lyrical with a total lack of affectation. His acting was subtle, and his outstanding performance demands his return.

Elizabeth Caballero as the diva Florencia Grimaldi was impassioned, focused yet fluid, sumptuous and rapturous. Her ravishing singing, particularly during her metamorphosis — heard in another production in the YouTube video at the bottom — was truly moving.

The set, lighting, projections and costumes were all understated and perfectly blended. The only false step was what appeared to be coffins flying through the air out of Manaus. It took me a moment to realize they were intended to be floating in the river.

The audience seemed enchanted and moved by the opera. I was, too. Let’s have more works like this.


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Classical music: UW choral groups and a jazz quintet join forces Saturday night for a FREE concert of world premieres to honor the bicycle

April 27, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an announcement from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music:

A FREE concert — called ”Free Wheeling: A Tribute to the Bicycle” – takes place this Saturday night at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The UW Madrigal Singers (below) and Chorale, under the direction of Bruce Gladstone, will join forces with a jazz group.

The concert opens with five world premieres, written specifically for this concert.

“I was surprised, given the bicycle’s popularity, that there weren’t many choral works about bikes,” noted Gladstone (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot). “It seems to be more the domain of the solo popular ballad or rock bands. There are loads of poems about bikes though, so I just commissioned new works from composers I know.”

There are two works from John Stevens (below), veteran composer and UW-Madison emeritus professor. “Toasting Song” is a rollicking number about the pleasures of both cycling and wine. “A Bicycler’s Song” takes a poem in praise of bicycles and cycling and sets it in a vocal jazz idiom reminiscent of the Manhattan Transfer.

UW-Madison alumus and former Madrigal Singer Scott Gendel (below) also provided two new works for this event. “She Waits for Me” is a lush ballad that celebrates the joys of love and loyalty, while “Little Things” offers us a cautionary tale of a cyclist’s visit to church one Sunday morning.

Carl Buttke, a current graduate student, composed the fifth new work for this concert, a picturesque tale of a memorable day spent in the Austrian Alps, “Cycling the Rosental.”

The program will also include a fast and fun work for women’s voices, “The Bike Let Loose,” by composer Edie Hill.

This concert occurs at the end of the School of Music’s Jazz Week by design, since the major work in the concert is scored for massed choirs and jazz quintet.

The singers are joined by the UW’s Blue Note Ensemble (below top), directed by UW professor Johannes Wallmann (below middle), for a performance of “Song Cycle” by Alexander L’Estrange (below bottom and in the YouTube video at the bottom).

The work was written in 2014 for the grand start of the Tour de France in York, England. Comprised of 10 movements, the work looks at the invention of the bicycle, the social changes that it wrought, and the joys that cycling offers to all.

It’s a charming and witty trip that is fun for the whole family, even giving the audience an opportunity to sing along.

The concert is free and all are encouraged to wear their favorite biking togs and join in the fun!


Classical music: Choral Arts Society Chorale sings about immigration and longing for a home this Friday night. On Saturday night, the Mosaic Chamber Players offer piano trios by Beethoven and Brahms

April 26, 2018
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ALERT: The acclaimed Mosaic Chamber Players close out their current season on this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program offers two of the most famous piano trios ever composed: the “Archduke” Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, by Ludwig van Beethoven; and the Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms. Tickets are at the door, cash or check only, and cost $15, $10 for seniors and $5 for students.

For more information, go to: http://www.mosaicchamberplayers.com

By Jacob Stockinger

The theme of immigration only seems to grow as a timely and politically charged topic not only here in the U.S. but also around the world, especially in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

In another indication that the performing arts are returning to a socially activist role in the current political climate, immigration is the unifying theme of a concert by The Choral Arts Society Chorale of Madison (below), a local community chorus.

The group performs this Friday night, April 27, at 7 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1904 Winnebago Street, on Madison’s near east side, under the direction of the group’s artistic director Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below), who also founded and directs the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO).

The program, titled “Would You Harbor Me?,” features music about and by immigrants, and about longing for a home.

The centerpiece is the 1998 cantata “The Golden Door” for chorus and chamber ensemble by Ronald Perera (below). You can hear the “Names” section of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The work is based on texts from the archives of Ellis Island (below).

Also on the program – drawn from different time periods and different cultures — are pieces by various composers. They include Leonard Bernstein; Palestrina; Heinrich Isaac; Sydney Guillaume; Sweet Honey in the Rock‘s Ysaye Barnwell on themes of leaving home and welcoming the stranger; and Irving Berlin‘s setting of the poem from the Statue of Liberty (below).

Tickets are $15; $10 for students $10, and re available at the door, or online at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/choral-arts-society-chorale-spring-concert-tickets-44453227801.

The complete program is: Ysaye Barnwell: “Would You Harbor Me”; Palestrina: “Super flumina Babylonis” (By the Waters of Babylon); Traditional Irish, arr. Peter Knight: “O Danny Boy”; Carlos Guastavino: “Pueblito, mi pueblo” (Little village, my village); Heinrich Isaac: “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen” (Innsbruck, I must leave you); Sydney Guillaume: Onè – Respè; Leonard Bernstein: “Somewhere” from “West Side Story”; Intermission; Ronald Perera: “The Golden Door”; Irving Berlin: “Give me your tired, your poor”

For more information about the group, go to: http://choralartsmadison.org


Classical music: UW Choral Union and soloists succeed impressively in Bach’s massive “St. Matthew Passion.” Plus, a FREE concert of Leonard Bernstein songs is at noon on Friday

April 25, 2018
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features two husband-and-wife teams. Singers bass-baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and pianists Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer will perform an all-Leonard Bernstein program in honor of his centennial. The program includes selections from Arias and Barcarolles,” “Mass,” “Peter Pan,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Songfest.” The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

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.

By John W. Barker

It comes a bit late for this year’s Holy Week, but the UW Choral Union’s impressive mounting of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last Sunday was still a major contribution to our music this spring.

Running at almost three hours, this is Bach’s longest single work, and is regarded by now as one of the musical monuments of Western Civilization. But its length and its demands make it something performed only on special occasions.

No antiquarian, conductor Beverly Taylor, who directs choral activities at the UW-Madison, tried to follow carefully Bach’s elaborate specifications, which call for both a double chorus and a double orchestra, along with soloists.

A traditionally ample agency, the Choral Union this time fielded a total of 100 singers, plus a 12-member children’s choir, as against a pair of student orchestras numbering 14 and 12 respectively, all playing modern instruments.

This was hardly a balanced combination and Bach himself could never have assembled, much less managed, so huge a chorus as this. It certainly overwhelmed the orchestras, and quite drowned out the children’s group in their appearance at the beginning and ending of Part I.

Still, there is no denying the magnificence of such a large choral force. It was just a bit challenged by the turbae or crowd passages. Nevertheless, to hear such a powerful choir sing so many of the intermittent chorales in Bach’s harmonizations is to feel the glory of the entire Lutheran legacy in religious expression.

A total of 16 soloists were employed, in functions of varying consequence.

At the head of the list stand two. Tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below left) has a voice of more Italian than German character, to my taste. But he not only carried off the heavy duties of the narrating Evangelist, he also sang the tenor arias as well, with unfailing eloquence.  And faculty baritone Paul Rowe (below right) was truly authoritative as Jesus in the parts reserved for the Savior.

The arias were otherwise addressed by a double cast of singers, two each on the other voice parts. Of the two sopranos, Sara Guttenberg (if I have the identity correctly from the confusing program) was strong and splendidly artistic.

Talia Engstrom was more a mezzo-soprano than a true contralto, and not an equally powerful singer, but I did like her very engaging singing. (You can hear the lovely contralto and violin aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The sharing of the alto arias with a countertenor was, however, not a good idea. Of the two bass-baritones, Matthew Chastain (if I have his identity aright) sang with strong and rich tone.  The other singers, mostly singing the character parts in the Gospel text, were generally students, ranging widely in maturity and appeal.

Taken as a whole, though, this performance was an admirable achievement for Beverly Taylor (below). Her tempos were on the moderate side, accommodating especially the large chorus. Above all, her enterprise was obvious in tackling this massive work, while the choral singers obviously found a special thrill in participating in it.

Compliments should be given the program, which contained the full German text interlarded with the English translation. With full house lighting, this wisely allowed the audience to follow along closely.

But the performance was divided into two sittings, one for Part I at 4 p.m., the second for Part II at 7:30 p.m., with a break in between of over two hours — really too long, I found.


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Classical music: Madison Opera travels to the jungle for the local premiere of the Spanish opera “Florencia en el Amazonas” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

April 23, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Opera travels to the jungle to present the Madison premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas (with sets from the production by the Arizona Opera, below) by Daniel Catán on Friday night, April 27, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 29, at 2:30 p.m. in the Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State Street.

The opera will be sung in Spanish with English supertitles. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets are $18-$130 with discounts available for students and groups. For more information about tickets and the production, go to www.madisonopera.org

Mexican composer Daniel Catan’s lush and accessible orchestral soundscape brings the Amazon River to life in this magical and mystical journey.

Set in South America at the turn of the 20th century, the story begins when Florencia Grimaldi, a famous opera singer, embarks anonymously on a voyage down the Amazon River to sing a concert in Manaus, Brazil.

She is traveling to the concert incognito; her real hope for the journey is to be reunited with the lover she left behind, a butterfly hunter.

On the boat with her are a young journalist, Rosalba, who is writing a biography of Grimaldi; a couple feeling the strain of their long marriage, Paula and Alvaro; the boat’s captain; the captain’s restless nephew, Arcadio, who falls in love with Rosalba; and a man who is a rather mystical presence, Riolobo.

Over the course of the journey, the passengers encounter a storm, piranha, and ultimately cholera.

Florencia en el Amazons is simply gorgeous,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s General Director.  “I heard only wonderful things about it following its 1996 premiere, and when I saw the opera 10 years ago, I realized why audiences love it so much.

“The music is ravishing, the setting is physically beautiful, and the characters are fascinating. I am delighted to be presenting it in Madison, as part of our vision of sharing operas from all time periods and in all languages.”

Florencia was the third opera composed by Daniel Catán (below, in a photo by Gina Ferazzi for the Los Angeles Times) and the first Spanish-language opera to be commissioned by a major U.S. opera company. Houston Grand Opera premiered the work in 1996; it has since been performed across North America and Europe, with companies like Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle producing it multiple times due to audience demand.

The opera’s libretto, while an original story, was inspired by the writings of the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez (below) author of 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain was a protégé of Márquez; according to Catán, he and Fuentes-Berain would show García Márquez parts of the libretto as they were finished. Elements of the author’s trademark magic realism pervade many parts of the opera.

Catán’s music was acclaimed for its lush writing.  The New York Times said, “Mr. Catán’s writing for the voice is luxuriously lyrical; and he orchestrates with skill.” (You can hear the opera’s opening scene in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Catán wrote two more operas before dying at age 62 of a heart attack. At his sudden death in 2011, Plácido Domingo called him “one of the great opera composers of our time, beloved by audiences and especially by the musicians who had the privilege of performing his incredible work.”

“I am so happy to have the opportunity to perform this absolutely gorgeous opera,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), Madison Opera’s Artistic Director. “I had the pleasure of knowing Daniel Catán, and commissioned an orchestral suite from this opera for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which we performed in 2003.

“We all were struck by the power and sweep of the music. This story of the power of love and music in all of our lives will be sung by a great cast of singers, and the orchestral fabric will lift audiences out of their seats and transport them to the magical world of the Amazon. This is an opera written in our time, with a musical score that will leave audiences wanting to hear it again and again.”

Madison Opera’s cast features a number of returning favorites. For revealing 10-question interviews with cast members, go to the MadOpera blog at: http://madisonopera.blogspot.com

Elizabeth Caballero (below) sings Florencia Grimaldi, a role she has sung for New York City Opera and Nashville Opera. The Cuban-American soprano debuted with Madison Opera at Opera in the Park in 2007 and returned in Carmen, La Traviata,and Don Giovanni. Last month, she sang Mimì in La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera.

Rachel Sterrenberg sings the journalist Rosalba; she debuted in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird here last season.

Adriana Zabala (below), who sang in The Tales of Hoffmann and at last summer’s Opera in the Park, sings Paula, a role she has also sung at San Diego Opera and Arizona Opera.

Nmon Ford (below, in a photo by Guy Madmoni), who sang Scarpia in Tosca with Madison Opera in 2013, sings the mysterious Riolobo.

Mackenzie Whitney, who debuted as Rodolfo in La Bohème with Madison Opera in 2015, returns as Arcadio, the Captain’s nephew. Levi Hernandez, who debuted in The Magic Flute here in 2005, returns as Alvaro. Bass Ashraf Sewailam (below) makes his Madison Opera debut as the Captain of the El Dorado.

Kristine McIntyre (below) returns to direct this Madison Opera premiere. She has directed many successful productions for Madison Opera, including Dead Man Walking and The Tales of Hoffmann. Recent work includes productions at Pittsburgh Opera, Utah Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, and Kentucky Opera.

The production prominently features members of Kanopy Dance Company, playing spirits of the river.  Lisa A. Thurrell, co-artistic director of Kanopy, has created choreography for her dancers and this production.

The set (below) comes from Arizona Opera, with costumes designed by Madison Opera’s Karen Brown-Larimore, who designed the costumes for The Abduction from the Seraglio in February.

As always, the opera features the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Madison Opera’s production of “Florencia en el Amazons” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Thompson Investment Management, Inc., Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Thomas Terry, the Ann Stanke Fund, Kennedy Gilchrist and Heidi Wilde, and Charles Snowdon and Ann Lindsey.


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Classical music: Today is Earth Day 2018. Listen to a new one-hour symphony commissioned by National Geographic to mark the event in sound and pictures

April 22, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is April 22, 2018 – Earth Day.

A lot of classical music is appropriate to the occasion, from the sound paintings in oratorios by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Franz Joseph Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn to the chamber music and songs of Franz Schubert; from the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak and Gustav Mahler to the contemporary award-winning environmental music by John Luther Adams, much of whose work can be found on YouTube.

But of special interest this year is the one-hour “Symphony for Our World.” It is a five-movement symphony that was commissioned from two different composers – Austin Fray (below top) and Andrew Christie (below bottom) — by National Geographic to celebrate the planet.

The presentation premieres TONIGHT at 6 p.m. on the TV channel National Geographic WILD. (In the Madison area, the Spectrum/Charter cable channel is 147, 707 for HD.) Here is a link to a search engine that finds the channel where you live. Just plug in your ZIP code and your television provider:

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel_finder/wild/

The performance tonight also marks the beginning of a national orchestra tour with the music. (You can see and hear the first two minutes in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link to a story with more information, including a trailer, the dates and places of the world tour, and quotes from the composers about the composition and which instruments evoke which natural phenomena:

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/04/symphony-for-our-world-austin-fray-andrew-christie-culture-spd/

What composer or piece of classical music do you think best celebrates Earth Day?

Leave your answer with a YouTube link, if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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