The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera scores a big artistic and commercial success with the Midwest premiere of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.” How about seeing and hearing more new music and new operas?

February 15, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest review by The Opera Guy, who is himself a senior and who has followed opera for many decades and across several continents, including North America, Europe and Asia. Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.

By Larry Wells

On Sunday afternoon I attended the second, and final, of two sold-out performances of Daniel Schnyder’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” presented by Madison Opera, which gave the Midwest premiere of the new work.

Although it is a chamber opera featuring only 16 instrumentalists and running a little over 90 minutes, it was an engaging, satisfying and often hypnotic operatic experience.

The orchestral and vocal music were readily accessible.  As a compliment to the composer, I was reminded of the later work of the great British composer Michael Tippett.

The plot features Charlie Parker’s mother, three of his wives, his friend Dizzy Gillespie and his current patroness, the fascinating Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, as they confront Parker’s spirit after his death but before his removal from the morgue and burial.

madison-opera-charlie-parker-body-cr-james-gill

(Below, standing in front of the photo-portrait set of the Birdland jazz club, are the major cast members, many of whom were in the original world premiere productions at Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater of Harlem in New York City. From the left, they are: Angela Brown as Addie Parker; Will Liverman as Dizzy Gillespie; Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan Parker; Angela Montellaro as Doris Parker; Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker; and Krysty Swann as Rebecca Parker.)

madison-opera-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-will-liverman-as-dizzy-gillespie-rachel-sterrenberg-as-chan-parker-angela-montellaro-as-doris-parker-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-krysty-swann

A pioneer and innovator of bebop in the world of jazz, saxophonist Parker died young and dissolute, destroyed by drugs and alcohol. Portrayed by Joshua Stewart (below), Parker is unsympathetic and weak, desperate to create but distracted. Stewart is a fine, convincing actor. His singing was often compelling, but his voice was too thin in the higher reaches demanded by the score.

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-cr-james-gill

The other characters were ably portrayed and consistently strong vocally. Will Liverman’s Dizzy Gillespie was a standout – lyrical and touching.

Likewise, Krysty Swann (below center with a baby) was solid vocally and emotionally convincing as Parker’s abandoned first wife Rebecca Parker.

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-krysty-swann-and-rebecca-parker-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-cr-james-gill

Rachel Sterrenberg was moving and gripping vocally as Parker’s final wife Chan.

Julie Miller as Baronness Nica commanded the stage whenever she appeared, perhaps because of her bright red dress in a sea of black garments but also because of her powerful portrayal and expressive singing.

Whenever Angela Brown (below right, with Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker) was onstage as Parker’s mother, Addie, she was the focus. She owned the role, she sang beautifully, and she had some of the best material to sing.

(You can hear Angela Brown, who has appeared here before with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera, in the world premiere production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-cr-james-gill

One of the finest moments in the opera was an orchestral interlude followed by a vocalise by another of Parker’s wives, Doris, sung by Angela Mortellaro (below). I was totally captivated, as I was by the quintet toward the end with Dizzy, the three wives and Parker’s mother.

madison-opera-angela-mortellaro-as-doris-parker-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-cr-james-gill

Such are the moments for which an opera aficionado waits – several minutes of total aural delight.

Maestro John DeMain was, as always, in full command of the score as he led members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. I was in a position to watch him conduct, and he was always totally involved in the moment. I repeat what I have said before: Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) is a treasure for which Madison should be constantly grateful.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

I personally like newer music and always welcome the chance to hear something other than the tired Brahms overtures, Tchaikovsky symphonies and Mozart piano concertos.

The argument in Madison seems to be that to fill seats, you have to give the audience what it wants; and the belief is that it wants music that is tried, true and safe.

The fact that this new work sold out both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center and that the audience was not entirely made up of seniors seems to suggest that the halls can be filled if the programming is more adventurous.

I say let’s hear more music of the 20th and 21st centuries, draw in a new audience and give the seniors a little thrill.

What do you think?

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Classical music: The Ear hears the impressive young pianist Joyce Yang and thinks Madison needs more piano recitals. Plus, a FREE concert of female vocal duets is at noon on Friday.

October 22, 2015
9 Comments

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held 12:15-1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature sopranos Susan Savage Day and Rebekah Demaree with pianist Sharon Jensen in duets by Gabriel Faure, Jacques Aubert, Jules Massenet, Claudio Monteverdi, UW-Madison alumnus Lee Hoiby and more.

By Jacob Stockinger

There he was last Thursday, sitting in the lower balcony in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The Ear was in Piano Himmel, listening to a masterful performance.

The occasion was a solo piano recital by Joyce Yang (below), an up-and-coming, prize-winning Korea-born and America-trained pianist, still in her late 20s, who was making her Madison debut.

Joyce Yang

And the same thought haunted The Ear, himself an avid amateur pianist, that also came to him during a fine student piano recital this summer.

That thought was simply this: Madison needs to have many more solo piano recitals.

The piano is perhaps the one most commonly studied musical instrument and is a staple of music education, so the potential audience should be there. The repertoire is vast and wonderful. And the piano just hasn’t been receiving its due compared to the many new choral groups and chamber music ensembles that always seem to be proliferating in the area.

The Wise Teacher recalls years ago when almost a dozen solo piano recitals happened during a single season. This season there are only three -– and two have already taken place.

One was the recital of Mendelssohn, Franck and Chopin by Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino (below top)  on Oct. 4 at Farley’s House of Pianos on its Salon Piano Series. (The Ear couldn’t go because he is was in Chicago that afternoon hearing a piano recital by Maurizio Pollini.) The second was by Joyce Yang. The third one will be the performance by UW-Madison virtuoso professor Christopher Taylor (below bottom) on Friday, Feb 26. (No program has yet been announced.)

Daniel del PIno square

Christopher Taylor new profile

Here is an afterthought: Maybe the Madison Symphony Orchestra could start a piano series like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offers on Sunday afternoons?

Let’s be clear: This is a matter more of pleasure and education than of justice.

Take Yang’s performance, which drew an unfortunately small house of only 300-400.

The first half was remarkable for both the clarity and color she possessed. Ethnic themes, folk songs and folk dances, especially Latin American and Spanish in nature, united the first half of her program.

She opened with two sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, the three “Estampes” or Prints by Claude Debussy and two pieces from “Iberia” by Isaac Albeniz and three virtuosic “cowboy” dances by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera.

In all those works, Yang proved a complete and mature keyboard artist. Her technique is rock solid, but it is her musicality that most impresses the listener. The Ear was particularly struck by Yang’s command of dynamics, her ability to play softly and still project, and to delineate and balance various voices.

The second half, all works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, proved less satisfying to The Ear, if not to the audience. It featured two transcriptions of vocal works or songs — “Dreams” and  “Vocalise”  — by the late American virtuoso pianist Earl Wild (below).

earl wild

Unfortunately, Wild himself possessed a Lisztean (or Horowitzean) command of keyboard technique. And like Franz Liszt (or Vladimir Horowitz), Wild just couldn’t resist adding Liberace-like flourishes, flash and trash to his transcriptions in places where simplicity rather than Big Chords would have more than sufficed.

At certain points in a Wild transcription, the work inevitably sounds louche or decadent and over-the-top, like something you might hear at a piano bar or in a cocktail lounge. In short, they are more piano than music. (You can listen to Earl Wild himself performing his own transcription of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Then came  the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor by Rachmaninoff (below) in its revised 1931 edition. To be honest, this is a Big Piece that is full of sound and fury signifying not very much that The Ear can discern. (The Ear much prefers Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, preludes and Etudes Tableaux.)

To be sure, the bombastic sonata requires impressive and powerful piano playing, which must explain the muscular work’s popularity among professional pianists and certain segments of the public. It is a Wower and wow us it does, although many of us would rather be seduced than wowed.

Rachmaninoff

The sonata surely is effective in live performance and brought an immediate standing ovation. That, in turn, was rewarded with another Earl Wild transcription this time of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Too bad the love once again seemed overpowered by difficult but flawlessly executed scales and runs.

But putting those shortcomings aside, the sound of an amazingly played piano recital was such a welcome experience.

The Ear hopes that many more of them are somehow in store.

 


Classical music: UW alumna and opera diva Brenda Rae returns to wow the crowd with her virtuosic singing while the UW Symphony Orchestra puts its strengths on display.

September 29, 2015
3 Comments

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

The concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra on Sunday evening night was hyped largely for the appearance of the brilliant young soprano Brenda Rae (née Kinkert in Appleton, Wisconsin).

Soprano Brenda Rae

An undergraduate in the UW-Madison School of Music, and participant in University Opera productions a few years back, she has since moved on, through the Juilliard School, to a burgeoning career in German opera houses. This concert was the climax of her weekend return here to help promote the funding of the UW voice and opera program.

To her considerable credit, she chose as her scheduled vehicle Reinhold Gliere’s Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra, a rarely heard work that is quite fascinating.

Gliere uses the solo part in instrumental terms, as a vocalise, without words. The work might be described as a concerto for vowels and orchestra. It is meant to explore the sheer sound of the soprano voice, in all its possible colors.

The soloist (below) is heard in the slow first movement blending into a handsomely melodious Late Romantic orchestral sound, while the second movement tests a coloratura’s virtuosity in suggesting meaning through inflection rather than words.

Brenda Rae in Gliere

It is an extraordinary work, both lovely and clever, and too few sopranos have opportunities to try it out. Inevitably, though, there was the big-hit opera aria as an encore, no less than Violetta’s grand effusions in Act One of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata.”

Brenda Rae (below) sang it as a true diva, to tonal and dramatic perfection. But it also served to point up the kind of operatic style that Gliere was suggesting, and affectionately spoofing, in his concerto.

Brenda Rae in Verdi

There was far more than just vocal display to this concert, however.

The opening item was no less than Claude Debussy’s challenging tone poem La Mer. The work calls for both skilled playing and artful leadership. Conductor James Smith gave another demonstration of his capacity to draw wonders from his student players — unfolding and blending the kaleidoscope of instrumental colors that Debussy manipulates variously in each of the three movements.

UW Symphony violins 2015

Though some of the audience (mostly students, I think) walked out at the intermission — more interested in performers than in music, I fear — the bulk of the audience that remained was treated to another of maestro Smith’s wonders, if not miracles. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, his last completed work, is a fiercely difficult and draining affair.

Smith and his students sounded like confident pros in a probing, powerful performance of this piece, one of the truly great orchestral scores of the 20th century. I think this performance will be found to stand up well against impending competition, when the Madison Symphony Orchestra plays the same work in its October program. (Don’t miss that!)

UW Symphony cellos 2015

Here we have “Madison’s third orchestra” – the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra being the other two — making a blazing trail of its own in the direct wake this past weekend of the MSO’s own magnificent September concerts.

Oh, how blessed musically is Madison for those who take the trouble to benefit from it all!


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