The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra leaves listeners wanting more after impressive performances of Corelli, Britten and Mozart

July 24, 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 radio show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

For six seasons past, the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (below top), founded and led by Mikko Rankin Utevsky, has enriched our summers.

It seemed that last year’s offerings were to be their final one. But they returned in an “Encore!” concert on last Friday night at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, giving hope that this wonderful ensemble of talented young musicians will yet continue to be with us.

The program was a brave and challenging one.

It opened with the Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 6, No. 4, by Arcangelo Corelli. The wonderful concertos of the Op. 6 are well known from recordings, but are not that often heard in concert.

Corelli’s richly satisfying string sound was beautifully realized by MAYCO’s 22 players. The concertino was nicely set out in front of the full-ensemble tutti, and the performance was led by  concertmaster (and Utevsky’s wife) Thalia Coombs — who, to my ears, worked in some lively embellishments of her own.

Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings is one of the musical masterpieces of the 20th century, composed for horn virtuoso Dennis Brain and Britten’s partner, tenor Peter Pears, as well as the Boyd Neel Orchestra. It takes its point from the Italian word sera, meaning either “evening” or “night.” The six English poems Britten set to music deal with aspects of night, the horn adding comments to the tenor’s singing, all framed by a horn solo.

Utevsky led a strongly disciplined string ensemble, while horn soloist Joanna Schulz coped confidently with her terribly difficult part.

The weak link, unfortunately, was tenor Dennis Gotkowski, whose voice is neither attractive nor precise, and whose diction generally failed to project the important words clearly.

Still, in all, it proved a brave delivery of a demanding and absorbing work. (You can hear it performed in its entirety by the artists for whom it was composed, hornist Dennis Brain and tenor Peter Pears, in the historic YouTube video at the bottom.)

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, is certainly a familiar and often performed concert work. But I have to say that this student ensemble, under the baton of Utevsky, gave it a remarkably exciting performance.

This was not a performance that floated in a dark, but passively tragic gentleness. This was a performance that grabbed you by the lapels, looked you straight in the eye, and gave you a good shaking.

Its pungency was aided, of course, by the altering of the wind parts, nine of them – sitting apart (below) — against the string band that was far smaller than most orchestras muster these days.

One really could hear the different ways in which the winds spice or dialogue with the strings. But the exuberant playing that Utevsky drew from his orchestra made this a truly memorable rendition. (As a graceful gesture, Utevsky allowed his conducting apprentice and assistant, violist Brett Petrykowski, to preface the full Mozart performance by conducting just the exposition of the first movement.)

The audience was a modest one, perhaps diminished by concerns about the weather or by the limited promotion the event was given. But those present clearly enjoyed the concert, which makes many of us anticipate that MAYCO will really continue.

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Classical music: Madison Opera’s festive and fun 16th annual Opera in the Park is this Saturday night

July 17, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It serves as a preview of the indoor winter opera season.

But one of the summer’s major events in Madison is primarily a fun time unto itself — with outdoors picnicking and socializing, and lots of outdoor music making, some of it with the audience helping to “conduct” with glow-in-the-dark light sticks.

The Madison Opera’s annual FREE Opera in the Park concert will take place this coming Saturday night starting at 8 p.m. in Garner Park, on Madison’s west side near the junction of Mineral Point Road and Rosa Road. (You can get a taste of the event in the YouTube video from 2010 at the bottom.)

The park opens at 7 a.m. Blankets, chairs, food and beverages are allowed. The rain date is the next day — Sunday, July 23.

Here is what Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of Madison Opera, has to say about the event:

“Opera in the Park has become a Madison summer tradition since the first concert in 2002. When the weather is good, we have over 15,000 people in the audience, which is the highest per-capita attendance of any such opera event in the U.S.

“I think there are many reasons for its success, from the beautiful music to the beautiful park, and the fact that our community enjoys spending time together outside in the summer.

“We don’t make massive changes each year, but it is of course a new set of singers and a new program, so it’s a fresh musical experience.

“This year, for example, we have two arias from zarzuelas or traditional Spanish musical comedies,, including the zarzuela version of “The Barber of Seville” – which will be complemented by an aria from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” naturally.

“Audience members might also choose to vary the contents of their picnic basket each year – perhaps with Bizet’s “Carmen” and “The Barber of Seville” on the concert, they might want to include Spanish foods.

“I try to invite principal artists from our upcoming season when possible, so that audiences can get to know singers they can then hear in full roles later in the year.

“This summer our singers include soprano Cecilia Violetta López (below), who will be in “Carmen” in November;

tenor David Walton (below), who will be in Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in February;

and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (below), who will be in Daniel Catan‘s “Florencia en el Amazonas” in April.

“Baritone Will Liverman (below) is not in the upcoming season, but he has had major success here as “The Barber of Seville” and in last season’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” so I’m delighted he is able to join us this summer in the park.

“Putting on Opera in the Park is a complex production, from renting the generators and the stage to coordinating with the City Parks Department and the Madison Police.

Full Compass Systems and Bag End donate the sound system and their services to run it every year, and there are hundreds of people involved, from our production team to our volunteers, from the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) stage crew to the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra.

“I often say that Opera in the Park is the most important thing Madison Opera does, and I think everyone involved believes that as well.

Now if only the weather will cooperate …”

For more information about Opera in the Park, including the times; the complete concert program that includes selections from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” on the occasion of the composer’s centennial; detailed biographies of the soloists and the guest conductor Joseph Mechavich (below); reservations for the supporters’ Prelude Dinner at 6:30 p.m.; rules about reserving seating in the park; and how to become a volunteer, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/park/


Tonight’s Concert on the Square has been POSTPONED until TOMORROW, Thursday, June 29, at 7 p.m.

June 28, 2017
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Here’s the news, according to the website of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra:

Due to the threat of severe weather and in the interest of public safety, this summer’s first Concert on the Square has been POSTPONED until TOMORROW, Thursday, June 29, at 7 p.m.

Each Wednesday the go or no-go decision will be made and announced at 3 p.m.

For mor information about the concert tomorrow and other Concerts on the Square this summer, visit the posting for earlier today:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/classical-music-tonight-is-that-start-of-six-weekly-concerts-on-the-square-with-the-wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-under-conductor-andrew-sewell-and-guest-artists-here-is-a-complete-survival-g/


Classical music: Opera in the Park takes place TONIGHT!!! Start your week – and every day – with John Zeck’s “Composers Datebook.” Should Wisconsin Public Radio air it?

July 24, 2016
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ALERT: Because of weather and storms, the Madison Opera’s 15th annual FREE “Opera in the Park” has been postponed from last night to TONIGHT. Here is a link with more details about the event:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/07/18/classical-music-madison-operas-free-opera-in-the-park-turns-15-and-takes-place-this-saturday-night/

By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall that last Sunday—at the start on a new week, just like today — The Ear suggested a FREE app for iPhones, iPads and iPods that offers a daily briefing on classical music.

It is called “Composer of the Day” and is put together by the music department at Wittenberg University.

Here is a link to that post and that app:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/classical-music-composer-of-the-day-app-is-a-great-way-to-start-a-new-week/

But there is another FREE  classical musical datebook that a loyal and knowledgeable reader of this blog suggested. The reader specifically praised the fact that it works on many different platforms.

It is “Composers Datebook” with host John Zeck (below), and it is done for Minnesota Public Radio and then distributed through American Public Media.

It seems similar to the format of “The Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor that, unfortunately, Wisconsin Public Radio no longer carries. But maybe WPR would consider including the “Composers Datebook” in its “Morning Classics” lineup? It certainly would be an educational addition, something just right for an alternative to commercial radio.

john zech

The two-minute daily diary streams nicely. It has many more details and examples about composers and includes sound clips of their work. It also does more than one entry for each day.

Turns out that the Ear already wrote about it in 2010. But it is worth a repeat visit to remind readers about this fine resource.

Here is a link, which you can bookmark or subscribe to, that post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2010/10/05/classical-music-review-“composers-datebook”-is-a-radio-gem-for-classical-fans-listen-to-it-read-it-get-free-podcasts/

And here is a direct link to “Composers Datebook.”

http://www.yourclassical.org/programs/composers-datebook/episodes

Try it.

See what you think.

And decide whether Wisconsin Public Radio should air it.

Then tell The Ear and his readers what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Turning chaos into order. Conductor Beverly Taylor explains what makes Haydn’s “The Creation” special and fun to listen to. The UW-Madison Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra with soloists will perform it on Sunday afternoon.

April 18, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the campus-community UW-Madison Choral Union (below), the UW Chamber Orchestra and soloists will perform the oratorio the “The Creation” by the Classical-era master Franz Joseph Haydn.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

First, The Ear wants to clear up any confusion about the date of the performance – which is ONE-TIME ONLY. (In the past, the Choral Union usually gave two performances.) The performance was originally scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Then it was moved to Saturday night and then, after a conflict with the Jewish Passover was seen, moved back to Sunday afternoon.

Tickets are $15 for the general public, $8 for students. For more information about tickets, the work and the performers, here is a link:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union2/

Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music who will conduct the performance, agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

What is the place of Haydn’s “The Creation” is the choral literature? Was it influential? Popular?

It’s considered wonderful and innovative. Its choruses are magnificent, and the opening depiction of Chaos is unlike anything that had been heard up to that time.

It was written late in Haydn’s career, and showed many aspects of his wonderful talent, including musical depictions of non-musical things—water, birds, dawn — and has terrific pacing of the extended choruses building to majestic climaxes.

The premiere was enthusiastically received. It was indeed popular, although the composer’s late masses also deserve great attention. The other vocal works by Haydn (below), such as “The Seasons,” are more slowly paced, and although they contain great music, they are not often felt to be as compelling as “The Creation” with its easy-to-follow sequence of creative days.

Haydn

Are there special moments or parts of the work you would like to point out to the public? How about special aspects of the performance?

Yes! One thing to do is to listen with an open mind to Chaos. (You can preview “Chaos” in a YouTube video at the bottom as performed by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music.)

When I first heard a dull performance of it years ago, I wondered what the big deal was. Then I took a good look at it: It contains chaotic oddities — a horn suddenly blaring loudly with no reference to other instruments, a trilling flute that never resolves its trill, bassoons and clarinets who play bubbling and pointless arpeggios until it all settles down to begin the first day of the Creation (famously depicted below by the British artist and poet William Blake).

Creation and God William Blake

There are also delightful musical depictions and sound paintings of weather that can be confusing unless you know that the orchestra depicts the weather before the bass tells us about it. That way hail won’t sound like snow! The same holds true for the description of animals — we hear the leaping stags before our singer tells us.

There will be terrific moments in the work — orchestral playing, fabulous choral singing. And there will be wonderful solo work by our experienced alumni and faculty artists soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine (below top), tenor James Doing (below second), bass-baritone Benjamin Schultz (below third) and baritone Benjamin Li (below bottom). It’s a pleasure to make music with them.

Jamie Rose Guarrine 2016

James Doing color

Benjamin Schultz 2016

Benjamin Li 2016

Composer John Harbison says that Haydn is the most neglected of all the great composers. Why do you think Haydn isn’t thought of more highly and performed more often?

Among musicians, Haydn is certainly thought of highly, and many people enjoy his work, especially the element of surprise in his work — sforzandos, sudden silences, changes of rhythm.

But many of his works are chamber works designed for smaller rooms and audiences. And in our modern life, the size of the orchestra and special instruments and added theatrical elements often attract more people. Haydn’s chamber works are fabulous, but sometimes subtle. However, they repay well those who pay attention to them.

The Creation poster 2016

What else would you like to say about the composer, this particular work or this performance?

Haydn was influenced by and had influence on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, on all the European composers. But what inspires audiences — including, we hope, ours — is the immediacy of the beauty of the music. You don’t need special training to jump right in and listen.


Classical music: It’s spring. Can you pass this quiz from NPR about flower songs in opera?

May 9, 2015
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s a funny kind of spring where The Ear lives in the Midwest.

More than giving us a steady spring, the weather seems to bounce back and forth between winter and summer. One week we have high in the 80s. The next week — like the one coming up – we’re in the 50s or lower.

Add in all the rain and gust wind, and this spring has been hard on the flowers in my yard. The daffodils have hardly blossomed and are already shriveling up, while the newly sprouted tulips are already dropping petals.

tulips and daffodils

Oh well, at least we haven’t had tornados—not so far.

But it is still worth s celebrating the greening out and other bright colors we see after the long, gray winter.

How well do you know your flowers from opera? (Below, in a photo by Cory Weaver, is mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili in a field of red poppies that was used in the production of the 19th-century Russian composer Alexander Borodin‘s opera “Prince Igor” by the Metropolitan Opera.)

Mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili in Met's Pricne Igor by Borodin CR Cory Weaver MET

Here is a seasonal puzzler — with only five multiple choice questions — from the exceptional blog Deceptive Cadence on NPR or National Public Radio.

The Ear found it not so hard but tricky.

Still, it seems that celebrating flowers in music is universal. At the bottom is a YouTube video with an excerpt from the Chinese operaJasmine Flower,” which is NOT included in the quiz.

But hard or not, the quiz was fun and educational.

See how you do and let The Ear know.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/05/06/404499920/flower-songs-a-springtime-opera-puzzler


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