The Well-Tempered Ear

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

July 17, 2017
1 Comment

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/


Classical music: The UW Choral Union delivers an eclectic non-seasonal program of music by Beethoven, Brahms and Bernstein with power and lyricism

December 12, 2016
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 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 photos.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Eschewing any seasonal or holiday connections, the UW-Madison Choral Union (below) gave its December concert last Friday night with a program of three “B’s”.

uw-choral-union-with-chamber-orchestra-and-soloists-dec-2016-jwb

Well, two of the B’s are familiar ones. But in place of Bach, we got Leonard Bernstein, taking first place in reverse chronological order — his Chichester Psalms, dating from 1965.

This three-movement work probably represents Bernstein’s most important choral score. It sets texts in the original Hebrew, the middle movement calling for a boy treble to represent the young David in the rendering of Psalm 131 — a function here filled bravely by young Simon Johnson (below, front left) of the Madison Youth Choirs.

uw-choral-union-dec-2016-jwb-simon-johnson-of-myc

The platoon of percussionists in the first two movements confirms the composer’s flashy “modernism.” To be sure, there are some characteristic melodic twists that proclaim the composer familiar to us, and the swaying melodic tune of the third movement is really lovely.

But Bernstein (below) did not know what to do with it besides repeating it obsessively. Bernstein simply was not a savvy master of choral writing, and I firmly believe that this work—a trivial cross between Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bernstein’s own Broadway musical West Side Story—would not merit much attention were it not for Bernstein’s name on it.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: You can decide on the work’s merits for yourself by listening to the live performance, conducted by the composer himself, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Leonard Bernstein composing in 1955

Just how inadequate Bernstein’s choral sense was emerged clearly with the next work, the short ode for chorus and orchestra by Johannes Brahms, Nänie, Op. 82.

The title adapts a Greek word for a lament, and Friedrich Schiller’s German text evokes the death of beauty in the death of Achilles. Brahms was among the supreme choral masters, and this particular example is one of several of his “minor” choral works that we hear too rarely.

brahmsBW

The second half of the program was devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Op. 86. No, not the monumental Missa solemnis of the composer’s last years when (as with the Ninth Symphony’s finale) he had transcended the realities of choral writing. This earlier Mass setting, dating from 1807, was in the direct line of Mass settings for the Esterházy family composed by the aged Haydn.

But to Haydn’s incorporation of symphonic structure into Mass composition, Beethoven (below) brought his own strongly progressive personality, and a remarkable quality of melodic and thematic invention. This is a lovely work, and choirs who fling themselves doggedly against the Missa solemnis ought sometimes to revel in this beautiful work instead.

Beethoven big

The forces arrayed included a solo quartet (below, in the front from left) are bass John Loud, tenor Jiabao Zhang and sopranos Jessica Kasinski and Anna Polum.

uw-choral-union-dec-2016-soloists

The UW Chamber Orchestra proved able. But the star was, of course, the Choral Union chorus itself. Its diction worked from indistinguishable Hebrew through respectable German to really lucid Latin. Above all, it made mighty, full-blooded sound that bolstered Beethoven’s lyricism with powerful projection.

Once again, conductor Beverly Taylor (below) has gone beyond stale conventions to bring us valued exposure to music outside the conventional boundaries.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE


Classical music: Conservative Republican presidential candidate and Evangelical Christian Ted Cruz wants to ban the tritone – or Devil’s chord – from classical music. NOT. Then again, maybe he does

March 21, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the first day when you can vote early via absentee ballot for the presidential primary election in Wisconsin on Tuesday, April 5, when you can also vote to fill a seat on the state Supreme Court.

And tomorrow, Tuesday, brings more presidential primaries for both Republicans and Democrats in the Western states of Arizona and Utah. Plus, there will also be Democratic caucuses in Idaho.

So the following political piece — a pseudo-news report — seems timely and appropriate, especially given the drive by establishment Republicans to rally and choose the ultra-conservative U.S. Senator Ted Cruz from Texas (below) as a way to stop New York City businessman Donald Trump.

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Sure, it’s a satire.

But it is a very well done satire — about something that was indeed banned in the Renaissance and Baroque eras by the Roman Catholic  Church.

But like so much satire, it is fun that also cuts close to the bone and contains more than a grain of truth about Cruz and about his many “first day on the job” promises if he gets elected president.

Cruz, the son of an evangelical minister, is such a devout and intolerant Christian fundamentalist, it is almost as if he is waging his own jihad, much like the Islamic terrorist state ISIS, on any culture he considers unChristian and heretical to his personal faith and what he considers to be the inerrant and literal truth of the Bible.

Hmm. Does that qualify him as an extremist or radical?

To The Ear, what is really and truly scary is Cruz — not the music.

And it is hard to say who is more threatening as a potential president: Donald Trump or Ted Cruz?

Well, make up your own mind, fellow music-lovers.

Here is the satire from submediant.com. It’s a good read with lots of details, specific composers and food for thought.

http://www.submediant.com/2016/03/15/citing-evangelical-faith-ted-cruz-calls-to-ban-satanic-tritone/

And here is a YouTube lesson in music theory that offers an explanation with examples of the Satanic tritone:


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra turns this weekend to George Gershwin and his legacy with Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Arlen to close out its 88th season and conductor John DeMain’s 20th anniversary.

April 28, 2014
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The big musical event this week is that The Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) will close out its 88th season and music director-conductor John DeMain’s 20th anniversary season.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The MSO will do so by turning to George Gershwin and his legacy with composers Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Arlen in three performances this weekend.

The program includes: the “Catfish Row Suite” from Porgy and Bess”; the “I Got Rhythm” Variations for Piano and Orchestra (at the bottom in a historic YouTube video played by the composer who also introduces the work); a series of Gershwin’s most memorable songs for the stage including “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “By Strauss,” “Embraceable You,” “S’Wonderful” and “Somebody Loves Me”;  Leonard Bernstein’s Overture and “Glitter and Be Gay” from his opera “Candide” and the Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” as well as a love duet from the classic musical. Songs include Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.”

The performances are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16.50 to $82.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or go to the box office in person to save service fees or visit:

http://ev12.evenue.net/cgi-bin/ncommerce3/SEGetGroupList?groupCode=MSO&linkID=overture&shopperContext=&caller=&appCode

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Full-time students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Of course some purists might carp this program is really a Pops Concert disguised as a serious symphony orchestra fare. But the symphony has seats to fill. And whenever John DeMain programs and conducts the music of Gershwin, the results are spectacular and popular. After all, DeMain (below) won a Grammy for his recording of Gershwin’s operas “Porgy and Bess” and then was featured in a live performance of the same work on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

In addition, Gershwin worked closely with composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein (below) on Bernstein’s own operas.

Leonard Bernstein 1971

Says music director and conductor John DeMain: “I’m a big fan of George Gershwin (below) for obvious reasons. For me, he embodies what it means to be an American musician. Trained in the classics, but deeply connected to the music of his country, Gershwin fused American folk music and jazz into a concert format that continues to thrill and resonate with audiences all over the world to this present day. “Porgy and Bess” is such a monumental achievement in this regard as well. It focuses on our African-American culture, and uses the music of spirituals and jazz to form its leitmotifs. It is again universal, and distinctly American.

DeMain adds: “Actually, what composer wasn’t influenced by Gershwin? At our May concert there isn’t remotely enough time to do a survey of all who came under Gershwin’s direct or indirect influence, but Harold Arlen, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (below bottom, inane NPR photo) were definitely among those who carried on the music theater tradition that Gershwin was such a master at.”

gershwin with pipe

stephen-sondheim-aa58e636211efdc134e6540533fff5cc52c73909-s6-c30

Several other reasons add to the appeal.

Garrick Olsen (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is a young and very promising local pianist who won the Bolz Young Artist Competition, when, broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio, he performed Maurice Ravel’s  difficult Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with the MSO in the Final Forte competition. He will also compete in the upcoming Piano Arts Competition in Milwaukee.

Garrick Olsen in tux by Greg Anderson

Soprano Emily Birsan, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music before going into the training program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She has been appearing in a lot of local production from University Opera and Candid Concert Opera and the Madison Opera to the Middleton Community Orchestra

Emily Birsan less tarty 2 NoCredit

Mezzo-soprano Karen Olivo (below top) is a Tony Award-winning singer and actor who recently relocated to Madison.

Karen Olivo with Tony Award.jpg

And baritone Ron Raines (below bottom) has a lot buzz associated with him.

ron raines

Here is a link to the general MSO website with more information about the soloists and the program as well as audio samples of the repertoire:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/gershwin

And here is a link to comprehensive program notes by MSO trombonist and University of Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen:

http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenj/MSO/NOTES/1314/8.May14.html

Major funding for this concert is provided by an anonymous friend and BMO Private Bank. Additional Funds are provided by Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Capitol Lakes, Mildred and Marv Conney, Terry Haller, J.P. Cullen and Sons, Inc., Ann Lindsey and Charles Snowdon, Tom and Nancy Mohs, and the Wisconsin Arts Board.

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