The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.


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Classical music: Prize-winning UW-Madison conductor Chad Hutchinson talks about the FREE and unusual all-American, all-20th century concert he will perform with the UW Symphony Orchestra this Friday night

October 9, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Chad Hutchinson (below) is starting his second season at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music by putting his own stamp on programming with an intriguing, all-American and all-20th-century concert that combines music for the concert hall with music for plays and films.

The FREE concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra is in Mills Hall this Friday night, Oct. 12, and starts at 8 p.m. with an informal pre-concert talk by Hutchinson (below) at 7:30 p.m.

Hutchison recently won one first prize and two second prizes from The American Prize for work he did – in opera conducting, orchestral conducting and orchestral programming — at the University of Minnesota and the University of South Dakota.

For more details, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-madison-symphony-orchestra-3/

The Ear asked Hutchinson how, after his first year, he feels about the UW-Madison.

He answered: “What makes the UW-Madison special is the camaraderie and support of the students, faculty and staff across the numerous disciplines within the Mead Witter School of Music.

“I’m thrilled to be back working with the orchestra (below), opera and conducting students and collaborating with the amazing faculty here. Seeing the “light bulb” moments when students realize and achieve a new level of competency for themselves and the ensemble is the best part of the profession.”

Here are his thoughts about the program:

“The UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra opens the 2018-2019 season with a program of three influential American composers. This concert will highlight the juxtaposition of traditional classical music and compositions heavily influenced by folk, jazz and the blues.

“A common thread throughout the concert is the idea of firsts and exploring new ideas as a composer.

“The Overture to “The School for Scandal” (1931) of Samuel Barber (below) was the first piece that he composed for full orchestra and is based on the Restoration comedy by Richard Sheridan.

“This performance will be the debut of one of the Symphony Orchestra’s new doctoral conducting students Ji-Hyun Yim (below). Ji-Hyun (Jenny) comes to Madison after completing a Master’s Degree in Orchestral Conducting from the University of North Texas.

“The second piece on the program is one that I have wanted to program for quite some time. The “Afro-American” Symphony (1930) of William Grant Still (below, in a photo by Carl Van Vechten), his first symphony, is widely regarded as the first large-scale piece of symphonic repertoire composed by an African-American and performed by a major symphony orchestra.

Each movement’s title is influenced by short poems by the 20th-century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (below, in 1890).

“Since the Barber and Still were composed within one year of each other in 1930-1931, I wanted to show the dichotomy of the straight-ahead classical world and the other side of classical music in the late 1920s and 1930s that was being heavily influenced by the more popular music of the time.

“Lastly, we feature the first and only film music that Bernstein composed. “On the Waterfront” (1954), an Oscar-winning film directed by Elia Kazan that starred Marlon Brando (below) and Eva Marie Saint, shows Bernstein writing simultaneously for the symphonic hall and the big screen.

“This work will feature UW-Madison professor of saxophone and composition Les Thimmig (below) and will showcase many soloists within the orchestra. While not programmed as often as his music from West Side Story or On the Town, I believe that Bernstein’s unique use of color, rhythm and melody in this work – heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — speak for themselves.”


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Classical music: This Saturday night, the Leonard Bernstein centennial will be marked at the UW-Madison with a faculty vocal concert and a sing-along

September 12, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about this weekend’s celebration of the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth:

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990, below in a photo by Jack Mitchell) — the legendary composer, conductor and pianist — will be celebrated in a concert of his music on this coming Saturday night, Sept. 15, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Tickets are $17 for adults; $7 for students and children; and free to music majors, music faculty and music staff. To avoid long lines  you are asked to purchase tickets early. If you do purchase tickets at the door, you are asked to arrive 30 minutes before the concert begins. For details about tickets, see below.

This Faculty Concert Series event is one of the many world-wide observances of the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth. They will include a special program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under its music director and conductor John DeMain, who worked with Bernstein and who discussed Bernstein on Wisconsin Public Radio, which you can hear here:

https://www.wpr.org/madison-symphonys-john-demain-remembers-bernstein-during-centennial-birth-year

From Broadway to the concert stage, Bernstein embodied the eclectic nature of America’s music. As a composer, conductor and teacher he embraced all kinds of music, and in his own work created enduring masterpieces in both popular and classical styles.

Saturday’s concert will feature a number of lesser-known works that come from all periods of Bernstein’s career, as well as favorite selections from his classic Broadway scores On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide and West Side Story, and songs from his exquisite incidental music for Peter Pan.

Cellist Alison Rowe (below top) will join her parents, baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) in selections from Mass, Songfest and the beautiful song Dream With Me (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom).

Pianists Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes (below) will join the Rowes in a performance of one of Bernstein’s last major works for two singers and two pianists, Arias and Barcarolles. It is a song cycle in which “Lenny” fully explored the range of styles and subject matter that represent his unique achievement in American music.

There will be a short SING-ALONG at the end of the concert featuring some favorite and familiar Bernstein hits.

For more information, including how to obtain tickets, a video and a link to a Bernstein tribute in The New York Times, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/music-of-leonard-bernstein-a-100th-birthday-tribute/


Classical music education: WYSO’s Youth Orchestra gives a FREE farewell concert on Tuesday night at Olbrich Gardens before departing on its tour of Peru. Plus, Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gillliand gets an award

June 30, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The 80 members of the Youth Orchestra of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras will perform a FREE farewell or bon voyage concert on this coming Tuesday night, July 3, at 7 p.m. at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison before departing on an international tour to Peru.

The conductor for both this concert and the tour to Peru is James Smith (below), the retired head of orchestras at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the retired music director of WYSO.

The program includes: the Overture to “West Side Story” by Leonard Bernstein (arranged by Peress); Oberture para una comedia (Overture to a Comedy) by Enrique Iturriaga; the Little Suite No. 2 by Malcolm Arnold (heard performed by a youth orchestra in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the Symphony No. 9 by Dmitri Shostakovich.

The historic city of Cusco, once the capital of the vast Inca Empire, is one stop along the way for WYSO students on tour. Other destinations include the Peruvian capital of Lima; Puno; Lake Titicaca; and the legendary Machu Picchu (below), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The students will also perform with the National Youth Orchestra of Peru and attend one concert event.

For more about the tour, go to: https://www.wysomusic.org/international-tour-takes-wyso-students-to-peruvian-highlands-and-more/

Youth Orchestra violist Hannah Wendorf says she is looking forward to the experience.

“I am super excited to experience the culture of Peru,” Wendorf says. “I can’t wait to visit both the ancient and modern marvels the country has to offer. Performing for a new audience with friends is going to be amazing!”

Historically, WYSO’s Youth Orchestra has embarked every few years on an extended tour during the summer months for one to two weeks. An extended tour entails substantial expense and detailed planning over a two-year period. The Board of Directors Tour Committee and the WYSO staff are responsible for researching and investigating potential tours and coordinating all tour activities.

During the farewell concert, WYSO will also honor Norman Gilliland (below) with the Rabin Youth Arts Award in the Individual Artistic Achievement category.

Gilliland has been a classical radio host with Wisconsin Public Radio since 1984. He has featured interviews and performances by hundreds of young Wisconsin artists on the weekday classical program, The Midday.

For years, Gilliland brought weekly music lessons to classrooms all over the state as part of WPR’s School of the Air program. He was also a founder of WPR’s Neale-Silva Young Artists’ Competition, which between 1990 and 2013 recognized the accomplishments and artistry of hundreds of young Wisconsin musicians.

For more information about WYSO, including a schedule of concerts and how to join WYSO and support it, go to: https://www.wysomusic.org


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