The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This Friday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will make a LIVE RECORDING of the encore performance of the two-piano concerto it commissioned and premiered two years ago

March 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Want to be part of a live concert recording?

At first look, it seems like a typical — and in one way even repetitive – concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below).

But this particular concert — which is this Friday night, March 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – is anything but usual.

In fact, it promises to be unique and historic.

That is because the encore performance of the two-piano concerto “Double Rainbow” –- commissioned by the WCO and composed by Thomas Cabaniss for wife-and-husband pianists Jessica Chow Shinn (a Madison native) and Michael Shinn (below) — will be recorded live.

Also on the program is a string orchestra transcription of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night,” an entrancing work that is an emotionally intense, late Romantic work that precedes Schoenberg’s 12-tone or atonal period; and the Symphony No. 58 in F Major by Franz Joseph Haydn.

For more information and tickets ($12-$80), go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-iii-4/

The same pianists, who are on the faculty of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, gave the world premiere of the work under the baton of WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell two years ago. (The two pianists will be interviewed by Norman Gilliland at noon on this Friday during “The Midday” show on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

It proved an accessible work that clearly pleased the audience. (In 2018, Sewell also programmed the concerto for the San Luis Obispo Symphony, which he directs in California.)

“I like tunes,” said Cabaniss (below) – who will attend the performance this Friday night – when he talked to The Ear in an email Q&A from 2017 on the occasion of the world premiere.

Here is a link to that interview, which also has background information about Cabaniss and the inspiration for the concerto:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/classical-music-i-like-tunes-says-composer-thomas-cabaniss-who-talks-about-his-double-rainbow-piano-concerto-the-wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-and-guest-soloists/

Then Sewell heard the same pianists play another piece by Cabaniss – “Tiny Bits of Outrageous Love” for two pianos with no orchestra or other accompaniment.

“Andrew heard them and thought the piece would be a great pairing with ‘Double Rainbow’ for a recording,” says Alan Fish, who is the interim executive director of the WCO.

A release date has not yet been set for the recording. The goal is to issue a recording in the near future, adds Fish, both in a CD format and a downloadable format. More details will be known once the Shinns have recorded “Tiny Bits,” Fish adds.


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Classical music: Superstar soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Emanuel Ax headline the 100th anniversary of the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert Series next season

March 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following major announcement to post about the Wisconsin Union Theater, which The Ear calls “the Carnegie Hall of Madison” for its long and distinguished history of presenting great performing artists.

The Wisconsin Union Theater (below top, with Shannon Hall below bottom) is delighted to announce the schedule for its 100th Concert Series during 2019-20.

In this celebratory year, we introduce two exciting additions: A transformative gift by Kato Perlman establishes the David and Kato Perlman Chamber Series, ensuring the world’s best chamber ensembles continue to perform as a regular feature of the Concert Series.

Additionally, two Concert Series performances will take place in the Mead Witter School of Music’s new Hamel Music Center (below). We look forward to increased collaborations with the school of music.

The 100th anniversary series was curated by the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Performing Arts Committee, with wife-and-husband advisors pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (below, in a photo by Tristan Cook), who are celebrated musicians and directors of several festivals of classical music and also serve as co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. (You can hear them performing music by Johann Sebastian Bach in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The first season of this distinguished series was in 1920-1921, and featured soprano May Peterson, violinist Fritz Kreisler and pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch.

Nineteen years later, in 1939-1940, the series moved to the newly opened Wisconsin Union Theater. The first season in the Wisconsin Union Theater featured bass singer Ezio Pinza, cellist Emanuel Feuermann, violinist Joseph Szigeti, pianist Robert Casadesus and, the highlight, contralto Marian Anderson.

Through these 99 years, numerous renowned, accomplished and prominent classical musicians have played in the series, the longest continuous classical series in the Midwest. Some made their debut here and continued returning as their fame rose.

See this article for an interview with former WUT director Michael Goldberg about the history of the series.

The schedule for the 100th Concert Series, including the inaugural David and Kato Perlman Chamber Music Series, is:

Oct. 6 – A cappella choral group Chanticleer, Hamel Music Center. Program To Be Announced

Nov. 2 – Pianist Emanuel Ax (below), Shannon Hall. All-Beethoven program, including Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 2 and 3.

Dec. 6 – The Kalichstein, Laredo and Robinson Piano Trio (below), Shannon Hall. “Canonic Etudes” by Robert Schumann; Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor by Felix Mendelssohn; and Piano Trio in B-flat major “Archduke” by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Jan. 25, 2020 – The Escher String Quartet (below), featuring David Finckel, Shannon Hall. Quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, Fritz Kreisler and Franz Schubert.

March 5, 2020 – Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – featuring David Finckel, Wu Han, Paul Neubauer and Arnaud Sussman, Shannon Hall. Sonatine by Antonin Dvorak; Piano Quartet by Josef Suk; Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, by Johannes Brahms.

March 7, 2020 – Wu Han with the UW Symphony Orchestra, Hamel Music Center. Program TBD.

March 28, 2020 – Violinist Gil Shaham (below) with pianist Akira Eguchi, Shannon Hall. Program TBD.

May 2, 2020 – Special Gala Concert with Renée Fleming (below). Shannon Hall. Mixed Recital.

All programs are subject to change.

Subscriptions will be available starting March 18, 2019. Subscribers benefits include: access to the best seats, 20% off the price of single tickets, no order fees, a free ticket to Wu Han’s performance with the UW Symphony Orchestra, and the opportunity to be first to purchase tickets to Renée Fleming’s 100th Anniversary Gala Concert.

Find more information about the series and the artists at www.uniontheater.wisc.edu. Subscriptions will be available on March 18 at www.artsticketing.wisc.edu.


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Classical music: “Into the Woods” proved a complete, first-rate theatrical experience

February 26, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog  – attended two performances of “Into the Woods” at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and filed this review. (Photos are by Beau Meyer for the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.)

By Larry Wells

The University Theatre and University Opera’s recent joint production of “Into the Woods” was a feast for fans of Stephen Sondheim (below). It was a complete theatrical experience with excellent singing, a nuanced orchestral accompaniment, skilled acting and enchanting staging.

The nearly three-hour work is an amalgamation of several well-known fairy tales exploring themes such as parent-child relationships, loss of innocence, self-discovery, the consequences of wishes being fulfilled, and death – but all in an amusing, literate, fast-paced kaleidoscope of witty dialogue, catchy music and sophisticated lyrics.

The production employed an attractive, ever-changing set, designed by John Drescher, that was vaguely reminiscent of Maurice Sendak.

Stage director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) utilized the large cast and what had to be an equally large number of backstage crew members in a captivating succession of ensemble pieces and solo numbers. I was never aware of the passing of time. Not looking at my watch is my acid test of a production’s success.

Among the many standout performances, Bryanna Plaisir (below) as the Witch was comical in her delivery and quite amazing in the physicality of her performance. There were a number of times when she flew, and each time I was taken by surprise at her effortlessness. Her initial song, accompanied mostly by percussion, was mesmerizing.

There were two roles that were double cast: Elisheva Pront and Miranda Kettlewell (below) as the Cinderellas; and Meghan Stecker and Zoe Bockhorst as the two Little Red Riding Hoods.

Both Pront and Kettlewell possess excellent voices.

Stecker was the more girlish of the two Red Riding Hoods, whereas Bockhorst (below left) portrayed a slightly more canny character.  Both were very funny in their encounter with Cobi Tappa’s Wolf (below right).

Tappa is a physical actor whose tall lankiness conveyed the Wolf’s lupine nature flawlessly. He also portrayed the Steward, and I was completely captivated by his performance, as was the appreciative audience.

Joshua Kelly (below) was the narrator and also played the baker’s father.  His was a professional quality performance from beginning to end – enunciating so clearly that he was completely understandable throughout.

Jack was played by Christian Michael Brenny. His portrayal of a simple-minded boy was touching, and his singing was outstanding.

Emily Vandenberg (below left) as the wife of the baker (played by Michael Kelley, below right) was another outstanding performer – an excellent comic actress and an accomplished vocalist.

Mention must also be made of Rapunzel and Cinderella’s princes, Tanner Zocher  and Jacob Eliot Elfner. Their two duets, “Agony” and “Agony Reprise,” were enthusiastically received by the audience not only for their delivery but also for such lyrics as “…you know nothing of madness ‘til you’re climbing her hair…”.

Sondheim’s way with words continues to amaze me. In describing a decrepit cow, Jack’s mother gets to sing “…while her withers wither with her…”.  The Wolf gets to sing the line “…there’s no possible way to describe what you feel when you’re talking to your meal…”

Chad Hutchinson (below) conducted the orchestra in a finely shaded performance – never overpowering and always supportive.

There were many other excellent performances and memorable moments. Suffice it to say that altogether cast, crew, artistic and production staff created a show that I enjoyed on two consecutive evenings. In fact I was completely entranced both times.

Postscript: The first evening I sat in front of a person who coughed more or less continually the entire first act.  Mercifully she left at the intermission. Next to me was a woman who alternated between audibly clearing her throat and blowing her nose — when she wasn’t applying moisturizer to her hands — throughout the entire show. Stay home if you’re sick. And remember that you are not at home watching your television.  You are in a theater.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


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Classical music: Prize-winning composer John Harbison has turned 80. In February, Madison will see many celebrations of his birthday, starting this Friday night with the Imani Winds

January 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night, Feb. 1, a month-long celebration in Madison of the 80th birthday of critically acclaimed and prize-winning composer John Harbison (below) gets underway.

The festivities start with a concert by the Grammy-nominated Imani Winds (below), which will perform this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. – with a pre-concert lecture at 6 p.m. — in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. The program includes Harbison’s popular Wind Quintet.

Here is a link with more information about the group, the program and tickets: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/imani-winds/

Among America’s most distinguished artistic figures, Harbison is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them a MacArthur ”genius grant’ and a Pulitzer Prize. His work encompasses all genres, from chamber music to opera, sacred to secular. (You can hear Harbison discuss his approach to composing in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

He has composed for most of America’s premiere musical institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera, the symphony orchestras of Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle and New York; and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

Institute Professor at MIT, Harbison serves as composer, conductor, performer, teacher and scholar. He divides his time between Cambridge, Mass., and Token Creek, Wis., where he co-founded and co-directs a summer chamber music festival with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison.

Other local birthday events include a performance by the Madison Symphony Orchestra; several chamber music and choral concerts at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, including one by the Mosaic Chamber Players; an exhibition of books and manuscripts at the Mills Music Library at UW-Madison’s Memorial Library.

There are also several concerts, including the world premiere of a new Sonata for Viola, and a composer residency at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music; and the world premiere of a new motet by the Madison Choral Project.

Harbison will also be featured in radio interviews and broadcast retrospectives by both Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT community radio.

National and international celebrations include other world premieres of commissions, many new recordings and the publication of Harbison’s autobiographical book about Johann Sebastian Bach, “What Do We Make of Bach?”

For more details about the many local celebrations, you can go to the following two links. Schedules, programs and updates – events are subject to change — will be posted at www.tokencreekfestival.org and www.johnharbison.com.

To receive “Harbison Occasions,” an intermittent e-newsletter, write to arsnova.artsmanagement@gmail.com


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra impresses in a concert of “non-holiday” music for the holidays. Plus, what music is best to greet the Winter Solstice today?

December 21, 2018
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ALERT: Today we turn a  corner when the Winter Solstice arrives at 4:23 p.m. Days will start getting longer. What music would you celebrate it with? Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter” section of “The Four Seasons”? Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey”? Let The Ear know in the COMMENT section with a YouTube link if possible. Here comes the sun!

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.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) proudly presented an alternative Christmas program of music, none of which had any connection whatsoever with that otherwise inescapable holiday.

It was a program of great variety, full of novelties.

It began soberly with Gustav Mahler’s early song cycle, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). This venture into German orchestral song (with a folk song background) provided symphonic inspiration for his First Symphony, the so-called “Titan,” so it unites many strains in the composer’s work.

Baritone Paul Rowe (below), of the UW-Madison’s music faculty, sang these songs. Rowe has a strong feeling for German, and he used clear diction to capture the dramatic meanings of the four song texts.

A contrast then, and a particular novelty, was the appearance of Matthew Coley (below), of the percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion, playing the cimbalom, the intensely Hungarian version of the hammered dulcimer. 

He was joined by the orchestra for a fancy arrangement of the Hungarian dance, the popular Czardas by Vittorio Monti. (You can hear Matthew Coley play the same piece on the cimbalom in the YouTube video at the bottom.) He followed this with an encore, a hand-me-down arrangement of a movement from one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo cello suites.

More contrast came with the mini-ballet score by Darius Milhaud Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) of 1919. This was one of the French composer’s trailblazing introductions of American jazz styles into European music.

It really works best with a small orchestra, so Middleton’s was a bit overblown for the assignment. But the elaborate solo role for violin was taken by Naha Greenholtz — concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and wife of the evening’s guest conductor, Kyle Knox, who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. There are some fiendish passages in the solo work, and Greenholtz brought them off with unfailing flair.

The final part of the program was devoted to the orchestral suite that Zoltan Kodaly derived from his Singspiel of 1926, Hary Janos, in which a comic Hungarian soldier upstages even Napoleon.

This is a satiric and highly colorful assemblage that offers wonderful opportunities for all of the instruments and sections to show off. And Coley was back with his cimbalom for Hungarian spice. The players clearly were having a great frolic, and conductor Knox drew the best out of them in a bravura performance.

Ah yes! Christmas without “Christmas” music. A wonderful idea to refresh the ears in December!


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Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra performs a non-traditional “holiday” concert of Mahler and Kodaly this Wednesday night

December 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

During the holiday season, many — maybe even most — classical music groups program music that goes with the theme of the holidays from Christmas and Hanukkah to Kwanzaa and the New Year.

But some groups wisely give listeners a respite from holiday fare.

That happened one week ago when the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Beverly Taylor, performed a memorable program that featured the brassy “Te Deum” by Zoltan Kodaly and especially the calming Requiem by Maurice Duruflé.

Something similar will happen again this Wednesday night, Dec. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable Middleton Performing Arts Center, attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol St.

That is when the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) will perform its “holiday” concert that is holiday-ish more as a matter of timing than of content or theme, since you won’t hear any carols or sing-alongs or the usual or traditional holiday fare. The Ear thinks it’s a smart approach and a welcome break.

The non-holiday “holiday” program includes “Songs of a Wayfarer” by Gustav Mahler, sung by UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe (below).

Also on the program is “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” (The Steer on the Roof) by Darius Milhaud with violinist soloist Naha Greenholtz (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), who is the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Matthew Coley (below top), a member of the acclaimed Madison-based percussion group “Clocks in Motion,” will perform two pieces of Hungarian music that use the rarely heard cimbalom (below bottom): the “Czardas” by Vittorio Monti and the “Hary Janos Suite” by Kodaly. (You can hear Monti’s familiar “Czardas” in a version for violin and piano in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Kyle Knox (below), who is the new music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the new associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and who is also the husband of Naha Greenholtz, will once again be the guest conductor.

Admission is $15 for the general public with students and young people getting in for free. Tickets can be bought at the Willy Street Co-op West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and doors to the hall open at 7 p.m.

As usual, there will be a meet-and-greet reception (below) – complete with Christmas cookies, you can be sure – at the end of the concert.

For more information about future MCO concerts, reviews of past concerts and details about how to join the orchestra or support it, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org/home


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Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 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 University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/


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Classical music: Two new memoirs and a new recording are revealing but uneven in marking the centennial of Leonard Bernstein

July 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

We are only a month away from the centennial of the birthday of conductor, composer, educator and pianist Leonard Bernstein, which will be celebrated on Saturday, Aug. 25. Larry Wells, who is The Opera Guy for The Ear, recently assessed three of the many works – two new books of memoirs and one new recording — reexamining the life, career and legacy of Leonard Bernstein.

By Larry Wells

During this year commemorating the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell), one need only consult https://leonardbernstein.com to find a day-by-day calendar of performances of his works.

As well as world-wide opportunities to hear his works -– even in Madison — there have been two recent books about Bernstein and a new recording of his final opera, “A Quiet Place,” that might be worth your time.

“A Quiet Place” was premiered in Houston as a sequel to his earlier opera “Trouble in Tahiti.” These first performances were conducted by our own John DeMain, the longtime artistic director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Madison Opera.

This nearly two-hour one-act opera dealing with incest, bisexuality, alcoholism and psychosis did not please the critics either for its libretto or for its music.

Soon thereafter Bernstein refashioned the opera by inserting “Trouble in Tahiti” in the middle and cutting some music. His subsequent recording has always baffled me because the music is so uninteresting and the casting is so haphazard.

The new recording on the Decca label (below) is of yet another version devised by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Reducing the orchestration to a chamber ensemble of 18 players, removing “Trouble in Tahiti,” and restoring some of the cuts, this recording by Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra allows us to hear most of the original version of the opera.

(To read Sunderland’s analysis of his edition, check https://leonardbernstein.com/uploads/pages/files/PFR_2013_FW.pdf.)

The new recording is a valiant attempt by Nagano (below) to breathe some life into this dreary work, but I remain unconvinced that “A Quiet Place” is any more than a failed, final stab by a composer most of whose work I admire very much.

Charlie Harmon was Bernstein’s personal assistant, and his recent memoir ”On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius” (below) goes a long way in explaining the failure of “A Quiet Place.” (You can hear the Postlude to Act I of “A Quiet Place” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To hear Harmon tell it, by this time in Bernstein’s life the maestro depended on drugs to go to sleep, drugs to keep himself awake, and alcohol in excess.  He also had a penchant for younger men.

The picture he paints of a troubled genius is rather pathetic, and Bernstein comes across as thoughtless, self-centered and exasperating. When Harmon (below, on the right with Bernstein) writes of his shock at being groped by Bernstein, I had to wonder what else he had expected. Still, it is an entertaining read.

Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein has recently published  “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (below) Here we get a glimpse into Bernstein’s family life. The portrait of his troubled relationship with his long-suffering wife Felicia Montealegre is particularly interesting.

I heard Jamie Bernstein (below) speak recently in Tucson, and she told amazing anecdotes about Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and William Schuman.

Little of that appears in the book. She assumes that the reader is interested in her own love life and her failed pop music career. I would have preferred to read more about the many fascinating people who surrounded Bernstein and less about her privileged and entitled life.

I have always been a big fan of Bernstein. I admired him as a conductor, teacher and composer. Anyone who has even a nominal interest in the man will find both of the recent memoirs at least diverting. The recording of “A Quiet Place,” however, is only for the true devotees.


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Classical music: The Madison Summer Choir celebrates its 10th anniversary with one of the best concerts of the year

July 20, 2018
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.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Summer Choir (below) celebrated its 10th anniversary on Wednesday night at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Each year’s program has had a theme, and for this one it was “Old Wine in New Bottles”— though it might as well have been the other way ‘round.

The idea, though, was that the selections showed their composers looking back to the techniques and tastes of earlier generations while writing new music. Conductor Ben Luedcke (below) introduced each work to explain how such approaches worked out.

The first half of the program was devoted to four works, dating from three different centuries.

Two were by contemporary composers. A setting in English of the Psalm text “By the Waters of Babylon” by Sarah Riskind (below top) was followed by Amor de mi Ami, a tribute to his wife, in Spanish, by Randall Stroope (below bottom).

Each work had instrumental additions — in the first, piano with cello, in the second, just piano) which personally I found unnecessary. Riskind’s choral writing is attractively full and quite idiomatic, while Stroope achieves a natural lyricism. I would be interested to hear just the choral parts alone for each work. (Editor’s Note: You can hear the work by Randall Stroope in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These two items were framed by music of earlier epochs. The Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song) by Johannes Brahms showed his ability to create his own version of both pre- and post-Baroque polyphony. And Mozart’s Psalm setting Laudate pueri, from one of his Vespers collections (K. 339), showed his assimilation of Baroque counterpoint.

Bruce Bengtson played the part Brahms included for organ (or piano), and he also played the organ reduction of the orchestral part for the Mozart.

It was partly the acoustics, but also a weakness in diction that made the words in those four pieces all but indistinguishable, in whatever language was being sung—my one serious criticism of the performances.

The second part of the program was devoted to the first of the numbered Mass settings by Anton Bruckner. In some ways, such large-scale sacred works were studies for his majestic symphonies yet to come.

In this Mass No. 1 in D minor, Bruckner saw himself in the line of earlier Austrian church music, but anyone expecting bald imitations of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven would be disappointed.

In his dense and highly chromatic writing — something like a step beyond Schubert — Bruckner created some very fascinating music. It reached really exciting power in the Credo, and the words “dona nobis pacem” at the conclusion had a deeply moving sense of serenity.

The choir, of 68 mixed voices, was joined for the Bruckner by four soloists — Chelsie Propst, Jessica Lee Timman, Peter Gruett, Christian Bester (below on the left) — who sang their parts handsomely, and by an orchestra of 30 players, who provided strong and sturdy support.

Luedcke deserves particular praise for giving a chance to hear the Bruckner Mass, which was thought to be its Madison premiere. It climaxed a really enterprising event, one that I think will stand as among the Best Concerts of the Year.


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