The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of “Rusalka” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras perform the Evelyn Steenbock fall concerts TODAY and next Friday night. The Edgewood Chamber Orchestra performs this Sunday afternoon

November 10, 2018
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ALERT: This Sunday afternoon, Nov. 11, at 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, the Edgewood Chamber Orchestra will give its fall concert. Conducted by Blake Walter, the chamber orchestra will play Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Word on the Moon” Overture, Arthur Honegger’s Pastorale D’été (Summer Pastoral) and Symphony No. 1 in C minor by Felix Mendelssohn. Tickets are $5 for general admission, free with Edgewood College ID.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO, below) will present their first concert series of the 2018-19 season, the Evelyn Steenbock Fall Concerts TODAY, Saturday, Nov. 10, and next Friday, Nov. 16.

WYSO orchestras will perform works by Igor Stravinsky, Aram Khachaturian, Soon Hee Newbold and more. The Youth Orchestra concert will include a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo” Variations with special guest cellist Joseph Johnson.

“Joseph Johnson is an extraordinary artist and person and it will be a treat for us all to hear and collaborate with someone of his stature,” says Youth Orchestra Conductor Kyle Knox (below).

Johnson has been heard throughout the world as a soloist, chamber musician and educator. Principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra since the 2009-10 season, he previously held the same position with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear an interview with Joseph Johnson in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

He also serves as principal cellist of the Santa Fe Opera, and during the 2008-2009 season was acting principal cellist of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. Prior to his Milwaukee appointment, Johnson was a member of the Minnesota Orchestra cello section for 11 years.

“The Youth Orchestra couldn’t be more excited to present a program of all-Russian music for our first concert of the season,” Knox says. “We will begin with a rarely performed gem by 20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky, followed by one of the great solo works in the cello repertoire, the “Rococo” Variations by Tchaikovsky. Finally, we will finish the evening with the mighty Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky, one of the most famous orchestral works in history, which features all sections of the orchestra.”

TODAY’S concerts begin at 11:30 a.m. in Mills Hall at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, 455 North Park Street, Madison.

The Nov. 16 Youth Orchestra concert with guest soloist Joseph Johnson begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, 2100 Bristol Street, next to Middleton High School, with a reception to follow.

WYSO students travel from communities throughout southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois each weekend throughout the concert season to rehearse on the UW-Madison campus.

Each orchestra performs three concerts per season, with additional performance opportunities available to students, including ensembles and chamber groups.

Concert admission is $10 for adults, and $5 for youth 18 and under, with tickets available at the door.

Full concert repertoire is available at https://www.wysomusic.org/evelyn-steenbock-fall-concerts-repertoire/

To learn more about Joseph Johnson, go to: www.joecello.com.

Evelyn Steenbock Fall Concerts

Saturday, Nov. 10, Mills Concert Hall
11:30 a.m. Opus One and Sinfonietta
1:30 p.m. Harp Ensemble & Concert Orchestra
4 p.m. Percussion Ensemble (below) and Philharmonia Orchestra

Friday, Nov. 16, Middleton Performing Arts Center
7:30 p.m. Youth Orchestra, reception to follow
With guest artist Joseph Johnson, cello


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Classical music: This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra celebrates the legacy and works of Leonard Bernstein

November 5, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell) will be remembered, honored and celebrated by his friend and Madison Symphony Orchestra music director John DeMain in a “Remembering Lenny” concert that explores Bernstein’s musical contributions as an American composer and conductor.

Original works by Bernstein will be performed by the MSO on the first half of the concert. The MSO starts with the Overture to Candide, then moves on to On The Town, and, finally, performs his Symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety,” featuring Van Cliburn Competition bronze medal winner and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor.

The second half of the program features Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, the last work that Bernstein (1918-1990) ever conducted during a concert at the summer Tanglewood Festival of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on this Friday night, Nov. 9, at 7:30 p.m.; this Saturday night, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m.; and this Sunday afternoon, Nov. 11, at 2:30 p.m. Ticket information is below.

Says DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson): “To have my 25th anniversary with the MSO coincide with the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth is special for me personally because of the unique opportunities I had to work with this great American musician.” 

DeMain, who premiered Bernstein’s opera “A Quiet Place” in Houston, adds: “The first half of the concert celebrates Lenny the composer, culminating in the first performance by the MSO of his second symphony, The Age of Anxiety, which has a dazzling and at times jazzy part for the piano, and carries with it, still, a timely social statement. Christopher Taylor (below), a Madison favorite with whom I have often enjoyed collaborating, will perform the challenging and exciting piano part.”

DeMain describes the final work in the program: “The second half of the concert pays tribute to Lenny the conductor, and his life-long love of Beethoven. Since the Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92, was the last piece Lenny conducted, I thought it would be the perfect way to celebrate Lenny and his great contribution to American musical life.” (NOTE: You can hear Bernstein conduct the famous second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 during his last public performance, just two months before he died, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is some more background:

Bernstein’s operetta Candide is based on the 1759 novella by French philosopher Voltaire. The well-known Overture is quick-paced, with a feverish excitement that begins from the first breath of sound. Many of the meters are in seven beats, or of other non-traditional types, and quickly change. Each player of the ensemble is required to perform with simultaneously the utmost virtuosity and togetherness.

On the Town is a dance-centric musical scored by Leonard Bernstein based on Jerome Robbins’ idea for the 1944 ballet “Fancy Free.” The story depicts three American sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City during wartime, where each man meets and quickly connects with the woman of their dreams. The musical is the source of the ubiquitously popular show tune New York, New York.

The Age of Anxiety was composed between 1948 and 1949, and is inspired by a poem of the same name by W.H. Auden (below). The 80-page poem follows four lonely strangers who meet in a wartime New York bar and spend the evening ruminating on their lives and the human condition. Subtitled “a baroque eclogue” (a pastoral poem in dialogue form), the characters speak mostly in long soliloquies of alliterative tetrameter, with little distinction among the individual voices.

Composed from 1811–1812, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 premiered with Beethoven (below) himself conducting in Vienna on December 8, 1813 at a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau.

The symphony’s dance elements, vitality and sense of celebration are conveyed principally through rhythm. It is not the melodies that are so striking and memorable as the general sense of forward movement.

The Overture lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive EARLY for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online. Go to: http://bit.ly/nov2018programnotes

Tickets can be purchased in the following ways:

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/bernstein\through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Subscribers to 5 or more symphony subscription concerts can save up to 50% off single ticket prices. More information is available about the season at: https://madisonsymphony.org/18-19
  • Flex-Ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 2018-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Find more information at madisonsymphony.org

The Presenting Sponsor for the November concerts is Steinhauer Charitable Trust. Underwriting for Christopher Taylor is provided by Sharon Stark, “to Peter Livingston with love.” Major funding is provided by: Stephen D. Morton, The Gialamas Company, Inc., Myrna Larson, Madison Symphony Orchestra League, and Nancy Mohs. Additional funding is provided by Robert Benjamin and John Fields, Godfrey & Kahn, S.C., and Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo flutist Iva Ugrcic turn in polished performances of a fun program to kick off the new season

October 12, 2018
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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 show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT 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 photo.

By John W. Barker

The opening concert on Wednesday night by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below top), under the baton of Steve Kurr (below bottom), was a relatively brief but pithy one, with only three short works on the program.

The opener was Autumn, the most frequently played section of the ballet The Seasons, Op. 67 (1899), by Alexander Glazunov (below) and one of the composer’s most frequently heard pieces. It is a rondo-like sequence of varied dance movements, full of lyricism and bright colors. The Middleton players dug into it with gusto.

Second came the Flute Concerto in D Major, Op. 283, by the prolific 19th-century German composer Carl Reinecke (1824-1910, below). He was conservative as a teacher and as a prolific composer.

Among his concertos, this one was his last, written just two years before his death. It is an engaging work, not notable for great ideas, but amiable, with a good virtuosic workout for the soloist.

The soloist was the Serbian-born flutist Iva Ugrcic, an absolute whiz of a player, and, among other things, a product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music doctoral program.  She played with super-precision and confidence, giving her instrument great personality.

Without intermission, the concert ended with the Symphony No. 100, known as the “Military,” by Franz Joseph Haydn (below). It was first played in 1794 among the composer’s “London” Symphonies during his second visit to England. But it may well have been begun while he was in Vienna, for it reflects a particular fad popular there.

This was the use in orchestral writing of an adaptation of the sounds of the Turkish Janissary band. In the second movement, whose tune was taken from an earlier chamber work of his, Haydn introduced recurrently the “Turkish” instruments (two clarinets, triangle, cymbals, bass drums) with startling effect.

At the movement’s end, a trumpet call brings these novelties back for a crashing conclusion. And then, in the fourth movement’s ending, the “Janissary” instruments return for another razzle-dazzle finish. (You can hear the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It’s all great fun, and the orchestra players seemed to find their own enjoyment in it.

The MCO continues its steady growth as a polished and reliable ensemble — all 98 players!


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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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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: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra opens its new season this Wednesday night with local flutist Iva Urgcic as soloist in a program of Reinecke, Glazunov and Haydn

October 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The mostly amateur, highly acclaimed and very popular Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its new season this Wednesday night, Oct. 10, at 7:30 p.m.

As usual, the concert will take place in the comfortable Middleton Performing Arts Center (below) that is adjacent to Middleton High School at 210 Bristol Street. Parking is plentiful and free.

Tickets are $15 general admission, but students and children are admitted free. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the auditorium opens at 7 p.m. Advance tickets can be purchased at Willy St. Coop West. Student tickets are available only at the door.

The season includes the “Autumn” section from “The Seasons: by the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov; the Symphony No. 100 by Franz Joseph Haydn; and the rarely heard Flute Concerto in D Major, Op. 283, by Carl Reinecke (1824-1910). (You can hear James Galway playing the first movement of the Reinecke Concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is the Wikipedia entry for Reinecke (below, in a photograph from 1890): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Reinecke

The conductor of this concert is Steve Kurr (below), the MCO’s resident conductor:

The flute soloist is the distinguished and very busy Iva Urgcic (below), who this past year also co-founded the award-winning LunART Festival, a series of new music from all-women composers with all-women performers and poets; and who took over this year as director of the Rural Musicians Forum in Spring Green. She did her graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music where she was a winner in the annual concerto competition.

Also as usual, there will be am informal meet-and-greet reception after the concert.

For more information about how to join or support the Middleton Community Orchestra or to see the concerts and programs for the rest of the 2018-19 season, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org


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