The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Thursday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra closes its season with duo-pianists in music by Mozart and Saint-Saens, and the latter’s “Organ” Symphony. Wednesday is the last Just Bach concert of the season 

May 28, 2019
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ALERT: This Wednesday, May 29, at 1 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, is the last FREE Just Bach concert of the season. The one-hour early music program includes: the cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” (Praise Ye God in All Lands), BWV 51; Duetto II in F Major, BWV 803; and the cantata “Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!” (Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!), BWV 70. For more information, go online to the home website: https://justbach.org

By Jacob Stockinger

This Thursday night, May 30, the largely amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Rupert) will close its ninth season with a special family-friendly concert.

The concert, under the baton of conductor Steve Kurr (below), takes place at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Guest artists are University of Wisconsin-Madison students and duo-pianists Satoko Hayami (below top) and Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom). They will perform the witty and entertaining “Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and then the Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below) will be the narrator in “The Carnival of the Animals.” (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the opening Introduction and Royal March of the Lion, with the late Sir Roger Moore — aka James Bond or 007 — as the narrator plus an all-star cast of musicians and some very cool animal videos in back-and-white.) 

The concert concludes with the always impressive, ambitious and popular Symphony No. 3  — the famous “Organ” Symphony – by Saint-Saens (below, seated at the piano in 1900).

Adds MCO co-founder Mindy Taranto: “We are really excited to share a special concert with the community as we celebrate the end of MCO’s ninth season.

“It took a village to make this concert possible. Farley’s House of Pianos is donating the use of an 1890 Steinway to match the Steinway at the hall. WPR radio host Norman Gilliland is generously volunteering to narrate the ‘Carnival of the Animals’ and Full Compass is offering us a discount on the sound equipment we need to play the “Organ” Symphony. Our very own recording engineer, Alex Ford, is playing the organ.

“Please bring your kids and share this information to invite all students free of charge to hear this concert.”

Admission is $15 for adults; all students get in for free. Tickets are available at the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the auditorium opens at 7 p.m.

As usual, after the concert there will be a free meet-and-greet reception for musicians and the public.

For more information about this concert, and about how to join or support the Middleton Community Orchestra, call 608 212-8690 or go online to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org


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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: UW choral groups and a jazz quintet join forces Saturday night for a FREE concert of world premieres to honor the bicycle

April 27, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an announcement from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music:

A FREE concert — called ”Free Wheeling: A Tribute to the Bicycle” – takes place this Saturday night at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The UW Madrigal Singers (below) and Chorale, under the direction of Bruce Gladstone, will join forces with a jazz group.

The concert opens with five world premieres, written specifically for this concert.

“I was surprised, given the bicycle’s popularity, that there weren’t many choral works about bikes,” noted Gladstone (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot). “It seems to be more the domain of the solo popular ballad or rock bands. There are loads of poems about bikes though, so I just commissioned new works from composers I know.”

There are two works from John Stevens (below), veteran composer and UW-Madison emeritus professor. “Toasting Song” is a rollicking number about the pleasures of both cycling and wine. “A Bicycler’s Song” takes a poem in praise of bicycles and cycling and sets it in a vocal jazz idiom reminiscent of the Manhattan Transfer.

UW-Madison alumus and former Madrigal Singer Scott Gendel (below) also provided two new works for this event. “She Waits for Me” is a lush ballad that celebrates the joys of love and loyalty, while “Little Things” offers us a cautionary tale of a cyclist’s visit to church one Sunday morning.

Carl Buttke, a current graduate student, composed the fifth new work for this concert, a picturesque tale of a memorable day spent in the Austrian Alps, “Cycling the Rosental.”

The program will also include a fast and fun work for women’s voices, “The Bike Let Loose,” by composer Edie Hill.

This concert occurs at the end of the School of Music’s Jazz Week by design, since the major work in the concert is scored for massed choirs and jazz quintet.

The singers are joined by the UW’s Blue Note Ensemble (below top), directed by UW professor Johannes Wallmann (below middle), for a performance of “Song Cycle” by Alexander L’Estrange (below bottom and in the YouTube video at the bottom).

The work was written in 2014 for the grand start of the Tour de France in York, England. Comprised of 10 movements, the work looks at the invention of the bicycle, the social changes that it wrought, and the joys that cycling offers to all.

It’s a charming and witty trip that is fun for the whole family, even giving the audience an opportunity to sing along.

The concert is free and all are encouraged to wear their favorite biking togs and join in the fun!


Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players perform rarely heard repertoire this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

January 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their 2017-2018 season series “Journey” with a concert titled Horizon on this Saturday, Jan. 13, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 14, at 2 p.m.

As the group often does, it will present a program of old and new works by composers who are rarely heard or performed.

Both concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on the city’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors and $5 for students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

Sunset 1892 by Michael Mikulka is a musical interpretation of a painting by influential American landscape artist George Inness. (Below is another sunset painting, “Sunset Montclair – 1892,” by George Inness, whose work can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.)

The pastoral colors are represented musically in an evocative manner by the warm timbres of the clarinet and the viola interwoven with pianistic light and shadow. An emerging American composer, Mikulka (below) saw his piece win the grand prize in a 2008 competition. (You can hear it, and see the original inspiration, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Serenade for Five Instruments by Italian composer Alfredo Casella (below) was written for a music composition contest in 1927. It nimbly combines the contrasting sounds of the clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, and cello. His musical style is attributed in part to the influence of his avid appreciation for visual art.

This piece was one of the composer’s favorites and is a delightful work with five short contrasting movements that range from lilting to witty to sweetly melodic. Casella studied with Gabriel Faure and was film composer Nino Rota’s composition teacher. (Rota is famous and most familiar for his soundtracks for movies by Federico Fellini, but he also composed a lot of outstanding chamber music.)

Quintet for Winds and Piano by Swiss composer Hans Huber (below) was premiered in 1918 and written for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon.

Listeners will perceive the influence of Brahms and Schumann in his Romantic style. However, Huber definitely shows individual flair in his approach. The four-movement work is spirited and captivating, and features each of the instruments over the course of the composition with an obvious talent for virtuosic piano writing throughout its entirety.

Guest instrumentalists are Jason Kutz, piano (below); Ariel Garcia, viola; and Halie Brown, trumpet.

The members of the Oakwood Chamber Players (above) are Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Nancy Mackenzie, clarinet; Amanda Szczys, bassoon; Anne Aley, horn; Leyla Sanyer, violin; and Maggie Darby Townsend, cello.

This is the third of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2017-2018 season series entitled Journey. Remaining concerts will take place on March 10 and 11; and May 19 and 20.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have played with other ensembles such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.


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