Tag Archives: Mozart

Present Music celebrates Mozart’s modern successors

Milwaukee’s Present Music ensemble helps kick off another year of fine arts, with a season-opening concert that will bring together the largest ensemble Present Music has ever hosted. It’ll also be bringing together the company’s love for chamber music’s classical roots and its passion for contemporary works.

Deceptively titled Mozart?!, this concert features only one work by the legendary classical composer. But marketing director Erin Woehlke says that’s intentional, as artistic director Kevin Stalheim is hoping to depict the parallels between Wolfgang Amadeus and 20th-century composers Luciano Berio and John Adams. Woehlke says, “There’s more connections between the three men than it would seem on the initial surface and we plan to showcase those similarities.”

Berio and Adams have explicitly cited Mozart as an influence, with Adams going so far to say that it was learning about the Austrian composer that inspired him to start composing as a young child. One of the two Adams works included on the concert, Grand Pianola Music, bears some notable similarities to the concert’s single Mozart work, his Gran Partita, including the shared initial starting key of E flat major. 

Adams also has commented that his Grand Pianola was “subconscious music,” in which the listener was hearing a blur of sounds. “This is much like what one would hear crossing through a music school with the different styles played simultaneously. Mozart is among those referenced in this sonic blur,” explains Woehlke.

As a composer, Berio sought to encourage the virtuosity of performance, much like Mozart did in his vocal and instrumental works. Berio’s compositions of this sort are evident in a series of pieces, Sequenzas, which he composed as solo, virtuosic works. This particular concert will feature “Sequenza VIII,” a solo piece for violin. 

This concert will be Present Music’s biggest yet, featuring 23 musicians and three vocalists. “Usually we perform with a smaller group, but this is much different,” Woehlke says. “This larger-scale event sets the scene for a season that will indeed be larger than life in many aspects.”

Among the other five Present Music concerts this season are the Oct. 24 Carnival concert, featuring 2015 Grammy winner Cory Smythe, and the March 20 Equinox: Light and Dark, another combination of classical and contemporary works by composers including Antonio Vivaldi, Andrew Normon, Judd Greenstein and Robert Honstein.

Mozart?! brings together three great men — a minimalist, an experimentalist and a master — all for one night only. “Regardless of your music taste, this is the concert for you,” Woehlke says. “This event proves that classical music is not old or outdated, but is alive and thriving in new music. It’s incredibly exciting, and a reminder of the power of music to transcend time.”


Present Music’s Mozart?! concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 5 at the Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd., Milwaukee. Tickets are $35, $25 or $15, with half-price discounts for students at presentmusic.org.

Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society is creative explosion

Anyone who thinks chamber music is stately, stodgy and, in some cases, somnolent has never seen the seasonal performances offered by Madison’s Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society. 

This year’s program, dubbed “23 Skidoo” to celebrate BDDS’s 23rd year, is offering performances of 28 compositions by 22 composers from Brahms and Mozart to Antonin Dvořák, Arnold Bax and film scorer Nino Rota, with a healthy dose of Impressionists sandwiched in between.

In addition to co-founders and co-artistic directors Stephanie Jutt on flute and Jeffrey Sykes on piano, this year’s iteration of BDDS includes 15 other musicians from around the world giving 12 performances over nine days in three different venues, including the historic Hillside Theatre at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin estate outside of Spring Green. All of that activity in less than a month must make this group the state’s most energetic traveling band.

“Wow, I never counted it all up before,” says Jutt, who also serves as principal flutist for the Madison Symphony Orchestra and as faculty member at the UW-Madison School of Music. “Putting together the season is like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle, except the pieces change size and shape as you work with them, and you don’t know what picture you’re aiming for.”

The concert series will be held over three consecutive weekends — June 13–15, June 20–22 and June 27–29. In addition to the Hillside School, The Playhouse at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts and the historic Stoughton Opera House in Stoughton will hold performances.

In terms of content, BDDS has centuries of artists to choose from, ranging from Baroque master J.S. Bach, for whom the group is named, to contemporary names in composition. This year’s program includes the “Quartet in A minor for Flute, Viola and Piano” by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, one of J.S. Bach’s 20 children, in honor of C.P.E. Bach’s 300th birth anniversary.

The playlist over the three weekends also includes four compositions by Maurice Ravel, three by tango composer Astor Piazzolla, and one each by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Dmitri Shostakovich, Witold Lutoslawski, Aaron Jay Kernis and a host of others. Variety is one of the things that gives BDDS its momentum, says Jutt.

“We’ve never been big fans of the ‘wall-to-wall Mozart’ types of concerts,” says Jutt. “Maybe Jeff and I don’t have the patience, but maybe we just love variety, juxtaposition of styles, and unusual elements in new combinations — just the way a great chef does in your favorite restaurant. It makes for a concert-going experience that is constantly surprising while being at the same time comforting and familiar.”

Of course, there is a bit of Mozart on the program. His “Piano Concerto in A Major, No. 23” will be performed at the Stoughton Opera House on Friday, June 20, and then again at the Hillside Theatre on Sunday, June 22. Mozart’s work will share the stage with compositions by Brahms, Piazzolla, Antonio Vivaldi and 19th-century American composer Amy Beach.

BDDS draws its name from the original Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society that still performs in Half Moon Bay, California, south of San Francisco. Jutt is from the Bay Area, and Sykes currently calls it home. He serves as a department of music faculty member for both the University of California, Berkeley, and California State University, East Bay. 

The California BDDS, which offers performances throughout the summer, has evolved to include jazz, blues and hip-hop. But this year the program also is sharing several musicians with its Madison counterpart, according to Jutt.

“Pianist Jeffrey Sykes, violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fontaneau have a separate chamber music group called the San Francisco Piano Trio, because they all live and work in San Francisco,” Jutt explains. “We try to make a special place for this ensemble within our festival, and they will be performing trios by Shostakovich and Dvořák this year.”

A relatively unknown Charlie Chaplin silent short, The Count, is to be shown during two of this year’s concerts. During the four-minute film, BDDS members will accompany live with Darius Milhaud’s “Le boeuf sur le toit for piano four-hands.”

“We’re very interested in any kind of collaboration with other artists, which is why we’ve had visual artists every single year of our festival,” Jutt says. “We’ve done several collaborations with video artists with varying degrees of success. Some of the audiences love to see abstract images floating past while listening to music and some people just can’t stand it.”

Milhaud’s work originally was a film score written to accompany a Chaplin film, one of many he wrote for French cinema primarily during the 1930s, ’40s and even as late as 1970. (A version of the work for violin and piano matched to a 16-minute version of The Count can be viewed on YouTube

Jutt and Sykes see the blend of music and cinema as one more arts hybrid that fits neatly into BDDS’s creative esthetic.

“We agree with the old French expression chacun sa chance, which simply means ‘everyone gets a chance,’” Sykes says. “We want see how we can combine art forms and come up with something new and wonderful, as Milhaud did with his film score.”


Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus is a fictional tale based on the true rivalry between 18th-century composer Antonio Salieri and his greatest rival — the gifted but uncouth young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri begins the play as a devout Catholic entranced by the compositions of rising star Mozart. But upon discovering that Mozart’s angelic music doesn’t come from an angelic mind, Salieri renounces his faith and embarks on a journey to keep Mozart’s genius from ever being realized. It’s a journey that threatens to destroy Salieri as well. The World’s Stage Theatre Company presents the show at the beautiful Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, 2220 N. Terrace Ave., Milwaukee. Tickets are $25, $22 for seniors and $18 for students. You can order online at amadeus.bpt.me. For more information, visit World’s Stage on Facebook.

Thurs., March 13 to Sun., March 23

Madison company combines humor with classical music

The founders of Madison’s Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society see their role of bringing classical chamber music to the masses as, ahem, an annual mission of mirth-y. Their sense of playfulness extends to the name that Jeffrey Sykes and Stephanie Jutt chose for their 22nd series of summer concerts: “Deuces Are Wild.”

“Studies have shown that people moved to laugh are also open to more fully experiencing other emotions,” says Sykes, a pianist who serves on the music faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, and California State University, East Bay. “When our audiences laugh at something we do or say, we feel their energy and engagement change for the better, and that engagement often remains in place when we’ve moved on to some serious music.”

The founders of Madison’s Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society see their role of bringing classical chamber music to the masses as, ahem, an annual mission of mirth-y. Their sense of playfulness extends to the name that Jeffrey Sykes and Stephanie Jutt chose for their 22nd series of summer concerts: “Deuces Are Wild.”

“Studies have shown that people moved to laugh are also open to more fully experiencing other emotions,” says Sykes, a pianist who serves on the music faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, and California State University, East Bay. “When our audiences laugh at something we do or say, we feel their energy and engagement change for the better, and that engagement often remains in place when we’ve moved on to some serious music.”

BDDS’ six concerts are performed in three locations over three June weekends. This year the musical program embraces a gambling theme, with titles such as “Follow Suit,” “Lost in the Shuffle,” “Stacked Deck” and “Poker Face.”

But there is nothing funny about the music, which includes works ranging from Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart to Kenji Bunch, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and out composer Ned Rorem. 

“We look to balance works that are new and old, familiar and unfamiliar, short and long,” Sykes says. “One of the great things about BDDS concerts is that if you hear something you don’t like, just hang on for a minute. Something different will be coming your way soon.”

In addition to presenting programs peppered with door prizes, standup comedy and even origami lessons, BDDS employs a cadre of top-shelf performers. Like Sykes, Jutt has ties to academia as well as a serious performance history. She’s a professor of flute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and principal flautist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. 

This year’s roster of 13 revolving guest performers includes Jean-Michel Fontenau, cellist with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; Emily Birsan, soprano with the Chicago Lyric Opera; Carmit Zori, violinist and artistic director with the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Chamber Music Society; Axel Strauss, professor of violin with the Schulich School of Music at Montreal’s McGill University; and John DeMain, pianist and maestro of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

“Stephanie and I both play with a lot of different musicians, and when we find people we enjoy working with, we consider inviting them to BDDS,” Sykes says. “We have a list of about 1,000 musicians we’d love to have.”

This year’s performance venues include the Playhouse at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St. The setting provides the group with a thrust stage and support for shows requiring more theatrical effects, Sykes says. The Stoughton Opera House, 381 E. Main St. in Stoughton, is also on the bill. That venue offers a beautifully restored period opera house with a traditional proscenium stage.

The Hillside School Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, CHY 23 just south of Spring Green, may provide the most historically significant setting. Wright designed and built the structure in 1902 for his aunts who wanted to run a boarding school. It became the first of what is now the Taliesin campus of historic Wright buildings. 

“The audience is so close that sometimes we can reach out and touch them!” Sykes says of Hillside. “The acoustics are wonderful, but it’s tricky to do anything special with lighting or staging there.”

Still, on a warm summer night sparkling with fireflies, there is something magical about a BBDS performance. Maybe that’s because the concerts are a labor of love.

“Stephanie, Samantha (Crownover) and I do all this hard work because there is nothing we find more fun and satisfying than this summer chamber music festival,” Sykes says. “It is our passion, it is our calling.”

Dueling Mozarts | Two operas show contrasting sides of the master

During his brief life, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart changed the very nature of symphonic and chamber music, as well as opera. In the next few weeks, Wisconsin fans will be treated to contrasting sides of the master’s operatic style, as Wisconsin’s premier opera companies mount two of his greatest works.

Madison Opera leads the way, closing its 2012-13 season with a production of “Don Giovanni” on April 26 and April 28. Next month, Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera ends its season with May 10 and May 12 performances of “The Marriage of Figaro,” the opera Mozart wrote immediately prior to “Don Giovanni.” 

The works show the composer in two different lights, according to Madison music writer Jacob Stockinger, author of the daily classical music blog “The Well-Tempered Ear.” “Figaro” is lighter and the narrative more forgiving of its characters, while “Giovanni” has an undeniable darkness. Yet both works contain elements of the other, with music and emotions that run deeper than a first hearing might reveal.

“Figaro” was written in 1786, when Mozart was 30. The composer wrote “Giovanni” in 1787, four years before his death. The two operas share the same librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, who also supplied the libretto for Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutti.”

Do the two works mark an autobiographical progression in the composer’s life? And if so, what do they tell us about him? Stockinger turned to Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director, and William Florescu, Florentine Opera’s general director, for answers to these and other questions.

Jacob Stockinger: “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” share similarities, yet they represent very different sides of the composer. Is one opera superior to the other? 

William Florescu: Well, of course, “Figaro” is superior!  But, kidding aside, “Giovanni” feels more like it looks back to the Baroque era, whereas “Figaro” is more a look to the future.  However, at the end of the day, they are both towering masterpieces that explore various facets of human existence through matchless music.

Kathryn Smith: Since I have frequently gone on record naming “Figaro” as my favorite opera, I can’t now claim “Don Giovanni” is superior. However, there are people who think it is, and one or the other is always in any opera lover’s top 10 list. I don’t necessarily agree that “Giovanni” is a look back and “Figaro” a look forward – I think Mozart wrote music to suit the story – but I second the “towering masterpieces” statement. 

Listeners often are exposed to “music box Mozart” – that precise, delicate and memorable quality – without thinking about the artistry and depth of the greater works. How do the two operas expand the listeners’ knowledge of Mozart as both an artist and a man?

WF: Well put! Mozart is much meatier and richer than the music-box label allows.  In “Giovanni,” moments like Anna’s “Non mi dir” show a musical and dramatic depth that frankly have not been equaled. In “Figaro,” the Count’s final “Contessa perdono,” where he begs for his wife’s forgiveness, is both musically and dramatically poignant and ironic, since you know he’ll be back at it the next day. These moments in Mozart are what make him immortal in my opinion.

KS: I’ve never heard the phrase “music box Mozart,” and I don’t particularly like it – even the piano pieces he wrote at age seven are more than that. But I would agree that his music in these two operas shows an emotional depth that those who only know his orchestral music may not know. The “Contessa perdono” moment is the definition of sublime.

Based on what we know about Mozart, was he more like Figaro or Don Giovanni? 

WF: The knee-jerk answer here is Giovanni, though I would say in reality Figaro, because, like Figaro, he was always in the employ of those in power. Da Ponte the librettist, on the other hand, from what we read, was much more like Giovanni!

KS: I would say neither. The characters are so well written and three-dimensional, they reflect Mozart’s character because they reflect parts of all of us. 

It’s been said that “Figaro” and “Giovanni” were revolutionary and subversive in their time, each in its own way. Do you think this is true? 

WF: I suppose this is true musically. From a political standpoint, Mozart and Da Ponte took much of the politics out of “Figaro.” Dramatically, the pieces were subversive because in both cases nobles were shown in less-than-flattering light, and the character Figaro breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience.

KS: I concur on “Figaro.” The Pierre Beaumarchais play (on which the opera is based) is vastly more political than the opera, with some very specific speeches that Mozart and Da Ponte omitted. On the other hand, the play was banned in Vienna but the opera was not, so perhaps it was necessary editing to get even the minor points across.

Mozart has been described as a “tipping point,” after which classical music was never the same. Did he revolutionize music, and how is that represented in the two operas?

WF: Like Bach, Mozart took the popular forms of the day and expanded them to their farthest point, which then opened the door to the Romantic era that followed.  Mozart took the recitative form and made it orchestral at times throughout the score, which of course led to the concept of through-composed operas. From a dramatic standpoint, Mozart assured that the subject matter of operas in the future would be about real people rather than only the nobility, and that gods and goddesses as subject matter were pretty much a dead issue.

KS: I think Bill said it well, although I would add that Mozart was a working musician. Some of what he wrote, he wrote in order to get paid. That so much of his work is brilliant testifies to his genius, but he also composed to pay the bills.

What is the most important aspect audiences will take away from your productions?

WF: A simple answer here really – Mozart’s humanity and his ability to express it musically and dramatically.  This fits everything we’ve been talking about.

KS: Again, I agree. Mozart tells us more about who we are – the good and the bad – than any other composer has before or since. At the same time, the pieces are entertainment. If you don’t want to spend the evening thinking deep thoughts – and sometimes we don’t – then Mozart provides musical theater that one can simply enjoy. 

WF: Mozart knew what classical composers in later times have sometimes forgotten – art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive.


Madison Opera ends its season with a production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” on April 26 and 28, at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. Go to www.madisonopera.org.

The Florentine Opera ends its season with two performances of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” May 10 and May 12 in Uihlein Hall in Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Go to www.floretineopera.org.

‘Idomeneo’ is the best Mozart people don’t know

Anyone who has ever made a deal with the devil knows the odds are not stacked in his favor. But a deal with Neptune, the god of sea, apparently is no picnic, either.

At least that’s what Idomeneo, the king of ancient Crete, discovers in Mozart’s opera of the same name. Sacrifices, oracles, shipwrecks and a sea monster who won’t take “no” for an answer join with the composer’s beautiful melodies in “Idomeneo,” which closes the Florentine Opera’s 2011-12 season. The opera is performed May 18 and May 20 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Uihlein Hall in Milwaukee.

Mozart was only 24 in 1780 when he composed “Idomeno,” his first “opera seria” and his first major work. The style had begun falling out of favor in Europe, but nevertheless Karl Theodor, the elector of Bavaria, commissioned Mozart and librettist and court chaplain Giambattista Varesco to compose the opera for a court carnival. History suggests that Elector Theodor probably chose the topic of the opera as well.

Varesco tended to employ choruses and styles more in alignment with French music of the period, and Mozart is credited with drawing the opera, sung in Italian, back to its Italian roots. Through this work, the young composer also demonstrated his mastery of orchestral color, melodic line and accompanied recitatives, the latter of which sets “Idomeneo” apart from other operas of its type, according to William Florescu, the Florentine’s general director.

“Mozart’s mastery of the recitativo accompagnato – those recitatives accompanied by the orchestra rather than the harpsichord – are musically and dramatically profound, and far beyond anything anyone else wrote in the style,” says Florescu. “And like all Mozart, regardless of style, the composer imbues a classical tale of antiquity with a humanity that resonates even today.”

To help the opera further resonate with today’s audiences, stage director and production designer John La Bouchardiere has updated the production to a more contemporary period and employs video technology to add greater dimension to the story. The English-born La Bouchardiere made his Floretine Opera debut directing Handel’s “Semele” in 2009. He is also a filmmaker who directed “The Full Monteverdi,” based on a live production of Claudio Monteverdi’s fourth book of madrigals.

“Idomeneo” often is updated in performance, but adding the element of video has made the production more challenging, Florescu says.

“The production employs elements of video projection as well as live video, and is cast in a non-specific modern-day way,” Florescu says. “This piece resonates in so many ways for modern audiences because of the unfortunate timeless conflicts between people and how love and fidelity both complicate and help heal those situations.”

Tenor Arturo Chacon Cruz, who performed the part of the Duke of Mantua in the Florentine’s 2010 production of “Rigoletto,” will play Idomeneo. Having been mentored by both Placido Domingo and Ramon Vargas, Cruz has gained a global following since his 2001 introduction.

Soprano Georgia Jarmin, familiar to Florentine audiences from several previous productions, plays Elettra, and mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, who also appeared in “Semele,” performs the role of Idamante.

The impressive collection of talent combined with the contemporary treatment makes the Florentine’s sea- son closer possibly the highlight of the season, Florescu says.

“This is an absolutely world-class cast of singing actors and chorus that should not be missed by any veteran or newcomer to opera,” Florescu says. “‘Idomeneo’ is the best Mozart that most people don’t know!”