April 21st, 2016

Early Music Now, Stile Antico, “Sacred or Profane?”

Saturday evening, April 16th, we went to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee for Early Music Now’s presentation of the concert “Sacred or Profane?” by British vocal music group Stile Antico.

There was quite a full house for this performance, and we were glad to find out that the Cathedral has marvelous acoustics. The singers gathered at various points in the building during the concert, and could be heard as clearly from any one point as any other. The Cathedral’s relative lack of echo made the sound very clean and it was easy to pick out individual voices. On the other hand, it was pleasing how rich and full four, nine, or twelve voices sounded in the space.

The theme of the concert dealt with how secular tunes have been adopted into liturgical music. The concert began with the group processing in as the male singers chanted L’homme arme (“The Armed Man”), a martial chanson that may have its origin in the Crusades. A popular tune, it was adapted for liturgical music more than once, and the group gave us one of the earliest known versions, the Kyrie from the Missa L’homme arme, by Guillaume Dufay, in which the song appears strongly in the baritone line with intricate counterpoint in the other voices.

The lyricist Aquilino Coppini of the opinion that any good music, given appropriately spiritual words, could be rendered acceptable to God and the saints, and Coppini “rendered” a number of tunes from the highly secular madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi. We heard four, interspersed through the program, beginning with Rutilante in nocte, which came next.

The (literally) profane song, Entre vous filles de quinze ans, (“You fifteen-year old girls”) by Jacob Clemens non Papa, was adapted as part of the Gloria from Orlando Lassus’ Missa Entrevous.

Clement Janequin’s long and --- song, La guerre, notable for its “battle music” and vocal recreation of the sounds of warfare, became a basis for the Credo from the Missa pro Victoria, by Tomas Luis de Victoria.

The Monteverdi/Coppini Plorate amare ended the first half.

The second section began with Westron Wynde, a very old British tune. Georgie in particular was very interested in this piece, having read several references to it, but never having heard it.  John Taverner was among other composers that made use of it, putting it into the Sanctus and the Benedictus from the Western Wynde Mass.

Monteverdi and Coppini followed, with O Jesu mea vita.

Mille regretz (A Thousand Regrets), a sad song by Josquin des Prez, was used in the Agnus Dei in the Missa Mille regretz, by Christobal de Morales.

Another adapted madrigal, Qui laudes tuas cantat, followed.

The evening ended with the pairing of Mort et fortune (“Death and Luck”) by Nicolas Gombert, and its adaptation into the solemn Magnificat tertii toni super Mort et fortune, by Orlando Lassus.

The Stile Antico singers perform a cappella, grouping and regrouping into ensembles and sections as the musics require. Every voice was clear, pure and beautiful. We were extremely glad to have been able to enjoy this concert, which was an aesthetic joy in addition to its historical interest.

Prior to the concert, we had dinner at Sake Tumi, the Asian fusion restaurant nearby on North Milwaukee Street. We dined on tempura green beans, pork gyoza (pot stickers), “dancing shrimp’, and teriyaki chicken, all from the “small plates” section of the menu. Everything was excellent. The tempura batter for the green beans was a bit heavier and firmer than we were used to, but very flavorful and delicious and the beans appropriately crisp. The pork dumplings were delicately flavored and very good.

“Dancing shrimp” are crisp-fried wonton cups, filled with a creamy mixture of steamed shrimp,  kani kama (“imitation crab meat” or pollock), cucumber, masago (capelin roe), & sriracha mayonnaise, which was tasty and excellent. The teriyaki chicken was perfectly prepared.

Service at the early dining hour of 5 PM was fast and friendly, and the prices very reasonable. Recommended for the adventurous diner.


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Madison Opera, “The Tales of Hoffman”

Seeing that the Madison Opera was doing “Tales of Hoffman,” one of our favorites, we drove over to Madison for the matinee performance, Sunday, April 17th.

The opera begins with the prolog set in the tavern Hoffman (Harold Meers) frequents. Once Hoffman is prevailed upon to regale the customers with the stories of his lost loves, the set opens up, and the set pieces for the first act story of Olympia move in, as though conjured forth by Hoffman’s story telling, a conceit that we thought worked very well, with the tavern guests becoming the guests at Spalanzani’s party.

The same idea was followed in Act Two, the story of Antonia. No chorus is called for in this scene, so the customers form an on-stage audience. In Act Three, the customers are the carnival revelers.

Act One is the most fantastic of the acts, presented in candy colors, with Spalanzani (Robert A. Goderich), Cochenille (Jared Rogers), and Coppelius (Morgan Smith, who also sings Lindorf, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto) portrayed as cartoonish mad scientists. Jeni Houser presents Olympia as much more of a “dancing doll” than a credible automation, but, given this choice of interpretation, did very well with it. Her ability to hold postures and expressions was first rate, and she handled the difficult vocal part flawlessly.

Act Two is a bit less fantastic but more dark. Sian Davies sings the role of Antonia, the ill young woman whose desire to sing exceeds her body’s strength. The scene is lightened somewhat by Mr. Rogers’ comic song as the servant Frantz, but goes dark again at the entrance of the vampiric Dr. Miracle, whose power over Antonia forces her to her death. A particularly effective and creepy effect was the apparition of Antonia’s mother. I had thought the statue on stage was merely a prop and that the mother’s voice would come from offstage as it frequently does when her image is represented by a portrait. Thus I was genuinely surprised when the statue, like a Dr. Who “Weeping Angel” came to life. (Kelsey Park sang and acted the role of the statue.)

Act Three, the carnival of Venice scene, made a linkage back to the 20’s era dress of the chorus, by costuming Giulietta (Ms. Davies, who also sings Stella in the epilogue) as a silent-movie Cleopatra with gestures that might have been borrowed from Theda Bara in that role.

The Epilogue had a very original and redemptive staging. Commonly, the drunken and passed-out Hoffman is left on stage, alone except for Nicklausse/the Muse (Adriana Zabala) possessively watching over him. In this production, the Muse summons back characters from the prior scenes, and Hoffman, reconciling his memories, begins to write furiously in his notebook as the curtain falls.

This was a really fine production in all respects, which we enjoyed greatly. Kudos in particular to the inventiveness of Stage Director Kristine McIntyre and Scenic Designer Erhard Rom. All of the singers were in excellent voice, and the orchestra, conducted John DeMain, and the chorus, lead by Anthony Cao, were the equal of any.

After the opera, we went down State Street to Kabul Restaurant, a favorite stop for us in Madison. This was our second visit to their new location, and we were pleased to see that the operation has tightened up to old standards. And, speaking of old standards, we chose familiar dishes, lamb kabobs and Koftachalow (Afghani meatballs), which were flavorful and did not disappoint.

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