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MSO musically explains Elgar’s “Engima”

March 19, 2018

Knowledge of any kind is designed to enlighten and inform. The Madison Symphony Orchestra took time on March 18 to expand our knowledge and try and unravel one of classical music’s greatest “enigmas.”

MSO didn’t fully succeed – no one really thought they would nor did they themselves expect to do so – but in the process delivered one of its most engaging performances this season.

Tapping into Beyond the Score, a program developed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that MSO has used before, the orchestra explored Sir Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, better known as the “Enigma” Variations. Helping Maestro john DeMain and his musicians were American Players Theatre actors James Ridge, Kelsey Brennan and Brian Mani, Wisconsin Public Radio announcer Norman Gilliland, and pianist Dan Lyons.

Composed between 1898-1899, the “Enigma” Variations consists of 14 variations on a simple theme, each of which is meant to musically illustrate the characteristics of one of 13 of Elgar’s friends and family members. The only hints as to their identities were the initials listed in front of each variation.

In addition, Elgar implied that there was a much lager, hidden theme present in the 29:00 composition that is never performed but should be evident to those who knew him. Scholars have postulated that that theme may be anything from A Mighty Fortress is Our God to Auld Lang Syne to a theme from Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte. Elgar never divulged the theme, which made Sunday’s performance that much more fun.

The heart of any Beyond the Score performance is the ability to tell a good story, and Elgar’s humorous personality and intriguing musical puzzle made this performance particular compelling. Actor Ridge led the troupe, creating a portrait of Elgar that was equal parts patrician and prankster. Bringing the composer so effectively to life helped the audience understand and appreciate the man behind the music, in this case a natural joker who quite enjoyed the puzzle he had created.

Brennan and Mani followed Ridge’s lead, creating multiple characters that added depth and breadth to Elgar’s world as described by Gilliland’s narration. Lyons played Elgar’s hands at the keyboard, while Ridge looked attentively on during the musical interludes.

MSO also helped musically illustrate the measures during the hour-long first half devoted to discussion and explanation. The creative and largely black-and-white film footage, scratched and marked to resemble old movie film, created the backdrop that further exposed the audience members to Elgar’s turn-of-the-20th-Century world.

MSO’s performance in full of the “Enigma” Variations filled the program’s second half, reminding us of the beauty behind the composer’s riddle. The interpretation exhibited the orchestra’s usual finesse as the variation moved from major to minor scales and from soft, lyrical passages to comedic gallops.

If there was ever a perfect blend between story and music, this was most definitely it. All parties are to be congratulated on an outstanding performance. At least, that’s what the enthusiastic response of the nearly sold-out house seemed to indicate.




Broadway’s “Beast” a Real Beauty at Overture

January 15, 2016

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
, the Broadway musical adaptation of the 1991 animated film feature, opened to a near sell-out crowd at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wis., Wednesday night. The “tale as old as time” closely follows the animated film’s story of a beautiful young woman, Belle, (Brooke Quintana) who lives with her eccentric inventor father, Maurice (Thomas Mothershed) in a small provincial town somewhere in France. Belle is pursued by Gaston (Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek), the handsome – if egotistical — young hunter who believes outward appearances define one’s worth. Belle’s encounter with the Beast, really a prince under the spell of an enchantress, occurs after the Beast imprisons her father for trespassing. Belle volunteers to trade places with her father in the enchanted castle. So the adventure begins.

As you may recall, the Beast is not the only one who has been affected by the evil spell cast upon him when he refused entry to his castle by an ugly hag. All of the servants were also placed under the spell. Luminere (Ryan N. Phillips) the talking candellabra, Cogsworth (Samuel Shurtleff), the talking clock, Mrs. Potts (Stephanie Gray), and her adorable son chip (Kadence Edwards or Deandre Horner, depending on the performance) the teapot, Babette (Melissa Jones), the duster, and of course, Madame de la Grand Bouche (Stephanie Harter Gilmore), the wardrobe.


The musical is technically interesting in its use of puppets similar to those used in the Broadway musical, Lion King. The transition of the Beast into the handsome prince is visually interesting and very well done. But what stands out in this production is the quality of the singers/dancers. As the production opened, I wondered how they would handle “Be Our Guest”, the no-holds-barred number that features whirling candlesticks, knives, forks, spoons, plates, cups and saucers singing and dancing to the delight of Belle. I assumed that it would be omitted. But I was wrong. In a brilliant array of dancing cutlery and china, the musical troupe pulled off the number in a delightful display of movement and color.

There were other highlights in the production as well. Gaston (Smith-Kotlarek) is hilarious as he saunters and swaggers his way across stage trying to win Belle’s attention. She isn’t impressed. Gaston and his sidekick Lefou (Matt Dasilva) plot, preen, and provoke throughout the production providing a refreshing reflection at the true nature of beauty. Is it physical appearance? Or is it the more subtle intellect, heart, and soul of a person? The answer lies in the story, and the touring troupe does a magnificent job of telling it.

Gaston and Lefou


Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through Sunday, January 17, 2016 at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison, Wis.


Extra! Extra! Newsies Offers High Kicking Fun!

September 16, 2015

             Some days we’re just happy that our newspaper carrier can get the daily edition to our door on time. We had no idea how well some of them are able to dance.

Newsies, the 2012 Tony award winner for best choreography and musical score opened at Madison’s Overture Center on September 15th to a near sell-out crowd. The energy was electric, the music upbeat, and the dancing phenomenal.

Based on the book Children of the City by David Nasaw, the musical tells the story of how a group of young newspaper sellers — ‘newsies’ — organized a strike against New York World editor Joseph Pulitzer when he increased their price of newspapers from 50 cents to 60 cents for every hundred newspapers they tried to sell.

Newsies takes place in Lower Manhattan in the year 1899. The United States is experiencing explosive economic growth and consequently, child labor was common. Children worked as ‘newsies,’ as well as in slaughterhouses and sweatshops. Led by organizer Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca) under the tutelage of Davey (Jacob Kemp), the newsies organize a union and stop Pulitzer from raising the papers’ price. But the impact of the story goes further because the successful “strike” led to the enactment of child labor laws.

The story begins with “Crutchie” (Zachary Sayle) leaving the rooftop he calls home early in the morning to get the circulation gate to be the first to pick up the day’s papers. He shares the rooftop ‘penthouse’ with Jack, who hears Crutchie and tells him that there are better places to be than Manhattan—and thus the introduction of the signature song in the musical Santa Fe.

The story continues with Jack meeting Katherine (Stephanie Styles), a young female reporter who dreams of writing news stories — not fluffy features — and culminates in, well, you’ll have to go see it for yourself.

While the musical score written by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman has memorable songs such as King of New York and Seize the Day, it is Christopher Gattelli’s choreography and the physical prowess of the dancers that steal the show.

The cast consists of 29 very gifted young singers and dancers. They leap, twirl and tap their way into the hearts of the audience as they take on the newspaper magnate and his henchmen. Indeed, when Gattelli auditioned young men to play the Newsies, he looked for and hired those who were gymnasts or had classical ballet training. The result is a troupe of dances unlike anything you can imagine.
The dancers have two different sets of shoes for the performances—one set is for dancing, the other is for tapping. The tap dancing numbers are entertaining, but the most astounding performance (amidst many astounding performances) is the dance number that takes place at Newsies Square to the musical number “Seize the Day.”

The dancers leap, whirl and use torn newspapers to glide across the stage, as they take on Pulitzer and company. One has to wonder how do they do it without tearing some body part?

The number is both breathtaking and inspiring. It is something you simply have to see to believe. Newsies is playing at the Overture Center in Madison through September 20. For ticket information visit





July 15, 2014

“Well, it’s not far down to paradise, at least not for me….if the wind is right you can sail away…” Christopher Cross’ popular song plays through my head. I remember lying on the floor completing hours and hours of physical therapy listening to that song. Maybe it spoke to me because I couldn’t walk very well after my accident and sailing, well, could ‘take me away to where I always heard it could be…”

 Sometime during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I wanted to become a sailor more than anything. I read books, talked to people, and searched for a way I, too, could learn how to raise the mainsail, reef the jib, tack and jibe…but the words were only words, and my dreams of sailing evaporated into the mist.

A friend of mine at the time told me that her husband took a course at Sailboats, Inc. (  and learned to be a captain in 3 full days on the boat. Yes, there were lessons to complete before you boarded the boat but there was also 3 intense days of sailing where one could go from dreaming about sailing a boat to actually sailing a boat. I looked into Sailboats, Inc. but never pursued my dream. Until now—some dreams won’t be denied…

Mike contacted Colleen Hyde co-owner of Sailboats, Inc. in Bayfied, WI (117 South 1st Street, Bayfield, WI) and planned the 3-day intense training experience. We arrived in Bayfield on a Sunday evening, woke early and went to the Sailboats, Inc. office where our morning of classroom instruction would take place.

We met Colleen, the co-owner (with Lida Malngren) and Sue Holloway, our captain and sailboat instructor. We talked while we waited for 3 other sailing students: Adam and his sons, Andrew (18) and Brigham (16) from Minneapolis who arrived a few minutes later.

The first morning we shared our sailing experiences. Mike and I were novices; Adam, Brigham and Andrew were more seasoned sailors—they owned a Hobie Cat and sailed on a regular basis. Captain Sue told us about the different sailing terms—sailing has its own language and we soon became conversant in ‘luff,’ ‘lines,’  ‘halyard,’ ‘tack,’ ‘jibe,’ and others. Captain Sue also ‘showed us the ropes’ and we learned how to tie a bowline, a half hitch, and a square knot. Then we learned navigation.

 There are 4 kinds of navigation in sailing: celestial, radio navigation, piloting and dead reckoning. We became most familiar with dead reckoning. By looking at a chart (map) one can determine one’s location and how long it will take to get to one’s destination by using time, distance, speed, and course by using a parallel ruler and dividers. The exercises reminded me of a geometry class, and learning how to use dead reckoning techniques was one of my favorite lessons.

Captain Sue and Brigham chart our course to Red Cliff while Andrew looks on,

Captain Sue and Brigham chart our course to Red Cliff while Andrew looks on,

When Captain Sue was confident enough in our budding skills, she took us to our boat, Frolic from Stillwater, MN. Frolic is a Pearson 31-2 and was built a few years before I found myself lying on the floor doing physical therapy singing “Sailing.” She is a beautiful boat with a keel weight of 3,800 pounds and a displacement of 10,000 pounds.

Frolic with Captain Sue, Andrew and Brigham

Frolic with Captain Sue, Andrew and Brigham

I was the first person to take the helm and ever so gingerly left the dock in Bayfield. When we were safely outside of the breakwater we hoisted sail and everyone took their turn at the helm over the 3 hours we spent on the water. It was beautiful. The sky was so blue, the wind so exhilarating. Under sail, I took the helm and soon Frolic had heeled to the starboard side—swiftly moving through the water. The two teenagers on board thought it was great fun to be flying through the water on the side of the boat. At first I was a little afraid that Frolic might heel too far and we would be in the water—but that didn’t happen.

At Frolic's helm

At Frolic’s helm

 On the second day of our sailing instructions, there was no wind, and the weather had turned cloudy and cold. We spent the morning inside the breakwater practicing docking and making tight turns through a series of maneuvers using the engine and either moving forward, or backing up. The buoyancy of the boat allows the slightest movement to be bigger than one would imagine and we learned that it doesn’t take much engine power for Frolic to dock or make a complete turn.

 In the afternoon, the wind picked up and we headed out for open water. Once again, I heeled Frolic over on her starboard side and felt the rush of adrenalin as the wind rushed through my hair. I have never felt so free. As Christopher Cross’ song goes “Just a dream and the wind to carry me…” By the end of the second day, the 5 would-be sailors became not only comfortable with Frolic and Captain Sue, but with each other and our budding sailing skills. We learned to anticipate when we were ‘preparing to come about’ who would manage which ‘sheets and who would stay out of the way.

Mike sits back and enjoys the ride on Frolic

Mike sits back and enjoys the ride on Frolic

We spent a few hours learning how to rescue a ‘man overboard’ (MOB) and were told that in the cold Lake Superior waters, it takes only about 15 minutes of exposure for hypothermia to occur. You must act quickly, and you must act confidently in order to save the person.

 The third day on the water came too soon. We charted our course for a shipwreck near Red Cliff Reservation and anchored for lunch. Again, the day was cold, but the sun was shining brilliantly and the wind was strong enough to carry us to our destination. On the way back, after lunch, I was at the helm and a particularly strong gust of wind hit the sails and Frolic heeled over, again on the starboard side. The wind shifted, the jib sheet flew off the winch and the mainsail boom lurched. Everyone on the boat quickly moved to recover trim the jib and in the activity, the winch handle flew off the boat. We spent the next 45 minutes trying to rescue our  ‘WOB’ (winch over board) and were successful with a bit of ingenuity, a crate, and a boat hook.

Our sailing lessons ended much too soon. As Mike took the helm and headed for the dock, we were all a bit sad for our lessons to be over, but very happy for our days on Frolic with Captain Sue, Adam, Andrew and Brigham. All of us passed our captain’s certification and we are now able to charter a boat without a captain (bare boating). Which we hope to do soon. Very soon. “The canvas can do miracles…just you wait and see….”

Captain Sue and the crew (Adam, Brigham, Mike and Andrew) pose after the last dock.

Captain Sue and the crew (Adam, Brigham, Mike and Andrew) pose after the last dock.

Explore the Door–Day 2

August 28, 2013

We woke early the following day and headed to Door County Coffee and Tea Company ( in Sturgeon Bay—or close to Sturgeon Bay. Door County Coffee and Tea Company is located on the left side of Highway 42 when you’re heading north. And if you don’t know it’s there, you may drive past it—like we did the first few times we visited Door County.

As you walk through the doorway, the first thing you will encounter are all the delicious aromas of freshly roasted coffee, freshly brewed coffee, freshly made pastries, cookies and muffins. The store is divided into retail—coffee beans and tea, the other area serves as the coffee shop where one can order breakfast—or purchase pastries to take on the road—if you’re in a hurry. We recommend you linger awhile, sit back, order breakfast and enjoy the smells. One of our favorites is the baked egg dishes. The recipes are from a local church cookbook and are reminiscent of the egg dishes our grandmothers used to make. I ordered the Baked egg with Cheese and Veggies and Mike ordered the Strata and an order of hash browns to share. The food arrived at our table hot and delicious.

We ate our breakfast slowly and planned our day. While we were discussing our next adventure we met with Vicki Wilson the President and Founder of Door County Coffee and Tea Company. She took us on a brief tour of the roasting facility and told us about how she goes about choosing coffee beans and how they’re roasted. She introduced us to Lou Ann Deprez the roastmaster and when I asked Lou Ann if one should keep coffee in the freezer to maintain its freshness, she told me that the best way to have fresh coffee is to buy only enough for one week. Drink it all, then buy some more.

During breakfast we decided that our next Door County adventure would be was trail biking through Newport State Park ( Newport Park is located northeast of Ellison Bay off of highway 42.We rented trail bikes from Nor Door Sports & Cyclery in Fish Creek ( where owner Brian “Stretch” Merkel outfitted us with two lovely trail bikes. We drove to Newport State Park which is one of Wisconsin’s most pristine parks. Development of the forest has been kept to a minimum and one will only find beauty, peace and nature in the park. There are more than 30 miles of hiking trails, some of which are shared by bikes. The trails are marked—sort of—and it is advised that bikers do not ride on those trails marked for hikers only

Biking Trail Markers in Newport State Park

Biking Trail Markers in Newport State Park


Trail biking is different than other types of biking. The trail was rugged, strewn with large tree roots, or sand. Mike and I are accustomed to biking on the trails in and around Madison where the land is relatively flat and smooth. Not so in Newport Park where we found the trails more challenging and hilly. We also found the scenery to be breathtaking. We stopped along the way to enjoy some beautiful views of Lake Michigan and to get our bearings.

Lake Michigan along the bike trail at Newport State Park

Lake Michigan along the bike trail at Newport State Park

We rode the bikes for about an hour and reluctantly decided it was time to head back. Other obligations were beckoning. Sadly, the brief trip to Door County ended all too soon. We have many other stories to tell…but these will have to do for now.

Exploring the Door

August 25, 2013

Day One

Ah, summer in Wisconsin—with all the fun-filled activities one can encounter, it’s hard to make a decision between swimming in the lake, kayaking, hiking, or even sitting around the campfire snacking on s’mores. This year, Mike and I decided we would try some new activities and revisit some long-forgotten ones.

Unlike last summer, the weather this year has been beautiful—not too hot or humid, not too wet or dry. One bright July day, we packed our car and headed for Door County, Wisconsin’s premier vacation destination. We had two goals for our mid-week getaway: 1) to pick cherries, like we did when we were children, and 2) to try something we had never done before. We knew how to do the first, but had no idea of what the second would be. We drove to Sturgeon Bay and then to Egg Harbor where we checked into the Shallows Resort ( for our brief 2 day stay.

Owners Bob and Liz Dickson have created a family-friendly environment where little kids are free to enjoy the grounds as much as the adults. Although the resort is located on the shores of the Green Bay, there is a swimming pool, playground, and bikes available to guests. Our room was located on the second floor with a beautiful view of the bay where we watched the beautiful sunsets every night.

Sunset view from our room at the Shallows

Sunset view from our room at the Shallows

The first activity on our list was to pick cherries—something we had not done wince we were children. We went to Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery and Market ( outside of Fish Creek and wondered if we would have to climb ladders in order to pick the tart Montmorency cherries. Mike and I told each other stories of picking cherries with our grandparents, aunts and uncles. The ladders were somewhat scary when we were kids and we were relieved to learn that over the years, the Montmorency trees have transformed from the tall cherry trees to the hybrid, much shorter trees whose cherries are much easier to pick. Typically the cherries are harvested by machines that shake the trees, but enthusiasts can also get a pail and pick—if they prefer.

The cherries were bright, beautiful spheres hanging heavily from the low branches. As children, we remember picking until the cherry juice was running down our arms (and a little on our chins), but this time, we picked quickly and experienced only a slight stickiness on our hands. In an hours time, we had picked 20 pounds of cherries and immediately decided we would make cherry bounce when we got home along with a few cherry pies.

Ripe cherries hanging on one of the cherry trees at Lautenbachs

Ripe cherries hanging on one of the cherry trees at Lautenbachs

Cherry bounce is a wonderful concoction made with 1 pound of tart cherries, 1 cup of sugar and 1 quart of brandy. Mix the whole thing together, place in a jar, and store in a dark closet until Christmas. Because both Mike and my family are originally from the Door County region, cherry bounce was a Christmas staple and we hadn’t sampled the cordial in a long time.

Cherry Bounce

Cherry Bounce

After we picked cherries, we decided that we would do something that we had never done before—rent segways from Seaquist Segway in Sister Bay ( At first, I was a bit scared—the segway seemed to have a life of its own, but owner Steve Seaquist was a master not only in his ability to ride the, um, vehicle, but also in teaching others to ride it. Segways are computerized devices that move based on the rider’s movements.

If you lean forward, the segway moves forward; if you lean back on your heels, the segway moves backward. If you turn to the right, the segway moves to the right. It’s really a marvelous little machine, but it does take some practice to make it do what you think you’re telling it to do. Seaquist explained that the segway really is telling you what’s going on in your head. If you’re hesitant, the segway will make little bouncing movements—indicating that you are putting a little weight on your heels, overcompensating, and then leaning forward. The segway, in essence is a measurement of ‘monkey mind.’

Seaquist had complete control over his segway and moved as if it was an extension of his body/mind. In a short time, he had the 8 people who had signed up for the tour completely relaxed. He then took us on an hour-long ride through the forest that lined Lake Michigan near Sister Bay. We moved smoothly over the rough path, skirting trees and climbing hills (remembering not to lean back on the climb). We effortlessly glided over sandy patches on the trail and even downhill wasn’t too scary, as long as you kept your hands firmly on the brakes.

Day 2 of our Door County Adventure will be posted tomorrow.

If I Have to Sing, I Want to be Leporello

April 29, 2013

Author Gustave Flaubert once said that Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the ocean were God’s three greatest creations. Having seen the play and played in the sea, we dropped into Madison Opera’s recent production of Mozart’s masterwork to see if the author of Madame Bovary was accurate on all counts.

It would seem that Flaubert knew a bit what he was talking about, but he failed to comment on how funny Don Giovanni can be. One would think the tale of the world’s greatest lover ultimately being dragged to hell for repeatedly violating most if not all of the Seven Deadly Sins would not set off so much as a wry chortle. But Mozart apparently knew that there is always a little light within the darkness, order amid the chaos, and more than a few knee-slappers threading the tale of rape, murder and anything but a bid for redemption.

Add to that a food fight, more than one confetti snowstorm, spooky dry-ice clouds billowing from an open tomb and a title character so ripped that he may simply have been augmenting his day job with Chippendale’s and you have a pretty lively production of what is considered one of the world’s ten greatest operas.

Central to the humor is the role of Leporello (baritone Matt Boehler), Don Giovanni’s wiley servant cast in the same mold as many of Shakepeare’s servants, henchmen and lackeys. It’s through Leporello that we have an objective eye as audience members, a tempered insight into the doings both Don Giovanni (baritone Kelly Markgraf) and the nobles and commoners victimized by his exploits.

Leporello interprets both the humor and horror in the opera’s unfolding, ultimately burying his face in a delicious-looking cake at the opera’s climax. I would want to play Leporello if I could sing. And if I could understand and rhythmically repeat lengthy passages in Italian.

As for Madison Opera’s production, both cast and crew did an outstanding job bringing the tale to life. Dueling sopranos Elizabeth Caballero (Donna Anna), Caitlyn Lynch (Donna Elvira) and Angela Mannino (Zerlina) all did fine jobs in their respective roles, more than once creating a chorus of angelic voices to complement the play’s dark doings. Guest conductor Joseph Mechavich marshaled the talents of Madison Symphony Orchestra members to good effect, and Mozart’s memorable melodies were beautifully interpreted.

In fact, there are only two complaints. The scenic design, courtesy of the Virginia Opera, was functional, but not especially fanciful and did not live up the scenery from past Madison Opera productions. However, lighting designer Ben Zamora’s subtle shadings of the play’s interesting abstract backdrop brought both intrigue and pathos to the proceedings.

As to the final appearance of Il Comendatore (Nathan Stark), who rose from the dead to drag Don Giovanni to his ultimate demise, there certainly are images more chilling than an old man in a nightshirt.

But those are minor points in a production that otherwise pleases on all levels. Madison Opera once again deserves kudos for its interpretation.