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Samuel Ramey Does the Devil

The Madison Symphony Orchestra's season-ender at the Civic Center this weekend (Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m.) will offer music-lovers an unusual opportunity to see the Infernal One himself. Bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, famed for his incarnations of the Devil in a variety of operas, will be on hand for a program of arias, scenes and instrumental excerpts featuring the combined voices of the Madison Symphony Chorus, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Boychoir.

Ramey and MSO conductor John DeMain see this program as a movable feast, so to speak, a package designed to be performed in any venue that wants to present it. They had planned to offer it here two years ago during in break in Ramey's appearances with the Chicago Lyric Opera. But a schedule change at the Lyric disrupted that plan, so the program will make its debut here this weekend, with a repeat planned for California's Opera Pacific in 2002.

I asked Ramey how a person born in the small town of Colby, Kansas, happened to become an opera star. "I've been singing as long as I can remember," he said. He recounted the steps from being a boy soprano to working with a high school teacher to singing in the chorus of the Central City, Colorado, opera company to completing his education at Wichita State, which had an opera program. "From there I went to New York for further study, eventually auditioning with the New York City Opera," Ramey told me. The rest, as they say, is history: Ramey is now one of the most sought-after operatic singers in the world.

DeMain provides especially strong support for singers, as well as bringing a vocal style of lyricism to his shaping of orchestral scores. He met Ramey at the City Opera nearly 30 years ago, and since then the two have worked together a number of times, including an exciting production of Boito's Mefistofele I saw in Houston two years ago.

Ramey says of DeMain, "You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of conductors who can do what he does for a singer."

The Symphony has announced its 2001-02 season, which will be filled with well-known instrumental soloists -- violinist Pinkas Zukerman, cellist Janos Starker and pianists Cecile Licad and Garrick Ohlsson -- and very promising new ones. All of the programs are intriguing, and it will be especially interesting to hear what DeMain makes of Rachmaninov's 2nd Symphony, and -- resuming the planned complete cycle -- the massive Mahler 6th. After Ohlsson's impressive recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater last October, I can hardly wait to hear him in one of my favorite piano concertos, the Brahms 2nd.

Another highlight is an all-Gershwin program featuring the excellent pianist Leon Bates, plus soprano Marquita Lister and bass-baritone Alvy Powell in excerpts from Porgy and Bess, which the New York City Opera will revive next year with these singers and DeMain at the helm.

It's not easy to top that, but it may well happen in April 2002 with the Verdi Requiem. Debate sometimes rages whether this monumental work is more operatically dramatic than religiously pious, but the easy answer is that it's both when it gets a first-rate performance. Certainly the soloists are first-rate: soprano Patricia Racette, mezzo Irina Mishura, tenor Scott Piper and baritone Kyle Ketelsen. Racette knocked me flat in the Houston Mefistofele, and both Piper and Ketelsen recently distinguished themselves in La Bohème with the Madison Opera. Combining such talents with the MSO and the MSO Chorus leaves me with little doubt that DeMain will have two of the best days of his career.

These are things no lover of fine music should miss, and it's taking place right here in Madison. Seems to me ya gotta love this town!

Isthmus, May, 2001
Copyright 2001 Jess Anderson

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