Pilobolus Dance Theater. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Though sometimes Madison exasperates me, there are also moments that remind me of this city's best assets.
One example: An acquaintance from my Michigan hometown recently moved here, and she invited me to see Gillian Welch at Overture Center's Capitol Theater. As she introduced me to the sweet, piercing sounds of Welch, whose music I knew only a little, I introduced her to the refurbished Rapp & Rapp-designed theater.
The ornate 1927 space, a true jewel box of a theater, seemed just right for Welch's finely crafted story-songs. I felt a distinct twinge of local pride that the venue was something Madison had to offer.
Looking ahead to the 2011-12 season, there are many more performing arts events to look forward to. Here's a look at some of what two of the city's biggest players - Overture and the Wisconsin Union Theater - have on tap. Full listings, as well as late-breaking additions, can be found online at overturecenter.com and uniontheater.wisc.edu.
World music, as always, forms a large part of the Wisconsin Union Theater's season, featuring performers who've been to Madison numerous times before, as well as fresh faces.
The fall semester kicks off with the Madison World Music Festival (Sept. 15-17), featuring three days of free music at the Union and the Willy Street Fair. The fest is preceded by a special "warm-up concert" at the Memorial Union Terrace Sept. 10, with Vieux Farka Touré, the son of the late, brilliant Malian musician Ali Farka Touré. Over the course of the fest proper, you'll find music from Taiwan, the Comoros Islands, Finland, Italy, Nepal, Brazil, France, Colombia and other corners of the globe.
The taiko drumming ensemble Yamato arrives at the Union Oct. 27. Since the group's formation in 1993, it has performed for over a million people worldwide with powerful, pulsating beats. The evening's program is titled "Gamushara: The Beat of Courage."
Dobet Gnahoré, who has wowed crowds at Madison's Fête de Marquette, comes to the Sett, the main music venue at the new Union South, on Nov. 11. A singer, dancer and percussionist from the Ivory Coast, Gnahoré brings a lively, varied approach, singing in a range of African languages and drawing from the continent's plentiful musical traditions. Another African act on the Union roster is Seun Kuti, son of Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, who performs with Egypt 80, his father's former band, April 12.
Almost a year to the day after a sold-out show earlier this year, Gaelic Storm returns Feb. 17 for another evening of high-energy, rock-influenced Celtic music. Though the band rocketed to international fame after an appearance in the tearjerker Titanic, their career has not been built upon James Cameron-esque, big-budget bombast; the group runs its own record label and self-releases all its albums.
And for an extra dose of Celtic melodies, try the family group Leahy, composed of eight brothers and sisters from Canada (May 4). (Or, over at Overture, Celtic Nights: Journey of Hope, which fuses Irish music and dance Feb. 29.)
For the island sounds of Cuba, you can catch Sierra Maestra on March 23 in the Union's Great Hall. Purveyors of the son musical style, the band has been at the forefront of Cuban music since the 1970s.
In Overture Center's main venue, Overture Hall, three huge names are coming to the Bell Laboratories Celebrity Series: Herbie Hancock, Itzhak Perlman and Patti LuPone. (LuPone replaces fellow Broadway star Idina Menzel, who canceled her fall tour due to other commitments.)
A venerable performer who originated roles in Les Misérables and Evita, LuPone has nabbed two Tonys over the course of her 40-year career and also written a best-selling memoir. LuPone will perform her solo show, "The Gypsy in My Soul," Feb. 1 in Overture Hall, featuring favorite show tunes, pop classics and stories from her life in showbiz.
Hancock and Perlman will appear in spring 2012 (March 15 and April 19, respectively). At this stage in their careers (Hancock's 71, Perlman 65), they're both living legends, yet still vital artists. Hancock's had a major influence on jazz and R&B, and violinist Perlman will give a solo recital.
Of course, Overture Hall is also home to the arts center's series of Broadway musicals. While Billy Elliott has been postponed, Disney's Beauty and the Beast (Dec. 6-11), Blue Man Group (Jan. 24-29), The Addams Family (May 1-6), Fiddler on the Roof (Feb. 24-26) and Cats (March 16-18) are still on tap as planned.
Jazz and classical feature prominently in the Wisconsin Union Theater schedule (which, despite the name, encompasses performances not just in Memorial Union but at other campus venues).
As part of the Isthmus Jazz Series, multiple-Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard performs Oct. 21. Since 1980, he's recorded 22 albums. While known mostly as a player in the hard bop tradition, he's recently incorporated African fusion elements that distinguish his work.
The next installment in the series is the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (Feb. 4), named for the hallowed New York jazz club where it has performed every Monday for the last 45 years (now that's commitment!). Though the group's membership and name have changed over the years, its solid musicianship has not. Finally, the free Isthmus Jazz Festival will take place June 1-2.
There's also jazzy chanteuse Madeline Peyroux, with Nellie McKay as an opener (Oct. 12), and all-female a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock (Oct. 7). Sweet Honey combines a social-justice bent with a wide range of influences, from gospel and blues to improv jazz and hip-hop.
The always-popular Bela Fleck & the Flecktones arrive March 1. Fleck's sound melds jazz, world and bluegrass sounds.
In the classical realm, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble, a string octet, arrives Sept. 30. They'll perform a program including Brahms, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn.
On Nov. 5, you'll have a chance to soak up more Mendelssohn when the UW Chamber Orchestra performs the 19th-century German composer's concerto with teen phenom Caroline Goulding. At only 19, she's already got a Grammy nomination under her belt and has soloed with symphonies throughout North America, from Toronto to Dallas.
Oh, and Goulding plays a c. 1720 Stradivarius - not too shabby for someone who can't even order a cocktail. The CEO of the Aspen Music Festival, Alan Fletcher, has praised her "freshness, confidence and radiant technique."
Before her performance with the UW Chamber Orchestra, Goulding will present a solo recital on Nov. 3. This should be a fabulous opportunity to catch a rising star in the classical world.
Another major stop on the Union Theater's classical series is the trio of David Finckel (cello), Wu Han (piano) and Philip Setzer (violin) (Feb. 24). If you didn't get your share of Mendelssohn in the fall, the trio will wow you with a program dedicated exclusively to the Romantic composer.
Madison's own Pro Arte Quartet is performing a series of free concerts celebrating its 100th anniversary (Oct. 22, Nov. 19, March 24 and April 21). The March concert also features renowned UW piano professor Christopher Taylor on contemporary American composer William Bolcom's Piano Quintet No. 2.
To see the next generation of classical performers, the winners of the Neale-Silva Young Artists Competition will present a free recital April 29.
Pianist Peter Serkin, an advocate for 20th- and 21st-century composers, appears May 5. He's performed many world premieres of new music, often written specifically for him.
If it's dance you're after, both Overture and the Union have you covered. The acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater comes to Overture Hall March 27. Even if you've seen them before, you likely haven't seen them yet under new artistic director Robert Battle.
Ballet fuses with Shakespeare and the music of Radiohead in Ballet Maribor's version of Radio and Juliet, coming Oct. 25 to the Capitol Theater. Hailing from Slovakia, this troupe promises an original and haunting spin on something many of us may chiefly remember as an obligatory read in high school.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, which last appeared in Madison in spring 2010, performs Feb. 3 in Overture Hall.
Over at the Wisconsin Union, tap master Savion Glover presents "A Classical Encounter with Savion Glover" (Nov. 10), billed as "his most pared-down, minimalistic concert to date." A Tony winner in 1996 for his choreography in Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, Glover is still under 40 and remains the undisputed king of this percussive dance form.
If tap is dance rooted in sound, Pilobolus Dance Theater (April 14, also at the Union) relies more on abstract, flowing forms created by the body. Pilobolus melds modern dance with gymnastics, shadow play and other elements to create evocative, witty pieces.
For cabaret crooning, Overture continues its Cabaret Dinner Series, with a meal prepared by Fresco served onstage in the Capitol Theater. Performers include jazz singer Spider Saloff (Nov. 10); Jim Van Slyke, who interprets the songs of Neil Sedaka (Feb. 9), and Lee Lessack, who mixes French and American tunes (April 20).
The NPR set will make note of appearances by both best-selling author David Sedaris and radio/TV personality Ira Glass. Sedaris - who routinely attracts sell-out crowds here - returns Oct. 28. Proceeds will benefit the Wisconsin Book Festival. Glass, who pioneered a sort of creative nonfiction of the airwaves with This American Life, arrives Feb. 18.
For a folksier brand of humor, beloved Milwaukee actor and humorist John McGivern performs The Wonder Bread Years, his take on growing up as one of six kids in a Brew City Irish Catholic family (Jan. 28).
Overture also offers numerous comedy and kids' theater performances, like Magic School Bus - Live!: The Climate Challenge (Jan. 21), with an environmental message, and the return of Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia (A Brown Bear, A Moon and a Caterpillar: Treasured Stories by Eric Carle, Feb. 18).
Tickets for many events are cheaper than you might think, particularly for UW-Madison students attending Union-programmed events. And, as cultural offerings in Madison have increased, so has the sophistication of the Union's and Overture's websites, where you can find video clips, reviews and links to performers' official websites. It's never been easier to check out an unfamiliar act and give something new a chance.