The Well-Tempered Ear

Madison musician Ann Stanke diagnosed with ALS

September 5, 2009

By Jacob StockingerStanke

Classical music in Madison has no better friend than Ann Stanke.

In 1961, she co-founded the Madison Opera and until her retirement in 2005 served as general manager of the ever-growing organization.

For many decades, she played viola and piano-celesta in the Madison Symphony Orchestra and served as rehearsal pianist for the Madison Symphony Chorus and the Madison Opera Chorus.

Ann, a graduate of West High School,  also wrote an arts column for Anew/Brava magazine, which used to be published by her daughter.

Plus, she served on boards of national opera organizations.

She is, in short, a whirlwind of energy and good spirits.

Now comes the news that, at 74, Stanke — who recovered fully from open-heart, by-pass surgery just several years ago — has been diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), the degenerative nerve and muscle disease better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In true character, Stanke, who has never been either a self-promoter or a complainer, didn’t want to talk about herself and her health as she approached this weekend’s massive neighborhood yard sale, in the west side area of Charles Lane, which she organizes every Labor Day weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday — NOT Monday) to raise money for charity as well as for the local sellers. (This year, it will benefit the Rotary Club’s Books for Africa program.)

But in a recent newsletter to the Madison Symphony Chorus, Stanke candidly wrote:

“Many of you have expressed concern and questions about my health.

“There is no good news. On July 7, I was diagnosed with ALS, a devastating disease. How long I will be able to continue to play for you is up in the air.

“There will be point where I will not be able to talk with you (aren’t you lucky?!!), but hopefully I will have at least a year of good music-making before the arms and fingers no longer function.

“I definitely appreciate your good wishes and concerned thoughts, and I thank you for that.”

ALS is always a cruel diagnosis for anyone. But it seems demonically ironic when it occurs in a person who, over so many years, has taken her fine motor skills to such a high level of accomplishment and put them to the use for the public’s enjoyment.

Yet Stanke did not bemoan her fate when I spoke to her this week, and she said there would be plenty of time later for the tributes and good wishes from both professional colleagues and friends that will rightfully pour in. In the meantime, she said she hoped to see people — lots of people — at the annual yard sale this weekend.

And she promised to talk with me and “give my perspective  on all this” at a later time. So stay tuned.

But of course you can leave a brief comment here that she and others can read.

For the moment, at least, we can all say thank you.

And we can try to be there for her as she has been there for us.


Today is a rich date for classical music.

Today’s birthdays to celebrate include those of Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), JChristianBachthe  11th and youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, who (pictured at right) was known as the “London Bach” or “English Bach” and whose style, with an emphasis on feeling, influenced Mozart’s concerto style and the music of Haydn.

The German opera composer  Giacomo Meyerbeer (below left), a favorite of Chopin, was born in 1791 and died in 1824. Now neglected he was the most popular opera composer in his day. He was born Jacob MeyerbeerLiebmann Beer and because he was successful, wealthy and Jewish, he, like Felix Mendelssohn, became the subject of virulent racist and anti-Semitic rants by opera giant and Third Reich favorite Richard Wagner. As with Mendelssohn, Wagner seemed to get his bigoted way at least in part.

American avant-garde composer John Cage,johncage known for using silence and environmental sound  (“4 Minutes, 33 Seconds”) and prepared pianos (see right) as well as chance in his music, was born in 1912 and died in 1992. His life partner was the influential modern dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who died this summer. The two often collaborated.

Posted in Classical music

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