The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What kinds of classical music and classical composers do the presidential candidates like?

February 6, 2016
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ALERT: This Sunday night’s concert of new music for woodwinds and piano composed by UW-Madison professor of saxophone Les Thimmig, with UW-Madison pianist Jessica Johnson, has been CANCELLED.

By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight is the last debate for the Republicans before the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. It takes place at 7 p.m. CST in Manchester, and will be broadcast on ABC-TV.

This past week also saw both a town hall meeting and a debate between the Democrats – their last before the primary election (below, in a photo by Getty Images).

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders CR GettyImages

Here’s a question no one has asked them during the debates: What kind of classical music do you like?

I know, I know. The question has little relevance and little popularity.

But still.

The Ear is happy that the famed New York City radio station WQXR listed such preferences in its blog.

The Ear notes a couple of trends.

No specific pieces were named.

No sonatas or concertos, no symphonies or operas.

All the names of composers were extremely mainstream except for Arcangelo Corelli by Dr. Ben Carson (below), who also named Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi. Others mentioned Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Dr. Benjamin Carson, director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, speaks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, March 16, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS HEALTH) - RTR3F2WE

Dr. Benjamin Carson, director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, speaks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, March 16, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES – Tags: POLITICS HEALTH)

Bernie Sanders’ preferred composer echoes his own populist and defiantly anti-establishment, even rabble-rousing, sentiments. Can you guess which composer he favors?

Why is The Ear not surprised that Hillary Clinton remains vague about composers and pieces, but says YES of course she likes classical music and even has it on her iPod.

And former businesswoman Carly Fiorina (below, in a  photo by Politifact) surprises one with her youthful plan to be a professional musician, a concert pianist. Does she still play? The Ear wants to ask.

Carly Fiorina CR Politifact

The Ear also wonders:

Does Evangelical Ted Cruz consider classical music frivolous or even sinful?

Does the Cuban background of Marco Rubio feel ethnically distant from European classical music?

And what about Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and especially Donald Trump?

The Ear bets that country music, rock and pop music draw many more voters and gets many more votes.

But doesn’t anyone else think that the irresistible opening thee of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would be a great dramatic call to arms for a candidate?

But who knows for sure?

Anyway, here is a link tot he WQXR story:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/classical-music-presidential-campaign-trail/

Now, The Ear doesn’t expect that this survey will change anyone’s vote.

Still, it is interesting as a sidelight to the much bigger and much more important issues confronting the candidates and the electorate.

And perhaps more specifics about their taste in music will emerge during the rest of the primary campaign and the then the general election.

Their individual culture quotients must matter for something.

What are your reactions?

What do you think?

Let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Oscar got it wrong for the Best Picture in 2006, but that Academy Awards mistake has been corrected and now, for a couple of months, you can hear the new opera version of “Brokeback Mountain” for FREE.

March 1, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tomorrow, on Sunday night, March 2, the annual Oscars, the 86th annual Academy Awards, will be given out starting at 6 p.m. CST on ABC-TV, which will also stream the awards broadcast live.

The Ear hopes that this time Oscar gets it right.

YL Oscar foods statue

I recall one memorable year when they got it wrong.

That was in 2006 at the 78th annual Academy Awards.

Even the late, great and popular film critic Roger Ebert (below, in a photo by Vince Bucci), whose choices I usually admired and concurred with, got it wrong.

50942748VB024_afistreep

In 2006, two of the top contenders for Best Film were “Crash” and the heavily favored ‘Brokeback Mountain.”

“Crash” dealt with race and racial tensions in Los Angeles, and focused in interrelated stories that were well told and well acted by some fine names, including Thandie Newton (below left), Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon (below right) and Don Cheadle.

crash 1 thandie Newton, matt dillon

“Brokeback Mountain,” based on the short story by Annie Proulx that was first published in The New Yorker magazine, dealt with two young modern-day cowboys in Montana struggling to deal with and acknowledge their gay identity and their love for each other.

Late in the game, Roger Ebert came out in favor of “Crash” as the most deserving film to receive the Best Picture award.  His influence may well have set the upset in motion.

But Ebert was wrong.

“Brokeback” deserved the honor. It was a moving film with great music and great cinematography. Most of all, its story and character study were very poignant and bittersweet, even heartbreaking. And it was masterfully acted by Jake Gyllenhaal (below left) and by the late Heath Ledger (below right).

brokeback mountain 1 jake gyllenhaal and heath ledger

Not that Crash wasn’t a fine film. It was. But race had been dealt with very well in a many other films over the years.

On the other hand, “Brokeback Mountain,” directed by the incomparable and eclectic Ang Lee, was a break-though work of art, a pioneering achievement that proved nothing less than revolutionary in the way it introduced gay subject matter and characters into mainstream Hollywood cinema in a sympathetic way.

brokeback mountain 2 Jake Gyllenhaal (l) and Heath Ledger

And the current move of public opinion towards approving of marriage equality – or gay marriage or same-sex marriage – just goes to prove the point.

“Brokeback” did win three Oscars – but NOT the one for Best Picture, which went instead to “Crash,” a good movie but not a better movie than “Brokeback.”

But American composer Charles Wuorinen also found something inspiring in the story of two lonesome gay cowboys up on an isolated Montana mountain. So he asked the author to rework the story into an opera libretto while he went to work composing the music. (Below, in the title roles, are Tom Randle, left, and Daniel Okulitch, right):

The results are an opera based on the revised short story. 

brokeback mountain opera tom randle (left) and daniel okulitch

How good are the results?

Here is a balanced and insightful review of the opera’s world premiere at the Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain, from senior music critic Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times, who rightly thinks a love story calls for a little more singing and melody. He seems to be saying: Right story, wrong composer.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/30/arts/music/lyrical-cowboys-in-love-on-stage.html?_r=0

And here is an overview, with a link to a streaming site for the opera, from the famed radio station in New York City, WQXR-FM:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/brokeback-mountain-opera-critics-weigh/

http://www.medici.tv

But more to the point, you can judge for yourself. You can now hear the opera FREE via streaming for another 60 days or so thanks to Medici TV. (You can get a taste in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is link to the story on NPR’s “Morning Edition” that features an interview with Proulx (below) and also give some background as well as a link to the opera broadcast on Medici.

Here is a link to the NPR story:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/02/06/272533010/seen-the-brokeback-mountain-movie-now-watch-the-opera

Annie Proulx

So let’s hope The Academy gets the right movies for the right awards Sunday night.

Here is a link to much more information about the Oscars.

http://www.oscars.org

And you can return here tomorrow where you will find more Oscar-related stories about music top serve as background before you tune into the always endless live broadcast with this years; host, Ellen DeGeneres –- an out lesbian whose appearance attests to the prescience of “Brokeback Mountain.”

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Classical music Q&A: What makes for a good villain? Baritone Nmon Ford talks about playing Scarpia this weekend in the Madison Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Tosca.”

October 29, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Few villains in opera are as villainous and hated by audiences as Baron Scarpia in Giacomo Puccini’s  ever popular “Tosca.” (At bottom is a very popular YouTube video  with over one million hits, that features soprano Angela Gheorghiu singing the opera’s most famous aria, done by Tosca, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amor” (I lived for art, I lived for love).

So The Ear thought it might be interesting and informative to ask baritone Nmon Ford what it takes to play a good villain on stage. He plays Scarpia, who tortures and kills for love, in this weekend’s two performances of the Madison Opera’s production of “Tosca.” (Below is a YouTube video of the “Te Deum” aria from “Tosca” that Ford sang at the Madison Opera’s “Opera in the Park” preview last July.)

Performances are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center on this Friday night at 8 p.m. and this Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. “Tosca” will be sung in Italian with English surtitles. Maestro John DeMain will conduct members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The stage director is A. Scott Parry, who returns to the same company where he directed acclaimed productions of Philip Glass’ “Galileo” and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Soprano Melody Moore sings the title role of Tosca, and tenor Scott Piper sings the role of her lover Mario Cavaradossi.

Tickets are $18-$121. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 for information and reservations. The show runs 2 hours 45 minutes with two intermissions. For more information about the production and the entire opera season, visit:

http://madisonopera.org/performances-2013-2014/tosca/index.aspx

It is a special production as it will also give Madison audiences their first chance to sample Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith in her first foray here into Puccini, one of the great staples of the opera repertoire.

The handsome  articulate and charismatic Nmon Ford (below) – whose robust and unabashed physicality is featured regularly on the blog “BariHunks” — generously gave The Ear an email interview that comes after a link to his own website with details of his biography and career:

http://www.nmonford.com/home.html

Nmon Ford

What is it like to play The Bad Guy or The Villain? What is the best part and what is the least favorable part of playing such a role, the part you like and the part you dislike?

It’s a great deal of fun because I gravitate toward proactive characters that energize plot development, which the Bad Guy generally does. He’s usually the source of conflict, and therefore the source of forward motion in the story.

The best part is that the roles are written to reflect this sort of dramatic propulsion, which makes them vocally and dramatically more substantial; there’s more meat on the bones, so to speak.

Since villains normally aren’t constrained by rules, the roles themselves involve more freedom of interpretation, whereas a romantic lead is pretty much onstage the way he is the book, script, play, or score.

Moreover, my personal sense of justice is always served since most villains end up dead by the end of the opera, so I feel even more liberated to take their evil natures as far outside the box as possible.

The worst part is … well, as long as the role is reasonably well-written, there really isn’t a bad part.

Nmon Ford half face BW evil

Are there other singers or stars whose bad guys you admire? Do you have a special personal take on Scarpia for this production?

Joe Morton (Eli Pope) in the TV series “Scandal.”  He’s clearly in it to win it; I see an Emmy in his future.

I see Scarpia the way he’s described in Sardou’s play:  elegant, cultured and extraordinarily dangerous. Unless both his class and his depravity are represented, he becomes a boring caricature rather than the multifaceted figure he is.

joe morton as eli pope in scandal-2

For you, how does Scarpia compare to specific famous villains in opera? Have you played others and do you have favorites to sing or to listen to?

I’ve sung Iago, Tonio, Emperor Jones, Wotan, Macbeth (below, for the Long Beach Opera) and Don Giovanni.  (The last three may not fit everyone’s definition of a villain, but they are definitely not good guys in my book.)

The main difference between Scarpia and other villains I’ve sung is that he makes no effort to disguise his nature; in fact, he’s a proud bully and everyone knows it. The other characters try to maintain at least a patina of decency, except for Wotan and Emperor Jones. So far, my favorite is either Iago or Scarpia, with Wotan a close third for his gorgeous music.

Nmon Ford Macbeth Long Beach Opera

Are there secrets or tricks to making such a portrayal convincing and effective musically and dramatically?

My number one rule is “never settle”:  however ruthless, mean, melancholy, violent, calculating or obsessed the character is on paper, that’s exactly what goes onstage. It’s not my job to make excuses for them, so I don’t.

I embody these characters as “anti-heroes,” rather than villains. They often possess the same traits as heroes — commitment, strength, drive, passion — but they’re dealing with some sort of internal psychological structure or conflict that renders them morally ambivalent.

One thing I always do — it’s just my thing — is to find something funny in any role I play, no matter what it is. Whether it’s intentionally or unintentionally comical, it’s my benchmark for the role’s humanity. (Below is an informal portrait of Nmon Ford by Guy Madmoni.)

Are there contemporary or modern real-life figures whom Scarpia represents -– perhaps Vladimir Putin or Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin or Pol Pot? 

Offhand, I can’t think of anybody whose behavior is sufficiently both violent and psychosexual to qualify.

Nmon Ford  Photo Guy Madmoni

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Come see the show.  It’s gonna be GOOD!


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