The Well-Tempered Ear

University Opera’s original online video project celebrates the life and music of American composer Marc Blitzstein. It will be posted for FREE on YouTube this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m.

October 21, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera presents its first project of 2020-21 in video format as it turns to the music of the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” will be released free of charge on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s YouTube channel this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. CDT at the general site www.youtube.com/meadwitterschoolofmusic or the official specific link: https://youtu.be/77FXFZucrWc.

Director of University Opera David Ronis (below top) is the director of the original production and will give introductory remarks. UW-Madison graduate Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) is the musical director. The production lasts 1 hour and 40 minutes, and features four singer-actors, a narrator and a piano.

Marc Blitzstein’s life story parallels some of the most important cultural currents in American history of the mid-20th-century.

Known for his musicals — most notably The Cradle Will Rock in 1937 (you can hear Dawn Upshaw sing the lovely song “I Wish It So” from “Juno” in the YouTube video at the bottom) — his opera Regina and his translation of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Blitzstein was an outspoken proponent of socially engaged art. Like many artists of his time, he joined the American Communist Party. But he also enthusiastically served in the U.S. Army during World War II (below, in 1943).

Nevertheless, in 1958, long after he had given up his Communist Party membership, Blitzstein (below) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he “named no names.”

An extremely gifted yet underappreciated composer, he was a close friend of and mentor to Leonard Bernstein (below right, with Blitzstein on the left) and traveled in a close circle of American composers including David Diamond and Aaron Copland.

Although openly gay, he married Eva Goldbeck in 1933. Sadly, she died three years later from complications due to anorexia.

Blitzstein’s own death was likewise tragic. In 1964, while in Martinique working on an opera about the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, he was robbed and badly beaten by three Portuguese sailors whom he had picked up at a bar. He died the next day of internal injuries. 

Although throughout his life and afterwards, Blitzstein’s work was championed by Bernstein and others, many claim that neither the composer nor his stunning music and beautiful lyrics ever received the attention they deserved. So University Opera is proud to present this show celebrating his life and his works.

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” is a unique production put together by David Ronis. A biographical pastiche, it tells the story of Blitzstein’s life by recontextualizing 23 songs and ensembles from his shows, juxtaposing them with spoken excerpts from his working notes and letters, and tying it all together with a narration.

The result is a dramatic, evocative and enjoyable portrait of Blitzstein’s life and his art, according to Ronis.

“We’ve discovered a lot of “silver linings” while working on this production,” says Ronis. “We were disappointed at not being able to do a normal staged show. But working with video has had tremendous artistic and educational value.

“Our students are learning on-camera technique, not to mention how to work with a green screen (below, with soprano Sarah Brailey), which allows for post-production editing and digital manipulation of backgrounds. They’re also working with spoken text as well as sung pieces. Mostly, we’re just very grateful to have a creative project to sink our teeth into during the pandemic. 

“And the music of Blitzstein is so fantastic, we’re very happy to be able to share it with our audience. This project is like none other I’ve ever done and we’re thinking that it’s going to be pretty cool.”

Research on the project was completed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where Blitzstein’s archives are housed. University Opera gratefully acknowledges the help of both Mary Huelsbeck of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, and the Kurt Weill Foundation for their assistance with this project.

The cast features five UW-Madison graduate students: Sarah Brailey, Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Lindsey Meekhof (below) and Steffen Silvis.

The video design was done by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park.

Others on the production staff include Will Preston, rehearsal pianist; Elisheva Pront, research assistant and assistant director; Dylan Thoren, production stage manager; Alec Hansen, assistant stage manager; Teresa Sarkela, storyboard creator; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video will be accessible for 23 hours starting at 8 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 23. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted. A link for donations will be posted with the video. 

University Opera, a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, email opera@music.wisc.edu or visit music.wisc.edu.

 


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The third LunART Festival celebrates Black women in the arts with FREE streaming concerts and events this Saturday night, Oct. 10, and next Saturday night, Oct. 17

October 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The LunART Festival is back for its third season, continuing its mission to support, inspire, promote and celebrate women in the arts, with a special presentation, “Human Family,” available via two FREE video livestreams on LunART’s website and Facebook page on Saturday, Oct. 10, and Saturday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. CDT. 

The events will be co-hosted by LunART founder and flutist Iva Ugrcic (below top), and by vocalist and art administrator Deja Mason (below bottom).

In response to the most recent and ongoing racial inequality and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, LunART will present the “Human Family” virtual festival featuring art created by Black women.

These FREE streamed events will feature a palette of emerging and established artists drawn from Madison’s rich arts scene, while also celebrating those who have paved the way for generations to come.

Radical inclusivity has been part of LunART’s mission from its conception. While women have historically been underrepresented in the arts, we cannot deny that there are segments of women that have been doubly marginalized, including women of color, women in the LGBTQIA+ community, older women and women with disabilities. 

Part of creating a more just, inclusive world means recognizing that even within the space of underrepresentation, there remain disparities.

Works from the past include Florence Price’s “Five Folksongs of Counterpoint” for string quartet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom), which is deeply rooted in the African-American spiritual tradition; Margaret Bonds’ Spiritual Suite for solo piano, written in a neo-Romantic classical style infused by jazz harmonies and rhythms; Afro-American Suite for flute, cello and piano by Undine Smith Moore, based on authentic spiritual songs used to express and record everyday life of slaves in America. 

Florence Price (below), Margaret Bonds and Undine Smith Moore all fought against both racial and gender discrimination throughout their lives. To be a woman composing classical music in the mid-20th century was unusual; to be a Black woman composer was even more so. And yet, these women forged ahead, making history and paving the way for the women who would follow them.

Along with these pioneers of the past, LunART will also celebrate contemporary Black women who are making a big impact in the world of arts, culture, advocacy and activism, following the footsteps of their predecessors. 

“Voodoo Dolls” for string quartet by Jessie Montgomery (below in a photo by Jiyang Chen) is influenced by West African drumming patterns that are interwoven with lyrical motifs in the improvisatory style. 

“Fanmi Imen,” a work for flute and piano by Valerie Coleman (below) — LunART’s 2019 Composer-in-Residence) — is based on a powerful poem by Maya Angelou, “Human Family.” Angelou calls for peace and unity, while acknowledging differences due to ethnic and cultural background in her famous refrain: “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

The chamber music will be performed by Madison’s finest musicians: Isabella Lippi, Karl Lavine, Peter Miliczky, Magdalena Sas, Marie Pauls, Satoko Hayami, Yana Avedyan and Iva Ugrcic.

Celebrating women’s creativity across many art forms has been a core component of LunART’s artistic mission from its inception, and this year is no exception. While music will create a sound painting, “Human Family” will also feature women who use words and movement to tell their story.

Enter a world of phenomenal talent with emerging singer-songwriters Danielle Crim and Akornefa Akyea performing their most recent original songs; magically moving poems and spoken-word pieces by Jamie Dawson and Shasparay Lighteard; and join dancer and choreographer Kimi Evelyn in self-exploration of what happens when the body and the soul are left in complete solitude through her powerful piece “Body, Sweet Home.”

To commemorate the Festival events, LunART has commissioned digital artwork (below) by local artist and activist Amira Caire, which is inspired by the “Human Family” concept. This stunning piece of art will be available for purchase in printed form on LunART’s website. 

We are calling our community to eat local, drink local and support local. By supporting LunART, you are also supporting local nonprofits and small businesses. 

This project would not be possible without the generosity of Madison’s creative media agency Microtone Media, The Piano Gal Shop from Sun Prairie, Dane Arts and a grant from the Madison Arts Commission at  https://www.cityofmadison.com/dpced/planning/madison-arts-commission/1580/, with the additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board.

Events are free and available for anyone to watch online, and donations are welcomed. For more details about the artists, events, programs and links, and donation methods, please visit https://www.lunartfestival.org


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Classical music: During global protests against racism, a longtime fan of the Madison Symphony Orchestra writes a letter to ask for more diversity and African-American composers

June 9, 2020
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PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

During the ongoing global protests and demonstrations against police brutality, racism and white privilege, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will hold its annual meeting next Tuesday, June 16, at 3:30 p.m.

The meeting is NOT open to the public — as erroneously stated in an earlier version — but just to season subscribers (not single ticket buyers) and members of MSO boards. The meeting will be virtual and held online via Zoom.

During the meeting, a statement about diversity and inclusion will be read, according to the MSO. 

If you have questions, you can call Alexis Carreon at (608) 257-3734.

With both the symphony and current events in mind, a longtime MSO subscriber has written the following letter to Manager of Individual Giving Jeff Breisach.

Please read the letter and then let us know what you think.

Do you agree or disagree?

What else would you like to say about the role of MSO in adapting to concerns about racism, injustice and privilege?

Do you have any suggestions?

“Dear J. Breisach:

“Please share my following concerns with those planning the annual meeting of the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

“In light of the recent historic events, I hope MSO will add an item or two to deal with the economic and racial injustice prevalent in Madison, as well as elsewhere in our nation.

“Specifically:

  • Empty seats should be made available as Rush Seats ($1 or $5) the day of the concert to open our halls to those facing economic disparity. Such disparity rests on a long history of racism and poverty injustice in our town and in our land. Our hall should always be full and should have a more multi-ethnic, multi-age audience than is currently the case. As our audiences stand, we are one of the most racially and economically privileged events in Madison. That must stop.
  • We need more racially diverse composers included in our regular programming–at the very least during the month of February, but even better throughout the year. And I’m not just thinking of “Porgy and Bess” tunes. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (below top) also comes to mind as a composer we need to hear more often. Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges — Joseph de Boulogne (1745-1799, below bottom) — is another. (Editor’s note: You can hear the Romance for violin and orchestra by Coleridge-Taylor in the YouTube video at the bottom.) There are more. Having a local black chorus in for Christmas is not enough!

“It is time for MSO to acknowledge its history of white privilege and take some steps to more widely acknowledge the richness of a diverse local audience and classical music history.

Sincerely,

Carol Troyer-Shank

“PS: I have been a MSO ticket holder in the economically denigrated balcony for more than 20 years.

“PS2: The architect and designers clearly thought about making more money — not about safety of attendees — when they designed a balcony to squeeze in more people instead of to allow ease of movement for lower-cost ticket holders. Shame on them! So, of course, all those seats should be filled every time. Even at $5 a ticket, the MSO would gain enormous improvement in their local image.”

 


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