The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” is an eloquent and timely testament to Black victims of racism. It deserves to be performed in Madison and elsewhere

July 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

A reader recently wrote in and suggested that fellow blog fans should listen to “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” by the Atlanta-based American composer Joel Thompson (below).

So The Ear did just that.

He was both impressed and moved by the prescient piece of choral and orchestral music. It proved both powerful and beautiful.

The title alludes to the Bible’s depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but also to the musical setting of it that was composed by Franz Joseph Hadyn in the 18th century. But it stands on its own as a much needed and very accomplished updating, especially with the “last word” or phrase “I can’t breathe.”

It is hard to believe the work was written five years ago, and not last week or last month. But it couldn’t be more relevant to today.

It shows how deeply artists have been engaging with the social and political issues of the day, particularly the role of personal and structural racism in national life, and the plight of young Black men and women who face discrimination, brutality and even death at the hands of the police and a bigoted public.

The work was premiered by the Men’s Glee Club at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2015. This performance comes from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The SSO and featured guest University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Men’s Glee Club, led by conductor Eugene Rogers  (below) – who directs choral music and teaches conducting at the UM — premiered a 2017 commissioned fully orchestrated version of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” You can hear it in the YouTube video below.

It is an eminently listenable and accessible, multi-movement work honoring the lives, deaths and personal experiences of seven Black men.

The seven last words used in the work’s text are: “Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66; “What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16; “Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23; “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18; “You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22; “It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22; “I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43.

The Ear thinks that once live concerts begin again after the coronavirus pandemic is contained, it should be programmed locally. It could and should be done by, among others, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choir; or the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choral Union; or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Festival Choir of Madison; or the Wisconsin Chamber Choir.

They have all posted messages about standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the protesters against racism. But will words lead to commitment and action?

It will be interesting to see who responds first. In addition to being timely, such a performance certainly seems like a good way to draw in young people and to attract Black listeners and other minorities to classical music.

Here is a link if you also want to check out the almost 200 very pertinent comments about the work, the performance, the performers and of course the social and political circumstances that gave rise to the work — and continue to do so with the local, regional, national and international mass protests and demonstrations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdNXoqNuLRQ&app=desktop

And here is the performance itself:

What do you think of the work?

How did you react to it?

Would you like to see and hear it performed live where you are?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: Here are the world premieres of the last three pieces of “pandemic music” commissioned by the U.S. Library of Congress

July 1, 2020
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

The ambitious project has now ended.

Two weeks ago was when the world premieres of the 10 short pieces — written for the U.S. Library of Congress’ “Boccaccio Project” — started going public and began being posted on the social media sites Twitter and Facebook as well as on YouTube and the internet.

Last week saw the last five compositions and the end of the project.

This blog has already posted the first seven compositions and performances.

Today you can hear the last three.

The project, funded by the federal government, is a way to capture some of the unique culture brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19. Below are photos with links to the performances.

The eighth piece is “Lobelia,” a work for solo cello composed by Ashkan Behzadi (below top) and performed by Mariel Roberts of the Wet Ink Ensemble (below bottom, in a photo by Gannushkin).

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/behzadi-roberts.html

The ninth piece is “A Shared Solitary” for solo violin and electronics by composer Niloufar Nourbakhsh (below top) and performed by Jannina Norpoth (below bottom, in a photo by Laura Ise) of the PUBLIQuartet.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/nourbakhsh-norpoth.html

The 10th and final piece is “Have and Hold” for solo singing flutist and electronics composed by Allison Loggins-Hull (below top, in a photo by Rafael Rios) and performed by Nathalie Joachim (below bottom, in a photo by Erin Patrice O-Brien), both of the group Flutronix.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/loggins-hull-joachim.html

On the same page as the performance you can read what the composer and sometimes the performer have to say about the new work and what it strives to mean or express.

You can use links to go to the past performances and premieres, to all 10 commissions.

You can also follow links on the bottom of the page to see more information about both the composer and the performer, and to general background of the project.

If you would like some more background, along with some commentary and questions from The Ear, go to https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/13/classical-music-the-library-of-congress-has-commissioned-new-music-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-you-can-listen-to-the-premieres-from-this-monday-june-15-through-june-28/

What do you think of the individual pieces?

Do you have one or more favorites?

What do you think of the project?

How successful is it?

Will you like to hear more by composers of the commissioned music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players postpone their sixth season from this summer to next summer because of the coronavirus pandemic

May 3, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Willy Street Chamber Players, one of his favorite classical music groups, summer or winter. Their programming and performing are first-rate. Indeed, in December of 2016, The Ear named the Willys “Musicians of the Year.” For an overview of the ensemble, see the YouTube video at the bottom.

For more information and links, go to: http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

Dear WSCP Family,

It is with heavy hearts that we announce the postponement of this

July concert series to summer 2021.

 

Just a few weeks ago, we were hard at work putting the finishing

touches on an amazing 2020 summer season. We had no idea the

COVID-19 pandemic would soon bring everything to a screeching

halt.

 

As we have continued to monitor the situation, we have become

increasingly convinced that postponement is the best path forward.

The health and safety of our audience, musicians and community

remain paramount.

We are eager to find ways to serve our community during this

extremely difficult time and will begin by highlighting some of our

wonderful Willy Street neighbors, friends and past partnerships on

our Facebook page.

 

As a subscriber to our mailing list, you’ll also have access to some

very special video memories and unique surprises in the coming

months to thank you for for your support.

 

We are devastated we won’t be able to share our music with you

this July, and our hearts go out to everyone affected by COVID-19.

We will get through this together.

 

We know that we have created something truly special together

over the past five years and look forward to continuing our beautiful

east side tradition for years to come.

 

Stay safe, keep in touch and see you soon,

WSCP

 

 

 


Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
7 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


Posted in Classical music
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