The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The prize-winning critic Alex Ross grieves to Brahms. What composer and piece would you choose to mourn the tragedies of the past week?

May 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week feels like a week that deserves mass grieving.

Of course, there was the life-changing, historic landmark of surpassing, in only a few months, more than 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

There were the spikes in new COVID-19 cases and deaths following the opening up from lockdowns and the mass gatherings over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, such as the party at the Lake of the Ozarks (below) in Missouri.

Then there was the tragic, racist death — an alleged murder — of George Floyd by the police and the ensuing rioting, violence and additional death in Minneapolis as well as the seven shootings among protesters in Louisville.

And depending of your political point of view, there were the incidents of White House threats against social media, especially Twitter, for simply telling the truth or at least directing viewers to it.

So what can one say about these sad events and sad times with music?

Well, not too long ago Alex Ross (below), the prize-winning and internationally respected music critic for The New Yorker magazine, wrote an engaging and moving essay about why he finds Brahms to be the perfect composer for grieving and mourning.

He mentions other composers as possibilities, including Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But Ross still finds Brahms more suited for several reasons. He even cites a favorite performance of a Brahms short, late Intermezzo by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. (You can hear that performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/grieving-with-brahms

What composers – and what pieces or performances – do you find best for grieving? For marking loss?

Read the essay, listen to the music.

Then let us know in the comment section what music – perhaps Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings? – that you would want to listen to during sad occasions.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Acclaimed local soprano Sarah Brailey explains why performing artists and presenters need help during the COVID-19 pandemic

March 23, 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

Sarah Brailey (below) is worried.

And with good reason.

Chances are good that you have seen the local soprano or heard her sing.

She is the artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition, which she herself won in 2015. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Brailey sing the aria “Will the Sun Forget to Streak” from Handel’s oratorio “Solomon,”  with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra under conductor Julian Wachner, in the St. Paul Chapel in New York City.)

Brailey is a co-founder of and participant in the monthly free Just Bach concerts here. In addition, while pursuing graduate studies at the UW-Madison, she is a concert artist with a budding international career. For more about her, including a rave review from The New York Times and sample videos, go to: https://sarahbrailey.com

But right now the Wisconsin native is especially concerned about the lasting impact that the Coronavirus pandemic will have on her own career as well as on the careers of others like her and on the well-being of arts presenters.

Brailey (below, in photo by Miranda Loud) sent The Ear the following essay:

By Sarah Brailey

This is a scary time for everyone, but particularly for anyone who works as an independent contractor.

I am a freelance classical soprano based in Madison. I maintain a very active performing career, traveling all over the globe, and I am also a doctoral student at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

When COVID-19 hit the United States, presenting organizations on the east and west coasts started canceling concerts to comply with social distancing recommendations.

I initially thought I was lucky to be living in the middle of the country where our lesser population density might save us. Plus, I am a Teaching Assistant at the UW right now, so I will still be getting my stipend — although teaching virtual voice lessons will be its own special challenge!

But many of my colleagues are not so lucky and are facing bankruptcy. If the government doesn’t include independent contractors in its relief packages, a lot of people are going to be insolvent.

And I myself am not immune. As the seriousness of the situation became clear, all my concerts in the next two months soon disappeared one by one.

While not being able to perform is emotionally devastating, these cancellations are also financially devastating.

There exists a clause in every standard performance contract called “force majeure” (superior force), which is idiomatically referred to as, “an act of God.” This clause excuses a party from not honoring its contractual obligations that becomes impossible or impracticable, due to an event or effect that the parties could not have anticipated or controlled.

This can come in handy for a presenter if there is, say, a blizzard that necessitates the cancellation of a concert. (This happened to me a few seasons ago with the Boston Symphony.) If the presenter will not make any money on ticket sales, they are not then further injured by having to pay the musicians for the canceled concert. (Below, Brailey sings Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with the Colorado Symphony.)

The ramifications of this pandemic are unprecedented. Every freelance musician I know is suddenly out of work. The current conventions put all of the upfront financial burden on the artists. We are paid in one lump sum at the end of a project. We do not get a fee for the countless hours of preparation.

We often book travel and lodging on our own dime, and are not reimbursed until the end of the gig. We pay for our own health insurance, and we cannot file for unemployment because our work is paid via IRS Form 1099 and not W2s. The abrupt work stoppage caused by this pandemic means insolvency – or even bankruptcy — for many artists. (Below, Brailey sings Handel’s “Messiah” at the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City.)

Many institutions — and, unfortunately, many of the bigger players like The Metropolitan Opera — are invoking force majeure without much regard for how their artists are struggling.

My colleague, tenor Zach Finkelstein, is covering this in great detail on his blog The Middle Class Artist, as is Alex Ross, the prize-winning music critic for The New Yorker. Read his piece on force majeure here.

However, there are also thankfully some good stories to tell. The Bach Society of Minnesota reimbursed all my travel expenses and is paying 75 percent of my fee, as is the Lyra Baroque Orchestra.

I am helping Zach keep track of the organizations that are helping their artists in this time of need. (Read about them here. Madison Opera is on the list.)

The arts are not just cultural enrichment; they are an essential part of our economy. In 2017, the industry contributed $877.8 billion, or 4.5 percent, to U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employed over 5 million workers. We cannot afford to let this industry disappear. I fear that many individual artists and arts organizations will not recover from this. (Below, Brailey sings Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Magnificat” at the Bucknell Bach Festival.)

While we wait out this storm, I implore you to donate to a Madison arts organization. Here is a short list of recommendations along with some national relief funds for artists.

Local Arts Organizations

Madison Bach Musicians

Handel Aria Competition

Madison Early Music Festival

Madison Opera

Madison Youth Choirs

List of National Relief Funds


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Classical music: Tonight brings an all-Bach organ recital at Overture Hall. At the UW-Madison, this week brings music for band, brass and strings

October 23, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

TONIGHT, Tuesday, Oct. 23

At 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, Paul Jacobs (below) will perform an all-Bach program. Jacobs, who is the only organist to have won a Grammy Award, is the chair of the organ department at the Juilliard school in New York City and was the teacher and mentor of Greg Zelek, who is the new organist for the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Heralded as “one of the major musicians of our time” by Alex Ross of The New Yorker and as “America’s leading organ performer” by The Economist, the internationally celebrated Jacobs combines a probing intellect and extraordinary technical mastery with an unusually large repertoire, both old and new. He has performed to great critical acclaim on five continents and in each of the 50 United States.

Jacobs made musical history at age 23 when he played Bach’s complete organ works in an 18-hour marathon performance on the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death. (You can hear Jacobs play Bach in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Jacobs has premiered works by Samuel Adler, Mason Bates, Michael Daugherty, Wayne Oquin, Stephen Paulus, Christopher Theofanidis and Christopher Rouse, among others.

During the 2018-19 season, Jacobs will perform the world premiere of John Harbison’s “What Do We Make of Bach?” for organ and orchestra with the Minnesota Orchestra under conductor Osmo Vanska; with the Cleveland Orchestra he will give the American premiere of Austrian composer Bernd Richard Deutsch’s “Okeanos” for organ and orchestra.

For more details about Jacobs, his complete all-Bach program and tickets ($20), go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/paul-jacobs/

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 24

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Concert Band will perform a FREE concert of music by Leonard Bernstein (excerpts from “Candide”), Vincent Persichetti, Percy Grainger, Mark Markowski and Steven Bryant.

For more information about the performance and the program, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-band-fall-concert-2/

THURSDAY, Oct. 25

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet and special guest UW percussionist Anthony DiSanza (below, in a photo by Katherine Esposito) will perform a ticketed concert of genre-bending music by Michael Tilson Thomas, Pat Metheny, Modest Mussorgsky, Alan Ferber, James Parker and David Sanford.

Admission is $17 for adults, $7 for students and children.

For more information about the performers, the program and how to purchase tickets, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wisconsin-brass-quintet-with-anthony-disanza-professor-of-percussion-2/

Members of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below, from left, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) are: Daniel Grabois, horn; Mark Hetzler, trombone; Matthew Onstad, trumpet; Tom Curry, tuba; and Alex Noppe, trumpet.

SATURDAY, Oct. 27

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte Quartet will perform a FREE concert.

The program features: the String Quartet in C Major, D. 46 (1813), by the young Franz Schubert; Three Rags for String Quartet (“Poltergeist” from 1971, “Graceful Ghost” from 1970, and “Incinteratorag” from 1967) by William Bolcom; and the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2 (1837), by Felix Mendelssohn.

For more information about the Pro Arte Quartet and its long, historic and fascinating background, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-3/

Members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below, from left, in a photo by Rick Langer, are: David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violins; Sally Chisholm, viola; and Parry Karp, cello.)


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Classical music: The New Yorker critic Alex Ross profiles and praises violinist Augustin Hadelich, who performs Dvorak with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend

April 11, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The timing could not be more perfect.

Alex Ross, the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning writer who writes for The New Yorker and is considered by many to be the best classical music critic today, recently went to Detroit to report about the dramatic the rebirth of the Detroit Symphony.

He ended up devoting half the story to a great profile of the Italian-German violinist Augustin Hadelich (below), who was there as a guest soloist to play the rarely programmed Violin Concerto by the British composer Benjamin Britten.

Now it just so happens that the Grammy Award-winning Hadelich returns to Madison for the third time this weekend to perform another rarely heard violin concerto – the Violin Concerto by Antonin Dvorak – with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below in a photo by Peter Rodgers).

The “String Fever” program includes the rarely performed Sinfonia da Requiem by Benjamin Britten and the “Spring” Symphony by Robert Schumann, which is surprisingly the MSO’s first performance of this well-known work.

Performances are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $10-$90.

For more information about the artists and the program as well as how to obtain tickets, go to:

https://www.madisonsymphony.org/hadelich

For program notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen, go to:

http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/7.Apr18.html

And as usual there will be a Prelude Discussion – this time by John DeMain — one hour before each performance.

In addition, the MSO encourages audiences to arrive early because of security check-ins at the Overture Center.

But let’s go back to the profile by Alex Ross (below) of Augustin Hadelich.

In it you will read that:

Hadelich is focusing more on unusual repertoire by Britten, Henry Dutilleux, Gygorgy Ligeti and Thomas Adès than on the well-known violin concertos by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Bartok.

(An impressive virtuoso, whom Ross praises for both technical brilliance and musicality, Hadelich can be heard performing the famously difficult and familiar Caprice No. 24 by Paganini in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Hadelich has high praise for regional symphony orchestras that gave his career a boost, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which he mentions by name along with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He also points out how underappreciated many such regional orchestras are.

Hadelich is a methodical performing artist. The interview has fascinating background about how he works, including taking notes about each performance, and how he prepares for performances, including what kind of food he eats and when he eats it.

And there is more about Hadlelich’s compelling personal story as a recovered burn victim, about his outstanding playing, and about the life of an up-and-coming concert artist on the road.

The Ear found it fascinating on its own and excellent preparation for hearing Hadelich live. He hopes you do too. Here is a link:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/09/augustin-hadelichs-bold-violin-explorations


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