The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: University Opera announces a new season that is politically and socially relevant to today. The two shows are a virtual revue of Marc Blitzstein and a live operatic version of “The Crucible.”

August 7, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

David Ronis (below), the director of the University Opera at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, has posted the following notice about its upcoming season on social media.

The award-winning Ronis is known for being creative both in programming and staging. The new season is yet another example of that. It features one virtual original production about an American composer to see and hear online, and two live performances of a mid-20th century American opera.

Both works seem especially pertinent and cautionary, given the times we currently live in in the U.S.

Here are the details:

FINALLY!!!

Things have fallen into place for the University Opera 2020-21 season and we are happy to announce our productions:

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein — the Man in His Music”

“A biographical pastiche featuring songs and ensembles from Marc Blitzstein’s shows, spoken excerpts from his letters and working notes, and a narration. 

“Oct. 23, 2020

8 p.m. Video Release

____________________________________________________________________________________

“The Crucible” (1961)

Music by Robert Ward

Libretto by Bernard Stambler

Based on the 1953 play by Arthur Miller

March 19 and 21, 2021

Shannon Hall, Wisconsin Union Theater

_____________________________________________________________________________________

We will post more information as we get it. For now, we are very excited about both projects! Stay tuned.”

(Editor’s note: To stay tuned, go to: https://www.facebook.com/UniversityOpera/)

_____________________________________________________________________________________

And what does The Ear think?

The revue of Marc Blitzstein seems a perfect choice for Madison since his papers and manuscripts are located at the Wisconsin Historical Society. For details, go to: http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi/f/findaid/findaid-idx?c=wiarchives;view=reslist;subview=standard;didno=uw-whs-us0035an

Focusing on Blitzstein (1905-1964) also seems an especially politically relevant choice since he was a pro-labor union activist whose “The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles,” was shut down by the Works Progress Administration of the federal government.

For more about Blitzstein (below in 1938) and his career, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Blitzstein

“The Crucible” also seems an especially timely choice. In its day the original play about the Salem witch trials was seen as a historical parable and parallel of McCarthyism and the Republican witch hunt for Communists.

Read about the Salem witch trials here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials

Now that we are seeing a time when Democrats and others with progressive ideas are accused of being radical leftists, socialists and destructive revolutionaries, its relevance has come round again. Like McCarthy, President Donald Trump relies on winning elections by generating fear and denigrating opponents.

For more about the operatic version of “The Crucible” (below, in a production at the University of Northern Iowa) — which was commissioned by the New York City Opera and won both a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Music Critics Circle Award in 1962 — go to this Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crucible_(opera)

You can hear the musically accessible opening and John’s aria, from Act II, in the YouTube video at the bottom. For more about composer Robert Ward (1917-2013, below), go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Ward_(composer)

What do you think of the new University Opera season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: How can classical music be made less white? Nine Black artists suggest changes. Which ones will work best?

July 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

With all the attention given to and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement — and other demonstrations and protests against personal and systemic racism as well as white privilege — it comes as no surprise that questions are being raised about the overwhelmingly white world of classical music and how to change it.

Most of the local classical music groups The Ear knows of have posted statements of solidarity.

If he recalls correctly, they include the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Willy Street Chamber Players and many others.

But beyond declarations of solidarity with people of color, the music groups face deeper issues that require action, not just words, and remain more difficult to solve: How to attract more Black  classical musicians? How to foster more Black composers? And how to attract more Black audiences?

Diversity and equity are long-term issues, and quite a number of possible solutions loom.

Would performing more pieces, both historical and contemporary, by Black composers (below) work?

Would hiring more Black resident musicians help?

Would booking more Black guest artists and soloists help? (Below is the young and upcoming British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.)

Would changing the music curriculum in schools help? (Some important Black composers are explored in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Would generating more support to and from the Black community help?

Last week The New York Times did a fine piece of work in addressing these issues.

The reporter and music editor asked nine different accomplished Black conductors, instrumentalists, singers, critics and administrators in classical music about how to solve the inequity. The interviews were condensed and edited into very readable statements.

Here is a link to that story: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/16/arts/music/black-classical-music-opera.html

Please read it.

Then let us know which suggestions you think should be attempted first and which solutions are most likely to work.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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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.


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Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Here are two extended playlists of American masterpieces

July 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Independence Day – the Fourth of July holiday.

It is a good occasion to listen to classical music by American composers (below), which you can hear much of the day on Wisconsin Public Radio.

But here are two other extended playlists of American classical music:

Here, thanks to a California radio station, is a list with complete performances of some of the best American masterpieces, including the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, the “Afro-American” Symphony by William Grant Still (below), “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin and “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” by Leonard Bernstein:

https://www.capradio.org/music/classical/2019/07/04/playlist-american-classical-music-for-your-fourth-of-july/

And thanks to Minnesota Public Radio, here are four hours of patriotic music for the holiday: https://www.classicalmpr.org/story/2018/06/29/celebrate-the-fourth-of-july-with-our-4hour-patriotic-classical-playlist

Finally, in the YouTube at the bottom is the “American” String Quartet by Antonin Dvorak (below), who summered in Spillville, Iowa. He loved hearing and tried to capture sounds of nature, including bird songs, traditional Black spirituals and music by Native Americans.

The Ear especially likes it because it is proof that just as Americans have been influenced by European composers, European composers, European composers have been influenced by American composers.

Do you have a special or favorite piece of classical music to help celebrate the Fourth of July?

What do you like about it?

Leave a comment with a YouTube link if possible?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: What do you think about Abraham Lincoln and the statue of him on the UW-Madison campus?

June 28, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The proposal, discussion and controversy have become local, regional, national and international news.

What do you think about Abraham Lincoln?

And what do you think should be done about the statue of him (below, in a photo by Getty Images) on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus? Should it go? Or should it stay? Why?

Leave a comment below.

While you consider those questions, perhaps you will find it worth listening to James Earl Jones (below) narrate “A Lincoln Portrait” by the American composer Aaron Copland.It is played by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under conductor Gerard Schwarz in the excerpt below that was recently posted by Kathleen Zorko — “with hope” — on YouTube.

 


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Opera, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Overture Center cancel their fall seasons. Plus, on Saturday cellist Cole Randolph performs a virtual concert for Grace Presents

June 26, 2020
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ALERT: The Saturday at noon, Grace Presents will offer the first in its series of HD Virtual Concerts online. Future performers include organist Mark Brampton Smith and the Willy Street Chamber Players.

The performer this time is the cellist and recent UW-Madison graduate Cole Randolph (below). The program is: the Sonata for Solo Cello by the American composer George Crumb; two of the “Seven Songs Heard in China” by Chinese composer Bright Sheng; and the Suite for Solo Cello No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Here is where you can hear the 40-minute concert inside the church on the Capitol Square: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vaOCH53osk

You can also connect with Cole Randolph after the show by joining in a Zoom meet-and-greet immediately following the performance at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88001773181

The meeting ID is: 880 0177 3181

You can hear Randolph (below, in a photo by Michael Anderson) playing in the YouTube video at the bottom.

By Jacob Stockinger

With all the talk of a second wave of coronavirus coming in the fall — complicated by the seasonal flu – concert cancellations don’t come as a surprise, unfortunately.

In fact, The Ear suspects many more cancellations are to come, including those from the UW-Madison, the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Here is the latest round: the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Overture Center have all canceled their fall seasons, with some qualifications.

The announcements came on Thursday morning in the wake of the Overture Center canceling all performances this summer and fall through Nov. 30.

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

The Madison Symphony Orchestra has provided a short statement and a more complete and detailed press release.

Here is the statement:

“The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 2020-21 “Beethoven and Beyond” season concerts and Overture Concert Organ performances are now canceled from September 2020 through January 2021.

“The move is due to the Overture Center’s decision to suspend events through Nov. 30, 2020, and the requirements of Dane County’s “Forward Dane” Reopening Plan.

“The 2020-21 season performances in February, March, April and May 2021 are scheduled to take place as planned.

“All subscribers will be sent a refund for the value of their tickets for the September 2020 through January 2021 concerts.”

Here is a list on the five MSO concerts – including the Beyond the Score performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on Jan. 25 — that will be canceled and the four that remain scheduled: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/2020-2021-symphony-season-concerts/

Here is a link to the full press release about the cancellations by the MSO (below, in a  photo by Peter Rodgers): https://madisonsymphony.org/press-release-june-2020-concert-events-update/

MADISON OPERA

The Madison Opera is canceling the two in-person performances of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour) but is planning on offering some kind of large digital event and smaller live events at its center.

Here is statement from the Madison Opera:

“Although the Overture Center for the Arts is closed until the end of November, we will not be going silent.

“We are creating a fall season that lasts from September through December, and includes both digital content and live performances at the Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, our home in downtown Madison.

“Some of our signature engagement activities — such as Opera Novice and Opera Up Close — will have monthly editions that include artists from around the country.

“The Opera Center itself will be the site of “Live from the Opera Center,” a variety of streamed performances with a small live audience.

“Other performances will be created digitally and made available exclusively to subscribers.

“Artists involved include members of the original “Il Trovatore” cast: soprano Karen Slack, baritone Weston Hurt, bass Kenneth Kellogg, and stage director Fenlon Lamb. Other soloists include Wisconsin-based artists Jeni Houser (below), David Blalock, Emily Fons, Emily Secor and Kirsten Larson.

“We are working with our artists to create programming that is chosen from their passions: music they want to share, ideas they want to explore, and conversations they want to start. The challenges facing us will create new art, and new ways to make sure it is accessible to everyone.”

Marketing director Andrew Rogers told The Ear that the opera company is still deciding whether digital performances will be ticketed or free with suggested donations.

The full schedule will be announced in early August, after the digital online Opera in the Park takes place Saturday, July 25. For details, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2020/05/06/opera-in-the-park-is-going-digital/

To stay current about the regular opera season, you can sign up for the Madison Opera’s news updates via email by going to this website: https://www.madisonopera.org/fall2020/

WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

The Nov. 20 opening concert with pianist John O’Conor of the Masterworks Series has been POSTPONED with no new date set yet.

Music director Andrew Sewell says the Family Concert on is still on for Saturday, Oct. 10, at the Goodman Community Center but the WCO is looking for an alternative venue.

The concert on Nov. 7 at the Verona Area Performing Arts Center has been CANCELED.

Both performances of Handel’s “Messiah” — on Dec. 9 and Dec. 12 at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton and the UW’s Hamel Music Center on Dec. 12 – have also been CANCELED.

And this season the WCO will not play Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” from Dec. 17-27 because the Madison Ballet has canceled those performances.

For more information about the WCO (below, in photo by Mike Gorski), go to: https://wcoconcerts.org/concerts-tickets/calendar

What do you think?

Do you think the cancellations are warranted?

Do you want to leave a message or comment encouraging and supporting the various groups and their many musicians?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Here is the world premiere of the first piece of “pandemic music” commissioned by the Library of Congress

June 16, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It has started.

This is the week when the world premieres of the 10 short pieces — written by American composers for the U.S. Library of Congress’ “Boccaccio Project” — will go public and start being posted on various social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as well as the Internet.

The project is a way to capture some of the unique culture brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19.

The first is “Sequestered Thoughts,” a solo piano work by composed Damien Sneed (below top) and performed by Jeremy Jordan (below  bottom).

Below is a link to the page with the performance. You can also read what both the composer and the pianist have to say about the new work and what it means — including rippling octaves that depict the monotony of the days in isolation.

Here is the link: https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/sneed-jordan.html

You can also follow links on the bottom of the page to 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 commentary and questions, 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 new piece?

What do you think of the whole project?

Do you want to hear more of the commissioned music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Library of Congress has commissioned new music about the coronavirus pandemic. You can listen to the world premieres from this Monday, June 15, through June 26

June 13, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The U.S. Library of Congress (LOC, exterior is below top and interior is below bottom) has started a new artistic project relevant to a public health crisis in both a historical era and the current times.

The LOC has commissioned 10 different short works, experienced in 10 different performance videos recorded at their homes — that pertain to the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 from American composers and performers.

It is called The Boccaccio Project after the Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccaccio (below), a 14th-century Italian writer who wrote “The Decameron,” a series of stories told by 10 people who fled from Florence, Italy, to find refuge in the countryside during the Black Plague.

The musical works will start being premiered on weekdays this coming Monday, June 15, at the Library of Congress website. The works will also be broadcast on social media including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The website, which now has a complete list of performers and works, will soon have a complete schedule of world premieres, running on weekdays from Monday, June 15, to Friday, June 26. Then the manuscripts will be transferred to the LOC archives.

Here is a link: https://loc.gov/item/prn-20-038/

Many of the names will be unfamiliar to the general public. But an excellent story about the background and genesis of the project, including music samples, can be found on National Public Radio (NPR), which aired the story Friday morning.

Here is a link to that 7-minute story (if you listen to it rather than read it, you will hear samples of the music): https://www.npr.org/2020/06/12/875325958/a-new-library-of-congress-project-commissions-music-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic

And here are some of the participants, who are noteworthy for their ethnic and geographic diversity:

Flutronix (below) includes flutist Allison Loggins-Hull, left, and composer Nathalie Joachim.

The work by composer Luciano Chessa (below top) will be performed by violist Charlton Lee (below bottom), of the Del Sol Quartet:

And the work by Damien Sneed (below top) work will be performed by Jeremy Jordan (below bottom):

The new project strikes The Ear as a terrific and timely undertaking — the musical equivalent of the photographic project, funded and staffed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during The Great Depression of the 1930s. That project yielded enduring masterpieces by such eminent photographers as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.

But several questions arise.

How much did the project cost?

Will the general public be able to get copies of and rights to these works to perform? One assumes yes, since it is a public project funded with public money.

And will this project give rise to similar projects in other countries that are also battling the pandemic? New art – literature, films, painting, dance and so on — arising from new circumstances seems like something that is indeed worth the undertaking.

Listen to them.

What works stand out for you?

What do you think of the project?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: On this Memorial Day, The Ear honors not only soldiers but also civilians, COVID-19 victims and all those responders and workers who serve the public

May 25, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day 2020.

It is of course a largely military holiday. Most of the planned public events will be to honor those who died in service to their country. That usually means fallen soldiers and deceased veterans.

It also means that military cemeteries – like Arlington National Cemetery, below — will be decorated with American flags.

But The Ear doesn’t think we should forget that there are many ways to serve your country and protect the public, many kinds war and self-sacrifice.

Let’s not forget civilians, especially since worldwide more than twice the numbers of civilians died in World War II than did members of the armed forces. Lives are taken as well as given.

A larger definition of “national service” also seems especially timely since this weekend the U.S. is likely to surpass 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic. They include many first responders and frontline workers (below) as well as grocery store workers and delivery drivers. Even “small” occupations have big heroes. There is no reason not to be more inclusive.

There are traditional kinds of music to honor the dead. They include requiems and elegies, military marches and funeral marches. And in the comment section you should feel free to suggest whatever music you think would be appropriate.

But The Ear found a piece he thinks is both unusual and ideal.

It is called “Old and Lost Rivers” by the contemporary American composer Tobias Picker (below). It is a beautiful, moving and contemplative piece, based on an actual place in Texas, that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But you should know this about the work’s title.

With rivers, “lost” doesn’t mean forgotten or misplaced.

One dictionary defines it as “a surface stream that flows into an underground passageway” – and eventually often becomes part of a larger body of water such as a lake or the ocean.

It can also mean rivers that appear during heavy rain and then disappear when they evaporate during a drought.

Somehow, those images serve as fitting metaphors for our losses and that music seems a very appropriate way to honor those who sacrifice themselves and disappear in service to others.

The Ear hopes you agree.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: During the COVID-19 pandemic, hosts at Wisconsin Public Radio suggest music that expresses gratitude and hope

May 13, 2020
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

The various hosts of Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) — an indispensable companion during self-isolation at home — listen to a lot of music and think a lot about it, especially about its meaning and appeal to the public.

So it comes as no surprise that they have once again suggested music to listen to during the coronavirus pandemic and the mounting toll of COVID-19.

Almost two months ago, the same radio hosts suggested music that they find calming and inspiring. They did so on the WPR home page in an ongoing blog where they also included YouTube audiovisual performances.

Here is a link to that earlier posting, which is well worth reading and following: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Wisconsin+Public+Radio

This time, the various hosts – mostly of classical shows but also of folk music and world music – suggest music that inspires or expresses hope and gratitude. (Below is Ruthanne Bessman, the host of “Classics by Request,” which airs at 10 a.m. on Saturdays.)

Here is the genesis of the list and public service project:

“At a recent WPR music staff meeting, we talked about the many ways music can unite us and about how music can express the gratitude we feel for people and things that are important to us, often much better than words.

“That discussion led to this collection of music, which we wanted to share with you. It’s eclectic and interesting, just like our music staff.”

The composers cited include some familiar names such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Benjamin Britten and John Williams.

But some new music, based on historical events and written by contemporary or modern composers, is also named. It includes works by the American composer Daniel Gawthrop (b. 1949, below top) and the Israeli composer David Zehavi (1910-1977, below bottom). Here are links to their biographies.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_E._Gawthrop

https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/zehavi-david

Sound-wise, it is quite an eclectic list that runs from solo harpsichord music to orchestral and choral music as well as chamber music.

Many of the performers have played in Madison at the Overture Center, with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at the UW-Madison and on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos.

They include: the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; cellist Amit Peled and pianist Eli Kalman, who received his doctorate from the UW-Madison and now teaches at the UW-Oshkosh; conductor-composer John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers;  and superstars violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma along with Venezuelan pianist-improviser Gabriela Montero  in a quartet that played at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Here is a link to the new WPR suggestions: https://www.wpr.org/wpr-hosts-share-music-gratitude-and-hope

Happy listening!

If you read the blog or listen to the music, let us know what you think in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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