The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Mozart masterfully melds the emotional and the intellectual, says maestro Gary Thor Wedow, who will conduct two performances of “The Magic Flute” this weekend for the Madison Opera. Here is Part 1 of his two-part interview with The Ear

April 18, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute this Friday night, April 21 at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. (Production photos are courtesy of the Arizona Opera, from which the Madison Opera got its sets and costumes.)

Here are an introduction and some details, courtesy of the Madison Opera:

Written in the last year of his life, Mozart’s opera is part fairy tale, part adventure story, and is filled with enchantment.

Set in a fairy-tale world of day and night, the opera follows Prince Tamino and the bird-catcher Papageno as they embark on a mission to rescue Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Pamina had been kidnapped by Sarastro, the leader of a religious order. But it turns out that exactly who is “good” and who is “evil” is not always what it appears.

Along the way to happily-ever-after, Pamina, Tamino and Papageno face many challenges, but are assisted by a magic flute, magic bells, a trio of guiding spirits and their own clear-eyed sense of right and wrong.

“The Magic Flute has been beloved around the world since its 1791 premiere,” says Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “It has been called a fairy tale for both adults and children, with a story that works on many levels, all set to Mozart’s glorious music. I’m so delighted to be sharing it again with Madison, with an incredible cast, director and conductor.”

The opera runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets are $18 to $130.

“The Magic Flute” will be sung in German with English supertitles.

For more about the production and cast, go to:

And also go to:

Dan Rigazzi, who has been on the directing staff at the Metropolitan Opera for 10 years, makes his Madison Opera debut with this beautiful production that incorporates some steampunk elements into its fairy-tale setting.

Gary Thor Wedow, a renowned Mozart conductor, makes his mainstage debut with this opera, after having conducted Opera in the Park in 2016 and 2012.

Conductor Wedow (below) recently agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:

Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers?

Hello! I’m an American conductor, born in LaPorte, Indiana. A faculty member at The Juilliard School, I spend a lot of time with music of the 18th century — Handel and Mozart and often earlier, like Monteverdi, Purcell and Cavalli. But I conduct everything and grew up in love with the Romantics. I’ve also always done a lot of contemporary music. I love it all.

Mozart’s music sounds so clear and easy or simple, but the reality is quite different, musicians say. What do you strive for and what qualities do you think make for great Mozart playing?

Mozart engages both the brain and the heart. He challenges your intellect with amazing feats of counterpoint, orchestration and structure while tugging at your heart, all the time pulling you along in a deep drama.

Mozart was an Italian melodist with a German contrapuntal, harmonic engine – like an incredible automobile with an Italian slick body and a German motor.

Do you share the view that opera is central to Mozart’s music, even to his solo, chamber and ensemble instrumental music? How so? What is special or unique to Mozart’s operas, and to this opera in particular?

From all accounts, Mozart (below, in his final year) was a huge personality who was full of life and a keen observer of the human condition; his letters are full of astute, often merciless and sometimes loving evaluations of family, colleagues and patrons.

Mozart’s music speaks of the human condition: its passions, loves and hopes— no matter what genre. His music is innately dramatic and primal, going immediately to the most basic and universal human emotions with breathtaking nuance, variety and depth. (You can hear the Overture to “The Magic Flute,” performed by the Metropolitan Opera orchestra under James Levine, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tomorrow: Tricks to conducting Mozart and what to pay special attention to in this production of The Magic Flute.


Classical music: This is your brain on music! New scientific research shows that the human brain evolved special channels for hearing music. Read all about it!

February 13, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

What is your brain like on music? (The illustration below is by Marcos Chin.)

music and brain CR Marcos Chin

One of the most fascinating stories The Ear has ever read about music and science came last Tuesday in this week’s Science Times section of The New York Times.

The “Music Channel” story was reported by the acclaimed science writer  and journalist Natalie Angier (below), who won a Pulitzer Prize and has been nominated for a National Book Award She also included a sidebar story about her own experience undergoing the kind of MRI scan that helped researchers.

natalie angier

The upshot is this: No matter what kind of music you like – classical, jazz, folk, country, rock, pop – the human brain has developed special neural pathways to perceive the music.

In short, the human brain seems to have its own music room.

The story says this may help to explain why music seems a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon and why the first music instruments, such as the vulture bone flute found in Germany (below, in a photo by Jensen of the University of Tubingen) date back 42,000 years — some 24,000 years before the first cave painting appear in Lascaux, France.

Vulture bone flute CR Jensen:University of Tubingen

Plus, the story points out that the scientists and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) do not get the same result with non-musical noises. The special nerve pathways or circuits seem to have evolved specifically to receive musical information.

There is a lot more fascinating information in the story.

For The Ear, the bottom line is that we are closer to knowing why music has such deep appeal in so many different ways. And the researchers say that this study is just the beginning. (You can hear more about the effects of music on the human brain and body in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear looks forward to seeing more research about why music is special to the human brain: Is it the structure of music? The logic and intellectual content? Primarily the melody or harmony or rhythm? The emotional content?

Here is a link to the must-read story:

And here is the sidebar story, “Lending Her Ears to MIT Experiment,” about Natalie Angier’s own experience with the MIT research study about music and the human brain. It explains the research methods in details from a subjective point of view:

Classical music: Research shows that the brains of musicians work in a different and good way. Plus, the wind quintet Black Marigold performs a FREE concert this Saturday at noon at Grace Episcopal Church.

December 11, 2014
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ALERT: The local wind quintet Black Marigold (below) will give a FREE concert on this Saturday, Dec. 13, from noon to about 1 p.m. downtown at Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, on the Capitol Square. The program includes: Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as arranged by David M. Carp; the Wind Quintet by Paul Taffanel (the opening is at the bottom in a YouTube video); “Eight” by Kenn McSperitt; and “La Nouvelle Orleans” by Lalo Schifrin. The concert is part of the Grace Presents series.

Black Marigold 2

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is something in the way of a holiday gift or bonus from scientific researchers to all kinds of musicians — professional, amateur and students.

It has to do with how the human brain functions while listening and especially while making music. It is not a new topic, as the YouTube video below shows.

Human brain

I won’t say more except to offer a link to the story that appeared on NPR (National Public Radio):

Classical music education: Do early music lessons change the brain and affect language learning by older children?

September 15, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Scientists are still working at making all the connections and determining all the effects.

But a new study from Northwestern University suggests that early music lessons do indeed positively affect the structure of the brain and help older children learn other important things, including language.

In fact, music lessons may be more important than budget-cutters often think.

Here is a great round-up story that appeared in the Science Times section of the New York Times this past week:

Classical music: Young music composer and violinist survives the Aurora, Colorado shootings because she is lucky and has good health care – not because she has an abnormal brain.

July 29, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

More and more news about the tragic cinema shootings in Aurora, Colorado, keep emerging.

Now we understand that the accused killer, James Holmes, was under the treatment of a psychiatrist. And you can be sure there is much more to come.

One of the underlying themes of this very sad incident is the role that luck plays in our lives.

Go to the right movie or the right theater or the right showing time or the right seat, and you are safe. Go to the wrong one, and you are dead, if not severely wounded or permanently injured.

One of the good luck stories that came out concerned a young woman who is a violinist and a composer of music that honors veterans. She is Petra Anderson, 22 (below in photo by Randal McGee), who was shot in the head but survived. (She was also took three bullets in the arm, though it doesn’t say if it was her bowing arm.)

Originally doctors operating on her thought that she had an abnormal brain structure that actually directed – or, more accurately, deflected — the bullet and so saved her life and brain function.

In an update, it turns out that her owed more to luck than biology. There’s was nothing unusual about the structure of her cranium or brain, after all. The bullet simply took a highly unusual path through her brain.

Here is a link to her story:

I mention her story here because she is player-performer and also a composer of music. It reminds me of a short story, a passage from a novel really, called “Mozart Assassinated” by the 20th century French writer Antoine de Saint Exupery (below), who is best known for his children’s book “The Little Prince.”

In the passage, the writer is on a train and observes a young sleeping child of migrant Polish laborers, as I recall, and wonders if this child could ever grow up to be another Mozart, even if the youngster had the talent, genius and creativity – but won’t simply because the circumstances in which the child lives won’t allow for that kind of development and achievement.

It makes me wonder about similar situations in the world where possibly great artistic – or scientific – minds are stifled by various circumstances.

It could be a shooting — in a terrorist attack, a crime or an accident.

It could be a famine.

It could be a war.

It could be poverty.

It could a lack of health care, especially now that the Republican leadership (below, with Senator Mitch McConnell in the foreground) has openly admitted that assuring universal coverage is no longer a priority, despite estimates of 50 million or more Americans who are uninsured or underinsured.

Here is a link to the story by NPR’s terrific heath care reporter Julie Rovner:

Chance or luck always plays a role. But we don’t have to maximize the role of chance or bad luck by falling back on some kind of social indifference and lack of compassion that uses a love of s0-called freedom as an alibi — as if having health care isn’t a form of freedom.  

That is, simply the unkindest and dumbest form of social Darwinism, with only the rich and powerful thinking that they are the fittest and deserve to survive.

Anyway, we can all hope that the composer and musician who survived Aurora goes onto achieve a complete recovery and then create great things and enrich all our lives.

And that is what we should hope for, and work to obtain, for everyone.

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