The Well-Tempered Ear

Should the 1812 Overture be played this Fourth of July?

May 2, 2022
9 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear recently noticed that the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has once again scheduled the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky (below) as part of the finale of its Fourth of July concert on the evening of July 6, 2022.

The performance is part of this summer’s FREE Concerts on the Square (COS) by the WCO that run on six consecutive Wednesday nights from June 29 through Aug. 3. Concerts start at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square in downtown Madison, and will be conducted by Andrew Sewell.

For more information about the series and individual performers and programs, go to: https://wcoconcerts.org/concerts-tickets/concerts-on-the-square

An asterisk says programs are subject to change.

Which got The Ear to thinking: Should Tchaikovsky’s perennial favorite, the flashy and loud  1812 Overture, be played again this year?

It is a tradition that was started on Independence Day in 1974 by Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops, according to reputable sources. 

But this year might be a very different case because of a quandary that might cause organizers, including PBS’ “A Capitol Fourth,” to rethink the program. 

It is a choice that will confront many musical groups across the U.S., given the current unprovoked brutality and and war crimes being committed by Russia against Ukraine.

After all, many music groups, including the Metropolitan Opera, have already banned Russian performers who support Russian President Vladimir Putin and his unjustified war in Ukraine (below).

So here’s the question: Is it appropriate to play a favorite work celebrating a Russian military victory while Ukraine, the United States and Western allies, including NATO, are desperately trying to defeat Russian forces?

As you may recall, the overture was inspired by Russia’s victory over the invading forces of Napoleon who was attempting go conquer Russia. Like Hitler and the Nazis, Napoleon failed and the Russians prevailed. That is why, in the work, you hear the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” overcome by the chimes and cannons of the Russian victory hymn. (There was no Russian national anthem until 1815.)

Here is a link to more background in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1812_Overture

Will the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or other orchestras as well as radio and TV stations around the U.S. find a substitute piece? Perhaps it could be the Ukrainian national anthem that is performed (as in the BBC Proms concert in the YouTube video at the bottom and as many other orchestras around the world, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra and John DeMain, have done).

What else could the WCO and other groups play — especially since Sousa marches are already usually featured on The Fourth?

Do you have a suggestion?

The Ear will be interested to see how the quandary is solved — with explanations and excuses, or with alternative music?

Meanwhile, as comedian Stephen Colbert likes to say: What do you think?

Should the “1812 Overture” be played on this Fourth of July?

Why?

Or why not?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
5 Comments

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

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Posted in Classical music
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