The Well-Tempered Ear

University Opera’s original online video project celebrates the life and music of American composer Marc Blitzstein. It will be posted for FREE on YouTube this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m.

October 21, 2020
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera presents its first project of 2020-21 in video format as it turns to the music of the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” will be released free of charge on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s YouTube channel this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. CDT at the general site www.youtube.com/meadwitterschoolofmusic or the official specific link: https://youtu.be/77FXFZucrWc.

Director of University Opera David Ronis (below top) is the director of the original production and will give introductory remarks. UW-Madison graduate Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) is the musical director. The production lasts 1 hour and 40 minutes, and features four singer-actors, a narrator and a piano.

Marc Blitzstein’s life story parallels some of the most important cultural currents in American history of the mid-20th-century.

Known for his musicals — most notably The Cradle Will Rock in 1937 (you can hear Dawn Upshaw sing the lovely song “I Wish It So” from “Juno” in the YouTube video at the bottom) — his opera Regina and his translation of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Blitzstein was an outspoken proponent of socially engaged art. Like many artists of his time, he joined the American Communist Party. But he also enthusiastically served in the U.S. Army during World War II (below, in 1943).

Nevertheless, in 1958, long after he had given up his Communist Party membership, Blitzstein (below) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he “named no names.”

An extremely gifted yet underappreciated composer, he was a close friend of and mentor to Leonard Bernstein (below right, with Blitzstein on the left) and traveled in a close circle of American composers including David Diamond and Aaron Copland.

Although openly gay, he married Eva Goldbeck in 1933. Sadly, she died three years later from complications due to anorexia.

Blitzstein’s own death was likewise tragic. In 1964, while in Martinique working on an opera about the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, he was robbed and badly beaten by three Portuguese sailors whom he had picked up at a bar. He died the next day of internal injuries. 

Although throughout his life and afterwards, Blitzstein’s work was championed by Bernstein and others, many claim that neither the composer nor his stunning music and beautiful lyrics ever received the attention they deserved. So University Opera is proud to present this show celebrating his life and his works.

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” is a unique production put together by David Ronis. A biographical pastiche, it tells the story of Blitzstein’s life by recontextualizing 23 songs and ensembles from his shows, juxtaposing them with spoken excerpts from his working notes and letters, and tying it all together with a narration.

The result is a dramatic, evocative and enjoyable portrait of Blitzstein’s life and his art, according to Ronis.

“We’ve discovered a lot of “silver linings” while working on this production,” says Ronis. “We were disappointed at not being able to do a normal staged show. But working with video has had tremendous artistic and educational value.

“Our students are learning on-camera technique, not to mention how to work with a green screen (below, with soprano Sarah Brailey), which allows for post-production editing and digital manipulation of backgrounds. They’re also working with spoken text as well as sung pieces. Mostly, we’re just very grateful to have a creative project to sink our teeth into during the pandemic. 

“And the music of Blitzstein is so fantastic, we’re very happy to be able to share it with our audience. This project is like none other I’ve ever done and we’re thinking that it’s going to be pretty cool.”

Research on the project was completed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where Blitzstein’s archives are housed. University Opera gratefully acknowledges the help of both Mary Huelsbeck of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, and the Kurt Weill Foundation for their assistance with this project.

The cast features five UW-Madison graduate students: Sarah Brailey, Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Lindsey Meekhof (below) and Steffen Silvis.

The video design was done by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park.

Others on the production staff include Will Preston, rehearsal pianist; Elisheva Pront, research assistant and assistant director; Dylan Thoren, production stage manager; Alec Hansen, assistant stage manager; Teresa Sarkela, storyboard creator; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video will be accessible for 23 hours starting at 8 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 23. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted. A link for donations will be posted with the video. 

University Opera, a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, email opera@music.wisc.edu or visit music.wisc.edu.

 


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Classical music: Here are the world premieres of the sixth and seventh pieces of “pandemic music” commissioned by the U.S. Library of Congress

June 24, 2020
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

The project has is now heading towards it end.

Last week 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 various social media sites as well as the Internet.

This week will see the last five compositions and complete the project.

One performance is released each weekday night starting at 8 p.m. EDT.

The project, funded by the federal government, is intended to capture some aspect of the unique culture brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19.

The first piece was “Sequestered Thoughts,” a solo piano work by composed Damien Sneed and performed by Jeremy Jordan.

The second was “shadow of a difference/falling” by composer Richard Drehoff Jr. and solo oboist Andrew Nogal of the Grossman Ensemble.

The third was “Intuit – a way to stay in the world” for solo cello composed by Miya Masaoka and performed by Kathryn Bates of the Del Sol String Quartet.

The first three were featured in two postings on this blog last week. Here are links:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/16/classical-music-here-is-the-world-premiere-of-the-first-piece-of-pandemic-music-commissioned-by-the-library-of-congress/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/18/classical-music-here-are-the-world-premieres-of-the-second-and-third-pieces-of-pandemic-music-commissioned-by-the-u-s-library-of-congress/

The fourth and fifth pieces were premiered last Thursday and Friday, bringing the project to the half way point before the Summer Solstice, Father’s Day and Make Music Madison weekend.

They were posted on this past Monday. Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/22/classical-music-here-are-the-world-premieres-of-the-fourth-and-fifth-pieces-of-pandemic-music-commissioned-by-the-u-s-library-of-congress/

The fourth work is “Bridges,” a solo piano work composed by Cliff Eidelman and performed at home by Jenny Lin. The title refers to the composer’s focus on finding bridges from the coronavirus pandemic to normal life.

The fifth piece is “Hello World” by composer by Erin Rogers, an exploratory work for solo flute, and is performed by Erin Lesser of the Wet Ink Ensemble.

And now the second half of premieres has started.

The sixth piece is “1462 Willard Street,” composed for solo viola by Luciano Chessa (below top, in a photo by Melesia Nunez) and performed by Charlton Lee (below bottom, in a photo by RJ Muna) of the Del Sol String Quartet.

The address refers to a place in San Francisco where the composer was staying on March 16, 2020 – the day the city enacted orders to stay at home because of the pandemic.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/chessa-lee.html

The seventh piece, premiered last night, is “Olcott Park” for solo piano composed by Aaron Travers (below top, in a photo by James Matthew Daniel) and performed by Daniel Pesca (below bottom, in a photo by Jay Morthland) of the Grossman Ensemble.

It is a recollection of the forest and birds the composer knows in a park near his home but which he hasn’t’ visited much during the pandemic.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/travers-pesca.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.

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 of the commissioned music?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Here are the world premieres of the fourth and fifth pieces of “pandemic music” commissioned by the U.S. Library of Congress

June 22, 2020
4 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

The project has reached the midway point.

Last week was when the world premieres of the 10 short pieces — written for the Library of Congress’ “Boccaccio Project” — started going public and began being posted on various social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as well as the Internet.

One performance is released each weekday night starting at 8 p.m. EDT.

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

The first piece was “Sequestered Thoughts,” a solo piano work by composed Damien Sneed and performed by Jeremy Jordan.

The second was “shadow of a difference/falling” by composer Richard Drehoff Jr. and solo oboist Andrew Nogal of the Grossman Ensemble.

There were featured in this blog last week.

The fourth and fifth pieces were premiered last Thursday and Friday, bringing the project to the halfway point before the Summer Solstice, Father’s Day and Make Music Madison weekend.

The fourth work is “Bridges,” a solo piano work composed by Cliff Eidelman (below top) and performed at home by Jenny Lin (below bottom, in a photo by Liz Linder).

The title refers to the composer’s focus on finding bridges from the peculiar coronavirus pandemic back to normal life.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/eidelman-lin.html

The fifth piece is “Hello World” by composer by Erin Rogers (below top, in a photo by Aleksandr Karjaka), an exploratory work for solo flute that is performed by Erin Lesser (below bottom) of the Wet Ink Ensemble.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/rogers-lesser.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 five past performances and premieres.

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 pieces?

What do you think of the project?

Will you like to hear more of the commissioned music?

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
1 Comment

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

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 Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
4 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.

 


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Classical music: How does the Trump administration sound in mock-opera terms?

June 10, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been quite the week for President Donald Trump (below top), what with the Senate Congressional hearing of fired FBI director James Comey (below bottom).

How would this week and other happening sound in opera lingo?

Here is a satire — a fake news send-up of Trumpland — done with a famous aria from “The Barber of Seville” by Rossini — that reminds The Ear of The Opera Man skits with comedian Adam Sandler many years ago on Saturday Night Live.

That’s when Sandler would sing the news headlines in opera terms with pseudo-Italian words.

Anyway, here is the video on YouTube, which has received a good number of hits.

If you like it, share it with friends – or even with enemies!

And tell us what you think of it.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music news: U.S. House and Senate — plus President Obama — cut back on funding for the arts and humanities, even as Congress grows richer while we get poorer.

December 29, 2011
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, guess what?

SURPRISE!!!!!

The U.S. House of Representatives (below) and the U.S Senate – both of which have been so-o-o-o popular and so in tune with the American public lately – last week passed a bill to cut back on the arts and humanities (specifically, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities) even though those organizations might benefit their own constituents and their own children.

Instead the House and Senate have favored a time-honored historical group that is more conservative and less adventurous about new and contemporary culture: The Smithsonian Institution (below). And it looks like President Obama will sign the bill into law as a compromise measure.

That venerable historical institution of course benefits the city of Washington, D.C. — the very area where the Congressmen and Congresswomen spend so much time dithering in inertia.

Well, they need some place to go unwind and to pretend to be cultured, don’t they?

Do you think it has to do with the anti-intellectualism and pseudo-populism of the Republican Party and the Tea Party?

Good question.

Do you think it has to with federal debt and spending, so many will no doubt say?

Or do you think maybe those same groups see independent or critical thinking skills or art and beauty as dangerous to their agenda and underlying ideology?

Certainly The Smithsonian seems a safer and less creative choice, although no one can deny it is certainly a deserving institution with great many valuable artifacts and exhibitions. (See the photo os its interior below.) And the new Museum of African American History is sure to add to its reputation.

But don’t these cuts also reek of the same know-nothing, take no prisoners partisanship that leads the House majority party to want to defund public radio and public television?

More good questions – especially for a Congress that, as we learned this week, has seen its net worth increase a lot while the average net worth of most Americans has declined.

Read all about it the citizen-politician wealth gap right here:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/45793299/ns/politics-the_new_york_times/t/economic-downturn-took-detour-capitol-hill/#.TvtHRJjH1UQ

http://nation.foxnews.com/congress/2011/12/27/members-congress-net-worth-tripled-over-last-25-years-us-family-struggles

And here are links to read all about it the budget cuts to the arts and humanities:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/12/federal-budget-arts-spending-nea-neh-smithsonian.html

Read it and then let me know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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