The Well-Tempered Ear

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

March 23, 2020
2 Comments

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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: A reader urges others to donate ticket refunds to support the arts. What do you think?

March 18, 2020
8 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.

ALERT: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir has canceled its upcoming concert, “Music She Wrote,” on April 18.

By Jacob Stockinger

A reader — who prefers to remain anonymous but who has been deeply involved in the Madison arts scene for a long time — recently wrote:

“I’d like to suggest an angle for your column: Encourage subscribers to the various arts organizations and single ticket holders who can afford it NOT to ask for a refund on their upcoming cancelled concerts, if or when they are offered that option.

“I subscribe — on my own or as part of others’ subscriptions — to the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in photo by Peter Rodgers), the Madison Opera, the Broadway musicals at the Overture Center, Forward Theater, and the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert series. (I also buy a lot of single tickets to chamber music concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and to American Players Theatre in Spring Green.)

“As all those arts organizations cancel their concerts and plays, they still have costs. Forward Theater, for instance, is paying the full contract of all the people who were involved with the production of “The Amateurs.” And I’m glad they are.

“Personally, I will not be asking for a refund on any of the tickets I long ago purchased. I want the arts to stay healthy in Madison, and not asking for a refund is a small gesture in trying to make sure they are able to move forward.” (At bottom is the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which just announced its summer schedule from June 7 to June 28 and has not cancelled anything. Go to: https://bachdancing.org)

“You reach a lot of people and you could plant a lot of powerful seeds by making this the topic of a column.”

If you are a member of a performing arts group, what do you think?

If you are a ticket holder, what do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Ken-David Masur, son of famed conductor Kurt Masur, is the new music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

November 13, 2018
1 Comment

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Ken-David Masur (below), a critically acclaimed associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and son of the late German conductor Kurt Masur, has been named the new music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Masur, who was chosen after a 36-month international search to find the successor to Edo de Waart, will start his duties next season and expand the number of concerts he conducts the following season. His contract runs through the 2022-23 season.

Masur, who also performs new music, sounds appealing and accomplished. It makes The Ear hope that the Masur brings the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to perform at the Wisconsin Union Theater, as has been done in the past. 

Here are some links to stories and web sites with more information about appointment of the Grammy Award-nominated Masur (below, in a photo by Beth Ross Buckley), which was announced Monday.  (You can hear him conducting the dramatic opening of the “Romeo and Juliet” ballet suite by Sergei Prokofiev in the YouTube video at the bottom. His work is well represented on YouTube.)

Here is a long and very informative story, with a lot of detail and background, from the Associated Press: https://www.apnews.com/61dace4d8fe346cba3c36c9c25cd62ca

Here is a link to the online story in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, along with spoken introductions he gave to performances in Milwaukee of the Symphony No. 2 by Johannes Brahms and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff: https://www.jsonline.com/story/entertainment/arts/2018/11/12/milwaukee-symphony-names-ken-david-masur-its-new-music-director/1963446002/

And here is a link to his own web site: http://ken-davidmasur.com


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