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
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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: Madison Opera’s virtual Opera in the Park goes online for FREE this Saturday night and stays up until Aug. 25. Listen to it indoors or outdoors

July 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park isn’t in a park this year — as it has been in past years (below) — but it will be available for people to enjoy for free in their backyards, in their living rooms or anywhere else with an internet connection.

The digital concert will be released on this Saturday, July 25, at 8 p.m. CDT, and can be watched on Madison Opera’s website, www.madisonopera.org/digital, where you can find complete information and, soon, a complete program to download.

The annual free concert has moved online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a newly created program of opera arias and more.

Digital Opera in the Park features: soprano Jasmine Habersham; soprano Karen Slack; tenor Andres Acosta; and baritone Weston Hurt. (The last two will sing the justly famous baritone-tenor duet “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Habersham (below) makes her Madison Opera debut with this unique performance, and will sing Susanna in the company’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro next April.

Slack (below) debuted with the company in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and will be part of the company’s digital fall season.

Acosta (below) sang Timothy Laughlin in Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers with Madison Opera this past February.

Hurt (below) debuted as Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata last season and is part of the company’s digital fall season.

The four singers will be joined by several important local artists. They include violinist Suzanne Beia, the assistant concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the concertmaster of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the second violin of the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet.

There will also be a fleet of eight pianists. They include MSO music director and Madison Opera’s artist director John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Prasad) and the UW-Madison graduate and composer Scott Gendel (below bottom). The two will play multiple numbers, including DeMain accompanying Beia on the beautiful “Meditation” from Thaïs.

Each singer recorded their arias with an accompanist in their home cities, and chorusmaster Anthony Cao (below top) both accompanies and conducts the Madison Opera Chorus (below bottom) in a virtual “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore.

The evening will be hosted by Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith and by WKOW TV’s Channel 27 News co-anchor George Smith.

“Reimagining Opera in the Park in the pandemic era has been a challenge, but one we have happily embraced,” says Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “Our wonderful artists were game to record themselves in their home towns, to sing duets with each other through headphones, and to share their artistry with our community in a new way. Over 40 choristers joined a Zoom call to get instructions, and then they recorded their parts of the ‘Anvil Chorus.’”

“While in some ways this concert has required more work than our live Opera in the Park in Garner Park, it is always a pleasure to present beautiful music for everyone to enjoy.”

Digital Opera in the Park features music from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, now canceled in live performance but originally slated to open Madison Opera’s 2020-21 season; Jerry Bock’s She Loves Me, which the company performs in January; and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which will be performed in April.

The program also includes selections from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, Richard Strauss’ Arabella, Verdi’s Don Pasquale, Puccini’s Tosca, Massenet’s Hérodiade and Thaïs, Rossini’s William Tell, Pablo Sarozabal’s zarzuela La Tabernera del Puerto, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, and more.

The concert will be available beginning at 8 p.m. CDT on this Saturday night, July 25, and will remain online until Aug. 25, allowing for both repeated viewing and flexibility for people who are unable to watch on the first night.

While Digital Opera in the Park will be free to watch, it would not be possible without the generous support of many foundations, corporations and individuals who believe in the importance of music. Madison Opera is grateful to the sponsors of Opera in the Park 2020:

  • Presenting Sponsor: the Berbeewalsh Foundation
  • Sponsors: the John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation, Full Compass Systems, the Raymond B. Preston Family Foundation, University Research Park, Colony Brands, Johnson Financial Group, MGE Foundation, National Guardian Life, Wisconsin Arts Board, Dane Arts and the Madison Arts Commission.
  • Media Sponsors: WKOW, Madison Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, Magic 98, and La Movida.

RELATED EVENTS include:

OPERA ON THE WALL | JULY 25, 2020 | ONLINE

Madison artists Liubov Swazko (known as Triangulador) and Mike Lroy have created artwork around our community, including beautiful murals on State Street storefronts.

In an act of artistic cross-pollination, they will create an artwork that comes from their personal response to Digital Opera in the Park, offering a rare glimpse of visual artists responding to musical artists. Their creative process will be filmed in the Madison Opera Center, and shared online starting on July 25.

The finished artwork will be displayed in the Madison Opera Center. Go to Swazko’s website at triangulador.com (one work is below) and Lroy’s website at mikelroy.com to see their past work.

POST-SHOW Q&A | JULY 25, 2020, IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE INITIAL STREAM

Join Kathryn Smith and the Digital Opera in the Park artists for a post-concert discussion, including an opportunity to ask questions. Details on format and platform will be available closer to the date.

 


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Classical music: Steve Kurr talks about his new work celebrating Middleton that will be premiered Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra alongside Mozart and Dvorak

October 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Oct. 9, the mostly amateur but highly praised Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its 10th anniversary season, which is dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker for his help in championing the ensemble.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable and acoustically excellent Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), which is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Admission is $15 for the public, free for students. Tickets are available from the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Auditorium doors open at 7 p.m. 

The appealing program features J.J. Koh (below), principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as guest soloist in the beautiful and poignant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the sublime slow movement, which may sound familiar from when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa.”)

Also on the program is the popular Symphony No. 9 – “From the New World” – by Antonin Dvorak.

But raising the curtain will be the world premiere of a work that was written specifically for this orchestra on this occasion in its own city.

The piece was composed by Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School and who is the resident conductor of the MCO.

For more information about the MCO’s season along with critical reviews and information about how to join it or support it and how to enter its new youth concerto competition, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Kurr, below, will conduct the premiere of his own work, which he recently discussed via email with The Ear:

How much do you compose and why do you compose?

When I do compose, which is not often, it is usually with a specific event in mind. I have written several things for the musicians at Middleton High School, including a four-movement string symphony, a piece for a retiring colleague, and several works we have taken on tour.

In this case, the 10th season of the Middleton Community Orchestra provided a great reason to write. I always enjoy the process, but it can be time-consuming, so I don’t do it as often as I might like.

How does composing fit in with your teaching and conducting?

Most of the composing I do comes in the summer because it is when I can devote larger chunks of time. This new work was germinating in some form for several years, but almost all of the notes-on-the-page work came this past June.

How do you compose?

I approach composition in an analytical way, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I think about structure early on in the process, both at the full work scale and in the smaller sections.

Most of my work comes on the computer in the notation software Finale, and some comes on the piano or on a string instrument.

I run ideas past my wife Nancy for her input and for this piece I also got a huge amount of advice and help from composer and MCO violist Neb Macura (below). (Thanks, Neb! You were invaluable!) Most of the melodic material came to me in the car on the way to school.

How would you describe your musical or tonal style?

I would say that my style is mostly tonal and not all that adventurous in terms of harmony. The fact that I have spent much of my musical career studying the works of the Classical and Romantic periods shows through. And yet you might find some moments that hint at more recent styles.

Can you briefly tell the public about the new piece to be premiered?

“Good Neighbors” is subtitled “Episodes for Orchestra” and the connected episodes describe various aspects of the Middleton community.

Episode 1 depicts the city of Middleton and its bustling energy within a small town feel. Episode 2 is about all of the water around, including the creeks, ponds and Lake Mendota. Episode 3 is the Good Neighbor Festival, appearing at the end of summer for so many years. Episode 4 describes the land around, including the rolling farmland, the driftless area, and the Ice Age Trail.

The final episode brings together tunes from the previous four, combining them to demonstrate that the Good Neighbor City is more than the sum of its parts. The opening theme shows up in several different versions throughout, including most notably the theme from Episode 4.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

At first I considered the endeavor almost self-indulgent as I set a piece of my own in front of the ensemble. Then I started to feel presumptuous. It is a humbling experience to see my name on a program with Mozart and Dvorak, two of my favorite composers.

It has been a terrific experience working with these fine musicians as we realize this new work together. My thanks go to them for their willingness to help me present this gift to the Middleton community.


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Classical music: Mozart’s music requires the rhythms of both speech and dance, says maestro Gary Thor Wedow, who will also restore lost libretto text when he conducts two performances of “The Magic Flute” this weekend for the Madison Opera. Here is Part 2 of his interview with The Ear.

April 19, 2017
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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 this Sunday afternoon, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center. (Production photos are courtesy of the Arizona Opera from which the Madison Opera got the sets and costumes for its production.)

Yesterday’s post was the first of two parts. It has a plot synopsis and links to more information about the cast and production.

Here is a link to Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/04/18/classical-music-mozart-masterfully-melds-the-sensual-and-the-cerebral-says-maestro-gary-thor-wedow-who-will-conduct-two-performances-of-the-magic-flute-this-weekend-for-the-madiso/

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:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/

And also go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/cast/

Here is Part 2 of The Ear’s recent email interview with conductor Gary Thor Wedow (below, conducting in an orchestra pit):

Are there certain “tricks” or “secrets” that you try to bring to conducting Mozart? Have you conducted “The Magic Flute” before? Do Mozart’s operas in general and this opera in specific present challenges? Where do you place the opera musically, both compared to other operas in general and in regard to its place in Mozart’s work?

I feel keenly that Mozart and all 18th-century music (probably continuing to this day) is either based on a rhetorical idea or a dance form; that music is either speaking or dancing. This style of music is “pre-French Revolution,” so No Two Notes are Created Equally! The lilt of language or the buoyancy of the dance has to infuse every moment; hierarchy and shape prevail.

I’ve been fortunate to have conducted The Magic Flute frequently, in many varied productions; it’s always been a part of my musical life. Because it’s a fairy tale, it lends itself to inventive and imaginative productions. Stage director Dan Rigazzi’s production (below) for Madison Opera is a whimsical one, influenced by the surrealist painter Magritte, steampunk and more, all rolled into one beautiful show.

Mozart was fascinated with German Singspiel, as it was opera in the language of the people. The Magic Flute is his masterpiece in this genre, though there are earlier works. There is the early Zaide – incomplete, but filled with gorgeous, innovative music –and also the more mature, sumptuous and comic The Abduction from the Seraglio; they are both rich and entertaining pieces.

The Magic Flute, I feel, has a special place in the opera repertoire for several reasons: its Masonic connections that were very important to Mozart, the drama, and its central themes that trace themselves back to ancient Egypt.

It also is a brilliant combination of comedy and deep spiritual drama in the guise of a heroic rescue tale. It uses an incredibly wide range of the most beautiful music written in every major genre: sacred music, opera seria, bel canto, folk song and complex Baroque counterpoint.

What would you like listeners to pay special attention to in the music of “The Magic Flute”?

I would say “Hang on!” Whatever style of music we are in, we are going to switch gears in a fairly short time. It’s a roller coaster, an Ed Sullivan Show, American Idol, and the Barnum and Bailey Circus all rolled into one.

This is your third time conducting at Madison Opera. Do you have an opinion about Madison musicians and audiences?

My previous two experiences in Madison have been the Opera in the Park concerts in 2012 and 2016 (below). These have been among the most sublimely satisfying moments of my musical life: a cornucopia of music played by this brilliant symphony orchestra with great singers.

The audiences have been magically focused and involved; the players are magnificent, dedicated musicians, and the community is very supportive of Madison Opera. It’s electric.

Is there anything else you would like to say about the music or this performance?

Magic Flute devotees might be startled to hear some new text in these performances, particularly in Tamino, Pamina and Sarastro’s arias and the duet with Pamina and Papageno. “Bei Männern” is now “Der Liebe.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Let me explain by telling you a mystery story. After Mozart died, Constanze was desperate for money. Mozart’s Flute manuscript conducting score belonged to Schikaneder, the librettist and producer, but it seems that Constanze had another original score: the first original manuscript, which she then sold to a nobleman who eventually allowed it to be published.

This must have been a “composing score” that Mozart wrote first, before making the conducting score with the help of his assistant. The text deviates in several sections in notable ways. Probably Schikaneder, perhaps assisted by his Masonic brothers, “improved” the text, but Mozart had already shaped his music to the first text.

In most sections the differences are minimal and the new text was indeed an improvement. But in some cases I feel the original text was what inspired Mozart to write and orchestrate the way he did. Our marvelous singers have generously agreed to make the changes and I think we will all see how it fits the music so much better.

Sadly, Constanze’s manuscript was lost in the wars, but many scholars had already seen it and considered it to be genuine. I love how it shows how fluid the creative process is and how it spurs us to look anew at Mozart’s creative process.

On with the show!


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