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 ink: 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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The third LunART Festival celebrates Black women in the arts with FREE streaming concerts and events this Saturday night, Oct. 10, and next Saturday night, Oct. 17

October 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The LunART Festival is back for its third season, continuing its mission to support, inspire, promote and celebrate women in the arts, with a special presentation, “Human Family,” available via two FREE video livestreams on LunART’s website and Facebook page on Saturday, Oct. 10, and Saturday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. CDT. 

The events will be co-hosted by LunART founder and flutist Iva Ugrcic (below top), and by vocalist and art administrator Deja Mason (below bottom).

In response to the most recent and ongoing racial inequality and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, LunART will present the “Human Family” virtual festival featuring art created by Black women.

These FREE streamed events will feature a palette of emerging and established artists drawn from Madison’s rich arts scene, while also celebrating those who have paved the way for generations to come.

Radical inclusivity has been part of LunART’s mission from its conception. While women have historically been underrepresented in the arts, we cannot deny that there are segments of women that have been doubly marginalized, including women of color, women in the LGBTQIA+ community, older women and women with disabilities. 

Part of creating a more just, inclusive world means recognizing that even within the space of underrepresentation, there remain disparities.

Works from the past include Florence Price’s “Five Folksongs of Counterpoint” for string quartet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom), which is deeply rooted in the African-American spiritual tradition; Margaret Bonds’ Spiritual Suite for solo piano, written in a neo-Romantic classical style infused by jazz harmonies and rhythms; Afro-American Suite for flute, cello and piano by Undine Smith Moore, based on authentic spiritual songs used to express and record everyday life of slaves in America. 

Florence Price (below), Margaret Bonds and Undine Smith Moore all fought against both racial and gender discrimination throughout their lives. To be a woman composing classical music in the mid-20th century was unusual; to be a Black woman composer was even more so. And yet, these women forged ahead, making history and paving the way for the women who would follow them.

Along with these pioneers of the past, LunART will also celebrate contemporary Black women who are making a big impact in the world of arts, culture, advocacy and activism, following the footsteps of their predecessors. 

“Voodoo Dolls” for string quartet by Jessie Montgomery (below in a photo by Jiyang Chen) is influenced by West African drumming patterns that are interwoven with lyrical motifs in the improvisatory style. 

“Fanmi Imen,” a work for flute and piano by Valerie Coleman (below) — LunART’s 2019 Composer-in-Residence) — is based on a powerful poem by Maya Angelou, “Human Family.” Angelou calls for peace and unity, while acknowledging differences due to ethnic and cultural background in her famous refrain: “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

The chamber music will be performed by Madison’s finest musicians: Isabella Lippi, Karl Lavine, Peter Miliczky, Magdalena Sas, Marie Pauls, Satoko Hayami, Yana Avedyan and Iva Ugrcic.

Celebrating women’s creativity across many art forms has been a core component of LunART’s artistic mission from its inception, and this year is no exception. While music will create a sound painting, “Human Family” will also feature women who use words and movement to tell their story.

Enter a world of phenomenal talent with emerging singer-songwriters Danielle Crim and Akornefa Akyea performing their most recent original songs; magically moving poems and spoken-word pieces by Jamie Dawson and Shasparay Lighteard; and join dancer and choreographer Kimi Evelyn in self-exploration of what happens when the body and the soul are left in complete solitude through her powerful piece “Body, Sweet Home.”

To commemorate the Festival events, LunART has commissioned digital artwork (below) by local artist and activist Amira Caire, which is inspired by the “Human Family” concept. This stunning piece of art will be available for purchase in printed form on LunART’s website. 

We are calling our community to eat local, drink local and support local. By supporting LunART, you are also supporting local nonprofits and small businesses. 

This project would not be possible without the generosity of Madison’s creative media agency Microtone Media, The Piano Gal Shop from Sun Prairie, Dane Arts and a grant from the Madison Arts Commission at  https://www.cityofmadison.com/dpced/planning/madison-arts-commission/1580/, with the additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board.

Events are free and available for anyone to watch online, and donations are welcomed. For more details about the artists, events, programs and links, and donation methods, please visit https://www.lunartfestival.org


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Did Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony foster racism, exclusion and elitism in the concert hall? The Ear thinks that is PC nonsense. What do you think?

September 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Controversy has struck big among classical music critics and fans — just in time for the Beethoven Year that will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth this December. Plans call for celebrations by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and others. 

At question is what seems yet another fallout and dust-up from the Black Lives Matter movement and the current struggle to foster social justice and racial equality.

In some ways, it all seems inevitable.

Now the history-denying advocates of cancel culture are suggesting that Beethoven (below) and his music – especially the popular Fifth Symphony (you can hear the famous opening in the YouTube schematic video at the bottom)  –  fostered white privilege and the rise of racism, sexism and homophobia in the concert hall.

That seems like quite an accusation for a single composer and a single piece of music that was premiered in 1808.

The assertion is food for thought. But not much.

In the end The Ear finds it a stretch and a totally bogus argument. He thinks that Beethoven attracted far more performers and audiences than he repelled. Others, including famed critic Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc and a critic for the right-wing newspaper The New York Post, agree:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/09/beethovens-5th-is-a-symbol-of-exclusion-and-elitism/

https://nypost.com/2020/09/17/canceling-beethoven-is-the-latest-woke-madness-for-the-classical-music-world/

The Ear also thinks it is political correctness run amok, even for someone who, like himself, advocates strongly for diversity of composers, performers and audiences – but always with quality in mind — in the concert hall.

Just because Beethoven was such a great creative artist is hardly cause to blame him for the inability of other artists to succeed and for non-white audiences taking to classical music. Other forces — social, economic and political — explain that much better.

Yes, Beethoven is a towering and intimidating figure. And yes, his works often dominate programming. But both musicians and audiences return to him again and again because of the originality, power and first-rate quality of his many works.

Beethoven himself was deaf. That would certainly seem to qualify him as inclusive and a member of an important category of diversity.

No matter. The writers are happy to blame Ludwig and his work for exclusion and elitism. They argue that people of color, women and LGBTQ people have all felt alienated from classical music because of Beethoven’s legacy.

Of course, there is elitism in the arts. People may be equal, but creative talent is not.

And clearly, Beethoven was a towering and intimidating figure – more for the quality of his music than for the simple fact that it exists. Such exclusion and elitism have to do with other factors than the composition of the Fifth Symphony.

If The Ear recalls correctly, when he died Beethoven was given the largest state funeral up to that time for a non-royal, non-politician or non-military person.

And how do you explain that Beethoven’s music, so representative of Western culture, appeals deeply to and attracts so many Asians and Asian-Americans, and became both banned and symbolically central to those opposed to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China?

But these days being provocative can become its own reward.

You can read the analysis and decide about its merits for yourself, then let us know what you think in the Comment section.

Here is a link to the opinion piece in Vox Magazine, a free online journal: https://www.vox.com/switched-on-pop/21437085/beethoven-5th-symphony-elitist-classism-switched-on-pop

What do you think about the idea that Beethoven played a large and seminal role in fostering an elitist and exclusive culture in classical music?

Did you ever feel alienated from classical music because of Beethoven or know others who have?

What is your favorite Beethoven composition?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Will the public pay for online virtual concerts? Will you? Consider the fate of newspapers

August 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

More and more local classical musicians and music presenters are moving concerts and music-making to virtual online events, at least for the fall and early winter – and quite possibly for the rest of the season. (Below is Shannon Hall in the Wisconsin Union Theater.)

And although we are still waiting for details, it seems all but certain that many of them will be pay-per-view and require tickets.

True, the move from free streaming to pay-for-view might be very useful in helping performers earn a much-needed living.

But it could also be disastrous – or at least extremely disruptive and disappointing.

Anthony Tommasini (below), the senior music critic for The New York Times, recently wrote a long story defending the move from being free to becoming paid for both livestreams and pre-recorded music concerts.

Tommasini — whose profession demands that he follow wherever the music goes —  thinks it will, or should, work.

Here is a link to his story that includes concerts at The Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere with international stars such as soprano Renée Fleming (beow top) and pianist Daniil Trifonov (below bottom).

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/11/arts/music/classical-music-livestream.html

But The Ear isn’t so sure.

For one thing, many listeners might find alternatives. They might like watching outstanding performances of the same works by great and even historical performers on YouTube for free.

They might like exploring their own collections of recordings, or listening to the radio and watching TV, or even making more music as amateurs.

The Ear also suspects that now that the habit of going to live concerts has been interrupted, many people will simply find that they miss going to live performances much less than they thought they would – or than various arts groups hoped they would. (Below is the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in a photo by Mike Gorski.)

In addition, even since the coronavirus pandemic lockdown last March, listeners have become used to the free events that many organizations offered if only to keep a presence in the public’s mind.

The strategy was understandable and made sense at the time.

But The Ear thinks of what happened with newspapers.

In the early days of the internet, newspapers offered online stories for free, as a kind of extra attraction or added benefit to secure subscribers.

But as the newspapers lost both advertisers and subscribers and tried to “monetize” their online editions, they found that the horse was already out of the barn.

Many viewers did indeed subscribe to digital editions, but many others abandoned newspapers and instead turned to free online media for their news.

So what will happen in cases less prestigious than what Tommasini describes?

What do you think?

Will local pay-per-view concerts, perhaps with bigger volume if lower individual ticket prices, be successful?

Will you pay to “attend” such virtual online events?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Here is the complete concert program for the Madison Opera’s Digital Opera in the Park. It premieres online TONIGHT at 8 and stays up until Aug. 25

July 25, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The 2020 edition of the Madison Opera’s annual summer event Opera in the Park (below, a photo from the past) will be virtual and online due the coronavirus pandemic and the COVID-19 public health crisis.

The concert – which can be viewed indoors or outdoors, anywhere in the country or the world — begins at 8 p.m. CDT TONIGHT, Saturday, July 25. It will remain available online until Aug. 25.

Here are links to the portals where you can watch and listen to the opera program and also join the post-concert Q&A with performers: https://www.madisonopera.org and https://vimeo.com/437164679

For more information about the 90-minute concert, and related events, as well as the performers and the donors, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/07/23/classical-music-madison-operas-virtual-opera-in-the-park-goes-online-for-free-this-saturday-night-and-stay-up-until-aug-25-listen-to-it-indoors-or-outdoors-to-enhance-the-experience/

HERE IS THE COMPLETE PROGRAM FOR THE EVENING

Overture | The Marriage of Figaro (W.A. Mozart; 1786)

Suzanne Beia, violin; John DeMain (below) and Scott Gendel, piano

“Quel guardo, il cavaliere” | Don Pasquale (Gaetano Donizetti; 1843)

Jasmine Habersham, soprano (below); Rolando Salazar, piano

“Un’aura amorosa” | Così fan tutte (W.A. Mozart; 1789)

Andres Acosta, tenor (below); Marika Yasuda, piano

“Ernani, involami” | Ernani (Giuseppe Verdi; 1844)

Karen Slack, soprano (below); Laura Ward, piano

“Vision fugitive” | Hérodiade (Jules Massenet; 1881)

Weston Hurt, baritone (below); Bethany Self, piano

“Aber der Richtige” | Arabella (Richard Strauss; 1933)

Jasmine Habersham, soprano; Karen Slack, soprano; Scott Gendel, piano (below)

“Au fond du temple saint” | The Pearl Fishers (Georges Bizet; 1863)

Andres Acosta, tenor; Weston Hurt, baritone; Scott Gendel, piano

“Deh vieni, non tardar” | The Marriage of Figaro (W.A. Mozart; 1786)

Jasmine Habersham, soprano; Rolando Salazar, piano

“Il balen del suo sorriso” | Il Trovatore  (Giuseppe Verdi; 1853)

Weston Hurt, baritone; Bethany Self, piano

“Anvil Chorus” | Il Trovatore (Giuseppe Verdi; 1853)

Madison Opera Chorus via Zoom (below); Anthony Cao, conductor and piano

“Vissi d’arte” | Tosca (Giacomo Puccini; 1900)

Karen Slack, soprano; Laura Ward, piano

“Asile héréditaire” | William Tell (Gioachino Rossini; 1829)

Andres Acosta, tenor; Marika Yasuda, piano

“Meditation” | Thaïs (Jules Massenet; 1894)

Suzanne Beia, violin (below); John DeMain, piano

Spiritual “Scandalize My Name” | arranged by Johnnie Dean

Jasmine Habersham, soprano; Karen Slack, soprano; Scott Gendel, piano

“No puede ser” | La Tabernera del Puerto (Pablo Sorozabal; 1936)

Andres Acosta, tenor; Marika Yasuda, piano

“Vanilla Ice Cream” | She Loves Me (Jerry Bock; 1963)

Jasmine Habersham, soprano; Rolando Salazar, piano

“Some Enchanted Evening” | South Pacific (Richard Rodgers; 1949)

Weston Hurt, baritone; Bethany Self, piano

“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” | arranged by Margaret Bonds

Karen Slack, soprano; Laura Ward, piano

SING-ALONG FINALE: It’s a Grand Night for Singing | State Fair (Richard Rodgers; 1945)

 


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra is offering an unlimited, season-starting single ticket sale with 20 percent off, through this Saturday

August 28, 2019
8 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

For the first time ever, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) is offering a sale on tickets to the first three concerts this season.

You will get 20 percent off if you buy tickets through the Overture Center box office in person, by phone (608 258-4141) or online at https://www.overture.org/events

The discount code to say or use is FIRST3SYMPHONY.

Be forewarned: You will NOT find the ticket sale on the MSO website.

There is no limit of how many tickets you can buy, says MSO marketing director Peter Rodgers who also said the traditional holiday ticket sale, with two-tiered discount pricing, will take place as usual from Dec. 16 through Dec. 31.

The season-starting sale runs through this coming Saturday, Aug. 31. You can get discounted single tickets to the concerts on Sept. 27-29, Oct. 18-20 and Nov. 8-10 with performances on Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m.

Ticket prices range from $19-$95, up about 2 percent from last year to keep up with inflation, Rodgers added.

Why isn’t the sale on the MSO website?

“We did it digitally and in a printed brochure that we mailed out just to try and reach out to either season subscribers or people who have already bought single tickets before and have already been to the symphony,” says Rodgers. “We just wanted to give some people a little nudge. But anyone can take advantage of the sale.”

Rodgers also said that the inaugural sale is not being held because ticket sales are slow. “Ticket sales for this season are competitive with last season’s,” he said, adding that some buyers might use the sale to get tickets as birthday gifts or for other special occasions.

Although there is no limit to the number of single tickets an individual can buy, Rodgers said that once you get to 10, you are better off going with the usual 25 percent off group rate.

MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) will conduct all performances of the first three concerts.

The September concerts open the season with MSO organ soloist Greg Zelek (below) and features the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner; the “Toccata Festiva” by Samuel Barber; the tone poem “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy; and the Symphony No. 7 by Antonin Dvorak.

The October concerts feature guest violinist Rachel Barton Pine. The all-Russian and all-20th century program includes the Violin Concerto by Aram Khachaturian; the Symphony No. 9 by Dmitri Shostakovich; and the Suite from “Lieutenant Kije,” for trumpet and orchestra, by Sergei Prokofiev.

The November concerts feature guest pianist Joyce Yang. The program is the Symphony No. 2 by Robert Schumann; the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Prokofiev; and “Newly Drawn Sky” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning and Grammy Award-winning contemporary American composer Aaron Jay Kernis, who teaches at the Yale University School of Music. (You can hear “Newly Drawn Sky” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more details about the three opening concerts and the entire 2019-20 season, including complete programs, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/2019-2020-symphony-season-concerts/


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