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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Salon Piano Series offers a free video of pianist Maxim Lando playing quiet Beethoven to ease the burden of the pandemic

October 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following note from the Salon Piano Series to post:

During these uncertain times, we appreciate remembering time spent together enjoying music.

Please take a break from your day to see and hear the young, prize-winning pianist Maxim Lando (below) perform the theme-and-variations third movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109, “Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo” (Slowly, very singing and expressive).

The 15-minute video – posted and viewable now- — was recorded live at Farley’s House of Pianos, as part of the Salon Piano Series, on Nov. 17, 2019.

Over the years, you have supported Salon Piano Series with your attendance, individual sponsorships and donations. We look forward to bringing you world-class musical performances in our unique salon setting again soon.

For updates and more information, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org

Here is the Lando video: 

Editor’s note: Here is a Wikipedia entry with more impressive information about Maxim Lando’s biography and many concert performances around the world including China and Russia as well as the U.S.: https://maximlando.com

If you want to hear the entire Beethoven Sonata, you can hear a performance by Richard Goode in the YouTube video below.


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Classical music: The worldwide virtual and online gala fundraiser for the Handel Aria Competition starts today and runs through Oct. 1. Donations will be matched up to $2,000

September 10, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post from Orange and Dean Schroeder, the co-founders of the now well-established Handel Aria Competition.

As you may already know, the in-person competition has been postponed until 2021.

The Schroeders say that a virtual online competition for this year was considered, but then dismissed. It would have been too risky to the health of the singers, many of whom have to travel nationally and internationally to compete, and to the accompanying players from the Madison Bach Musicians.

The sound quality also did not meet the standards that the organizers say is necessary to do justice to competitors. Some of the performances are from past competitions But others are new and were done at home during lockdowns.

Perhaps most important of all, the Schroeders wanted to raise money to help the young competitors, whose careers have suffered from concert cancellations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Here is the message:

“Today – Thursday, Sept. 10 — is the start of the Handel Aria Competition’s Virtual Gala to raise funds for our past finalists. It will start at 7:30 p.m. CDT.

“The program includes performances by Morgan Balfour, Elisa Sutherland, Chelsea Shephard, Sarah Coit, Andrew Rader, Nola Richardson, Amanda Achen, Jonathan Woody (singing an aria from “Messiah” in the YouTube video at the bottom), Sarah Moyer, Corrine Byrne, Margaret Fox, Gene Stenger, Emily Yocum Black, Sarah Hayashi, Daniel Moody, Christina Kay, Jacob Scharfman, Brian Giebler and Kristin Knutson.

A performance by the Handel Aria Competition’s director and UW-Madison graduate student soprano Sarah Brailey (below) with Luthien Brackett and the musicians from the Trinity Wall Street Baroque Orchestra in New York City is the finale.

“People around the world can watch it on our Facebook page Handel Aria Competition; on YouTube; or on our website at https://handelariacompetition.org.

“It will be available for viewing ‪from 7:30 p.m. CDT today, Sept. 10, through Thursday, Oct. 1 — NOT Oct. 10 as mistakenly stated above.

“It is FREE but donations are encouraged to support the singers during Covid-19.

“Viewers can donate via Facebook or through our website. All funds will go to the singers, including a challenge grant of $2,000 that Dean and I have pledged in order to encourage others to support these talented young artists.

“The Handel Aria Competition Virtual Gala is supported by funds from Dane Arts and the Madison Arts Commission with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board.”

 


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Classical music: On the last day of the Fiscal Year, The Ear says to arts groups “Show us the money” — and where it goes — if you want more. Cultural organizations should be transparent about their budgets, and accountable to the public about money, power and politics.

June 30, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is June 30, 2014.

You might well think it is just another day of another month in another year.

Except that it is not.

It marks the end of Fiscal Year 2013-14.

That means that all kinds of organizations -– for-profit businesses, non-profit groups and charitable organizations – will be figuring out how they met, exceeded or failed to meet their budgets for the past fiscal year that ends today.

It also means they have set budgets for the new fiscal year that starts tomorrow, Wednesday, July 1.

budget columns compared

 

The Ear knows that he has been deluged with requests for donations, often multiple mailings from the same organization. Now, perhaps it is due to the gradual recovery and an expanding economy, with more disposable income at play.

The requests have come from big organizations like the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, the Overture Center for the Arts, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, Edgewood College and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) among many others.

Of course the requests for help have also come from smaller organizations including the Oakwood Chamber Players, the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF), the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (BDDS), the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Ancora String Quartet among others.

But there has been a lot of turmoil in the music world lately. Last year saw the death of the City Opera of New York and of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. It saw the death and resurrection of the Minnesota Orchestra, which chose to spend a lot on money on a new hall rather than on the musicians who make the “product.”

Anyway, it all got The Ear to thinking that we hear constant pleas about need, including how ticket prices just don’t cover production expenses. So no wonder that there is a lot of competition for donor dollars.

money.3

But what we don’t hear very much about is what happens to the money that the various groups collect –- often in large amounts. Does anyone out there know the salaries of the conductors and executive directors, of directors of development and of the musicians?

So here is my proposal to classical music groups in the area:

Fair is fair. If you feel you can honestly ask the public for money because you need it, then I think the public is entitled to know why that money is needed, and how it has been spent and will be spent.

I would like to see how big many endowment funds are, and how much many groups draw from them each year.

I would like to see how much money goes to top administrators. And how much goes to overhead expenses like hall rental and score rental, to advertising and business operations. And how much actually goes to musicians.

budget calculator

Maybe it could be cast in percentages, like in a budget pie chart — then posted on the group’s home website.

Budget pie chart

Better yet, I would like to see raw total numbers out in the open and easy to access.

How about stating expenses and income in terms of how a given amount of cents is spent out each dollar donated.


budget pie

I would also like to see some comparative salaries over the past five years. Partially that is because I want to see a history of percentage raises at a time when most working people are not seeing their wages rise, and have not seen that for a very long time.

I suspect a lot, maybe even most, of donation requests and organizations are completely above-board. But I also suspect some potentially embarrassing things are being kept quiet or secret or conveniently overlooked. They could be things that might discourage ordinary listeners from making donations, or help the rest of us to prioritize to whom we will give money.

But The Ear says: If you don’t come clean about spending the public’s money, then you forfeit your right to ask for that money.

I don’t say all this as an enemy or even skeptic of the arts. I say it as someone who supports the arts and culture, someone who thinks transparency and accountability will help the arts, especially given the current widening wealth gap and the concern it has raised.

So The Ear says:

“Show us the money.”

He also notes that bring a non-profit organization and being a charity are not the same thing, just as he recalls the abuses more than a decade ago of the national head of the United Way who was living in luxury off the money that good people donated to eradicate or at least alleviate social misery and inequality.

Finally, The Ear can’t stop thinking that a big part of the problem that classical music organizations face with falling attendance and not attracting young audiences has to do with how much a ticket goes for. Moreover, he suspects that the lion’s share of such expenses are NOT going to the individual musicians’ salaries.

Madison Symphony Orchestra overhead 2

So I ask all large and small music organizations -– all arts organizations, really –- to move quickly and openly toward greater transparency and accountability. Even if it is available on some tracking website, we should not have to search for it. Such research should be done for us, the targeted donors.

When you ask for our money, please also tell us where it has gone in past fiscal years and where it will go in the coming fiscal year.

Talking about money and power and politics in the arts often seems to demean the arts in the minds of many people. It somehow seems to dirty the arts to link them to such non-aesthetic things.

But such is the reality. The Ear knows from many years of being an investigative reporter -– one who uncovered criminal wrongdoing and even scandal at the Wisconsin Arts Board — that money, power and politics rule the art world as much or more than beauty does, and they do so in the arts no less than in other worlds.

It is too bad that the regular media don’t do a better job of policing the arts, which only want positive feature stories, approving reviews and good PR. Citizens need to be informed, especially since Big Money has become more important.

So isn’t it time to get some things cleared up, specifically the financing of arts group in the coming fiscal year?

budget money in a jar

What do you readers think?

Do you have relevant facts to share?

Should arts groups disclose -– either by law or voluntarily — their budgets and where the money that they have already received has gone before they are entitled to ask for more money?

Let The Ear and his readers and especially the arts groups in town know where you stand and what they should do to satisfy you so that you can help them.

 

 


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