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: Grace Presents HD offers a free virtual online concert by the acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players this Saturday at noon

August 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Cellist and UW-Madison graduate student James Waldo has sent the following announcement about a FREE virtual online concert by Grace Presents, which he coordinates.

The hi-def, one-hour concert by the critically acclaimed and popular Willy Street Chamber Players (below) is at noon (CDT) this Saturday, Aug. 22.

Says Waldo:

“This is a pre-recorded event, and as such, I had the singular pleasure of sitting in the room while these fantastic musicians recorded their program. This event is not to be missed!

“Grace Presents HD brings you free, crystal-clear performances by local Madison musicians in the nave of historical Grace Episcopal Church – located downtown on the Capitol Square — from the comfort and safety of your own home.

“The Willy Street Chamber Players will have a video premiere that will be available on the Grace Presents YouTube channel on this Saturday, Aug. 22 at noon CDT. (This virtual concert is available for a limited time only!)

You can see and hear a preview of the concert in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Artists in the Willy Street Chamber Players are: Paran Amirinazari, artistic director, violin and viola; Eleanor Bartsch, violin and viola; Mark Bridges, cello; and Lindsay Crabb, cello, five-string cello.

You can find more information about the chamber music ensemble, including a link to a post in which The Ear named them as Musicians of the Year for 2016, at: http://willystreetchamberplayers.org

As is typical for The Willys, the program reflects diversity and includes both classical masters and contemporary composers:

Schubert: String trio in B-flat major, D. 47

Tania León (below) – Four Pieces for Solo Cello: II. Prayer

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber – Passacaglia

George Walker (below) – “Bleu”

J.S. Bach – Solo Cello Suite No. 6 in D major: I. Prelude and IV. Sarabande

Kimo Williams (below): “Quiet Shadows”

Beethoven: String Trio in G major, Op. 9, No. 1 / I. Adagio-Allegro

“We will be hosting a Zoom meet-and-greet with our guest artists following the performance. If you’d like to attend this virtual gathering, please RSVP to Grace Presents Program Coordinator James Waldo (gracepresents@gmail.com) for more information.

“Here is biographical background: The Willy Street Chamber Players (WSCP) are dedicated to creating community through classical music. Established in 2015, the group has become a fixture of the Willy Street neighborhood’s vibrant cultural scene.

“Recently awarded a gold medal in Madison Magazine’s prestigious “Best of Madison” reader poll, WSCP has received numerous accolades for its accessible and exciting performances, intelligent and fun programming, and community partnerships.

“Today, the group consists of four core members. Led by Artistic Director and violinist Paran Amirinazari, each player brings a fresh, imaginative take to classical music.

WSCP convenes each July – this summer’s concerts were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic — to present their popular summer concert series at Immanuel Lutheran Church (below) on Spaight Street. For these programs, the group has collaborated with many well-known guest artists from Madison and beyond.

“In addition, WSCP presents an array of events throughout the year including the admission-free Community Connect series that aims to bring classical music to inclusive spaces.

“WSCP has also performed at many other popular Madison venues including Marquette Waterfront Fest; Summer Serenades at Memorial Union Terrace; the Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin compound in Spring Green; the Madison New Music Festival; and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA).”

OTHER DETAILS

Video recording and editing has been done by: https://www.microtonemedia.com/

Audio engineering has been done by Bruce Kasprzyk.

Grace Presents is supported in part by generous project grants from Dane Arts, the Madison Arts Commission, the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) and the Grace Episcopal Development Fund Trust as well as individual gifts and in-kind support.

 


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Classical music: This summer’s Handel Aria Competition is postponed again — until next summer. But a Virtual Gala with new performances will be held online on Sept. 10

May 20, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 8th Annual Handel Aria Competition (below) has been postponed for a second time — until 2021 — for the safety of our singers, musicians and audience members.

The upper age limit for the competition will be extended when the competition resumes, so that all singers eligible this year can still participate.

We are introducing a new initiative to support the finalists from the past seasons of the competition – all of whom have had their opportunities to perform severely curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Your assistance in spreading the word would be much appreciated!

Originating in Madison, the Handel Aria Competition Virtual Gala will take place online and worldwide on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 7:30 p.m.

While the gala will not actually be live, since it requires editing together many separate elements of video, it will be shared via Facebook Live and also be available on YouTube and our website (see below).

It is our plan to feature professionally recorded Baroque arias specially performed for the occasion by past finalists and winners, as well as some of the videos recorded during the competition itself. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear bass-baritone Jonathan Woody singing an aria from the oratorio “Belshazzar” in 2019.)

We are also going to ask the finalists to record short video quotes about how the Handel Aria Competition has helped their careers, and why they love singing Handel.

Our host will be the Handel Aria Competition’s artistic director — and first prize-winner in 2015 — Sarah Brailey (below), who is also pursuing her doctorate at the UW-Madison.

Thanks to individual donations and foundation grants, all of the funds raised during the gala will be shared among the participating singers.

We hope you will join us in showing that we value their talent, and want to help them get through this difficult time.

For news updates and details, go to: https://handelariacompetition.com

 


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Classical music: Meet the “Stay at Home” Symphony Orchestra. How do they sound so close and tight? Plus, today is May Day. What music would you play to celebrate workers?

May 1, 2020
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ALERT: Today is May Day, a time to honor workers. What music would you play to celebrate and thank all the frontline workers — doctors, nurses, EMTs, police officers, firefighters, bus drivers, cleaners and janitors, grocery store workers, delivery people and others — who are now so indispensable?

By Jacob Stockinger

Many musicians — both singers and instrumentalists (below) — are self-isolating and doing their at-home best to keep those of us also sheltering in place entertained by performing virtual concerts.

It is something listeners can be grateful for. The players do an admirable and free public service during the COVID-19 crisis and coronavirus pandemic.

Of course, the virtual performances also have practical purposes.

The musicians keep their skills sharp during isolation.

And the virtual performances help to keep the names of individuals and groups, of composers and pieces, in the public’s mind at a time when live concerts have all been canceled or postponed.

There are many, many virtual concerts to choose from – made by local, regional, national and international musicians, some amateurs and some professional.

Many of them are solo performances given by an individual member of an orchestra, chamber music group or choral ensemble as well as big-name soloists such as pianist Emanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The individual ones are appreciated and impressive, even if some of the performances seem amateur-like in the sound or awkwardness.

What really impresses The Ear is when large groups, such as symphony orchestras and choirs, perform something with all the players at home and yet somehow the whole finished product sounds incredibly tight in and incredibly professional.

Last Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera even held a four-hour online gala with singers and instrumentalists from all over the world.

It makes The Ear wonder why they sound so good. How they do it, with all the complications and variables of timing and tempo, of rhythm, pitch and dynamics?

Is it the planning?

The processing and editing?

In any case, a very good example comes from the “Stay at Home” Symphony Orchestra playing Mozart’s Overture to the opera “The Marriage of Figaro.”

You can hear the YouTube video of the performance below.

Are there other such performances that you can point out to The Ear and you would like to see posted on this blog?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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