The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: It’s clear to The Ear: It will be at least another full year before audiences in the U.S. can safely attend live concerts. What do you think?

August 11, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

All the signs point to the same conclusion: It will be at least the fall of 2021 before we can safely attend concerts again – if we are lucky.

These past two weeks, The Ear answered questionnaires sent out by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), which has already canceled the season through January, and the Wisconsin Union Theater (below bottom is Shannon Hall).

If you read between the lines, both questionnaires seemed to suggest the same two things: that the entire 2020-21 concert season will be canceled or postponed; or else that it will feature virtual online performances — for ticket prices (perhaps called a “donation”) that have not yet been announced and may not be acceptable to a lot of any group’s core audience.

Perhaps you disagree. If so, The Ear would like to hear in the comment section what you think and why you think it.

Here is what The Ear, who has talked with other season subscribers and various musicians, has seen and heard.

The United States has now surpassed 5 million coronavirus infections and 163,000 Covid-19 deaths with no sign of slowing down and many signs of accelerating. One widely cited model now predicts 300,000 deaths by this Dec. 1.

Plus, too many Americans refuse to wear masks or to maintain social distancing or to shelter at home to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Add in that we will be fortunate if enough vaccines are found to be safe, efficient and approved for use by Jan 1.

Then – despite federal government’s “Warp Speed” development or fast-tracking of the search for vaccines — there is the time needed to manufacture enough of them.

Then it will take considerable time to distribute them equitably, which other countries and public health agencies around the world demand.

Then, if we hope to reach herd immunity, it will take time to convince enough people to get the vaccine, especially with the growing number of anti-vaxxers.

Then those who do get vaccinated will have to wait a month for the second shot that will be required.

Then we wait a few weeks to see if and how much the vaccine really works – if it is safe and prevents infection or at least lessens the damage of the disease if you do get infected.

Plus, it sees unreasonable to think all of these steps will go without a hitch. So maybe a few more weeks or even months should be added.

Add up the math, and the conclusion seems clear: Performing arts events, like sports and other large in-person gatherings, seem increasingly likely to be canceled or reconfigured for a full year.

Concerts are already taking place in China, and other countries in Asia and Europe seem likely to catch up soon. But music lovers in the U.S. will be lucky if they get to attend a live concert with 100 or 500 or 1,000 or 2,500 other people before the fall of 2021 – at least a full year away. Maybe more.

The Ear could well be wrong. Maybe you see a different conclusion, which we would all love to hear. Perhaps international readers will share estimates about when concerts will begin in their country.

One way or another, we will learn a lot more about how the new music season is being planned and changed in the next three weeks.


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Classical music: University Opera announces a new season that is politically and socially relevant to today. The two shows are a virtual revue of Marc Blitzstein and a live operatic version of “The Crucible.”

August 7, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

David Ronis (below), the director of the University Opera at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, has posted the following notice about its upcoming season on social media.

The award-winning Ronis is known for being creative both in programming and staging. The new season is yet another example of that. It features one virtual original production about an American composer to see and hear online, and two live performances of a mid-20th century American opera.

Both works seem especially pertinent and cautionary, given the times we currently live in in the U.S.

Here are the details:

FINALLY!!!

Things have fallen into place for the University Opera 2020-21 season and we are happy to announce our productions:

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein — the Man in His Music”

“A biographical pastiche featuring songs and ensembles from Marc Blitzstein’s shows, spoken excerpts from his letters and working notes, and a narration. 

“Oct. 23, 2020

8 p.m. Video Release

____________________________________________________________________________________

“The Crucible” (1961)

Music by Robert Ward

Libretto by Bernard Stambler

Based on the 1953 play by Arthur Miller

March 19 and 21, 2021

Shannon Hall, Wisconsin Union Theater

_____________________________________________________________________________________

We will post more information as we get it. For now, we are very excited about both projects! Stay tuned.”

(Editor’s note: To stay tuned, go to: https://www.facebook.com/UniversityOpera/)

_____________________________________________________________________________________

And what does The Ear think?

The revue of Marc Blitzstein seems a perfect choice for Madison since his papers and manuscripts are located at the Wisconsin Historical Society. For details, go to: http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi/f/findaid/findaid-idx?c=wiarchives;view=reslist;subview=standard;didno=uw-whs-us0035an

Focusing on Blitzstein (1905-1964) also seems an especially politically relevant choice since he was a pro-labor union activist whose “The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles,” was shut down by the Works Progress Administration of the federal government.

For more about Blitzstein (below in 1938) and his career, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Blitzstein

“The Crucible” also seems an especially timely choice. In its day the original play about the Salem witch trials was seen as a historical parable and parallel of McCarthyism and the Republican witch hunt for Communists.

Read about the Salem witch trials here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials

Now that we are seeing a time when Democrats and others with progressive ideas are accused of being radical leftists, socialists and destructive revolutionaries, its relevance has come round again. Like McCarthy, President Donald Trump relies on winning elections by generating fear and denigrating opponents.

For more about the operatic version of “The Crucible” (below, in a production at the University of Northern Iowa) — which was commissioned by the New York City Opera and won both a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Music Critics Circle Award in 1962 — go to this Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crucible_(opera)

You can hear the musically accessible opening and John’s aria, from Act II, in the YouTube video at the bottom. For more about composer Robert Ward (1917-2013, below), go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Ward_(composer)

What do you think of the new University Opera season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Here are the world premieres of the sixth and seventh pieces of “pandemic music” commissioned by the U.S. Library of Congress

June 24, 2020
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

The project has is now heading towards it end.

Last week was when the world premieres of the 10 short pieces — written for the U.S. Library of Congress’ “Boccaccio Project” — started going public and began being posted on various social media sites as well as the Internet.

This week will see the last five compositions and complete the project.

One performance is released each weekday night starting at 8 p.m. EDT.

The project, funded by the federal government, is intended to capture some aspect of the unique culture brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19.

The first piece was “Sequestered Thoughts,” a solo piano work by composed Damien Sneed and performed by Jeremy Jordan.

The second was “shadow of a difference/falling” by composer Richard Drehoff Jr. and solo oboist Andrew Nogal of the Grossman Ensemble.

The third was “Intuit – a way to stay in the world” for solo cello composed by Miya Masaoka and performed by Kathryn Bates of the Del Sol String Quartet.

The first three were featured in two postings on this blog last week. Here are links:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/16/classical-music-here-is-the-world-premiere-of-the-first-piece-of-pandemic-music-commissioned-by-the-library-of-congress/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/18/classical-music-here-are-the-world-premieres-of-the-second-and-third-pieces-of-pandemic-music-commissioned-by-the-u-s-library-of-congress/

The fourth and fifth pieces were premiered last Thursday and Friday, bringing the project to the half way point before the Summer Solstice, Father’s Day and Make Music Madison weekend.

They were posted on this past Monday. Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/22/classical-music-here-are-the-world-premieres-of-the-fourth-and-fifth-pieces-of-pandemic-music-commissioned-by-the-u-s-library-of-congress/

The fourth work is “Bridges,” a solo piano work composed by Cliff Eidelman and performed at home by Jenny Lin. The title refers to the composer’s focus on finding bridges from the coronavirus pandemic to normal life.

The fifth piece is “Hello World” by composer by Erin Rogers, an exploratory work for solo flute, and is performed by Erin Lesser of the Wet Ink Ensemble.

And now the second half of premieres has started.

The sixth piece is “1462 Willard Street,” composed for solo viola by Luciano Chessa (below top, in a photo by Melesia Nunez) and performed by Charlton Lee (below bottom, in a photo by RJ Muna) of the Del Sol String Quartet.

The address refers to a place in San Francisco where the composer was staying on March 16, 2020 – the day the city enacted orders to stay at home because of the pandemic.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/chessa-lee.html

The seventh piece, premiered last night, is “Olcott Park” for solo piano composed by Aaron Travers (below top, in a photo by James Matthew Daniel) and performed by Daniel Pesca (below bottom, in a photo by Jay Morthland) of the Grossman Ensemble.

It is a recollection of the forest and birds the composer knows in a park near his home but which he hasn’t’ visited much during the pandemic.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/travers-pesca.html

On the same page as the performance you can read what the composer and sometimes the performer have to say about the new work and what it strives to mean or express.

You can use links to go to the past performances and premieres.

You can also follow links on the bottom of the page to see more information about both the composer and the performer, and to general background of the project.

If you would like some more background, along with some commentary and questions from The Ear, go to https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/13/classical-music-the-library-of-congress-has-commissioned-new-music-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-you-can-listen-to-the-premieres-from-this-monday-june-15-through-june-28/

What do you think of the individual pieces?

Do you have one or more favorites?

What do you think of the project?

How successful is it?

Will you like to hear more of the commissioned music?

The Ear wants to hear.


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

March 23, 2020
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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: Music from Schubert’s last year of life is the focus of this year’s UW-Madison’s Schubertiade this Sunday afternoon when a world-famous Schubert scholar will share her insights

January 25, 2019
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NEWS UPDATE: The UW-Madison is offering FREE ADMISSION to Sunday afternoon’s Schubertiade, discussed below, to furloughed federal workers, who just have to show their federal identification to an usher.

By Jacob Stockinger

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s sixth annual Schubertiade – a re-creation of the historical and informal celebration of his music that Franz Schubert (1797-1828) used to hold with friends – will take place this Sunday afternoon, Jan. 27, at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

The focus this year is the music composed in the last year of Schubert’s life, before his death at 31.

A schedule of events and information about tickets are below.

This Schubertiade will feature a world-famous Schubert scholar. Susan Youens, recently retired from the University of Notre Dame, has one of the most impressive musicology resumes in the world, and will share her insights about the late style of Franz Schubert (below) in her pre-concert lecture.

Youens has won four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as fellowships from the National Humanities Center, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. She has published eight books, hundreds of articles, essays and chapters, and lectured all over the world.

“Dr. Youens (below) will explore the rich relationship of Schubert’s music to the poems he chose to set and the emergence of new directions in Schubert’s style,” says co-organizer William Lutes. “The influence of Beethoven had loomed large throughout Schubert’s music, and in the year following Beethoven’s death, the 31-year-old composer wrote works of homage to this great master, as he saw his own music becoming more widely recognized, published and performed.”

Highlights of the Schubertiade will be a complete performance of Schubert’s 14 final songs, published after his death as Schwanengesang, or “Swan Songs” — among the composer’s richest and most forward-looking works. (You can hear the famous “Serenade” from “Swan Songs” sung by Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Also on the program are the humorous and risqué Refrain-Lieder; the slow movement of the great Piano Trio in E-flat major; the enchanting Rondo in A major for piano four-hands; and the beautiful song Auf den Strom for voice, horn and piano, composed for a concert commemorating the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death, and filled with subtly haunting references to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.”

In addition to pianists and singers Martha Fischer and William Lutes (below), guest performers will include voice faculty members Mimmi Fulmer, Julia Rottmayer and Paul Rowe, voice students Sarah Brailey, Wesley Dunnagan, and Benjamin Hopkins, graduate hornist Joanna Schulz, and guest singer Cheryl Bensman-Rowe.

Also participating is the Perlman Trio (Mercedes Cullen, violin; Micah Cheng, cello; and Kangwoo Jin, piano).

The School of Music also thanks donors Ann Boyer and Kato Perlman for their longtime support of the Schubertiades, the Perlman Trio and other musicians and events.

2019 SCHUBERTIADE SCHEDULE

Pre-concert lecture: 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 27, Morphy Hall. (Free.)

Concert: 3 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 27, Mills Hall. (Ticketed.)

Post-concert reception, included with ticket purchase: Sunday, Jan. 27, at the nearby University Club, 5:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $17 for adults, $7 for all age students/children; free to music majors, faculty and staff. To avoid long lines, we suggest arriving 30 minutes early or buying tickets ahead of time, either in person or online. Please see the link below.

Purchase options (online, by telephone and in person) here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

To buy tickets directly online, click here.


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