The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: On this Memorial Day, The Ear honors not only soldiers but also civilians, COVID-19 victims and all those responders and workers who serve the public

May 25, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day 2020.

It is of course a largely military holiday. Most of the planned public events will be to honor those who died in service to their country. That usually means fallen soldiers and deceased veterans.

It also means that military cemeteries – like Arlington National Cemetery, below — will be decorated with American flags.

But The Ear doesn’t think we should forget that there are many ways to serve your country and protect the public, many kinds war and self-sacrifice.

Let’s not forget civilians, especially since worldwide more than twice the numbers of civilians died in World War II than did members of the armed forces. Lives are taken as well as given.

A larger definition of “national service” also seems especially timely since this weekend the U.S. is likely to surpass 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic. They include many first responders and frontline workers (below) as well as grocery store workers and delivery drivers. Even “small” occupations have big heroes. There is no reason not to be more inclusive.

There are traditional kinds of music to honor the dead. They include requiems and elegies, military marches and funeral marches. And in the comment section you should feel free to suggest whatever music you think would be appropriate.

But The Ear found a piece he thinks is both unusual and ideal.

It is called “Old and Lost Rivers” by the contemporary American composer Tobias Picker (below). It is a beautiful, moving and contemplative piece, based on an actual place in Texas, that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But you should know this about the work’s title.

With rivers, “lost” doesn’t mean forgotten or misplaced.

One dictionary defines it as “a surface stream that flows into an underground passageway” – and eventually often becomes part of a larger body of water such as a lake or the ocean.

It can also mean rivers that appear during heavy rain and then disappear when they evaporate during a drought.

Somehow, those images serve as fitting metaphors for our losses and that music seems a very appropriate way to honor those who sacrifice themselves and disappear in service to others.

The Ear hopes you agree.


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Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Here is patriotic music to help celebrate, including a portrait of a truly presidential president for the purpose of comparison

July 4, 2019
5 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Fourth of July – a celebration of Independence Day when the United States officially declared its separation from Great Britain in 1776.

The day will be marked by picnics and barbecues, by local parades and spectacular fireworks – and this year by armored tanks and fighter jets in yet another expensive display of military power by You Know Who: that loudmouth man who overcompensates for dodging the draft by acting more like King George than George Washington.

The “Salute to America” sure looks like it is really going to be a “Salute to Trump.”

But whatever your politics, your preferences in presidents or the festive activities you have planned for today, there is classical music to help you mark and celebrate the occasion. Just go to Google and search for “classical music for the Fourth of July.”

Better yet, tune into Wisconsin Public Radio, which will be featuring American classical music all day long.

In addition, though, here are some oddities and well-known works that The Ear particularly likes and wants to share.

The first is the Russian immigrant composer and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his own version of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” something he apparently did out of respect for his adopted country before each recital he played in the U.S.:

And the second is by another Russian immigrant and piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, who was a friend and colleague of Rachmaninoff. Here he is playing his piano arrangement, full of keyboard fireworks that sound much like a third hand playing, of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by American march king John Philip Sousa. Horowitz used the patriotic march to raise money and sell war bonds during World War II, then later used as an encore, which never failed to wow the audience:

For purposes of artistic and political comparisons of presidents, you will also find Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” – with famous actor and movie star Henry Fonda as the narrator of Honest Abe’s own extraordinary oratory and understated writing — in the YouTube video at the bottom.

And in a ironic twist The Ear can’t resist, here are nine pieces — many orchestral and some choral –chosen by the official website of the BBC Music Magazine in the United Kingdom to mark and honor American Independence Day. It has some surprises and is worth checking out:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/nine-best-works-independence-day

If you like or favor other works appropriate to the Fourth of July or have comments, just leave word and a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: As Pride month comes to an end, let us proudly recall LGBTQ classical composers and musicians. Plus, you hear a concert of queer composers and performers

June 30, 2019
6 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

This past weekend, this whole past month, the Rainbow flags (below) have been flying openly and high.

We saw all sorts of major Pride parades for LGBTQ rights as well as the 50th anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that eventually gave birth  to a worldwide movement to ensure that queer people receive the human rights they deserve.

Since today is the last day of June, of Pride month, it seems fitting to recall the many LGBTQ composers and performers in classical music.

The gay rights movement has opened the closet doors not only of individual lives today but also of historical figures.

So here are several lists that may teach you something new about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer musicians.

Some of the calls seem iffy, unconvincing or overstated. Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin, for example, lived when homoerotic friendship did not necessarily mean a queer sexual identity. But one way or the other, historical proof and documentation can be hard to come by. And clearly there is much more to know about the past.

But take a look. At least you will see how scholars are undertaking new research and often undermining the heterosexual assumption that has wrapped so many historical and even contemporary figures in wrong or mistaken gender identity.

And if you find someone missing, please leave the name and appropriate information in the comment section.

Freedom, acceptance and respect are not zero-sum games in which one person or group can win only if another one loses. There is enough of each to go around. All can celebrate pride.

So enjoy the information, whether it is new or not, and the respect it should inspire for the central role of LGBTQ people in the arts both past and present.

Here is a pretty extensive and comprehensive list, in alphabetical order, from Wikipedia of LGBT composers, both living and dead. It includes Chester Biscardi (below) who did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Pauline Oliveros who did a residency at the UW-Madison several years ago. You don’t have to click on each name. Just hover the cursor arrow over the name and you will see a photo and biographical blurb.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:LGBT_composers

And here is a list, also in alphabetical order and also from Wikipedia, of LGBT musicians and performers, not all of them classical. It works by clicking on sub-categories that include nationality – though one wonders if musicians from extremely homophobic countries and cultures are included.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:LGBT_musicians

Here is a more selective list from The Advocate, an LGBTQ magazine, of 18 queer composers — including Corelli — who made history and you should know about:

https://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/2017/2/08/18-queer-composers-who-made-music-history?pg=full

And here is a similarly selective list from radio station WFMT in Chicago of 15 LGBT composers — including Handel and Lully — you should know about:

https://www.wfmt.com/2015/06/25/15-queer-composers-know/

And in the YouTube video at the bottom is a Pride concert — 1 hour and 43 minutes long — recently held in New York City at the Greene Space, and hosted and recorded by radio stations WQXR and WNYC.

It features music by queer composers and performances by queer artists. Metropolitan Opera star Anthony Roth Constanzo performs. Also playing are pianists Steven Blier and Sara Davis Buechner, who have performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, respectively. The New York Gay Men’s Chorus sings. The Ear found the concert timely and moving.

If you have questions, comments or additional names, please do leave word in the comment section.

Happy Pride!

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is Memorial Day – a good time to remember the civilian dead as well as the military dead. The Ear likes Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” What music would you listen to to mark the holiday?

May 27, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day, 2019, when the nation honors the men and women who died in military service. The Ear would like to see much more attention and remembrance paid to the huge number of civilians — much higher than military personnel and soldiers — who have died in wars and military service, whose lives weren’t given but taken.

In fact, why not establish and celebrate a separate holiday to honor civilian deaths in war? Perhaps it would help to know the detailed history and background of the holiday, since it is not as straightforward or modern as you might expect:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_Day

What piece of classical music would you listen to in order to mark the holiday?

There is a lot to choose from.

The Ear especially likes “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by the early 20th-century French composer Maurice Ravel. It is a “tombeau” – a metaphorical “tomb” or “grave” used by the French to mean paying homage to the dead – in two senses.

Its neo-Classical or neo-Baroque style recalls the 18th-century world of French composers and harpsichordists including Jean-Philippe Rameau and Francois Couperin. But in a second sense, Ravel (below, in 1910) dedicated each of the six movements to a friend – in one case, two brothers — who had died during World War I. So part of its appeal is that it is a very personal statement of grief.

Here is more detailed background about the piece:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_tombeau_de_Couperin

The work was orchestrated later, which added sonic color but cut out two movements. The Ear prefers the original piano version, which seems a little more percussive, austere and straightforward — less pretty but more beautiful, and more in keeping with the holiday by evoking sentiment without sentimentality.

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear it in a live performance by Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt.

But there are lots of other works to choose from by many composers: John Adams (“The Wound Dresser” after poetry of Walt Whitman); Samuel Barber (Adagio for Strings); Ludwig van Beethoven (slow movements of Symphonies 3 and 7, and of the Piano Sonata Op. 26); Johannes Brahms (“A German Requiem”); Benjamin Britten (War Requiem);  Frederic Chopin (Funeral March from Sonata No. 2, polonaises, preludes and the “Revolutionary” Etude); Aaron Copland (“Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Letter From Home”); Edward Elgar (“Nimrod” from “Enigma Variations”); Gabriel Faure (Requiem and Elegy for cello); Franz Joseph Haydn (“Mass in Time of War”); Paul Hindemith (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d – A Requiem for Those We Love”);  Charles Ives (Variations on “America” and “Decoration Day”); Henry Purcell (“When I Am Laid in Earth”); John Philip Sousa (“Honored Dead” March); Ralph Vaughan Williams (Symphony No. 3 “Pastoral”); and many others, including Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Here is a list from the British radio station Classical FM:

https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/occasions/memorial/remembrance-day-music/war-requiem-britten/

Here is a list of patriotic music from Nashville Public Radio:

https://www.nashvillepublicradio.org/post/classical-music-remembrance-and-loss-memorial-day-playlist#stream/0

Here is another list from an American source:

http://midamerica-music.com/blog/five-classical-works-memorial-day/

Here are more sound samples from NPR:

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104341851

And here is another one from Northwest Public Radio:

https://www.nwpb.org/2015/05/22/memorial-day-music-commemorate-celebrate/

What do you think of a holiday commemorating civilian deaths in war?

What favorite piece of classical music would you play and listen to as you mark Memorial Day?

Let us know, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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