The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Happy Bastille Day! But instead of militarism, let’s celebrate the holiday with revolutionary French music by a revolutionary French composer. What French music would you choose?

July 14, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is July 14, known in the U.S. as Bastille Day.

That is the day in 1789 when the infamous Bastille Prison in Paris was stormed by the masses and political prisoners were freed – marking the beginning of the French Revolution.

The tradition is to play “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem that grew out of the revolution. Usually there is a military side to the arrangement of the anthem and the performance of it.

After all, it was a Bastille Day parade that even inspired President Trump to stage his egotistical “Salute to America” – satirically dubbed “Tanksgiving” — on the Fourth of July this year in Washington, D.C..

But The Ear has had quite enough of militarism and of the lying draft dodger who became commander-in-chief using patriotism to camouflage his un-American actions and ideas.

With no disrespect to those who served or are serving in the armed forces, there are many ways besides the military to be patriotic and even revolutionary.

So this year The Ear is choosing something subtle and less martial to mark the day.

It is a performance of “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks), a prelude for solo piano by Claude Debussy (below), who described himself – in an age where German and Italian music ruled – simply as a “French musician.” But make no mistake: Debussy, who was rejected for admission to the Paris Conservatory, was indeed a revolutionary figure in music history for his innovations in harmony and form.

(Perhaps this past season, you heard Marc-André Hamelin give an astoundingly virtuosic performance of “Fireworks” as an encore after his Sunday afternoon concerto performances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Listen carefully and at the very end you will hear a subtle reference to the Marseillaise that adds the right touch to the pyrotechnical celebration of  “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

Added to that, the fiery performance in the YouTube video at the bottom is by Robert Casadesus, a deservedly famous French pianist.

Finally, The Ear thinks you can celebrate Bastille Day with any number of French composers and French works, many of which remain neglected and underperformed. (The Ear is particularly partial to the music of Gabriel Faure, below, who taught Maurice Ravel.)

Who is your favorite French composer?

What is your favorite French piece of classical music?

Leave a comment with, if possible, a YouTube link.

Happy Bastille Day!!


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Classical music: We should hear more operas sung in English translation – like Wisconsin Public Radio’s live broadcast TODAY at noon of the Metropolitan Opera’s shortened version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”

December 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear thinks that we in English-speaking countries should hear more operas sung in our native language.

Yes, sung in English – not the original Italian, French or German.

You can see how you’d like it for yourself if you listen at noon TODAY– Saturday, Dec. 29 — to Wisconsin Public Radio. That’s when you can hear the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of its family-friendly production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

The Ear did so and – except for deleting the wonderful overture — loved it.

So, apparently, did a lot others. (You can hear Nathan Gunn in a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

After many years, the production has now become a holiday tradition for the Met to offer children while school is out for the holidays.

And one suspects it is developing new audiences – especially with the colorful staging and costumes by Julie Taymor, who won such acclaim for her staging of “The Lion King” on both the stage and film.

Sure, a lot of purists will probably object to substituting English for the original Italian, French, German and Russian. But it is so freeing and feels so good to understand what you are hearing without the distraction of constantly going back and forth trying to look at both the supertitles and the stage.

It also seems worth a try, given the problems that many opera companies are having competing with the “Live from the Met in HD” productions that you can see in movie theaters for far less money, and the decline of both season subscribers and single tickets.

To be honest, of course even in English you will miss some of the words. That’s the nature of singing. But excellent diction helps. And if you are lucky enough to see the production in person, supertitles in Italian, French German and Spanish and, yes, English are still provided.

It is not a completely new idea. After all, Great Britain has the English National Opera, which performs standard operas by Verdi and Puccini, Monteverdi and Handel, Mozart and Wagner, in English. So, many of the very great operas have already been translated into English and could be staged in English elsewhere.

Here are links where you can learn more about the English National Opera:

https://www.eno.org

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

Do you question how the text is hurt in translation?

It’s worth remembering that Mozart himself used the vernacular German instead of his usual opera house Italian so that he would reach the general public. Why not do the same today? Translation could make opera much more accessible, less pretentious and more populist.

The same is true for cutting the show down to 100 minutes from almost 3 hours. Let’s just admit that the attention span of the general public is much shorter than it used to be.

Orchestra and chamber music concerts as well as solo recitals are trimming their running times often down to 90 minutes or less, and meet with great approval from the public. Why not try the same approach with opera? Indeed, both the Madison Opera and the University Opera have limited but successful experiences with editing operas and using English.

It is also worth recalling that in translation we read greater words than an opera libretto. If we can translate Homer and Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Proust, why can’t we translate opera librettos? One just has to be sure to find a great translator with a sensitive musical ear– such as American poet Richard Wilbur is with his award-winning, rhyming translations of Moliere’s comedies and Racine’s tragedies. Similarly, American poet J.D. McClatchy has done a fine job with The Met’s “Magic Flute.”

Here is a link to more information about the production, including a synopsis:

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/the-magic-flute/

And here is a review of the Met’s  “Magic Flute” by Tommasini:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/arts/music/review-mozart-magic-flute-met-opera.html

What do you think?

Should more operas be staged in English?

Should long operas be edited?

Why or why not?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Messiah” marks 10 years with another sold-out performance and two new soloists this Friday night. Then starting Saturday, it’s on to “The Nutcracker”

December 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

There is no more iconic piece of classical music for the holiday season than the oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel. (You can hear the famous “Hallelujah” Chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For 10 years, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the WCO Chorus, the Festival Choir and four guest soloists (all forces from a previous performance are in the photo below) have been bringing the masterwork to Madison. And it usually plays to a full house.

This year’s performance once again takes place at 7 p.m. this Friday night, Dec. 7, at the Blackhawk Church, 8629 Brader Way in Middleton. And once again, all 800 seats are sold out.

For more information, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah-1/

“It is very successful and has become a real tradition,” says WCO’s Chief Operating Officer Sue Ellen McGuire. “We have people and families who come year after year.”

But that does not mean each year’s performance, both acclaimed by critics and popular with the public, is a repetition of the previous year’s.

True, some things carry over, such as the longtime soprano soloist Sarah Lawrence and bass soloist Peter Van de Graaff (below), who is also the overnight resonant voice of classical music on Wisconsin Public Radio via The Beethoven Satellite Network.

“It is such a great masterpiece that I feel I can play around with it somewhat and make each year’s performance distinctive and different,” says WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below). Some years, he says, he cuts out or adds certain choruses; or changes the intermission break; or alters the makeup of the instruments or choruses; or uses different soloists, or continues to adapt to and adopt early music practices.

Take this year. For the first time, the performance will include two singers who competed in the annual Handel Aria Competition held in Madison: mezzo-soprano Johanna Bronk (a finalist in 2017), and tenor Gene Stenger (bottom left, the second prize winner and audience favorite in 2017).

“It’s a no-brainer and a natural fit to use the world-class talent that takes part in a local event,” says Sewell, who is also the music director of the symphony orchestra in San Luis Obispo in California.

And for those of you who wonder what the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra does after Concerts on the Square end in the summer and before its Masterworks series starts in January, the answer is marking the holidays.

In addition to “Messiah,” the WCO will accompany the Madison Ballet’s performances of Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” that take place between Dec. 8 and Dec. 26 in the Overture Center. For details and tickets, go to: https://www.madisonballet.org/nutcracker/


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