The Well-Tempered Ear

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: The opera world is divided over accusations of sexual harassment against superstar tenor Placido Domingo. Here is how John DeMain reacted. How do you react and what do you believe?

August 24, 2019
4 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

By now, you have probably heard about the allegations of sexual harassment recently made anonymously against the still-active superstar Spanish tenor Placido Domingo (below), 78, who holds the record for the most opening-night appearances at the Metropolitan Opera.

What you might not have heard is how divided the opera world is over those accusations, which are now being formally and independently investigated.

Much of that division falls along lines of Europe versus the United States. The former has so far not cancelled upcoming appearances while the latter was quick to. And Domingo has been defended by famed Russian soprano Anna Netrebko (below, with Domingo).

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, sexual misconduct and sexual assault continue to be perhaps the most controversial issues amid many similar or more serious criminal allegations against conductors James Levine, Charles Dutoit and Daniele Gatti as well as many teachers and orchestra players.

Perhaps the best account of the divided reactions came in a story from The New York Times. Here it is:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/18/arts/music/placido-domingo-opera-harassment.html

One sign of the difficulty in dealing with the situation can be found in the carefully worded, balanced and empathetic Facebook comment by maestro John DeMain, the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera.

DeMain has often worked with Domingo, perhaps most notably in the famous 1992 Concert for Planet Earth in Rio de Janeiro, which DeMain conducted. (You can hear Domingo singing an aria by Puccini and see DeMain conducting the orchestra in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Says DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad): “Thinking about the Placido Domingo controversy. While I’m not in a position to take sides in this very sad situation, I would just like to say that in my many interactions with this great tenor over many decades, I personally never witnessed him do anything that was inappropriate. He was always a kind and gentle person to me and my family. I wish him and his family well through this difficult time.”

Here is a link to DeMain’s Facebook page if you would like to read comments from others or leave one of your own: https://www.facebook.com/jldemain

How do you react to the accusations?

What do you believe should happen to Domingo?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Sonata à Quattro does justice to the spiritual piety and beautiful music in Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ”

April 28, 2019
1 Comment

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

Marika Fischer Hoyt’s newest ensemble is called Sonata à Quattro (below), using the Italian Baroque expression for instrumental works scored for three upper parts and basso continuo. That idiom was the background to the more integrated balance of the string quartet.

It was Franz Joseph Haydn (below) who really consolidated that transformation, and so it was appropriate that the new group should at this early point in its development pay a major tribute to that composer.

Responding to a commission from a Spanish prelate, in 1786-87 Haydn composed a set of seven orchestral adagios  — plus opening and closing pieces — to be played in a Good Friday ceremony celebrating the seven final statements by Christ from the cross (below, in a painting by Diego Velazquez) that are cumulatively reported by the Gospel writers.

At the same time, Haydn made a reduction of those orchestral movements into the string quartet format. That version he published outside his regular sets of string quartets, which had opus numbers.

Especially in the quartet form, this music achieved wide circulation, so much so that several attempts were made by others to create an oratorio out of this music, prompting Haydn himself to make his own oratorio version in 1795-96. Along the way, someone else made a keyboard transcription of the music that Haydn sanctioned.

It was, of course, the string quartet version — The Seven Last Words of Christ — that the Sonata à Quattro performed. It did so, first as part of a Good Friday church service in Milwaukee on April 19, and then as an independent one-hour free and public concert at the Oakwood Village West auditorium last Thursday night.

Fischer Hoyt (below), the group’s founder and violist, gave an introductory talk about the group’s name and about its decisions as to instrumentation.  (It usually plays on period instruments, but chose this time to use modern ones with period bows.) Cellist Charlie Rasmussen added some comments about the music and its history. Violinists  Kangwon Kim and Nathan Giglierano were happy just to play.

Haydn’s music was written in the deepest piety and sincerity, and that comes through in the individual components, which cost him much effort. (You can hear the second half of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The seven Sonatas are framed by a solemn Introduction and a furious evocation of the “earthquake” that we are told followed the death of Jesus. Each successive Sonata is cast in very tight and concentrated sonata form. Haydn makes the Latin form of each statement or “word” the theme of each sonata. In all, the cycle makes the most deeply absorbing combination of spirituality and ingenuity.

The players brought out both those dimensions in a performance of rapt beauty. This score has quite a few recordings, but it is not heard in concert all that often, so it was a treasure to be given this wonderful presentation.

And now we know that Sonata à Quattro has great possibilities to develop.


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Classical music: ECM Records finally streams its entire catalogue of award-winning artists and recordings

November 18, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed and award-winning independent label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) was founded in Munich, Germany, in 1969 by the Grammy-winning producer Manfred Eicher (below).

Known for its penchant for the contemporary and even avant-garde, Eicher’s label was nonetheless a conservative hold-out when it came to the newer technology of digital streaming.

The old technology has its points besides superior sound quality. When you got an ECM CD, you usually also got one of their terrific black-and-white photographs, often a square-format landscape, as a cover. (ECM even published a book of its photographic covers.)

But as of this past Friday, ECM finally gave into the inevitable and streamed its entire catalogue. Its rationale was that it was more important for its music and musicians to be heard than to remain loyal to certain platforms.

ECM also cited the pressure from unauthorized uploads to YouTube and bootleg versions of its recordings as the reason for the decision.

So as of yesterday, ECM, which has won many awards for individual titles and artists, will be available on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, Deezer, Tidal and other streaming services.

ECM is known for its popular and critically acclaimed jazz artists including pianist Keith Jarrett (below, of “The Köln Concert” or The Cologne Concert) and saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (“Officium”). But it also included classical chamber music groups such as the Keller Quartet, the Trio Medieval, the Danish Quartet and others.

ECM is also known for championing contemporary classical composers (Arvo Pärt, below, who is the most performed contemporary composer, as well as Tigur Mansurian, Lera Auerbach, Gyorgy Kurtag and Valentin Silvestrov among others) and some outstanding crossover classical musicians, including Jarrett, a jazz great who has also recorded Bach, Handel and Shostakovich on both piano and harpsichord.

The Ear especially likes violist Kim Kashkashian and Harvard pianist Robert Levin (a frequent performer at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival) in sonatas of Brahms. He is also fond of Alexei Lubimov in various piano recitals as well as the many recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Janacek and Robert Schumann by the superb pianist Andras Schiff (below). In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Schiff in a live performance of the Gigue from Bach’s Keyboard Partita No. 3.)

And there are many, many more artists and recordings worth your attention. Here is a link to an extensive sampler on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/user/ECMRecordsChannel

Who are your favorite ECM artists?

What are your favorite ECM recordings?

What ECM downloads do you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.


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