The Well-Tempered Ear

Here is a collaborative obituary for music critic, radio host, performer and gay pioneer Jess Anderson, who died in January at 85

March 7, 2021
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

In late January of this year, Jess Anderson (below) — a longtime friend, devoted musician and respected music critic – died at 85.

The Ear promised then that when more was known or written, it would be posted on this blog.

That time has come.

Jess was a polymath, a Renaissance Man, as the comments below attest to time and again.

For the past several years, he suffered from advancing dementia and moved from his home of 56 years to an assisted living facility. He had contracted COVID-19, but died from a severe fall from which he never regained consciousness.

Jess did not write his own obituary and he had no family member to do it. So a close friend – Ed Wegert (below) – invited several of the people who knew Jess and worked with him, to co-author a collaborative obituary. We are all grateful to Ed for the effort the obituary took and for his caring for Jess in his final years.

In addition, the obituary has some wonderful, not-to-be-overlooked photos of Jess young and old, at home, with friends, sitting at the piano and at his custom-built harpsichord.

It appears in the March issue of Our Lives, a free statewide LGBTQ magazine that is distributed through grocery stores and other retail outlets as well as free subscriptions. Here is a link to the magazine’s home webpage for details about it: https://ourliveswisconsin.com.

That Jess was an exceptional and multi-talented person is obvious even from the distinguished names of the accomplished people who contributed to the obituary:

They include:

Chester Biscardi (below), who is an acclaimed prize-winning composer, UW-Madison graduate, composer and teacher of composition at Sarah Lawrence College.

John Harbison (below), the MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who teaches at MIT and co-directs the nearby Token Creek Chamber Music Festival in the summer.

Rose Mary Harbison (below), who attended the UW-Madison with Jess and became a professional performing and teaching violinist who co-directs the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Steve Miller (below), a close friend who became a bookmaker and is now a professor at the University of Alabama.

The Ear, who knew Jess over many decades, was also invited to contribute.

Here is a link to the joint obituary in Our Lives magazine, a free LGBTQ periodical that you can find in local grocery store and other retail outlets: https://ourliveswisconsin.com/article/remembering-jess-anderson/?fbclid=IwAR027dzv2YqRUNlYF1cF6JyXnEcQxAwcprPYbtBQCs3rYt0Nu847W_xbjpk

Feel free to leave your own thoughts about and memories of Jess in the comment section.

It also seems a fitting tribute to play the final chorus from The St. John Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach. You can hear it in the YouTube video below. It is, if memory serves me well, the same piece of sublime music that Jess played when he signed off from hosting his Sunday morning early music show for many years on WORT-FM 89.9.

 


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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
2 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, 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

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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