The Well-Tempered Ear

The Madison Opera launches its Digital Fall this Sunday afternoon and Sept. 27 with more to come through December. The cost is $50 per household

September 18, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Opera about its Digital fall season, which will open with an artists’ panel discussion this Sunday afternoon, Sept. 20, and then an original world-premiere production on Sept. 27, a week from this Sunday.

“Although the coronavirus pandemic has closed the Overture Center for the Arts this fall, Madison Opera is not going silent.

“We are creating a fall season that lasts from September through December. It includes both digital content and live performances at the Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, our home in downtown Madison.

“All content will be available to subscribers for at least one month from the “live” date, so you can watch at your leisure, and as often as you wish.”

A Digital Fall subscription is $50 per household. It can be purchased on its own, or as part of a new subscription package. It can be purchased through the link at the bottom.

Here is how it will work: About 48 hours before each event, subscribers will receive an email with the private link to that event.  (You may need to check your spam folder).  If you have not received an email the day before an event, email info@madisonopera.org and we’ll send you the link directly.

The link remains active for one month, so if you cannot watch an event live – or want to re-watch it – you won’t miss out.

Do you miss operatic conversation? Join us online! Opera Up Close is a favorite event for Madison Opera subscribers, usually featuring a discussion of the upcoming opera from a historical context and with cast members.

For our Digital Fall, this conversation is reimagined via technology to discuss broader opera topics, featuring favorite Madison Opera company members, interviewed by Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill).

Opera Up Close Cocktail Hour Discussions take place on Sunday afternoons, 4– 5:30 p.m. Subscribers will have the opportunity to ask questions both in advance and during the talk.

UP CLOSE COCKTAIL HOUR DISCUSSION

This Sunday, Sept. 20, 4-5:30 p.m.

Many singers have debuted at Madison Opera (MO) early in their careers, before going on to sing around the world.

Featured in this discussion are: Kyle Ketelsen of Sun Prairie (below top in a photo by Lawrence Brownlee, MO debut 2000); Emily Fons (below middle, MO debut 2012); and Will Liverman (below bottom, MO debut 2015). Join us for a wide-ranging discussion about their careers, training paths, and much more.

WORLD PREMIERE OF  A SONG CYCLE

Jeni Houser and David Blalock, singers

Saturday, Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m.

Featuring the world premiere of “Keep Moving” by Madison composer and UW-Madison graduate Scott Gendel

Married singers Jeni Houser and David Blalock (below) have a long history with Madison Opera. Jeni was one of our first Studio Artists in 2012, and has returned many times, most recently as Anne in Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

David debuted in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” (2014), and both artists sang at Opera in the Park 2019 (below). This past season, Jeni and David made (separate) Metropolitan Opera debuts, and were slated to sing the leads in Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld ” in Madison last spring, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Wisconsin residents will launch our Live from the Opera Center series in a joint recital, accompanied by principal pianist Scott Gendel (below).

Gendel is also an acclaimed composer, and the recital will feature the world premiere of his song cycle “Keep Moving,” set to poetry by Maggie Smith, which he is writing specifically for Jeni and David. (below, in a photo by David Scott, are all three are rehearsing in the Madison Opera’s Winston Center.)

Here is a link to the initial schedule of events, including a cooperative production of Jean Cocteau’s monologue opera “The Human Voice” with the Austin Opera in Texas, and biographies of various singers and participants.

More events will be added and announced in the coming months.

You will also a find a button to click on to subscribe to the Digital Fall: https://www.madisonopera.org/Fall2020


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Will the public pay for online virtual concerts? Will you? Consider the fate of newspapers

August 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

More and more local classical musicians and music presenters are moving concerts and music-making to virtual online events, at least for the fall and early winter – and quite possibly for the rest of the season. (Below is Shannon Hall in the Wisconsin Union Theater.)

And although we are still waiting for details, it seems all but certain that many of them will be pay-per-view and require tickets.

True, the move from free streaming to pay-for-view might be very useful in helping performers earn a much-needed living.

But it could also be disastrous – or at least extremely disruptive and disappointing.

Anthony Tommasini (below), the senior music critic for The New York Times, recently wrote a long story defending the move from being free to becoming paid for both livestreams and pre-recorded music concerts.

Tommasini — whose profession demands that he follow wherever the music goes —  thinks it will, or should, work.

Here is a link to his story that includes concerts at The Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere with international stars such as soprano Renée Fleming (beow top) and pianist Daniil Trifonov (below bottom).

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/11/arts/music/classical-music-livestream.html

But The Ear isn’t so sure.

For one thing, many listeners might find alternatives. They might like watching outstanding performances of the same works by great and even historical performers on YouTube for free.

They might like exploring their own collections of recordings, or listening to the radio and watching TV, or even making more music as amateurs.

The Ear also suspects that now that the habit of going to live concerts has been interrupted, many people will simply find that they miss going to live performances much less than they thought they would – or than various arts groups hoped they would. (Below is the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in a photo by Mike Gorski.)

In addition, even since the coronavirus pandemic lockdown last March, listeners have become used to the free events that many organizations offered if only to keep a presence in the public’s mind.

The strategy was understandable and made sense at the time.

But The Ear thinks of what happened with newspapers.

In the early days of the internet, newspapers offered online stories for free, as a kind of extra attraction or added benefit to secure subscribers.

But as the newspapers lost both advertisers and subscribers and tried to “monetize” their online editions, they found that the horse was already out of the barn.

Many viewers did indeed subscribe to digital editions, but many others abandoned newspapers and instead turned to free online media for their news.

So what will happen in cases less prestigious than what Tommasini describes?

What do you think?

Will local pay-per-view concerts, perhaps with bigger volume if lower individual ticket prices, be successful?

Will you pay to “attend” such virtual online events?

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: Starting this Sunday, radio station WORT-FM 89.9 will air recordings that Rich Samuels made of many live performances in the Madison area

March 21, 2020
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ALERT: The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) will be suspending the remainder of its spring season until further notice. Music director Kyle Knox and executive director Bridget Fraser says they are hopeful that an adjusted end-of-year schedule might be possible. Many ideas are under consideration. But they say they have no idea at this point what might be possible given the restrictions currently in place at the UW-Madison. “All we can do is explore possible scenarios and be ready to react if the restrictions are lifted,” they add.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following note from Rich Samuels (below), a retired Chicago reporter and broadcaster who is often seen at concerts with microphones and a laptop computer. His public service is especially commendable and useful during the current coronavirus pandemic when almost all live concerts in music-rich Madison have been canceled or postponed for the foreseeable future.

Jake:

WORT (89.9 FM and at wortfm.org) will shortly start to air recordings of past public performances by Madison area classical musicians within its regularly scheduled classical music broadcasts.


This should help keep our local musician friends in the public ear even though their local venues have been shuttered and their gigs canceled.

I’ve had the good fortune to record hundreds of hours of local performances since 2012. I’m now editing them into segments that can be inserted into the shows of WORT’s classical music hosts.

The first segment to air, if all goes well, will be part of the “Musica Antiqua” early music program, hosted by Carol Moseson, this Sunday, March 22, from 8 to 11 a.m.

It will feature Eric Miller on viola da gamba and Daniel Sullivan on harpsichord performing a suite by French Baroque composer Louis Couperin. I recorded the concert (below) last Oct. 11 in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison (FUS).

Other such segments will follow on the weekday classical music shows that air from 5 to 8 a.m. We are still working on the details.

Additionally, I’ll be pre-recording three-hour broadcasts that can be run in place of the regularly scheduled classical music shows, assuming the host, for whatever reason, is unable to make it to the station.

These will hopefully include complete concert performances from the FUS Friday Noon Musicale, Grace Presents (in the YouTube video at the bottom) and Willy Street Chamber Players (below) series.

I gave up my own Thursday morning WORT show about a year ago after my wife developed some health issues. But I’ve continued to record local musicians whenever possible. (My wife, by the way, is presently in good shape).

Hopefully, this WORT effort will benefit both local musicians and their audiences. (Below is Samuels recording at Bach Around the Clock, which has been canceled this year.)

Please join The Ear in thanking Rich Samuels and WORT for their service to the community by leaving word in the Comment section.

What do you think of his project?

 


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and UW duo-pianists showcase the remarkable music of Camille Saint-Saens and Mozart in the popular concert that closes its season

June 1, 2019
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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-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Margaret Barker) closed its season Thursday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center with a promising and well-received program.

The centerpiece featured two graduate student soloists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, pianists Thomas Kasdorf (below right) and Satoko Hayami (below left), who joined in Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat Major, K. 365, for two pianos and orchestra. The two soloists were alert and polished collaborators. (You can hear the energetic and catchy final movement, used in the Academy Award-winning film “Amadeus,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Conductor Steve Kurr (below) set a bouncy pace but a rather fast and overpowering one, and with an orchestra — especially strings — quite overblown by the standards of Mozart’s day.

The MCO was blessed by the loan of a very special model of a Model B Steinway instrument, now owned and lovingly restored by Farley’s House of Pianos. This was paired against a Steinway of much later vintage, owned by the hall. But nowhere was there identification about which piano was which as they sat onstage, much less which pianist was playing which piano (and they switched between the two works utilizing them.) This was disappointing for it prevented making an informed comparison of the two instruments.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921, below) is backhandedly treated as being on the margins of composer greatness. But his scope was remarkable, as witnessed by the two works that were the program’s bookends.

The opener was his humorous Suite, “Carnival of the Animals.” This set of 14 short pieces was written for one private performance, in chamber terms, one player per part. So the orchestra that was used — of 87 listed musicians, 60 of them were string players — became a crushing distortion. The two pianists were a bit formal, but ideally facile.

Saint-Saens made no provision for any kind of spoken text, certainly not in French. In the middle of the last century, the American poet of high-spirited doggerel, Ogden Nash, wrote wickedly funny verses with offbeat rhymes and puns to go with each movement.

It was these Nash verses that Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below), who was only identified as the “narrator,” read with a good bit of tongue-in-cheek. Nowhere are these at all identified or credited in the bumbling program booklet.  (Many in the audience might have just thought that they were written by Gilliland himself.)

In many of the suite’s movements, Saint-Saens quoted or alluded to hit tunes by earlier composers, for parodistic purposes. Unfortunately, there are no program notes in the booklet, so these tidbits would easily go unnoticed by many listeners.

Saint-Saens composed, among his numerous orchestral works, a total of five symphonies, only three of which are numbered. I had originally been given to expect No. 2, a charming work I love, as the program closer. All but the last of them are early works in a graceful post-Classical style.

But No. 3 was composed much later in his life, and in a more expansive style. This is a frequently performed spectacle, unconventional in plan and in scoring. It adds the two pianists and an organ — hence the nickname the “Organ Symphony.”

Unfortunately, the hall has no organ of its own, so the substitute was a rig of electronic organ with its own booming speakers and exaggerated pedal notes. Again totally unmentioned is that this contraption was played by MCO sound technician Alex Ford (below, with the portable electronic organ keyboard from Austria with its computer-screen stops).

This kind of organ could never be integrated into the full orchestral texture and served only to allow the orchestra to play this grandiose score. Such ambition was backed by really splendid and well-balanced orchestral playing.

As intended, the large local audience, with many children and families, was wildly enthusiastic.


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