The Well-Tempered Ear

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
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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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Classical music: University Opera announces a new season that is politically and socially relevant to today. The two shows are a virtual revue of Marc Blitzstein and a live operatic version of “The Crucible.”

August 7, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

David Ronis (below), the director of the University Opera at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, has posted the following notice about its upcoming season on social media.

The award-winning Ronis is known for being creative both in programming and staging. The new season is yet another example of that. It features one virtual original production about an American composer to see and hear online, and two live performances of a mid-20th century American opera.

Both works seem especially pertinent and cautionary, given the times we currently live in in the U.S.

Here are the details:

FINALLY!!!

Things have fallen into place for the University Opera 2020-21 season and we are happy to announce our productions:

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein — the Man in His Music”

“A biographical pastiche featuring songs and ensembles from Marc Blitzstein’s shows, spoken excerpts from his letters and working notes, and a narration. 

“Oct. 23, 2020

8 p.m. Video Release

____________________________________________________________________________________

“The Crucible” (1961)

Music by Robert Ward

Libretto by Bernard Stambler

Based on the 1953 play by Arthur Miller

March 19 and 21, 2021

Shannon Hall, Wisconsin Union Theater

_____________________________________________________________________________________

We will post more information as we get it. For now, we are very excited about both projects! Stay tuned.”

(Editor’s note: To stay tuned, go to: https://www.facebook.com/UniversityOpera/)

_____________________________________________________________________________________

And what does The Ear think?

The revue of Marc Blitzstein seems a perfect choice for Madison since his papers and manuscripts are located at the Wisconsin Historical Society. For details, go to: http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi/f/findaid/findaid-idx?c=wiarchives;view=reslist;subview=standard;didno=uw-whs-us0035an

Focusing on Blitzstein (1905-1964) also seems an especially politically relevant choice since he was a pro-labor union activist whose “The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles,” was shut down by the Works Progress Administration of the federal government.

For more about Blitzstein (below in 1938) and his career, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Blitzstein

“The Crucible” also seems an especially timely choice. In its day the original play about the Salem witch trials was seen as a historical parable and parallel of McCarthyism and the Republican witch hunt for Communists.

Read about the Salem witch trials here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials

Now that we are seeing a time when Democrats and others with progressive ideas are accused of being radical leftists, socialists and destructive revolutionaries, its relevance has come round again. Like McCarthy, President Donald Trump relies on winning elections by generating fear and denigrating opponents.

For more about the operatic version of “The Crucible” (below, in a production at the University of Northern Iowa) — which was commissioned by the New York City Opera and won both a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Music Critics Circle Award in 1962 — go to this Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crucible_(opera)

You can hear the musically accessible opening and John’s aria, from Act II, in the YouTube video at the bottom. For more about composer Robert Ward (1917-2013, below), go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Ward_(composer)

What do you think of the new University Opera season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is World Piano Day. Why do you love the piano? Do you have a favorite piano piece? A favorite pianist? Something to say about taking piano lessons? Want to thank your piano teacher? The Ear wants to hear

March 28, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Saturday, March 28, 2020 – is World Piano Day.

The international celebration is fitting because today happens to be Day 88 of the year – a timely parallel to the fact that most pianos have 88 keys.

Here is a link to the official website with a list of international events and other links to playlists of piano music on SoundCloud and Spotify: https://www.pianoday.org

Here is a link to the virtual live streaming piano festival — starting at 3 p.m. Central European Time (CET), which is 6 hours ahead of Central Daylight Time or at 9 a.m. CDT) — by the record label  Deutsche Grammophon: https://www.udiscovermusic.com/classical-news/deutsche-grammophon-world-piano-day-livestream/


A lot of us took piano lessons.

So today seems like a good occasion to say something about the role of the piano in your life.

Why do you love the piano? The sound? The physical act of playing? The vast repertoire?

Maybe you want to mention a specific piano piece that made a difference in your life, as the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39, by Chopin did for The Ear. (You can hear Arthur Rubinstein play it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Maybe you have a favorite piano piece or piano composer you like to listen to?

Maybe you wished you had stopped lessons earlier or continued them longer?

Would you like to say thank you to your piano teacher?

Maybe you have memories – good or bad — of a recital you gave?

Who is your favorite pianist from the past – maybe Van Cliburn or Vladimir Horowitz (below), Sviatoslav Richter or Dame Myra Hess?

Which pianist today would you recommend to others? Daniil Trifonov or Haochen Zhang, Simone Dinnerstein (below) or Maria Joao Pires?

Those suggestions hardly exhaust the possibilities. So be creative and leave a Comment with a YouTube link, if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: This Sunday afternoon at Farley’s, pianist Shai Wosner performs sonatas by Beethoven, Schubert, Scarlatti and Rzewski. On Saturday afternoon, he gives a FREE public master class

February 18, 2020
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ALERT and CORRECTION: Earlier this week, The Ear mistakenly said the concert by UW Concert Band is Wednesday night. He apologizes for the error.

It is TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave. In addition, the School of Music website has updated information about the program to be played under director and conductor Corey Pompey. Go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-band-3/

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, one of the today’s most interesting and creative concert pianists will return to Madison to make his solo recital debut.

His name is Shai Wosner (below, in a  photo by Marco Borggreve) and he is an Israeli-American who is acclaimed for his technique, his tone and his subtle interpretations.

But what also makes Wosner especially noteworthy and one of the most interesting musical artists performing today is his eclectic, thoughtful and inventive approach to programming.

For more information about Wosner, go to his home website: http://www.shaiwosner.com

Wosner returns to Madison to perform his first solo recital here at 4 p.m. this coming Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, at 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Born in Israel and now teaching in Boston while touring, Wosner will play sonatas by Beethoven, Scarlatti, Rzewski and Schubert.

He has performed with orchestras throughout the U.S. and Europe, and records for Onyx Classics. “His feel for keyboard color and voicing is wonderful,” said The Washington Post.

The Madison program is: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D Major (“Pastoral”), Op. 28; Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 141, Allegro, with Rzewskis’ Nanosonata No. 36 (“To A Young Man”); Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 9, Allegro, with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 38 (“To A Great Guy”); Scarlatti’s Sonata in C minor, K. 23, with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 12; and Schubert’s last Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960.

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

Tickets are $45 in advance (students $10) or $50 at the door. Service fees may apply. Tickets are also for sale at Farley’s House of Pianos. Call (608) 271-2626.

Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event.

To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/706809

For more information about Wosner’s FREE public master class at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22, including the names of local students and their teachers plus the titles of works by Mozart, Debussy and Ravel to be played, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

Wosner (below) recently did an email Q&A with The Ear:

In concerts and recordings, you like to mix and intersperse or alternate composers: Brahms and Schoenberg; Haydn and Ligeti; Schubert and Missy Mazzoli; and Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, Ives and Gershwin. Why do you pair sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) and the American composer Frederic Rzewski (1938-) in this program?

I like to pair together composers from very different periods in ways that, hopefully, bring out certain things they have in common in spite of the differences.

Perhaps it is a way of looking for the underlying principles that make music work, for the ideas that go beyond styles and time periods and that stimulate composers across centuries.

In the case of Scarlatti (below top) and Rzewski (below bottom), it is the extreme conciseness of their sonatas and also their almost impulsive kind of writing with ideas and twists and turns kept unpredictably spontaneous, almost in the style of stream-of-consciousness.

Their sonatas are closer to the literal meaning of the word – “a piece that is played” as opposed to sung (which was more common in Scarlatti’s time perhaps). They are also very much about treatment of the keyboard and gestural writing rather than the more essay-type sonatas that were the dominant idiom for Beethoven and Schubert.

Why did you pick these particular sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert to bookend the program?

The sonata by Beethoven (below top) is quite unusual for him, without many contrasts and very lyrical, which perhaps is a certain parallel with the Schubert sonata. (You can hear Wosner playing an excerpt from another Beethoven sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But they are also very different. Beethoven’s sonata looks around it and is about idyllic nature — the title “Pastoral” isn’t by Beethoven but it is written in that kind of style — and the sonata by Schubert (below bottom) is more introspective, perhaps about human nature.

What would you like the public to know about specific works and composers on your Madison program?

I think it’s always stimulating to challenge preconceptions we have about composers.

Beethoven is often associated with a certain “heroic” style and bold, dramatic gestures while this piece is quite understated in many ways.

Schubert’s last sonata is often seen as a farewell to the world. But at the same time Schubert himself may not have been aware of his impending death as much as we think – he made some plans right near the end that may suggest otherwise.

I prefer to let everyone find in this music what they will, of course. But I think these works reveal other aspects of these composers that we don’t always think of. Is Schubert’s piece really about his own tragedy? It is probably much broader than that.

Now that your acclaimed Schubert project is completed, what are your current or upcoming projects?

I am currently working with five other composers on a project that is a collection of five short pieces written as “variations” for which the theme is a quote from a 1938 speech by FDR: “remember, remember always, that all of us… are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

Each composer chose a figure of an immigrant — some famous, some not — to write about. The composers are Vijay Iyer, Derek Bermel (below top), Anthony Cheung, Wang Lu and John Harbison (below bottom).

These “variations” will be paired with Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations.

What else would you like to say about your career and, after several concerto appearances with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, about your solo recital debut in Madison?

Madison has a lovely audience that I was fortunate to meet in the past, and I certainly look forward to being back there!

 


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Classical music: The 150th anniversary of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth will be celebrated with two concerts on this coming Sunday afternoon and Monday night in Spring Green. They feature the world premiere of a work commissioned from Madison-based composer Scott Gendel.

August 2, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Effi Casey, the director of music at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green, writes:

“I am writing to you to let you know about special concerts at Taliesin on Sunday, Aug. 6, at 2:30 p.m. and Monday, Aug. 7, at 7:30 p.m., which I will direct in the Hillside Theater at Taliesin.

“The concerts are a collaboration of Taliesin Preservation and Rural Musicians Forum as part of the year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of architect Frank Lloyd Wright (below).

“I commissioned UW-Madison prize-winning graduate Scott Gendel to write “That Which Is Near,” a piece for choir, string quartet and piano, and we have enjoyed working on it. (NOTE: Gendel will discuss his work in more detail in tomorrow’s posting on this blog.) It will receive its world premiere at these two concerts.

“Other works to be performed include: “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland; “Past Life Melodies” by Sarah Hopkins; the spiritual “Ev’ry Time I Feel de Spirit”; “Hymn to Nature” (from the Wright-inspired opera “Shining Brow,” which is the English translation of the Welsh word “Taliesin” and stands for the hillside location) by UW-Madison graduate Daron Hagen; “Song of Peace” by Jean Sibelius”; and the “Sanctus” and “Dona Nobis Pacem” from the Mass in B Minor) by Johann Sebastian Bach and spoken words.

“The participation and enthusiasm of the singers of the greater Spring Green community are most rewarding already.

TICKETS

“Tickets are available on-line at RuralMusiciansForum.org. Please see the “Purchase Tickets Here” link to Brown Paper Tickets on the right-hand side of the RMF home page.

“Alternatively, tickets can be purchased at the Arcadia Bookstore in downtown Spring Green.

“Ticket prices range from $15 to $30. The $30 tickets for the Sunday Aug. 6 concert include concert admission and a festive champagne post-concert reception with composer Scott Gendel, the musicians and the chorus.

“Tickets for the concert only on Aug. 6 or 7 are $20 or $15 for seniors and students. Children 12 and under are free, but please pick up a free ticket for them to be sure they get a seat at the concert.” (Below is the Hillside Theater.)

WRIGHT AND MUSIC

To The Ear, a special concert seems the perfect way to mark the Wright sesquicentennial.

Just take a look, thanks to research by Effi Casey (below), at what Wright himself said and thought about music:

“… Never miss the idea that architecture and music belong together. They are practically one.” (FLW)

“While Wright claimed architecture as the “mother art,” his experience in music was early, visceral, and eternal. Of his childhood he wrote: “…father taught him (the boy) to play (the piano). His knuckles were rapped by the lead pencil in the impatient hand that would sometimes force his hand into position at practice time on the Steinway Square in the sitting room. But he felt proud of his father too. Everybody listened and seemed happy when father talked on Sundays when he preached, the small son dressed in his home-made Sunday best, looked up at him, absorbed in something of his own making that would have surprised the father and the mother more than a little if they could have known.”(FLW’s Autobiography).

“In his later years, Wright himself preached musical integration in his own Sunday talks to the Fellowship:

“Of all the fine arts, (Wright exclaimed in a Sunday morning talk to his apprentices) music it was that I could not live without – as taught by my father. (I) found in it (a) sympathetic parallel to architecture. Beethoven and Bach were princely architects in my spiritual realm…”

“But more than words, it was in practice where he conveyed music to those in his sphere, from a piano designed into a client’s home (for someone who may or may not have been able to play it!), to his own score of concert grand pianos at the two Taliesins (he claimed “the piano plays me!”).

“In a gesture of delight and exuberance, as it is told by those who experienced it, Wright had a gramophone player installed at the top of his Romeo and Juliet tower (below is the rebuilt tower) at Taliesin to have Bach’s Mass in B Minor resound over the verdant hills and valleys.

Adds Casey: “Architecture is indeed a musical parallel of composition, rhythm, pattern, texture, and color. As Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is an “edifice of sound” (FLW) built upon the famous first eight notes, so Wright’s overture of verse expresses a singular IDEA, played in stone, wood, and concrete, from superstructure to matching porcelain cup.”

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