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: What music is helping you get through the Coronavirus by staying home? Help create a Pandemic Playlist

March 25, 2020
10 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

Starting today, Wisconsin joins other states and countries in proclaiming a stay-at-home emergency condition to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

That means non-essential businesses and schools are closed; restaurants can only deliver food and do pick-up; and residents must stay at home except for essential services and travel such as buying food, seeing a doctor and getting medicine.

For a couple of weeks, many of us have already been spending almost all our time hunkering down at home.

And the Internet and other mass media are full of helpful hints about how to handle the loneliness, fear and anxiety that can come with self-isolation and self-quarantining.

For many, music proves a reliable coping strategy.

Since there are no live concerts to preview or review, now seems like a good time for The Ear to ask readers: What music helps you deal with the isolation of staying at home?

Is listening to music a part of your daily schedule, structure or routine?

Maybe you are using the time to discover new music or neglected composers, works and performers.

Maybe you are using the time to revisit old favorites by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Maybe you prefer darker and deeper, more introverted works such as symphonies by Mahler, Bruckner and Shostakovich?

Maybe you prefer the stories and drama of operas by Verdi and Puccini, oratorios by Handel and songs by Schubert?

Maybe, like The Ear, you find the music of Baroque Italian composers, such as the violin concertos by Vivaldi and Corelli, to be a great, upbeat way to start the day with energy and a good mood.

One more modern but neo-classical work that The Ear likes to turn to — a work that is rarely heard or performed live – is the beautiful “Eclogue” for piano and strings by the 20th-century British composer Gerald Finzi (below).

Finzi wrote it as a slow movement to a piano concerto, but then never finished the concerto. The “Eclogue” — a short pastoral poem — was never performed in his lifetime. So it continues to stand alone.

But like so much English pastoral music, the poignant Eclogue feels like sonic balm, some restorative comfort that can transport you to a calmer and quieter place, put you in a mood that you find soothing rather than agitated.

Hear it for yourself and decide by listening to it in the YouTube video at the bottom, then let The Ear know what you think.

Perhaps you have many other pieces to suggest for the same purpose.

But the series of reader suggestions is meant to be ongoing.

The idea is to build a collective “Pandemic Playlist.”

So right now and for this time, please post just ONE suggestion – with a YouTube link, if possible — in the Comment section with perhaps what you like about it and why it works for you during this time of physical, psychological and emotional distress from COVID-19.

What do you think of the idea of creating a Pandemic Playlist?

The Ear hopes that you like his choice, and that he and other readers like yours.

Be well and stay well.

Let’s get through this together.

 


Posted in Classical music
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