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 ink: 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: 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
5 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

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: The FIFA World Cup of soccer is a perfect time to become acquainted with the astonishing music of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos.

June 20, 2014
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Go ahead. Forget the scores.

I know, I know.

In the 2014 World Cup of championship soccer (below), this week the U.S. beat the odds-makers and won against favored Ghana while Spain disappointed the odds-makers when it lost to underdog Chile.

World Cup 2014 playing

Nonetheless, The Ear is no jock.

But he knows a lot of people here and around the world will spend this weekend watching the competition.

So he got to wondering.

What would be good classical music to post in honor of the World Cup soccer championships that are taking place in Rio de Janeiro and many other stadiums (below) throughout Brazil between June 12 and July 13?

World Cup 2014 stadiums

And then last Saturday I went to the Cello Choir concert (below), a free concert given by the “the National Summer Cello Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, and BAM!!! there was the answer.

Here is a link to the positive review I did of the concert:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/classical-music-the-ear-takes-the-cello-cure-at-the-university-of-wisconsin-madison-and-now-cant-wait-for-another-treatment-next-summer/

Cello Choir 2014 Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1

It was there that I heard two totally absorbing works by the 20th-century Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Villa-Lobos (below) was a very prolific composer, writing over 2,000 works in his lifetime (1887-1959). Given such productivity it is not surprising that some works seems second-rate. What is more amazing is how many seem so memorable and so first-rate.

Boy, did that man ever have a sense of melodic line, of poignant harmonies, of contagious and fiery Latin African rhythms. His music seems as robust and straightforward as the portraits that show the beefy composer chomping away on big cigars.

The Ear suspects that Villa-Lobos would have been a lot of fun to know and pal around with. He seems as outsized and rich in natural resources as his native country.

Villa-Lobos BW

And so does his body of work.

So why isn’t Villa-Lobos better known and more often performed outside his native country? I can’t think of the last time a work of his was performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or by pianists and chamber music groups at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. Maybe some readers can.

And Villa-Lobos used his native land to inform his work and the effect can be enthralling and even magical. He is a sure remedy to Eurocentric programming, and especially with a growing Hispanic population. (I know: Portuguese, not Spanish, is the colonial culture and language of Brazil. But still.)

Anyway, there I was, sitting in Mills Hall and listening to two outstanding works performed by the choir of 16 cellos and one soprano in works designed to “Brazilian-ize” Johann Sebastian Bach and update his Baroque musical style -– which I think they succeed in doing. Bach goes ethnic!

The first work was the famous Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 –- with its soaring aria-like Cantilena that has been recorded by great singers from folksinger Joan Baez (below top) to opera divas such as Victoria de Los Angeles, Anna Moffo (below bottom), Kiri Te Kanawa, Kathleen Battle and Barbara Hendricks.

Joan Baez

anna moffo

The performance that I heard live featured the UW-Madison soprano Anna Whiteway, who was absolutely exquisite. She had fabulous pitch, big volume, smooth vibrato, great diction and lovely tone. She was superb, and the cellists and conductor thought so too.

Cello Choir 2014 Anna Whiteway

Then there was the less famous Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, which included a gorgeous second movement and fabulous fugal finale.

So below is a sample from YouTube, where you can find quite a lot of quality performances of music by Villa-Lobos.

And I think that during the month-long World Cup play in Brazil, we can’t do better than to listen to other samples of beautiful music by this prolific composer who seems to The Ear way, way underplayed and under-appreciated.

Personally, these days The Ear is checking out the Bachianas Brasileiras, the Choros and the chamber music, especially the cello sonatas and the string quartets.

But there is also much more in the way of piano music, guitar music and vocal music.

So from now to the end of the World Cup, I will periodically offer examples of music by Villa-Lobos.

And what do you think of Villa-Lobos?

Do you have a favorite piece that others should listen to?

The Ear wants to hear.


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