The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Met just canceled its entire fall opera season. Can local groups be far behind?

June 3, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The question has weighed on The Ear ever since local groups started announcing their new concert seasons.

Will audiences – especially older and more vulnerable ones — be ready to risk venturing into crowds of 500, 1,000 or 2,000 people without an effective treatment or vaccine for global pandemic of the coronavirus (below) and the growing number of deaths from COVID-19?

Now such suspicions have been supported or even confirmed by news that the world-famous Metropolitan Opera (below), at Lincoln Center in New York City, has just canceled all of its live fall productions.

It cited concerns about the safety of both the public and the performers. And its reasoning makes sense — even though it is estimated that the Met will lose up to $100 million. It is hard or impossible in concert halls and on stages (below is a photo of the Met’s stage) to use masks and maintain social distancing.

All in all, it sounds all too familiar, similar to the reasons given for cancellations this past winter and spring, and even this summer.

Here’s a link about the Met cancellation, with lots of details and quotes, in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/arts/music/metropolitan-opera-cancels-season-virus.html

Locally, it seemed like the show might go on when many groups – despite the public health crisis growing worse — went ahead and started announcing their fall seasons or even an event this summer, as in the case of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square, which were postponed by a month.

After all, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Madison Bach Musicians have all announced new seasons — as did the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear about the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s new “Ode to Joy” season in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The UW-Madison – the biggest presenter of live concerts in the Madison area with some 300 events a year – has wisely not yet announced its concert season, let alone how it will hold lessons and classes.

The Ear suspects that more cancellations are in the making, especially when it comes to mass gatherings such as concerts, movies, plays and sports events.

Indeed, it seems like many of the groups even took possible cancellations into consideration when it came to planning programs; cutting back on expenses and staffing; and using local or regional guest artists, who might be less expensive and less difficult to cancel, rather than long-distance imported ones.

Even if a vaccine is perfected by Jan. 1, it will take a while to produce enough of it, then to administer it and then to have it take effect.

But perhaps those suspicions and speculations are overly cautious or too pessimistic.

What do you think will happen to the fall concert season?

Will going online and streaming new or past concerts once again be a substitution?

Has the pandemic changed your own habits — perhaps waiting to purchase single tickets rather than renew a season subscription? Or your plans for the fall season, perhaps even the entire season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Local groups stream videos to entertain home-bound listeners, and perhaps to promote their next seasons. Plus, the Madison Symphony Orchestra cancels and postpones its May concerts

April 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Cancellations and postponements aren’t the only effects that the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic are having on the local classical music scene.

Many local ensembles – much like such national and international organizations as the Metropolitan Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra — are also starting to offer free streamed performances, some of them archival and some of them are specially performed.

Bach Around the Clock even held a virtual festival this year that featured many different original recorded performances spread out over many days and continues.

Why are they doing so?

Certainly to help entertain the public while they weather the boredom and loneliness of social distancing and sheltering in place at home. Music can comfort.

Perhaps they are also doing so as a smart marketing move to stay in the public’s consciousness despite cancellations and to indirectly promote their upcoming seasons.

Here are some examples:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) is offering a link to a YouTube performance — by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra below) — of the Dvorak Requiem, which the MSO orchestra and chorus were supposed to perform this weekend but had to cancel.

The video also has a message from music director John DeMain; texts and translations from the Czech; a special pre-concert talk and program notes for the Requiem by J. Michael Allsen; and a link to the MSO’s 2020-21 season.

Here is a link: https://madisonsymphony.org/experience-dvorak-requiem-virtually/

In other MSO news: The concerts with pianist Yefim Bronfman playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms on May 1, 2 and 3 and the open rehearsal on April 30 are now canceled, and the May 5 organ performance has been postponed.

For those who hold tickets for May concerts, the MSO will be announcing options for donation, exchange and refunds sometime this weekend or next week.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), which recently streamed its December concert in the UW’s Hamel Center, has started a special “Coucherto” series – it’s a pun on concerto and couch – of special at-home concerts by individual musicians in the WCO for those listeners who are staying at home.

The project uses social media including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Vimeo and at the WCO’s home website. Also included is an invitation by music director Andrew Sewell.

The WCO’s next season hasn’t been announced yet, but should be soon.

Here is a link: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/about/coucherto/

For its part, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which is facing uncertainty about its June concert series, which focuses on Beethoven’s piano trios – is offering selected chamber music performances from its past seasons that are on BDDS’ YouTube channel.

It too has comments and the program lineup for its season this summer.

Here is a link: https://bachdancing.org/watch-listen/video/

Have you seen any of these videos?

What do you think of them?

Dp you think they work as marketing strategies?

Have you discovered sites for streaming classical music that you recommend to others?

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: Home or concert hall? Will older listeners follow new CDC guidelines about the coronavirus to stay home and avoid attending concerts? What will performers and presenters do in response?

March 7, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Late yesterday the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued new guidelines for behavior during the outbreak of the coronavirus and COVID-19.

The CDC is asking all adults over 60, especially those with compromised immune systems and serious underlying illnesses and conditions, to “stay home as much as possible” and avoid attending events with big crowds. (Below is a sample of a full house at the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Overture Hall.)

Here is the full story — which also mentions other kinds of mass events such as movie theaters, mall shopping, sports events and religious services — from CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/06/health/coronavirus-older-people-social-distancing/index.html

Moreover, the new guidelines apply nationwide — including here in Wisconsin where only one case has been confirmed and is now healthy– during the increasingly widespread, worldwide outbreak of confirmed cases and deaths.

The Ear wonders if the new advice will hit classical music especially hard because so much of the audience for it is made up of older people who are more vulnerable.

Will the guidelines affect your own attendance at concerts, even tonight and this weekend at the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Union Theater? 

Will a lack of attendance and a more severe outbreak lead to empty concert halls and the cancellation of concerts? Refunds for seniors?

Will the guidelines lead to alternative ways of “attending” and hearing, such as live-streaming and other virtual attendance?

Pretty soon we should start hearing from music presenters and performers about their reactions, solutions and advice.

Meanwhile, here is a news story from The New York Times about what one string quartet did in Venice, Italy: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/arts/music/arts-coronavirus.html

Are you an older or vulnerable person?

Will you go to concerts or stay home?

What do you think presenters and performers should do to deal with the situation?

Please leave word about your plans and your thoughts.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Well-Tempered Ear surpasses 2 million hits. Thank you, all!!

March 18, 2019
8 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

For a variety of reasons, The Ear has not posted anything new in a few days.

That is unusual for this blog.

Some of the reasons were personal.

But the largest reason simply had to do with success and marking a milestone.

Last week, the blog The Well-Tempered Ear surpassed 2 million hits.

Fittingly, the historic moment came while The Ear was attending the outstanding concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra that featured three of its principal players.

In the beginning, when The Ear started the blog at the request of the Wisconsin Union Theater, such a landmark was never expected and seemed wholly unattainable.

But email subscriptions grew and readership grew – the blog is now read around the world – and such success is even more gratifying than surprising.

So The Ear wants to thank all of his readers and especially his many subscribers as well as the many musicians and presenters who have cooperated and made this endeavor a success.

He has spent the past few days wondering what piece of music he could post that would express his gratitude.

Sad to say, no one piece came to mind.

So he will simply say a huge and heartfelt THANK YOU to all his loyal readers and followers.

He will add that he welcomes comments and suggestions about the contents of the blog and about what piece of music should be posted to celebrate getting 2 million hits!

Again, thank you.

And continued happy reading.


Classical music: Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra offers FREE concert tickets to furloughed federal workers

January 17, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

Restaurants, food banks, retail stores and other organizations have responded with compassion and generosity to victims of the ongoing partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

Here is an announcement of a timely move that The Ear thinks is terrific news for budget-strapped workers who have to cut back on entertainment or discretionary expenses. It should be a model for other local groups as well as statewide, regional and national arts presenters.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) is offering free tickets to furloughed federal workers for the Masterworks performance on Friday, Jan. 25, featuring the young cello prodigy and sensation, Miriam K. Smith.

Fresh from performances with the Cincinnati and Louisville symphonies, Smith (below) will perform the Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor by Camille Saint-Saëns. (You can hear her perform a violin and cello duet by George Frideric Handel and Johan Halvorsen in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

If you want to know more about Smith, go to her website: https://miriamksmith.com

A forgotten gem by Domenico Cimarosa, Overture to The Secret Marriage, will open the concert, and the performance concludes with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, the sunniest of his even-numbered symphonies.

The concert, under the baton of WCO music director Andrew Sewell, will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St.

If you are a furloughed federal employee, you can call the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra offices at (608) 257-0638, and mention your place of employment. Best available tickets are on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets are limited to two per person.

Others who want to attend this concert can find information about the soloist, the program and tickets at: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-i-4/


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Classical music: The new FREE concert brochure for the UW-Madison’s music school is both entertaining and informative — it’s a MUST-GET, MUST-READ and MUST-USE

September 15, 2018
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The new 2018-19 concert season has started. And the Internet makes it very easy to take out your date book and plan out what you want to attend.

If you just use Google to go to home websites, you will find lots of information about the dates and times of performances; cost of tickets; works on the program; biographies of performers; and even notes about the pieces.

That is true for all large and small presenters, including the biggest presenter of all for live classical music events: The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. Just click on the Events Calendar when you go to http://www.music.wisc.edu

You can also subscribe to an email newsletter by sending an email to: join-somnews@lists.wisc.edu

And you can also download the helpful mobile app for your smart phone that gives you what is happening today with searches possible for other months and days.

But there is something more old-fashioned that you should not forego: the printed season brochure (below).

It is 8-1/2 by 11 inches big and has 24 pages, and it features numerous color photographs. Along the right hand edge is an easy-to-use calendar of major events for the month.

It is a fun and informative read that gives you even more respect for the School of Music than you already had because it contains a lot of background  and human interest stories about students, faculty members, guest artists, alumni and supporters. Editor and Concert Manager Katherine Esposito and her staff of writers and photographers have done an outstanding job.

The brochure also has a lot of news, including updates about the new Hamel Music Center that is being built on the corner of Lake Street and University Avenue and will open in 2019, and about the seat-naming, fundraising campaign ($1,500-plus) that is being used for the new performance center.

A particularly useful page (23) gives you information about ordering tickets (many have increased to $17 this year) either in advance or at the door (for the latter you are asked to show up 30 minutes early to avoid long lines); about finding parking, both free and paid; and about making special arrangements for disability access.

In larger and bolder type, the brochure tells you about stand-out special events: the 100th birthday tribute to Leonard Bernstein being held tonight (Saturday, Sept. 15) at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall; the fifth annual Brass Fest on Sept. 28 and 29; the University Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” on Nov. 16, 18 and 20; the annual Schubertiade on Jan. 27; the world premiere of a viola sonata by John Harbison on Feb. 17; the Choral Union’s joint performance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” (Symphony No. 8) on May 3, 4 and 5; and much, much more.

In short, the brochure is an impressive publication that also provides many hours of enjoyable browsing while you educate yourself about the state of music education at the UW-Madison.

The only major shortcoming The Ear perceives is that lack of specific programs by some individuals and groups that must surely know what they are going to perform this season but apparently didn’t report it. Maybe that can be remedied, at least in part, next year.

Still, the brochure is successful and popular, which is why the UW sent out 13,000 copies – up from 8,000 last year. If you want to get one, they will be available at concerts until supplies run out. You can also order one to be mailed to you by emailing music@music.wisc.edu

Do you have the UW music brochure?

What do you think of it?

Do you find it useful? Enjoyable?

What do you suggest to improve the brochure, either by adding something or deleting something or doing it differently?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: How is the bad flu epidemic affecting classical music in Madison?

February 3, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems like every news report has an update on how the bad flu epidemic this winter continues to get worse, filling emergency rooms and hospital beds, and killing especially the young and the elderly.

So here is what The Ear wants to know: How is the bad flu epidemic affecting the classical music scene in Madison?

After all, the second half of the season is just getting underway. This month will see performances by the Madison Opera, the University Opera, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Willy Street Chamber Players, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, the Wisconsin Union Theater,  various performers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and many more.

He wants to hear both ideas and first-person stories or experiences from performers, presenters and audience members.

Has the fear of getting sick kept you, as an individual or group, from performing or affected your performance?

Has the flu affected the overall attendance of performances?

Has the flu, and fear of catching it, already kept you personally from being in a crowd and attending a performance or concert? How about in the future?

What could local music presenters do to help the situation?

Do you think providing surgical face masks would help?

How about providing cough drops?

Should people exhibiting symptoms be asked to leave, either by other patrons or by an usher or another official representative, as The Ear heard was done recently at a volunteer food pantry?

Should organizations make it easier to exchange dates or get a refund if you are ill?

Leave an answer or suggestion in the COMMENT section.

And let us all hope that the deadly flu epidemic starts to ebb very soon.


Classical music: Who should be Musician of the Year for 2017 and why?

December 9, 2017
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

At the end of each year for the past nine years, The Ear has named a Musician of the Year.

It can be an individual, a small group or a large ensemble. But it must be a local music-maker, not just a presenter.

In past years, The Ear named the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra; the long-lived and thoroughly professional Pro Arte Quartet; the recently formed and always impressive Willy Street Chamber Players (below); and the veteran and always reliable summer chamber music group, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

He has also named retired UW-Madison professor and conductor James Smith; Madison Bach Musicians founder and director Trevor Stephenson; Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad); and UW collaborative pianist Martha Fischer.

If you want to check out those postings, you can use the blog page.

Just enter Musician of the Year in the search engine. Or go to the calendar and look it up by the date it appears, which is usually Dec. 30 or 31.

To be honest The Ear already has a nominee in mind for this year.

But it is not set in stone and definite yet. And he thought it would be informative and entertaining to open up the process and ask readers for their suggestions.

So if you have a name to nominate for Musician of the Year for 2017, please use the COMMENT section to leave the name of the recipient you propose and why they deserve the honor.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Today is Thanksgiving Day, 2017. The Ear gives thanks for music with Beethoven’s own unforgettable hymn of thanksgiving

November 23, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Thanksgiving Day, 2017.

That means it is a good time to recognize and be grateful for — music.

As Franz Schubert once said, “Anyone who loves music cannot be quite unhappy.”

That’s not a surprising sentiment, of course, coming from a composer with so much humanity and empathy who wrote the song “An die Musik” (To Music).

The Ear finds what Schubert said to be true and has many things to be thankful for, including you, his readers.

He also gives thanks for all the people who make music possible from the composer to the audiences, from the performers to the presenters, from the stagehands to the tuners and so many more.

Presenting music is a lot more complex and collective or cooperative than many realize, and those who make it happen should not be taken for granted.

So what is the best way to express one’s gratitude and thanks for music?

In one of the often perplexing late string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven (below), a tuneful and accessible and unforgettable sacred or holy song of thanksgiving, written in the Lydian mode, suddenly bursts forth.

Beethoven composed it after he had survived a serious health crisis that he feared would prove fatal. The irony is that he recovered and composed the quartet, then died only two years later.

Still, it seems a perfect way to mark this day.

So in the YouTube video at the bottom is the “Heiliger Dankgesang” from Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, with a colorful bar graph that helps the listeners to visualize the structure of this special piece of music:

What piece of music would you name to express being thankful?


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