The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” is an eloquent and timely testament to Black victims of racism. It deserves to be performed in Madison and elsewhere

July 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

A reader recently wrote in and suggested that fellow blog fans should listen to “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” by the Atlanta-based American composer Joel Thompson (below).

So The Ear did just that.

He was both impressed and moved by the prescient piece of choral and orchestral music. It proved both powerful and beautiful.

The title alludes to the Bible’s depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but also to the musical setting of it that was composed by Franz Joseph Hadyn in the 18th century. But it stands on its own as a much needed and very accomplished updating, especially with the “last word” or phrase “I can’t breathe.”

It is hard to believe the work was written five years ago, and not last week or last month. But it couldn’t be more relevant to today.

It shows how deeply artists have been engaging with the social and political issues of the day, particularly the role of personal and structural racism in national life, and the plight of young Black men and women who face discrimination, brutality and even death at the hands of the police and a bigoted public.

The work was premiered by the Men’s Glee Club at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2015. This performance comes from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The SSO and featured guest University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Men’s Glee Club, led by conductor Eugene Rogers  (below) – who directs choral music and teaches conducting at the UM — premiered a 2017 commissioned fully orchestrated version of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” You can hear it in the YouTube video below.

It is an eminently listenable and accessible, multi-movement work honoring the lives, deaths and personal experiences of seven Black men.

The seven last words used in the work’s text are: “Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66; “What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16; “Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23; “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18; “You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22; “It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22; “I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43.

The Ear thinks that once live concerts begin again after the coronavirus pandemic is contained, it should be programmed locally. It could and should be done by, among others, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choir; or the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choral Union; or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Festival Choir of Madison; or the Wisconsin Chamber Choir.

They have all posted messages about standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the protesters against racism. But will words lead to commitment and action?

It will be interesting to see who responds first. In addition to being timely, such a performance certainly seems like a good way to draw in young people and to attract Black listeners and other minorities to classical music.

Here is a link if you also want to check out the almost 200 very pertinent comments about the work, the performance, the performers and of course the social and political circumstances that gave rise to the work — and continue to do so with the local, regional, national and international mass protests and demonstrations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdNXoqNuLRQ&app=desktop

And here is the performance itself:

What do you think of the work?

How did you react to it?

Would you like to see and hear it performed live where you are?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: What do you think about Abraham Lincoln and the statue of him on the UW-Madison campus?

June 28, 2020
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The proposal, discussion and controversy have become local, regional, national and international news.

What do you think about Abraham Lincoln?

And what do you think should be done about the statue of him (below, in a photo by Getty Images) on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus? Should it go? Or should it stay? Why?

Leave a comment below.

While you consider those questions, perhaps you will find it worth listening to James Earl Jones (below) narrate “A Lincoln Portrait” by the American composer Aaron Copland.It is played by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under conductor Gerard Schwarz in the excerpt below that was recently posted by Kathleen Zorko — “with hope” — on YouTube.

 


Classical music: During global protests against racism, a longtime fan of the Madison Symphony Orchestra writes a letter to ask for more diversity and African-American composers

June 9, 2020
4 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

During the ongoing global protests and demonstrations against police brutality, racism and white privilege, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will hold its annual meeting next Tuesday, June 16, at 3:30 p.m.

The meeting is NOT open to the public — as erroneously stated in an earlier version — but just to season subscribers (not single ticket buyers) and members of MSO boards. The meeting will be virtual and held online via Zoom.

During the meeting, a statement about diversity and inclusion will be read, according to the MSO. 

If you have questions, you can call Alexis Carreon at (608) 257-3734.

With both the symphony and current events in mind, a longtime MSO subscriber has written the following letter to Manager of Individual Giving Jeff Breisach.

Please read the letter and then let us know what you think.

Do you agree or disagree?

What else would you like to say about the role of MSO in adapting to concerns about racism, injustice and privilege?

Do you have any suggestions?

“Dear J. Breisach:

“Please share my following concerns with those planning the annual meeting of the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

“In light of the recent historic events, I hope MSO will add an item or two to deal with the economic and racial injustice prevalent in Madison, as well as elsewhere in our nation.

“Specifically:

  • Empty seats should be made available as Rush Seats ($1 or $5) the day of the concert to open our halls to those facing economic disparity. Such disparity rests on a long history of racism and poverty injustice in our town and in our land. Our hall should always be full and should have a more multi-ethnic, multi-age audience than is currently the case. As our audiences stand, we are one of the most racially and economically privileged events in Madison. That must stop.
  • We need more racially diverse composers included in our regular programming–at the very least during the month of February, but even better throughout the year. And I’m not just thinking of “Porgy and Bess” tunes. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (below top) also comes to mind as a composer we need to hear more often. Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges — Joseph de Boulogne (1745-1799, below bottom) — is another. (Editor’s note: You can hear the Romance for violin and orchestra by Coleridge-Taylor in the YouTube video at the bottom.) There are more. Having a local black chorus in for Christmas is not enough!

“It is time for MSO to acknowledge its history of white privilege and take some steps to more widely acknowledge the richness of a diverse local audience and classical music history.

Sincerely,

Carol Troyer-Shank

“PS: I have been a MSO ticket holder in the economically denigrated balcony for more than 20 years.

“PS2: The architect and designers clearly thought about making more money — not about safety of attendees — when they designed a balcony to squeeze in more people instead of to allow ease of movement for lower-cost ticket holders. Shame on them! So, of course, all those seats should be filled every time. Even at $5 a ticket, the MSO would gain enormous improvement in their local image.”

 


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Classical music: Here is music that asks for and then grants the peace we need now

June 2, 2020
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Is The Ear alone in being reminded of the year 1968 and its various social, political and personal upheavals?

What explains it?

What are the parallels, if any?

Is it the national and international protests against police injustice and racism (below, in a photo by Getty Images)?

Is it the violence and riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and opposition to the Vietnam War?

Is it the isolation and deaths (below, in a photo by ABC News) brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and the more than 100,000 deaths in just the U.S. from COVID-19?

Whatever you think and whether you agree or not, we all can use some peace.

Here is some music that both asks for peace and grants it.

It is the “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Grant Us Peace) from the “Mass in B Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed in the YouTube video below by Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus with soloists.

If there are other pieces of classical music that serve that same purpose and you would like to hear, leave your suggestion in the comment section.

 


Classical music: This Friday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra closes its season with a dark and unorthodox symphony by Shostakovich as well as lighter suites by Bizet and Debussy

May 6, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) ends its winter Masterworks season this coming Friday night, May 10, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

And it is going out in a big, eclectic way.

The WCO will perform under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell (below).

Sewell and the WCO will be joined by two guest singers: soprano Mary Mackenzie, a former Madison resident and member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO); (below top); and the Grammy-nominated bass Timothy Jones (below bottom).

Both critically acclaimed singers are familiar to Madison audiences from past appearances with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Madison Opera, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and previous appearances with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

They will all join in the major work that opens the concert, the Symphony No. 14, Op. 135, by Dmitri Shostakovich (below), his penultimate symphony that runs about 50 minutes and is highly unorthodox in its form.

Shostakovich wrote his symphony in 1969, and dedicated it to the British composer Benjamin Britten.

Perhaps to avoid more confrontations with the government of the USSR and perhaps to critique global events such as war,  the composer gave it a very international flavor.

Written for strings and percussion with vocal soloists, the symphony is composed in 11 movements. It is also set to poetry by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (below top), the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (below middle) and the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (below bottom). In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a live recording of the first movement from the work’s world premiere in Moscow in 1969.

In the late work, Shostakovich (below, in 1950) – always suspect by the Soviet state and in danger during the Stalinist Terror — seeks to portray the idea of unjust and premature death that aroused deep feelings of protest in him. Shostakovich emphasized, however, that it was not out of pessimism that he turned to the problem of mortality but in the name of life on this earth.

The concert concludes on a lighter, more upbeat note by celebrating the innocence and joy of youth in two charming suites: “Jeux d’enfants” (Children’s Games), Op. 22, by Georges Bizet and the “Petite Suite” (Little Suite) by Claude Debussy.

Tickets are $12-$80. To buy tickets and to see more information about the program and detailed biographies of the performers, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-v-4/


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Classical music: Here is a true tale of a famous Mozart opera, sexual assault and Trump Tower

December 3, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

World-famous avant-garde stage director Peter Sellars (below, in a photo by Christian Carisius for the European Press Photo Agency) is known for his unorthodox recasting of operas and Bach cantatas.

peter-sellars-2016-cr-christian-charisiuseuropean-pressphoto-agency

But one of his productions, done almost 30 years ago, has proven especially prescient.

It involved the opera “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which years ago he set in Trump Tower.

The plot centers on the medieval “droit du seigneur” that allowed a nobleman to be entitled by law to have sex with a servant on her wedding night before the husband did. (In the YouTube video at bottom is the famous and so breathtakingly beautiful Forgiveness scene, featured in the Oscar-winning film “Amadeus,” with the faithful Countess and the philandering Count that ends the masterpiece opera.)

In 1988 Sellars set the opera on the 52nd floor of the luxurious Trump Tower (below), as the equivalent of an aristocratic estate, of net-feudalistic excess and wealth.

trump-tower-up-to-sky

With great insight and articulateness, Sellars recently discussed with The New York Times the inspired settings in light of the past history, campaign and recent election of President-elect Donald Trump.

The Ear found the interview both enlightening and entertaining, and he hopes you do too.

Here is a link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/25/arts/music/remember-when-figaro-was-set-in-trump-tower.html?_r=0

It makes you wonder: How will other forms of art deal with the new administration?

Could it be that we are in for more activist protest art, something of a return to the 1960s and such efforts as Barbara Garson’s 1967 “MacBird,” which recast Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth” as a theatrical satire of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, or LBJ, and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson as the Macbeths following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or JFK?

What do you think?

Can you think of other works that lend themselves to such an approach to contemporary affairs?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Did anyone else hear Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and think of Donald Trump’s America as well as Stalin’s Russia?

November 21, 2016
15 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has to agree with a knowledgeable friend.

If you heard the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under music director John DeMain, perform the famous Symphony No. 5 in D minor — the same key as Beethoven’s Ninth — by Dmitri Shostakovich almost two weeks ago, you heard a performance that rivals or surpasses any other one, live or recorded, you’ve probably heard.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The performance was nothing short of stunning. And it was especially moving, given its timing in coming right after the presidential election in which Republicans Donald Trump and Mike Pence won an upset surprise victory over Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.

mike-pence-and-donald-trump

So here is what The Ear wants to know:

Was The Ear the only one who found himself thinking that the symphony proved an especially fitting, perhaps perfect, choice even though it was programmed a year ago? (You can hear the moving third movement, a lament with such pathos that people cried at its premiere, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Was The Ear the only one who identified with Shostakovich, who felt an even deeper empathy with the oppressed composer (below), who, fearing with good reason the dictator Joseph Stalin and his reign of Terror in the USSR, always kept a small suitcase packed with pajamas and a toothbrush by the front door in case the KGB secret police came knocking at 3 a.m., the usual arrest hour?

dmitri shostakovich

The symphony is dark music for dark times. And The Ear hopes he wrong when he fears that America is headed for some dark times of its own, times when various people and members of our society will live in constant fear and dread of what they might suffer?

This is not to suggest that President-elect Donald Trump can be equated to the murderous Joseph Stalin (below), or the United States in 2016 to the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

jospeh-stalin-2

But it is to suggest that some comparisons — if not equations — might be in order.

It is to suggest there will be a constant and unsettling anxiety in the US created by a new ruling order that seems based on insults and intolerance, that excludes and condemns what it doesn’t approve of, that seeks to suppress or destroy opposition?

Like Latino and Syrian immigrants.

Like Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians.

Like African-Americans, Native Americans and other non-whites.

Like poor people.

Like liberals and progressives, dissenters and protesters .

Like LGBT people.

Like women and women’s health advocates and organizations that favor reproductive rights.

The list could go on and on.

But you get the idea.

If either as a musician or an audience member you agree – or disagree – leave a COMMENT.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Classical musicians take up the cause of Black Lives Matter

July 13, 2016
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Classical music can easily appear isolated from current events and social issues these days, more of a shelter or sanctuary or retreat than an engagement.

Pop, rock, country and rap music often seem much more timely and symptomatic or even concerned and supportive.

But classical music has often shown a social conscience.

One thinks of the composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein and his support of those protesting the Vietnam War and of black power advocates – efforts that often drew criticism and sarcasm from those who disagreed.

Something similar seems to be happening today with the Black Lives Matter movement and classical musicians in the wake of the Minnesota, Louisiana and Dallas, Texas shootings, death and murders.

Black Lives Matter Dallas

Here is a story from The New York Times that explores the connections:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/arts/music/for-black-lives-matter-classical-music-steps-in.html?_r=0


Classical music: What music would you play to honor and mourn the dead, wounded and traumatized victims of the gay night club shooting in Orlando, Florida?

June 19, 2016
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been a week now.

A very long, hard and emotional week.

The Ear has heard some classical music dedicated to the victims — 49 killed, some 50 wounded and countless traumatized — of the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, Florida, that took place one week ago. (Below is a vigil in support of the LGBT community.)

Orlando shooting vigil crowd 1

Others might choose a standard like the famous “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber. It is undeniably moving and perfectly appropriate.

But so far the piece that most moved The Ear, unexpectedly, was a familiar one that aired on Wisconsin Public Radio: the “Nimrod” variation from the “Enigma Variations” by Sir Edward Elgar.

The Ear hears tenderness, gentleness and even love in the music. But in it he also hears strength, resilience and pride as well as sorrow, acceptance and resignation.

Plus, he likes the idea of enigma that is attached to it, given all the issues and questions — terrorism, Islamic radicalization and extremism, homophobia, self-hatred, hate crimes, gun control, protests, mass grieving — that still surround the incident and remain to be solved.

You can listen to the piece of music in the YouTube video at the bottom that features conductor Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It has more than 3 million hits.

But The Ear is also sure that there is a great deal of other music that would suit the purpose. They include:

The passions, oratorios and cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The Requiems of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johannes Brahms, Giuseppe Verdi and Gabriel Faure.

The symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Peter Tchaikovsky and Antonin Dvorak.

The string quartets, piano trios, duo sonatas and other chamber music by Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert as well as the solo piano music of Chopin, Schumann and so many others.

The masses of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

The songs of Schubert and arias and choruses from all kinds of operas, but especially those of Giacomo Puccini.

And on and on.

Leave your personal choice, with a YouTube link if possible, and your reason for choosing it in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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