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: The prize-winning critic Alex Ross grieves to Brahms. What composer and piece would you choose to mourn the tragedies of the past week?

May 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week feels like a week that deserves mass grieving.

Of course, there was the life-changing, historic landmark of surpassing, in only a few months, more than 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

There were the spikes in new COVID-19 cases and deaths following the opening up from lockdowns and the mass gatherings over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, such as the party at the Lake of the Ozarks (below) in Missouri.

Then there was the tragic, racist death — an alleged murder — of George Floyd by the police and the ensuing rioting, violence and additional death in Minneapolis as well as the seven shootings among protesters in Louisville.

And depending of your political point of view, there were the incidents of White House threats against social media, especially Twitter, for simply telling the truth or at least directing viewers to it.

So what can one say about these sad events and sad times with music?

Well, not too long ago Alex Ross (below), the prize-winning and internationally respected music critic for The New Yorker magazine, wrote an engaging and moving essay about why he finds Brahms to be the perfect composer for grieving and mourning.

He mentions other composers as possibilities, including Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But Ross still finds Brahms more suited for several reasons. He even cites a favorite performance of a Brahms short, late Intermezzo by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. (You can hear that performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/grieving-with-brahms

What composers – and what pieces or performances – do you find best for grieving? For marking loss?

Read the essay, listen to the music.

Then let us know in the comment section what music – perhaps Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings? – that you would want to listen to during sad occasions.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: This summer’s Handel Aria Competition is postponed again — until next summer. But a Virtual Gala with new performances will be held online on Sept. 10

May 20, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 8th Annual Handel Aria Competition (below) has been postponed for a second time — until 2021 — for the safety of our singers, musicians and audience members.

The upper age limit for the competition will be extended when the competition resumes, so that all singers eligible this year can still participate.

We are introducing a new initiative to support the finalists from the past seasons of the competition – all of whom have had their opportunities to perform severely curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Your assistance in spreading the word would be much appreciated!

Originating in Madison, the Handel Aria Competition Virtual Gala will take place online and worldwide on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 7:30 p.m.

While the gala will not actually be live, since it requires editing together many separate elements of video, it will be shared via Facebook Live and also be available on YouTube and our website (see below).

It is our plan to feature professionally recorded Baroque arias specially performed for the occasion by past finalists and winners, as well as some of the videos recorded during the competition itself. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear bass-baritone Jonathan Woody singing an aria from the oratorio “Belshazzar” in 2019.)

We are also going to ask the finalists to record short video quotes about how the Handel Aria Competition has helped their careers, and why they love singing Handel.

Our host will be the Handel Aria Competition’s artistic director — and first prize-winner in 2015 — Sarah Brailey (below), who is also pursuing her doctorate at the UW-Madison.

Thanks to individual donations and foundation grants, all of the funds raised during the gala will be shared among the participating singers.

We hope you will join us in showing that we value their talent, and want to help them get through this difficult time.

For news updates and details, go to: https://handelariacompetition.com

 


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Classical music: What will the fall concert season will look like? And what will the post-pandemic concert world be like?

May 18, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week, The Ear listened to and read a lot of news about COVID-19 and the arts.

And it got him thinking: What will happen this fall with the new concert season? And even later, what will a post-pandemic concert world look like? (Below is the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a photo by Peter Rodgers.)

As you may have heard, the Tanglewood Festival, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has been canceled this year. So too has the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Locally, American Players Theatre in Spring Green also just canceled its summer season.

So far, the summer season seems to be one big cancellation for the performing arts.

True, there are some exceptions.

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has yet to announce its plans for August.

One also has to wonder if crowds of up to 20,000 will feel safe enough to attend the Concerts on the Square (below), now postponed until late July and August, by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra?

Will people still want to attend the postponed Handel Aria Competition on Aug. 21 in Collins Recital Hall at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center, assuming the hall is open?

Fall events seem increasingly in question.

Last night on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that sports events and concerts will be among the last mass gatherings to take place safely, probably not until next spring or summer or even later, depending on when a vaccine becomes available.

Some public health experts also offer dire predictions about how easing up lockdown restrictions too soon might lead to an even worse second wave of the coronavirus virus pandemic this autumn and winter, despite all the happy talk and blame-shifting by Team Trump.

So, what do you think will happen beyond summer?

The Ear wonders what the fallout will be from so many music groups and opera companies turning to free online performances by solo artists, symphony orchestras and chamber music ensembles.

Will season-opening concerts be canceled or postponed? What should they be? Will you go if they are held?

Will at-home listening and viewing become more popular than before?

Will the advances that were made in using streaming and online technology (below) during the lockdown be incorporated by local groups — the UW-Madison especially comes to mind — or expected by audiences?

In short, what will concert life be like post-pandemic and especially until a vaccine is widely available and a large part of the population feels safe, especially the older at-risk audiences that attend classical music events?

Will larger groups such as symphony orchestras follow the example of the downsized Berlin Philharmonic (below, in a photo from a review by The New York Times) and play to an empty hall with a much smaller group of players, and then stream it?

Will some free streaming sites move to requiring payment as they become more popular?

Live concerts will always remain special. But will subscriptions sales decline because audiences have become more used to free online performances at home?

Will most fall concerts be canceled? Both on stage and in the audience, it seems pretty hard to maintain social distancing (below is a full concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra). Does that mean the health of both performers – especially orchestras and choral groups – and audiences will be put in jeopardy? Will the threat of illness keep audiences away?

Even when it becomes safe to attend mass gatherings, will ticket prices fall to lure back listeners?

Will programs feature more familiar and reassuring repertoire to potential audiences who have gone for months without attending live concerts?

Will expenses be kept down and budgets cut so that less money is lost in case of cancellation? Will chamber music be more popular? (Below is the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet during its suspended Beethoven cycle.)

Will fewer players be used to hold down labor costs?

Will imported and expensive guest artists be booked less frequently so that cancellations are less complicated to do? 

Will many guest artists, like much of the public, refrain from flying until it is safer and more flights are available? Will they back out of concerts?

Will all these changes leave more concert programs to be canceled or at least changed?

There are so many possibilities.

Maybe you can think of more.

And maybe you have answers, preferences or at least intuitions about some the questions asked above?

What do you think will happen during the fall and after the pandemic?

What do you intend to do?

Please leave word, with any pertinent music or news link, in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Trevor Stephenson announces the new season of the Madison Bach Musicians on YouTube. It features smaller concerts and familiar comfort music

May 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

At a time when so many concerts are being canceled, it is especially welcome when a local ensemble announces plans for the 2020-21 season.

To announce the 17th season of the Madison Bach Musicians — a period-instrument group that uses historically informed performance practices — the founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below), who also plays the harpsichord, fortepiano and piano, has made and posted a 13-1/2 minute YouTube video.

The season will also be posted on the MBM website in early June, and will also be announced with more details about times and ticket prices via email and postal mailings.

In the video, Stephenson plays the harpsichord. He opens the video with the familiar Aria from the “Goldberg” Variations and closes with two contrasting Gavottes from the English Suite in G minor.

As usual, Stephenson offers insights in the programs that feature some very well-known and appealing works that are sure to attract audiences anxious to once again experience the comfort of hearing familiar music performed live.

One thing Stephenson does not say is that there seems to be fewer ambitious programs and fewer imported guest artists. It’s only a guess, but The Ear suspects that that is because it is less expensive to stage smaller concerts and it also allows for easier cancellation, should that be required by a continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

If the speculation proves true, such an adaptive move is smart and makes great sense artistically, financially and socially given the coronavirus public health crisis.

After all, this past spring the MBM had to cancel a much anticipated, expensive and very ambitious production, with many out-of-town guests artists, of the “Vespers of 1610” by Claudio Monteverdi. Nonetheless, MBM tried to pay as much as it could afford to the musicians, who are unsalaried “gig” workers who usually don’t qualify for unemployment payments.

“Hope and Joy” is a timely, welcome and much-needed theme of the new season.

The new season starts on Saturday night, Oct. 3, at Grace Episcopal Church downtown on the Capitol Square, and then Sunday afternoon, Oct. 4, at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton.

The program is Haydn and Mozart: songs composed in English and German by Haydn plus songs by Mozart; the great violin sonata in E minor by Mozart; and two keyboard trios, one in C major by Haydn and one in G major by Mozart.

Only four players will be required. They include: Stephenson on the fortepiano; concertmaster Kangwon Kim on baroque violin; James Waldo on a Classical-era cello; and soprano Morgan Balfour (below), who won the 2019 Handel Aria Competition in Madison.

On Saturday night, Dec. 12, in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, near Camp Randall Stadium, MBM will perform its 10th annual holiday concert of seasonal music.

The program includes several selections from the “Christmas Oratorio” by Johann Sebastian Bach; a Vivaldi concerto for bassoon with UW-Madison professor Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) as soloist; and the popular “Christmas Concerto” by Arcangelo Corelli.

On Saturday night, April 24, at Grace Episcopal Church and Sunday afternoon, April 25, at Holy Wisdom Monastery, the MBM will perform a concert of German Baroque masterworks with the internationally renowned baroque violinist Marc Destrubé (below).

The program features Handel and Bach but also composers who are not often played today but who were well known to and respected by Bach and his contemporaries.

Specifically, there will be a suite by Christoph Graupner (below top) and a work by Carl Heinrich Graun (below bottom).

There will also be a concerto grosso by George Frideric Handel and two very well-known concertos by Bach – the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and the Concerto for Two Violins.

Here is the complete video:

What do you think of the Madison Bach Musicians’ new season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra cancels this summer’s season due to the COVID-19 pandemic

May 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO, below in a photo by Steve Rankin):

“We regret that due to the coronavirus pandemic, we will be canceling the 2020 MAYCO season. Every year, we look forward to working with the talented young musicians who perform with us, and we can’t wait to see you all again next summer!”

For more information about the ensemble, including how to join it and how to support it as well as finding concert programs performed since 2011 and finding news updates about future concerts and educational events, go to: https://www.mayco.org. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a piece MAYCO commissioned from composer Lawren Brianna Ware and premiered last year.)

 


Classical music: The Wisconsin Union Theater announces its new season featuring Renée Fleming’s postponed concert on Oct. 24

May 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement with the lineup for next season’s concerts at the Wisconsin Union Theater (below top, with a photo of Shannon Hall below bottom), which he calls “The Carnegie Hall of Madison.”

The upcoming season of the Wisconsin Union Theater features eight performances, including a rescheduled performance on Oct. 24 by world-renowned vocalist Renée Fleming (below), who was previously scheduled to perform May 2, 2020, as part of the 100th Concert Series but had to cancel because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fleming recorded a special message for Wisconsin Union Theater patrons: https://youtu.be/V1B4L2KFUls.

During the 101st Concert Series, patrons will have the opportunity to attend performances by the following artists. Click on the links and names to find out more:

  • Dec. 11, 2020 – Pianist Jeremy Denk (below, in a photo by Shervin Lainez)

  • Feb. 28, 2021 – Meccore Quartet (below in a photo by Arkadiusz Berbecki)

All programs are subject to change. The WUT team will announce when subscriptions and single-event tickets, along with prices, will become available for purchase at a later date.

The Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert Series is one of the oldest uninterrupted series of its kind in the United States and has brought such talented artists as pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, violinists Fritz Kreisler and Itzhak Perlman, and pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy and Claudio Arrau to Madison.

The Wisconsin Union Theater holds numerous arts events throughout the year and has provided cultural experiences for community members and visitors for more than 75 years.

The student-led Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) Performing Arts Committee plans many of the Wisconsin Union Theater’s events, including the Concert Series.

More information — including ticket prices and programs  — about the Concert Series and other 2020-21 Wisconsin Union Theater events will be made available soon at uniontheater.wisc.edu and on the Wisconsin Union Theater Facebook page.

Tickets purchased for Fleming’s May 2, 2020, performance are valid for the Oct. 24, 2020, performance.

Violinist Gil Shaham (below), who was to perform March 28, 2020, as part of the 100th Concert Series season will instead perform as part of the 2021-22 Wisconsin Union Theater season. Ticket holders for Shaham’s previously scheduled performance date are receiving refunds.

The upcoming year of programming will undoubtedly bring new challenges, and the Wisconsin Union team will continue to make decisions with the health and safety of team members and patrons in mind while providing experiences for a lifetime.

While Memorial Union and Union South remain closed to the public until further notice, the Wisconsin Union continues to provide support services, such as Meals To-Go, and online events and activities.


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Classical music: This summer, Madison Opera’s “Opera in the Park” will go virtual and be held online due to the coronavirus pandemic. Details will follow in early July

May 7, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Opera about this summer’s annual Opera in the Park (below, in a photo by James Gill.)

“Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park will be moving online this summer in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the first Opera in the Park concert in 2002, it has become a Madison summer tradition, a free concert that draws over 10,000 people to Garner Park for selections from opera, Broadway, operetta and zarzuela. The 19th anniversary of this concert had been scheduled for July 25.”

(Editor’s note: As you can see in the YouTube video at the bottom, the traditional encore has the audience and soloists singing “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” from the musical “Carousel” by Rodgers and Hammerstein.)

Opera in the Park is by far our most important performance,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), general director of the Madison Opera. “Sharing music under the stars is a highlight of every summer, but the health and safety of our community is our first priority. After careful discussion with local officials and stakeholders, we have decided to take the necessary step of moving from an in-person performance this summer to a digital one.

“Details on the digital performance will be solidified in the coming months and announced in early July.

“Soloists to perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra include: soprano Karen Slack (below top), who returns to Madison Opera as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) this fall; soprano Jasmine Habersham (below middle), who makes her Madison Opera debut in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro next April; and baritone Weston Hurt (below bottom), who sang Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata last season and returns as Count di Luna in Il Trovatore next fall.

“While nothing will ever equal the magic of Opera in the Park when the hillside is full of people,” Smith says, “I know we can create something special to share, using the power of music to connect us even when we cannot gather in person.

“We look forward to returning to Garner Park next summer, and seeing a full display of everyone’s light-stick conducting skills (below).”

 


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Classical music: Meet the “Stay at Home” Symphony Orchestra. How do they sound so close and tight? Plus, today is May Day. What music would you play to celebrate workers?

May 1, 2020
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ALERT: Today is May Day, a time to honor workers. What music would you play to celebrate and thank all the frontline workers — doctors, nurses, EMTs, police officers, firefighters, bus drivers, cleaners and janitors, grocery store workers, delivery people and others — who are now so indispensable?

By Jacob Stockinger

Many musicians — both singers and instrumentalists (below) — are self-isolating and doing their at-home best to keep those of us also sheltering in place entertained by performing virtual concerts.

It is something listeners can be grateful for. The players do an admirable and free public service during the COVID-19 crisis and coronavirus pandemic.

Of course, the virtual performances also have practical purposes.

The musicians keep their skills sharp during isolation.

And the virtual performances help to keep the names of individuals and groups, of composers and pieces, in the public’s mind at a time when live concerts have all been canceled or postponed.

There are many, many virtual concerts to choose from – made by local, regional, national and international musicians, some amateurs and some professional.

Many of them are solo performances given by an individual member of an orchestra, chamber music group or choral ensemble as well as big-name soloists such as pianist Emanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The individual ones are appreciated and impressive, even if some of the performances seem amateur-like in the sound or awkwardness.

What really impresses The Ear is when large groups, such as symphony orchestras and choirs, perform something with all the players at home and yet somehow the whole finished product sounds incredibly tight in and incredibly professional.

Last Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera even held a four-hour online gala with singers and instrumentalists from all over the world.

It makes The Ear wonder why they sound so good. How they do it, with all the complications and variables of timing and tempo, of rhythm, pitch and dynamics?

Is it the planning?

The processing and editing?

In any case, a very good example comes from the “Stay at Home” Symphony Orchestra playing Mozart’s Overture to the opera “The Marriage of Figaro.”

You can hear the YouTube video of the performance below.

Are there other such performances that you can point out to The Ear and you would like to see posted on this blog?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Here is the music that Wisconsin Public Radio hosts find calming and inspiring during the pandemic. What music would you list?

April 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the major sources of music during the COVID-19 public health crisis and the coronavirus pandemic is Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Ear finds WPR a reliable source of beauty and companionship during this difficult time of self-isolation and self-quarantining required by the state’s stay-at-home and self-distancing orders.

Each host plans and broadcasts hours of classical music each day. So they hear a lot of classical music.

They also contribute to a blog that offers insights to: new and old recordings; background information about the composers, music and performers; and personal observations about classical music.

Recently, the radio hosts – including Stephanie Elkins (below), Norman Gilliland, Lori Skelton, Ruthanne Bessman, Anders Yocom (at bottom, in a  photo by James Gill) and Peter Bryant — listed the music that they find particularly calming and inspiring during a difficult and anxiety-ridden time.

The names of composers include Bach, Scarlatti, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Ysaye, Vaughan-Williams and film score master John Williams.

The list includes audio-visual performances of the pieces.

Take a look and listen.

Then tell us what you think of the various suggestions and which ones you prefer?

Also leave the composers, pieces and performers that you would add to such a list, with a YouTube link if possible.

Here is a link:

https://www.wpr.org/wpr-music-hosts-share-music-calms-and-inspires


Posted in Classical music
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