The Well-Tempered Ear

Will using first names with Beethoven and Mozart help fight racism and sexism in the concert hall?

October 28, 2020
5 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Why do concert programs read simply Beethoven for Beethoven (below top), but Florence Price for Florence Price (below bottom)?

According to a recent controversial essay by Chris White (below), a professor of music theory at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, it reflects and reinforces sexism and racism.

White is calling for universal “fullnaming” to put women composers and composers of color on an equal footing with the traditional canon of dead white male composers. All people may be equal, but all composers and their music are not.

You can certainly make a case for his interesting argument against using “mononyns,” as he calls them. But it still seems less than convincing to many, including The Ear. It many ways it seems downright silly and arbitrary. Isn’t it obvious that not all composers are equal in quality of their work?

It is the latest dustup in the classical music world, coming right on the heels of, and logically linked to, the idea that Beethoven is responsible for sexism and racism in the concert hall and the so-called “cancel culture” that is allied with the social and political protest movements of the past year, including Black Lives Matter.

That was treated here in a previous post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/09/19/did-beethoven-and-his-music-especially-the-iconic-fifth-symphony-foster-racism-exclusion-and-elitism-in-the-concert-hall-the-ear-thinks-that-is-pc-nonsense-what-do-you-think/

Here is a link to the complete article by White about the inclusion and absence of first names as it appeared on Slate: https://slate.com/culture/2020/10/fullname-famous-composers-racism-sexism.html

Funny, The Ear thinks of using only last names as little more than a function of: quality, importance and time; of fame and familiarity; and sometimes of promoting clarity and preventing confusion — not of race or gender.

It is why we say Bach (below) when we mean Johann Sebastian, and why we say Wilhelm Friedemann or Carl Philipp Emmanuel or Johann Christian when we mean one of his sons.

It is why we say Richard Strauss to distinguish him from Johann Strauss.

But it also why Haydn means Franz Joseph (below), not his less important brother Michael Haydn.

And why the American composer Henry Cowell is listed with his full name and not just Cowell.

Perhaps one day – if we hear enough of the music by the recently rediscovered Black female composer Florence Price often enough and like it enough – she will be known simply as Price. After all, the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu is not usually listed as simply Takemitsu. 

Actually, the Ear prefers using full names for all composers — famous or not, male or female, white or black — especially when it is for the general public. But it seems more a matter of politeness, respect and education than of sociopolitical change and social justice.

That is not to say that those of us in classical music don’t see a need to correct the racism and sexism of the past, to foster diversity and inclusiveness. White has a point. Still, the whole idea of using both names in all cases seems more than a bit naïve, superficial and simplistic as a solution to racism and sexism.

It sounds a lot like the kind of theoretical speculation and contrarian thinking you might expect from an assistant professor trying to get noticed and make his mark on big contemporary issues so that he can get tenure and become an associate professor. A high public profile certainly helps that.

But whatever you think of White’s motives or purpose, his essay is causing a “meltdown” on Twitter: https://mybroadband.co.za/forum/threads/‘fullnaming’-mozart-and-beethoven-to-fight-sexism-and-racism-twitter-squabbles-over-slate-article.1108776/

Should you want to know more about Professor White or to leave a message of either support or disagreement, here is a link to his home website: http://www.chriswmwhite.com

What do you think about the idea of using first names for all composers as a way to combat racism and sexism in classical music?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Ear gives shout-outs to guest University Opera director David Ronis – who should be hired permanent full-time by the UW-Madison — and longtime Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra conductor Andrew Sewell because they both know how to make Mozart our contemporary. Plus, here are the results of The Final Forte.

March 26, 2015
7 Comments

ALERTS:

1) In case you don’t already know them, here are the results of last night’s Final Forte: First Prize went to violinist Julian Rhee; Second Prize went to pianist Vivian Wilhelms; and Honorable Mentions went to harpist Maya Pierick and pianist Isabella Wu.

Here is a link to a complete story about the high school concerto competition:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/classical-music-education-this-wednesday-night-the-annual-the-final-round-of-the-bolz-young-artist-concerto-competition-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-will-be-broadcast-live-on-wisconsin-public/

Final Forte 2015 4 finalists

2) This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, to be held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison at 900 University Bay Drive, will feature soprano Consuelo Sanudo (below) and pianist Jeff Gibbens who will perform music by Henri Duparc, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schubert.

Consuela Sanudo

By Jacob Stockinger

It has really  been a busy past couple of weeks, with so many concerts that The Ear couldn’t even preview all of them. So it’s time to catch up and offer some critical appraisals of what I heard.

Let me begin with some background.

The supremely gifted, articulate and critically acclaimed American pianist Jeremy Denk, who has performed two solo recitals in Madison for the Wisconsin Union Theater, is fond of saying the he strives to make music sound as radical today as it was when it was first composed and first heard.

There is wisdom in that approach, which balances out the other great movement of the 20th-century that opened up our ears to another kind of difference. I am referring to the use of period instruments and historically informed performance practices to recapture how the music originally sounded.

But lately I had two examples that showed me just how exciting such an established “museum” composer as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below)  can be if made to sound and look contemporary and radical to our modern ears without going backwards.

Mozart old 1782

The two examples I have in mind are from recent performances of late works, when Mozart was in full command of his art: The opera “The Magic Flute” as presented by University Opera under the guest stage director David Ronis, who hails from New York City and teaches at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and the City University of New York as well as at Hofstra University; and the well-known penultimate Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, as performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell.

THE MAGIC FLUTE

The award-winning David Ronis did several things to The Magic Flute that The Ear  really liked and found effective.

He made some judicious cuts in an otherwise overlong work.

He used surtitles for the German text.

He used spoken contemporary vernacular English for the dialogue. That not only made the opera understandable, but also lent drive to push it along and give it momentum as well as contemporaneity.

Most of all, Ronis also used cinematic Bollywood-like dance gestures and choreography (below, in photos by Michael R. Anderson) – along with the bright fusion of East-West hybrid costumes and sets that added such movement and energy,  color and humor, to the score.

I mean, don’t we see enough of opera singers just standing still, arms outstretched, with only their mouths moving?

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

Of course, some people and critics did not like the changes, and found them downright treasonous and disrespectful or just plain wrong.

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

Dress rehearsal for The Magic Flute

Silly them. The Ear says the updating worked just fine. Great art is there to experiment with, not just depict. Art lives in time. It is why director Peter Sellars is such a forceful and creative influence in the world of classical music. If only classical music could be less classical and more musical! Entertainment is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, after all, why the performing arts exist.

I also think the changes are one reason why there were four sold-out performances -– not just the usual three -– and why I saw so many young people in the audience. It was, in short, a fun production.

To my eyes and ears, this production — coupled with his production of Benjamin Britten‘s “Albert Herring” in the fall — showed what a smart move it would be to hire David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) full-time to lead the University Opera. He clearly knows how to get the best out of students, has a very personal artistic vision and is willing to shake things up – which both we and The Great Artists such as Mozart can use.

David Ronis color CR  Luke DeLalio

THE BIG G-MINOR SYMPHONY

As for the Mozart symphony – the big late one in G minor not the little  early one — it was just part of an outstanding concert turned in by Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the impressive guest cellist Amit Peled (below) and his unbelievably resonant cello that belonged to and was played by Pablo Casals. Together, man and instrument justifiably brought down the house.

Amit Peled playing

But other parts of the program, which included works by Frank Bridge and David Popper, should not be overlooked or underestimated.

Conductor Andrew Sewell (below) has long demonstrated his ability to work with such Classical-era composers as Franz Joseph Haydn and Mozart as well as Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven. And here, in a very familiar work, you could hear why.

andrewsewell

While Mozart was one of music’s great melodists, Sewell’s interpretation emphasized tempo, rhythm and repetitive motifs even as he brought out the various voices, counterpoint and melodic lines.

This Mozart had drive and pep. (You can hear the familiar first movement, with an interesting abstract graph profile, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

In fact, the third Minuet movement sounded downright modern – a kind of percussive precursor to minimalism.

This was exciting Mozart, far from the genteel and primly elegant and blandly pleasant Mozart that The Ear refers to as Music-Box Mozart.

Andrew Sewell BW

This playing by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) was precise and dramatic. It made you sit up and take notice. It engaged you.

It also showed why Mozart was such an exception to his age –- why his contemporaries and those who followed him so revered his talent and music. He was a radical in his day but we often overlook how he pushed the boundaries of music closer to modernism.

WCO lobby

So The Ear offers shout-outs and hearty thanks to both David Ronis and Andrew Sewell for helping us to hear Mozart once again as a contemporary — not just a statically beautiful blast from the past.

Both cases proved to be an exciting and unforgettable experience. The Ear hopes we are in for more of them, particularly in Mozart’s symphonies and piano concertos.

Did you hear the opera and/or the symphony?

What did you think of the approaches to Mozart?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: University Opera’s exotic East-West production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” opens this Friday night and runs for four performances.

March 10, 2015
2 Comments

ALERT: The new season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra will be announced here starting at midnight tonight.

By Jacob Stockinger

The University Opera and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music have sent out the following announcement about an upcoming production.

From March 13 to 17, University Opera will present the beloved masterpiece of fantasy, The Magic Flute, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below) in a family-friendly, exotic East-West staging.

Mozart old 1782

In a departure, the opera will run for four performances instead of the usual three, adding a Saturday evening show that will allow lead roles will be split evenly among singers. The show will involve over 80 singers, instrumentalists and stage crew members.

Performances are Friday, March 13, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 14, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, March 15, 3 p.m.; and Tuesday, March 17, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $22 for the general public, $18 for senior citizens and $10 for UW-Madison students, available in advance through the Campus Arts Ticketing office at (608) 265-ARTS and online at http://www.arts.wisc.edu/ (click “box office”).

Tickets can also be purchased in person at the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. and the Vilas Hall Box Office, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., and after 5:30 p.m. on University Theatre performance evenings.

Because shows often sell out, advance purchase is recommended. If unsold tickets remain, they may be purchased at the door beginning one hour before the performance.

The Carol Rennebohm Auditorium is located in Music Hall (below), at the foot of Bascom Hill on Park Street.

MusicHall2

The Magic Flute marks the second production by Interim Opera Director David Ronis (below top, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Ronis recently earned distinction when his 2014 production of Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc at Queens College in New York was awarded third prize in the National Opera Association’s Opera Production Competition. James Smith (below bottom), conducting the UW Symphony Orchestra.

David Ronis color CR  Luke DeLalio

Smith_Jim_conduct07_3130

Full of surprises and delights, The Magic Flute is a treat for both seasoned opera lovers and those new to opera.

The familiar plot centers on Prince Tamino, sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter, Pamina, from the Sorcerer, Sarastro.

As the opera unfolds, Tamino’s quest for love evolves into one in which self-actualization becomes equally important.  Along for the ride are Papageno, his comic sidekick, searching for his own soul mate; the Queen’s Three Ladies; Three Spirits who serve as guides; and an assortment of other memorable characters. 

Ronis comments about his concept for The Magic Flute: “When planning the production, I kept seeing Sarastro and his Masonic principles as being related to those of Eastern philosophy.  So, in order to create the polarity between the opposing forces of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, I characterized Sarastro as coming from the East vs. the Queen of the Night, coming from the cultural West.

“Thus, the Queen and her Ladies wear Victorian bustle dresses, while the basic costume for Sarastro’s followers is the shalwar kameez, the traditional garment of South and Central Asia.

“To complement this, the scenic design combines pan-Asian, Victorian, and surreal elements with a few contemporary comedic references thrown in.  This works nicely, framing the story as well as creating an exotic environment in which the fantasy can take place.”

UW Magic Flute poster

The large cast of The Magic Flute includes Thomas Leighton and William Ottow, who will split the performances as Tamino, Nicole Heinen and Anna Whiteway (below) as Pamina, and Joel Rathmann and Brian Schneider as Papageno.  The Queen of the Night will be played by Sarah Richardson and alumna Olivia Pogodzinski, and the role of Sarastro will be taken by alum Thomas Weis. (You can hear the Queen of the Night’s famously difficult and haunting aria, performed by Natalie Dessay, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Cello Choir 2014 Anna Whiteway

The six singers playing the Three Ladies will be Susanna Beerheide, Tia Cleveland, Jessica Kasinski, Kirsten Larson, Heather Richardson, and Sheila Wilhelmi.  Rounding out the cast will be Alaina Carlson, Eileen Peterson, and Emily Weaver as the Three Spirits; Emi Chen and Gaby Klugman as Papagena; Nathaniel Greenhill and Michael Hoke as Monostatos; alum Benjamin Li as the Speaker; conductor and violist Mikko Utevsky (below) as the Second Priest; and Evan Esslinger and Fabian Qamar as the Armored Men.  Assisting Maestro Smith will be Kyle Knox, assistant conductor; Seungwha Baek and Chan Mi Jean, musical preparation; and Dennis Gotkowski, chorus master.

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

The physical production will be based on designs by Charles “Jen” Trieloff II and realized by Joseph Varga, Greg Silver, and Liz Rathke.  Costume design is by Sydney Krieger, Hyewon Park and Sam Fleming, lighting design by Rob Stepek, props design by Dana Fralick, and the production stage manager will be Erin McDermott.  Student staff include Emi Chen, costume assistant; Fabian Qamar, props assistant; Emily Hake and Melanie Treuhaft, scenic painters; Briana Miller, master electrician; and Kyle Baldauf, assistant carpenter.

This production of The Magic Flute is dedicated to the memories of Karen K. Bishop and Charles Jennings Trieloff II.  Bishop was an UW-Madison alumna who performed in a number of University Opera productions between 2007 and 2011. Trieloff was the original set designer for the production.

University Opera is a cultural service of the School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Its mission is to provide comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, contact opera@music.wisc.edu or visit the School of Music’s web site at music.wisc.edu.


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