The Well-Tempered Ear

NPR names relevant classical albums in a musical Diary of the Plague Year of the pandemic, racial protests, wildfires and hurricanes

December 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

For an unusual and difficult year, NPR (National Public Radio) and critic Tom Huizenga have found a new and unusual way to recommend this past year’s top classical music recordings.

On the  “Deceptive Cadence” blog for NPR, Huizenga kept a personal month-by-month diary of “music and mayhem.”

For last February, for example, this ancient image of The Dance of Death inspired contemporary composer Thomas Adès to compose his own “Totentanz” or Dance of Death. (You can hear an excerpt from the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Some of the thematically-related music is modern or contemporary, some of it is from the Baroque or Classical era.

In June, as protests against the death of George Floyd (below top) flared up and spread worldwide, NPR names a recording of the “Negro Folk Symphony” by African-American composers William Dawson and Ulysses Kay (below bottom), thereby helping to rediscover Black composers whose works have been overlooked and neglected in the concert hall and the recording studio.

Devastating wildfires on the West Coast, Presidential impeachment and hurricanes on the Gulf Coast also found their way into the choices of music to listen to.

It is an unusual approach, but The Ear thinks it works.

See and hear for yourself by going to the sonic diary and listening to the samples provided.

Here is a link to the NPR album diary: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/12/21/947149286/music-and-mayhem-a-diary-of-classical-albums-for-a-troubled-2020

But many roads, if not all, lead to Rome, as they say.

What is also interesting is that a number of the NPR choices overlap with ones listed by music critics of The New York Times as the 25 best classical albums of 2020.

Some choices also are found on the list of the nominations for the Grammy Awards that will be given out at the end of January.

In other words, the NPR diary can also serve as yet another holiday gift guide if you have gift cards or money to buy some new and notable CDs, and are looking for recommendations.

Here is a link to the Times’ choices, which you can also find with commentary and a local angle, in yesterday’s blog post: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/17/arts/music/best-classical-music.html

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/12/27/the-new-york-times-names-the-top-25-classical-recordings-of-2020-and-includes-sample-tracks/

And here is a list to the Grammy nominations: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/11/28/for-holiday-shopping-and-gift-giving-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-63rd-grammy-awards-in-2021/

What do you think of the NPR musical diary of the plague year?

Do you find it informative? Accurate? Interesting? Useful?

Would you have different choices of music to express the traumatic events of the past year?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Four local classical musicians perform Black women composers in a virtual holiday concert to benefit the health of Black women

December 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Ensemble (WE) Project, a quartet of local classical musicians, has announced that it will host a holiday concert to support Dane County-based non-profit, the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness (FFBWW, below).

The concert will be the first in a series of performances to benefit local and international organizations working for social justice and human interest. 

This unique effort is rooted in the quartet’s desire to not only delve deeply into chamber music repertoire, but also to address some of the many pressing social justice issues of our time. 

This recorded, virtual YouTube concert will be available at https://wisconsinensembleproject.com from 6 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 25, through 6 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 3. — times are CST — where contributions will be accepted via PayPal.

Viewers will hear the story and see the face of the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness woven through quality chamber music by Black women composers performed by WE Project artists violinists Leanne League and Mary Theodore (below ends, in a photo by Katrin Talbot); violist Christopher Dozoryst (second from right); and cellist Karl Lavine. The four play together in the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

Pieces they will perform include Strum (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) and Voodoo Dolls by Jessie Montgomery (below top, in a photo by Jiyang Chen); Modes by Dorothy Rudd Moore (below center); and String Quartet in G Major by Florence Price (below bottom).

“This production offers viewers a meaningful program which leads to direct impact,” says WE Project member Mary Theodore who has been working with Foundation staff to coordinate the benefit over the last few weeks.

”We felt strongly about the work of the Foundation as we learned more about their mission to eliminate the startling health and economic disparities Black women face in our community,” adds Theodore. “When you donate and tune in to our concert, you will be helping to cover basic production costs and getting funds directly into the hands of this very worthy organization”. 

Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness CEO Lisa Peyton-Caire (below), who launched the Black women’s health advocacy organization in 2012, says the concert is a beautiful example of how community and organizations can partner to drive social change together. 

“We are elated that WE Project chose us as their first benefit recipient, and that our mission and work to transform Black women’s health in Wisconsin resonated with them,” said Peyton-Caire. “We know that ultimately it takes all of our effort to solve the inequities in our community, and this benefit concert is a beautiful example of the loving and creative ways we can join forces to do this.” 

To learn more about the concert, visit https://wisconsinensembleproject.com, where you can contribute via PayPal anytime beginning now through Jan. 3.

To listen to a recent morning coffee chat between members of the two organizations, go to: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=431169757916539&ref=watch_permalink. Click on individual profiles to hear them.

To learn more about The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, visit https://ffbww.org


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Cellist Camille Thomas makes her Madison debut online from Paris for the Wisconsin Union Theater this Saturday night

November 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Union Theater’s fall virtual Concert Series performances will begin this Saturday night, Nov. 7, at 7:30 p.m. CST with a live online performance from Paris by the acclaimed cellist Camille Thomas (below).

The “Midnight in Paris” recital – performed in Paris and streamed — features music by Claude Debussy, Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Ravel and Frederic Chopin. The performance will be preceded by a live 30-40 minute online Q&A with Thomas and pianist Julien Brocal on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. CST.

Here are the specific works on the program, which will last about 75 minutes with no intermission:

Debussy, “Clair de Lune” (arr. Roelens)

Nadia Boulanger, “Three Pieces” for cello and piano

Ravel, Kaddish

Chopin, Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65; and Introduction et Polonaise brillante, Op. 3 

Tickets for this online event are $10 for UW-Madison students, $18 for Wisconsin Union members, and $20 for all other patrons.

For more information about the Thomas’ performance – including a video and how to purchase tickets — visit union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/camille-thomas.

Thomas (below), a Franco-Belgian cellist, says she uses her music to bring people together from a range of cultures and backgrounds. Thomas released her second album, called “Voice of Hope,” with the exclusive Deutsche Grammophon this past June. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Thomas play a solo version from the album of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from his opera “Orfeo ed Euridice.”)

Thomas plays the Feuermann Stradivarius cello (1730, below) — named for the famous 20th-century cellist Emanuel Feuermann who played it — with a bow by Eugene Sartory, who is regarded as one of the finest bow makers in history. Joining her for this performance will be pianist Julien Brocal.

“Camille Thomas’s extraordinary talent makes her one of the most captivating artists of our time, as evidenced by being the first cellist in several decades to be signed by the major record label Deutsche Grammophon,” says Wisconsin Union Theater director Elizabeth Snodgrass. “Her ‘Midnight in Paris’ program brings us closer to her roots and reflects the beauty and charm of her personality as well as her musicality.”

The Ear has listened to some of Thomas’ performances on YouTube and finds her tone, intonation and phrasing outstanding.

The performance by Camille Thomas is the start of the fall Concert Series events, which includes a concert with pianist Jeremy Denk (below, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times) on Friday, Dec. 11.

In its 101st year, the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert Series is one of the oldest uninterrupted series of its kind in the United States.

The Wisconsin Union Theater (WUT) has served as a cultural center for community members and visitors for more than 75 years. The WUD Performing Arts Committee plans many of the Theater’s events, including the Concert Series.

While usually held in-person and most often in Shannon Hall, the Wisconsin Union Theater team will hold this fall’s theater events in a virtual format for the health and safety of patrons, artists and team members in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The team aims for all of its spaces, including online ones, to be accessible. Those that need accommodations can reach out to the Wisconsin Union Theater team at wisconsinuniontheater@union.wisc.edu

The WUT team says it continues to evaluate what changes may need to occur related to the spring Concert Series events as well as other spring Theater season performances.

The Wisconsin Union Theater has made multiple commitments to take a stand against racial injustice, including being more than allies, being activists; using the arts to create social justice; remembering students are future leaders and must be part of the change; using its voice to influence leadership and being firm in its resolve; and making space, stepping back and learning how to give up undeserved or unnecessary power and privilege.

 


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

October 28, 2020
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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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Did Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony foster racism, exclusion and elitism in the concert hall? The Ear thinks that is PC nonsense. What do you think?

September 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Controversy has struck big among classical music critics and fans — just in time for the Beethoven Year that will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth this December. Plans call for celebrations by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and others. 

At question is what seems yet another fallout and dust-up from the Black Lives Matter movement and the current struggle to foster social justice and racial equality.

In some ways, it all seems inevitable.

Now the history-denying advocates of cancel culture are suggesting that Beethoven (below) and his music – especially the popular Fifth Symphony (you can hear the famous opening in the YouTube schematic video at the bottom)  –  fostered white privilege and the rise of racism, sexism and homophobia in the concert hall.

That seems like quite an accusation for a single composer and a single piece of music that was premiered in 1808.

The assertion is food for thought. But not much.

In the end The Ear finds it a stretch and a totally bogus argument. He thinks that Beethoven attracted far more performers and audiences than he repelled. Others, including famed critic Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc and a critic for the right-wing newspaper The New York Post, agree:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/09/beethovens-5th-is-a-symbol-of-exclusion-and-elitism/

https://nypost.com/2020/09/17/canceling-beethoven-is-the-latest-woke-madness-for-the-classical-music-world/

The Ear also thinks it is political correctness run amok, even for someone who, like himself, advocates strongly for diversity of composers, performers and audiences – but always with quality in mind — in the concert hall.

Just because Beethoven was such a great creative artist is hardly cause to blame him for the inability of other artists to succeed and for non-white audiences taking to classical music. Other forces — social, economic and political — explain that much better.

Yes, Beethoven is a towering and intimidating figure. And yes, his works often dominate programming. But both musicians and audiences return to him again and again because of the originality, power and first-rate quality of his many works.

Beethoven himself was deaf. That would certainly seem to qualify him as inclusive and a member of an important category of diversity.

No matter. The writers are happy to blame Ludwig and his work for exclusion and elitism. They argue that people of color, women and LGBTQ people have all felt alienated from classical music because of Beethoven’s legacy.

Of course, there is elitism in the arts. People may be equal, but creative talent is not.

And clearly, Beethoven was a towering and intimidating figure – more for the quality of his music than for the simple fact that it exists. Such exclusion and elitism have to do with other factors than the composition of the Fifth Symphony.

If The Ear recalls correctly, when he died Beethoven was given the largest state funeral up to that time for a non-royal, non-politician or non-military person.

And how do you explain that Beethoven’s music, so representative of Western culture, appeals deeply to and attracts so many Asians and Asian-Americans, and became both banned and symbolically central to those opposed to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China?

But these days being provocative can become its own reward.

You can read the analysis and decide about its merits for yourself, then let us know what you think in the Comment section.

Here is a link to the opinion piece in Vox Magazine, a free online journal: https://www.vox.com/switched-on-pop/21437085/beethoven-5th-symphony-elitist-classism-switched-on-pop

What do you think about the idea that Beethoven played a large and seminal role in fostering an elitist and exclusive culture in classical music?

Did you ever feel alienated from classical music because of Beethoven or know others who have?

What is your favorite Beethoven composition?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: How can classical music be made less white? Nine Black artists suggest changes. Which ones will work best?

July 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

With all the attention given to and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement — and other demonstrations and protests against personal and systemic racism as well as white privilege — it comes as no surprise that questions are being raised about the overwhelmingly white world of classical music and how to change it.

Most of the local classical music groups The Ear knows of have posted statements of solidarity.

If he recalls correctly, they include the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Willy Street Chamber Players and many others.

But beyond declarations of solidarity with people of color, the music groups face deeper issues that require action, not just words, and remain more difficult to solve: How to attract more Black  classical musicians? How to foster more Black composers? And how to attract more Black audiences?

Diversity and equity are long-term issues, and quite a number of possible solutions loom.

Would performing more pieces, both historical and contemporary, by Black composers (below) work?

Would hiring more Black resident musicians help?

Would booking more Black guest artists and soloists help? (Below is the young and upcoming British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.)

Would changing the music curriculum in schools help? (Some important Black composers are explored in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Would generating more support to and from the Black community help?

Last week The New York Times did a fine piece of work in addressing these issues.

The reporter and music editor asked nine different accomplished Black conductors, instrumentalists, singers, critics and administrators in classical music about how to solve the inequity. The interviews were condensed and edited into very readable statements.

Here is a link to that story: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/16/arts/music/black-classical-music-opera.html

Please read it.

Then let us know which suggestions you think should be attempted first and which solutions are most likely to work.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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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
2 Comments

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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.


Posted in Classical music
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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

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

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

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

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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