The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Acclaimed local soprano Sarah Brailey explains why performing artists and presenters need help during the COVID-19 pandemic

March 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Sarah Brailey (below) is worried.

And with good reason.

Chances are good that you have seen the local soprano or heard her sing.

She is the artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition, which she herself won in 2015. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Brailey sing the aria “Will the Sun Forget to Streak” from Handel’s oratorio “Solomon,”  with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra under conductor Julian Wachner, in the St. Paul Chapel in New York City.)

Brailey is a co-founder of and participant in the monthly free Just Bach concerts here. In addition, while pursuing graduate studies at the UW-Madison, she is a concert artist with a budding international career. For more about her, including a rave review from The New York Times and sample videos, go to: https://sarahbrailey.com

But right now the Wisconsin native is especially concerned about the lasting impact that the Coronavirus pandemic will have on her own career as well as on the careers of others like her and on the well-being of arts presenters.

Brailey (below, in photo by Miranda Loud) sent The Ear the following essay:

By Sarah Brailey

This is a scary time for everyone, but particularly for anyone who works as an independent contractor.

I am a freelance classical soprano based in Madison. I maintain a very active performing career, traveling all over the globe, and I am also a doctoral student at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

When COVID-19 hit the United States, presenting organizations on the east and west coasts started canceling concerts to comply with social distancing recommendations.

I initially thought I was lucky to be living in the middle of the country where our lesser population density might save us. Plus, I am a Teaching Assistant at the UW right now, so I will still be getting my stipend — although teaching virtual voice lessons will be its own special challenge!

But many of my colleagues are not so lucky and are facing bankruptcy. If the government doesn’t include independent contractors in its relief packages, a lot of people are going to be insolvent.

And I myself am not immune. As the seriousness of the situation became clear, all my concerts in the next two months soon disappeared one by one.

While not being able to perform is emotionally devastating, these cancellations are also financially devastating.

There exists a clause in every standard performance contract called “force majeure” (superior force), which is idiomatically referred to as, “an act of God.” This clause excuses a party from not honoring its contractual obligations that becomes impossible or impracticable, due to an event or effect that the parties could not have anticipated or controlled.

This can come in handy for a presenter if there is, say, a blizzard that necessitates the cancellation of a concert. (This happened to me a few seasons ago with the Boston Symphony.) If the presenter will not make any money on ticket sales, they are not then further injured by having to pay the musicians for the canceled concert. (Below, Brailey sings Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with the Colorado Symphony.)

The ramifications of this pandemic are unprecedented. Every freelance musician I know is suddenly out of work. The current conventions put all of the upfront financial burden on the artists. We are paid in one lump sum at the end of a project. We do not get a fee for the countless hours of preparation.

We often book travel and lodging on our own dime, and are not reimbursed until the end of the gig. We pay for our own health insurance, and we cannot file for unemployment because our work is paid via IRS Form 1099 and not W2s. The abrupt work stoppage caused by this pandemic means insolvency – or even bankruptcy — for many artists. (Below, Brailey sings Handel’s “Messiah” at the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City.)

Many institutions — and, unfortunately, many of the bigger players like The Metropolitan Opera — are invoking force majeure without much regard for how their artists are struggling.

My colleague, tenor Zach Finkelstein, is covering this in great detail on his blog The Middle Class Artist, as is Alex Ross, the prize-winning music critic for The New Yorker. Read his piece on force majeure here.

However, there are also thankfully some good stories to tell. The Bach Society of Minnesota reimbursed all my travel expenses and is paying 75 percent of my fee, as is the Lyra Baroque Orchestra.

I am helping Zach keep track of the organizations that are helping their artists in this time of need. (Read about them here. Madison Opera is on the list.)

The arts are not just cultural enrichment; they are an essential part of our economy. In 2017, the industry contributed $877.8 billion, or 4.5 percent, to U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employed over 5 million workers. We cannot afford to let this industry disappear. I fear that many individual artists and arts organizations will not recover from this. (Below, Brailey sings Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Magnificat” at the Bucknell Bach Festival.)

While we wait out this storm, I implore you to donate to a Madison arts organization. Here is a short list of recommendations along with some national relief funds for artists.

Local Arts Organizations

Madison Bach Musicians

Handel Aria Competition

Madison Early Music Festival

Madison Opera

Madison Youth Choirs

List of National Relief Funds


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Classical music: FREE Handel aria concert by area high school singers is this Saturday afternoon at Capitol Lakes

January 23, 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.

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature flutist Marilyn Chohaney, of The Oakwood Chamber Players, with pianist Joseph Ross and clarinetist James Smith. The program is salon music by Arnold Bax, Florent Schmitt, Claude Debussy and Dmitri Shostakovich. Sorry, no titles have been given. The concerts run from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

On this coming Saturday afternoon, Jan. 26 at 2 p.m. at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street – two blocks off the Capitol Square — there will be an hour-long program featuring five young singers performing Handel arias.

There will also be a guest performance of a Handel duet by the Handel Aria Competition’s new artistic director Sarah Brailey (below top) and founding artistic director Cheryl Bensman-Rowe (below bottom).

You can hear Brailey, who won the Handel Aria Competition in 2015  and is now doing graduate work at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music while pursuing her growing career, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Karlos Moser, professor emeritus of the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s opera program, will accompany on the piano.

The performance is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

“Our goal is to encourage high school singers in the Madison, Wisconsin area to explore works from Handel’s vocal repertoire,” says Brailey.

All participating high school singers will receive a $100 Handel Aria Competition scholarship towards voice lessons or membership in the Madison Youth Choirs.

The high school singers who will perform are: Allana Beilke from Madison West High School; Daphne Buan from Verona Area High School; Ava DeCroix from Middleton High School; Cecilia League from McFarland High School; and Virginia Morgan from Madison West High School.

The students are all very active in the local arts scene and have participated in Wisconsin Badger All-State Choir, the Madison Opera Youth Apprentice Program, the Madison Symphony Chorus, the 50th anniversary Wisconsin School Music Association State Honors Treble Choir, and have won numerous awards in the National Association for Teachers of Singing Student Auditions and the State Solo and Ensemble Festival.

The program will include selections from operas and oratorios “Agrippina,” “Joshua,” “L’Allegro,” “Semele” and “Solomon.”


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Classical music: Voces Aestatis — Summer Voices — will perform early and Baroque vocal music this Friday night

August 22, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information to post from Ben Luedcke, the artistic director of the choral group Voces Aestatis (Summer Voices, below).

Luedcke writes:

Voces Aestatis (Summer Voices) will present its third annual summer concert this Friday night, Aug. 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below top and below bottom), 1833 Regent Street in Madison.

Tickets are $20 and available at the door. (Cash and check only; sorry, no credit or debit card sales.)

Artistic Director Ben Luedcke (below) and Assistant Director Ena Foshay have carefully selected singers with a pure blend to perform in this intimate concert venue.

Voces Aestatis is Madison’s only professional choir that specializes in early music.

The group will maintain its tradition of favoring a cappella repertoire of the 16th century, but new this year will be a collaboration with Saint Andrew Episcopal’s music director, Ken Stancer (below).

Stancer will accompany the choir on organ in four 17th-century pieces, including works by Heinrich Schütz, Giovanni Gabrieli, Henry Purcell and Marc-Antione Charpentier.

While the Purcell is the familiar, powerful and climactic “Hear My Prayer,” Gabrieli’s “O Jesu mi dulcissime” and Charpentier’s “Te Deum,” H.147, are rarely performed and are not to be missed.

The Gabrieli setting is for double-choir. But rather than two equal choirs, there are separate low-voice and high-voice choirs that provide a unique and sonorous texture of men and women. Additionally, the Charpentier is full of variety, including solos and quartets within the larger 10-minute piece.

Other a cappella works round out the program, including music by Tomás Luis de Victoria and William Byrd (below).

Most noteworthy will be the group’s fresh look at the double-choir motet “Super flumina babylonis,” by Phillipe de Monte (below). Although the work is typically performed rather slowly and lamentingly, the group will bring a decisively different interpretation with a quicker tempo and active articulations. (You can hear a traditional performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Also of note on the first half are pieces by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (below top) and Orlando di Lasso (below bottom), with texts from the “Song of Solomon” — a collection of bible passages that allege to describe the love between Christ and the Church, though they are in fact favorites of choral composers as they are known for their rather erotic descriptive passages.

Finally, Jacob Obrecht’s “Salve Regina” for six voices is likely to stun listeners not only for its beauty, but also because it was written almost 100 years earlier than anything else on the program.

It features a noticeably different and almost austere harmonic palette with overlapping thick textures, as well as many complicated rhythms and chants in between major sections.

Please visit VocesAestatis.org for more information or to support the organization. The group relies on individual donations, so we thank you in advance for supporting the arts in Madison.


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opens its 26th season with a bang worthy of its name. Plus, TONIGHT the Willy Street Chamber Players open the summer season of the Rural Musicians Forum in Spring Green

June 12, 2017
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A REMINDER: Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green, six members of the Willy Street Chamber Players will open the summer season of the Rural Musicians Forum. The program features works by Johannes Brahms, American composer Charles Ives, and Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. A free-will donation will be requested. The Hillside Theater is located at 6604 County Highway 23, Spring Green. For more information about the Rural Musicians Forum, go to: http://ruralmusiciansforum.org/home

By Jacob Stockinger

This guest review is by a new contributor, Kyle Johnson (below). As a pianist since elementary school, Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season — themed “Alphabet Soup” for 26 letters — began on Friday evening at the historic Stoughton Opera House (below bottom) with a program of underprogrammed French, German and Russian works.

BDDS is led by artistic directors (below) Stephanie Jutt, UW-Madison’s newly-retired flute professor and principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and Jeffrey Sykes, pianist of the San Francisco Piano Trio who studied at the UW-Madison. The two musicians assembled a “dynamite” group of musicians for their opening concert.

First on the program was Médailles antiques (Old Medals) for flute, violin and piano from 1916 by Philippe Gaubert (below). Like the weather throughout the day on Friday, the piece provided a sunny and spry start to the program in the centennial year of World War I.

At times, I wanted the ends of phrases to have a little more stretch and grace to them. However, the richness of sound from each musician, as well as the ensemble’s superb blend, made up for any small qualm I may have had.

The next piece, Gideon Klein’s String Trio (1944), featured three “apprentice” musicians from BDDS’s Dynamite Factory. Violinist Misha Vayman (below top), violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below middle) and cellist Trace Johnson (below bottom) are the program fellows for this year’s series.

Striking about the work was Klein’s musical optimism amid stark reality – the piece was written at the Auschwitz concentration camp just a few months before the death of the composer (below).

The Dynamite Factory artists gave a spirited rendition of the weighty work, which at times resembles the rollicking intensity of Bela Bartok’s folk dances.

Before the intermission, the audience was treated to Sergei Prokofiev’s chilling Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80, for violin and piano. Like the preceding piece, Prokofiev’s sonata was written during the strife of World War II. (You can hear the first movement, played by Maxim Vengerov, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Prokofiev labeled one passage at the end of the first movement as “wind passing through a graveyard”; the passage (a series of quick violin scales) returns at the close of the piece. Under the hands of violinist Carmit Zori (below top) and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below bottom), the sonata seemed both devastating and human.

A brief, unprogrammed presentation began the second half of the concert, which was a performance of “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from the oratorio Solomon by George Frideric Handel.

The work was lauded and produced by the Fourth Earl of Sandwich in the mid-1700s. Fittingly, during the music, characters clad in 18th-century attire roamed the Stoughton Opera House to hand out sandwiches.

Last on the program was Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26, played by violinist Zori; Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm (below top); Toronto Symphony principal cellist Joseph Johnson (below bottom); and pianist Sykes.

The quartet brimmed with musical swells and overlapping layers of sound. There are a number of memorable themes that allow the listener to simply ride the wave of sound throughout the 40-minute work.

All of the musicians were fully deserving of the ovation (below, in a photo by Kyle Johnson) they received in Stoughton, as all technical demands were met with superb musicality and passion.

Future BDDS concerts run through June 25 and are not to be missed! For more information about programs and about performers, performance dates, times and venues, go to www.bachdancing.org


Classical music: After Spring Break, the music season’s endgame starts with the season finale of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which is featuring an unusual but appealing program. Plus, a short concert of student compositions will be featured tonight at the UW-Madison.

April 2, 2013
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ALERT: Tonight, Tuesday night, April 2, at 8:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall (below), a short concert of compositions by students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music will take place. It is free and open to the public

Morphy Hall 2

By Jacob Stockinger

Spring Break is over – it ended Monday – and that means that there are about six more weeks left to the current academic year and the second semester. And thus to the current non-summer concert season.

Perhaps the first group to close out the season is the Madison Symphony Orchestra under its longtime music director and conductor John DeMain (below in a photo by Greg Anderson). The MSO gives three performances of its season finale this weekend.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Now, I have to be honest. The program is one of the more unusual, that The Ear has ever seen. But that is precisely what so intrigues me about it and why the concert is so appealing to me. This is definitely NOT business as usual.

But as usual, performances will be given in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:3o p.m., Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $13.50-$78.50 and can be reserved by calling the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

So what is it that has struck me as so unusual about this program — which includes works from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries — ever since I first heard about it a year ago, when the current season was unveiled?

Well, I understand programming Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. It is a great spring-like popular work, a lyrical work with soaring upbeat and song-like melodies, even though it was composed in a minor key (E minor). And it is a chance to showcase the formidable talents of concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below), who is now finishing up her second season with the MSO and who has virtuosic talents of her own to show off in a solo appearance.

Naha Greenholtz [playing

And I also understand programming the Madison Symphony Orchestra Chorus, which is directed and prepared by Beverly Taylor (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), who is the director of the Choral Department at the UW-Madison as well as the MSO’s assistant conductor.

In fact, the MSO Chorus is often used to end the season with a bang, putting a big group on-stage to make a big sound.

But the pieces it will sing for this concert seem like an unexpected mix.

First there are excerpts from George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Solomon.” The orchestra will play “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba,” an effective curtain-raiser that is often played by itself; and then there will be three choruses.

Beverly Taylor Katrin Talbot

Now, my concerns are definitely NOT those of a purist. In fact I am happy to see the MSO doing Baroque music. I have long wanted the MSO to do more Bach and Handel, as well as Haydn, Mozart and Schubert from the Classical-era.

And I am not along in wishing for Big Bach, given that the New York Philharmonic has just staged a festival of “Bach Variations,” helping to reclaim him from the early music and period instrument ensembles that have – it is absolutely true – changed forever the way that Bach and other early composers are performed and heard.

But except for chronology, the Handel oratorio, great as it is, does seem an odd choice for an opening work.

Then the orchestra and chorus will perform Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells,” which DeMain says he heard recently and was quite taken with. I trust his judgment, though I and many others know Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) much more through his solo piano works, his piano concertos, his symphonies and his chamber and vocal music. I also know the “Isle of the Dead” (which was used in the Frank Langella movie version of “Dracula”).

Rachmaninoff had a thing with bells, including the popular “Bells of Moscow” Prelude in C-sharp minor and several other preludes.

But I have also heard DeMain conduct Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” very effectively, and I have heard Beverly Taylor lead the UW Choral Union in Rachmaninoff’s lengthy a cappella work “All-Night Vigil.” So I give the MSO the benefit of the doubt and look forward to the new and the unexpected.

Rachmaninoff

Then the MSO chorus will return to wrap up the concert with a true rarity that I have never heard or heard of: the work by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (below) work “Toward the Unknown Region.”

Well, it is aptly named since it is rarely performed or recorded. But again, I defer to the taste of John DeMain, who has time and again shown that he knows how to find and program unusual works that are, in the end, make for a compelling program and total experience.

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

If you want to know more and hear a preview, here is a link:

http://madisonsymphony.org/feast

Here is a link to program notes by MSO trombone player and music teacher at UW-Whitewater J. Michael Allsen:

http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenj/MSO/NOTES/1213/8.Apr13.html

What do you think of the program?

Do you have light to shed on the various works?


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