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
2 Comments

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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: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
3 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE 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

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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