The Well-Tempered Ear

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
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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.


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Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Here are two extended playlists of American masterpieces

July 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Independence Day – the Fourth of July holiday.

It is a good occasion to listen to classical music by American composers (below), which you can hear much of the day on Wisconsin Public Radio.

But here are two other extended playlists of American classical music:

Here, thanks to a California radio station, is a list with complete performances of some of the best American masterpieces, including the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, the “Afro-American” Symphony by William Grant Still (below), “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin and “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” by Leonard Bernstein:

https://www.capradio.org/music/classical/2019/07/04/playlist-american-classical-music-for-your-fourth-of-july/

And thanks to Minnesota Public Radio, here are four hours of patriotic music for the holiday: https://www.classicalmpr.org/story/2018/06/29/celebrate-the-fourth-of-july-with-our-4hour-patriotic-classical-playlist

Finally, in the YouTube at the bottom is the “American” String Quartet by Antonin Dvorak (below), who summered in Spillville, Iowa. He loved hearing and tried to capture sounds of nature, including bird songs, traditional Black spirituals and music by Native Americans.

The Ear especially likes it because it is proof that just as Americans have been influenced by European composers, European composers, European composers have been influenced by American composers.

Do you have a special or favorite piece of classical music to help celebrate the Fourth of July?

What do you like about it?

Leave a comment with a YouTube link if possible?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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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
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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: The Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Opera, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Overture Center cancel their fall seasons. Plus, on Saturday cellist Cole Randolph performs a virtual concert for Grace Presents

June 26, 2020
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ALERT: The Saturday at noon, Grace Presents will offer the first in its series of HD Virtual Concerts online. Future performers include organist Mark Brampton Smith and the Willy Street Chamber Players.

The performer this time is the cellist and recent UW-Madison graduate Cole Randolph (below). The program is: the Sonata for Solo Cello by the American composer George Crumb; two of the “Seven Songs Heard in China” by Chinese composer Bright Sheng; and the Suite for Solo Cello No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Here is where you can hear the 40-minute concert inside the church on the Capitol Square: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vaOCH53osk

You can also connect with Cole Randolph after the show by joining in a Zoom meet-and-greet immediately following the performance at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88001773181

The meeting ID is: 880 0177 3181

You can hear Randolph (below, in a photo by Michael Anderson) playing in the YouTube video at the bottom.

By Jacob Stockinger

With all the talk of a second wave of coronavirus coming in the fall — complicated by the seasonal flu – concert cancellations don’t come as a surprise, unfortunately.

In fact, The Ear suspects many more cancellations are to come, including those from the UW-Madison, the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Here is the latest round: the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Overture Center have all canceled their fall seasons, with some qualifications.

The announcements came on Thursday morning in the wake of the Overture Center canceling all performances this summer and fall through Nov. 30.

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

The Madison Symphony Orchestra has provided a short statement and a more complete and detailed press release.

Here is the statement:

“The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 2020-21 “Beethoven and Beyond” season concerts and Overture Concert Organ performances are now canceled from September 2020 through January 2021.

“The move is due to the Overture Center’s decision to suspend events through Nov. 30, 2020, and the requirements of Dane County’s “Forward Dane” Reopening Plan.

“The 2020-21 season performances in February, March, April and May 2021 are scheduled to take place as planned.

“All subscribers will be sent a refund for the value of their tickets for the September 2020 through January 2021 concerts.”

Here is a list on the five MSO concerts – including the Beyond the Score performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on Jan. 25 — that will be canceled and the four that remain scheduled: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/2020-2021-symphony-season-concerts/

Here is a link to the full press release about the cancellations by the MSO (below, in a  photo by Peter Rodgers): https://madisonsymphony.org/press-release-june-2020-concert-events-update/

MADISON OPERA

The Madison Opera is canceling the two in-person performances of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour) but is planning on offering some kind of large digital event and smaller live events at its center.

Here is statement from the Madison Opera:

“Although the Overture Center for the Arts is closed until the end of November, we will not be going silent.

“We are creating a fall season that lasts from September through December, and includes both digital content and live performances at the Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, our home in downtown Madison.

“Some of our signature engagement activities — such as Opera Novice and Opera Up Close — will have monthly editions that include artists from around the country.

“The Opera Center itself will be the site of “Live from the Opera Center,” a variety of streamed performances with a small live audience.

“Other performances will be created digitally and made available exclusively to subscribers.

“Artists involved include members of the original “Il Trovatore” cast: soprano Karen Slack, baritone Weston Hurt, bass Kenneth Kellogg, and stage director Fenlon Lamb. Other soloists include Wisconsin-based artists Jeni Houser (below), David Blalock, Emily Fons, Emily Secor and Kirsten Larson.

“We are working with our artists to create programming that is chosen from their passions: music they want to share, ideas they want to explore, and conversations they want to start. The challenges facing us will create new art, and new ways to make sure it is accessible to everyone.”

Marketing director Andrew Rogers told The Ear that the opera company is still deciding whether digital performances will be ticketed or free with suggested donations.

The full schedule will be announced in early August, after the digital online Opera in the Park takes place Saturday, July 25. For details, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2020/05/06/opera-in-the-park-is-going-digital/

To stay current about the regular opera season, you can sign up for the Madison Opera’s news updates via email by going to this website: https://www.madisonopera.org/fall2020/

WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

The Nov. 20 opening concert with pianist John O’Conor of the Masterworks Series has been POSTPONED with no new date set yet.

Music director Andrew Sewell says the Family Concert on is still on for Saturday, Oct. 10, at the Goodman Community Center but the WCO is looking for an alternative venue.

The concert on Nov. 7 at the Verona Area Performing Arts Center has been CANCELED.

Both performances of Handel’s “Messiah” — on Dec. 9 and Dec. 12 at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton and the UW’s Hamel Music Center on Dec. 12 – have also been CANCELED.

And this season the WCO will not play Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” from Dec. 17-27 because the Madison Ballet has canceled those performances.

For more information about the WCO (below, in photo by Mike Gorski), go to: https://wcoconcerts.org/concerts-tickets/calendar

What do you think?

Do you think the cancellations are warranted?

Do you want to leave a message or comment encouraging and supporting the various groups and their many musicians?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: COVID-19 pandemic forces more major changes for Concerts on the Square and a cancellation by the Mosaic Chamber Players

June 11, 2020
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ALERT: The Ear has received the following note from Jess Salek — the founder, director and pianist of the Mosaic Chamber Players: “Just a note to mention that the concert scheduled for this Saturday, June 13, is cancelled due to COVID-19. We are doing our best to stay positive during this difficult time for local arts groups, and we will resume our music-making as soon as is safe. Please be well!”

By Jacob Stockinger

Major changes are in store for the annual Concerts on the Square, which were already postponed with a change of dates, day and time, according to television WKOW-TV Channel 27 (you can hear the TV news report in the YouTube video at the bottom):

Here are details:

MADISON (WKOW) – The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) has unveiled a new plan for its 2020 Concerts on the Square series (below), which involves replacing the four postponed concerts with two drive-in performances.

Additionally, they’re planning for two live concerts at Breese Stevens Field if playing outdoors is deemed safe in late summer.

The revised approach was necessary to keep attendees safe, while adhering to state and county requirements that don’t allow for large gatherings, according to a WCO news release.

The WCO will follow Forward Dane Health Guidelines to determine if the live concerts can occur. A decision will be made in late July.

“We were optimistic in April that if we only delayed the start of Concerts on the Square to late July that we could still hold live performances downtown,” said Joe Loehnis (below), the WCO’s CEO. “But as the pandemic continues to affect us all in ways we never could have foreseen, we’ve decided to take creative steps now that will allow us to still share music with our community.”

The new plan for Concerts on the Square looks like this:

  • The first four shows (July 28 – Aug 18) have been postponed until the summer of 2021.
  • The WCO, in partnership with the Madison Mallards, will host two “drive-in” concerts on June 24 and July 22 (more information below). Each concert also will be live-streamed on https://wcoconcerts.org and https://pbswisconsin.org for free.
  • The final two Concerts on the Square will be live concerts at Breese Stevens Field on Aug. 25 and Sept. 1.
  • The WCO’s annual “runout” concert to Portage this summer has been canceled.

Drive-in Concerts on the Square

The two drive-in concerts will feature rebroadcasts of the most popular Concerts on the Square performances, thanks to a partnership with PBS Wisconsin.

The WCO expects to be able to have 115 vehicles at each concert. The goal is to make it accessible to as many people as possible without risking health and safety.

The basics for each program are:

Location: Warner Park, 2930 N. Sherman Ave., Madison
Cost: $25 per car 
Time: 7-8 p.m.; 8:45-9:45 p.m. (two showings each night to allow more people to attend)
Additional information: To purchase tickets, visit: 

 

 

June 24 – “S Wonderful” with Amanda Huddleston, soprano, and Andrew Clark, tenor. Songs include: “The Sound of Music” Medley, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Armed Forces Salute” and “1812 Overture.” (2015 Performance)

July 22 – “Film Night,” featuring concertmaster Suzanne Beia. Songs include: “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Pink Panther,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Schindler’s List” and “E.T.” (2019 Performance)

“With two showings each night, we’re trying to make the concerts as accessible as possible,” Loehnis said. “Community partnerships are so important right now, and because of PBS Wisconsin and the Mallards, we’re able to bring this idea to life. We are grateful for these partnerships.”

Breese Stevens concerts are planned for late summer. If Dane County has entered Phase III of its Forward Dane plan by late August, 250 people will be allowed to gather for outdoor events.

For that reason, the WCO is planning to host two live Concerts on the Square at Breese Stevens.

The WCO will provide an update later in July on progress for this opportunity. Those shows currently are scheduled for Aug. 25 and Sept. 1.

The WCO also is considering how it could broadcast the live performances to other venues such as the Alliant Energy Center, Warner Park or Madison parks, where others could view the concerts safely.

“We’re still working through the logistics, and we’re realists – understanding that the situation changes almost daily,” Loehnis said. “But we also want to be forward-thinking and we’re going to keep pushing ahead unless we don’t believe a live show can be held safely.”

To keep up-to-date with performance schedules, community members can sign up for email updates on the WCO website or follow the orchestra on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=wisconsin%20chamber%20orchestra&epa=SEARCH_BOX) and Instagram.

 


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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
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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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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: On this Memorial Day, The Ear honors not only soldiers but also civilians, COVID-19 victims and all those responders and workers who serve the public

May 25, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day 2020.

It is of course a largely military holiday. Most of the planned public events will be to honor those who died in service to their country. That usually means fallen soldiers and deceased veterans.

It also means that military cemeteries – like Arlington National Cemetery, below — will be decorated with American flags.

But The Ear doesn’t think we should forget that there are many ways to serve your country and protect the public, many kinds war and self-sacrifice.

Let’s not forget civilians, especially since worldwide more than twice the numbers of civilians died in World War II than did members of the armed forces. Lives are taken as well as given.

A larger definition of “national service” also seems especially timely since this weekend the U.S. is likely to surpass 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic. They include many first responders and frontline workers (below) as well as grocery store workers and delivery drivers. Even “small” occupations have big heroes. There is no reason not to be more inclusive.

There are traditional kinds of music to honor the dead. They include requiems and elegies, military marches and funeral marches. And in the comment section you should feel free to suggest whatever music you think would be appropriate.

But The Ear found a piece he thinks is both unusual and ideal.

It is called “Old and Lost Rivers” by the contemporary American composer Tobias Picker (below). It is a beautiful, moving and contemplative piece, based on an actual place in Texas, that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But you should know this about the work’s title.

With rivers, “lost” doesn’t mean forgotten or misplaced.

One dictionary defines it as “a surface stream that flows into an underground passageway” – and eventually often becomes part of a larger body of water such as a lake or the ocean.

It can also mean rivers that appear during heavy rain and then disappear when they evaporate during a drought.

Somehow, those images serve as fitting metaphors for our losses and that music seems a very appropriate way to honor those who sacrifice themselves and disappear in service to others.

The Ear hopes you agree.


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