The Well-Tempered Ear

Which classical composer has helped you the most during the Covid-19 pandemic?

January 4, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

The holidays are over and as we close in on marking a year of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, The Ear has a question:

Which composer has helped you the most to weather the pandemic so far?

The Ear wishes he could say Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin or Brahms. And the truth is that they all played a role, some more than others.

But The Ear was surprised by the composer whose works he most listened to and liked — Antonio Vivaldi (below), the Red Priest of Venice who lived from 1678 to 1714 and taught at a Roman Catholic girls school.

Here is more about his biography, which points out that his work was neglected for two centuries and began being rediscovered only in the early 20th-century and still continues being rediscovered to the present day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Vivaldi

The Ear isn’t talking about popular The Four Seasons although that set of 12 solo violin concertos has its charms and originalities.

The Ear especially appreciated the lesser-known concertos for two violins and the cello concertos, although the concertos for bassoon, flute, recorder, oboe, lute, trumpet and mandolin also proved engaging, as did the concerto grosso.

It was the 20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky (below) – the modern pioneer of neo-Classicism — who complained that Vivaldi rewrote the same concerto 500 times. “Vivaldi,” Stravinsky once said, “is greatly overrated – a dull fellow who could compose the same form many times over.”

But then did anyone turn to Stravinsky – who, The Ear suspects, was secretly envious — when they needed music as medicine or therapy during the pandemic? 

Vivaldi was, in fact, a master. See and hear for yourself.  In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, RV 535,  performed by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

Why Vivaldi? You might ask.

Well, it’s nothing highbrow.

The best explanation is that Vivaldi’s music simply seems like caffeine for the ears and sunshine for the eyes. His music isn’t overly introspective or glum, and it isn’t too long or melodramatic.

The melodies and harmonies are always pleasing and energizing, and the tempi are just right, although bets are that the music is much harder to play than it sounds.

In short, Vivaldi’s extroverted music is infectious and appealing because it just keeps humming along — exactly as those of us in lockdown and isolation at home have had to do.

Happily, there are a lot of fine recordings of Vivaldi by period instrument groups from England, Italy and Germany and elsewhere that use historically informed performance practices. But some the most outstanding recordings are by modern instrument groups, which should not be overlooked.

With a few exceptions – notably Wisconsin Public Radio – you don’t get to hear much Vivaldi around here, especially in live performances, even from early music and Baroque ensembles. If you hear Vivaldi here, chances are it is The Four Seasons or the Gloria. Should there be more Vivaldi? Will we hear more Vivaldi when live concerts resume? That is a topic for another time.

In the meantime, The Ear wants to know:

Which composer did you most listen to or find most helpful throughout the pandemic?

Leave your choice in the comment section with, if possible, a YouTube link to a favorite work and an explanation about why you liked that composer and work.

The Ear wants to hear.

Thank you and Happy New Year!

 


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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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The New York Times names the top 25 classical recordings of 2020 and includes sample tracks

December 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

What did the holidays bring you?

Did Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa bring you a gift card?

A subscription to a streaming service?

Maybe some cash?

Or maybe you just want to hear some new music or new musicians or new interpretations of old classics?

Every year, the music critics of The New York Times list their top 25 recordings of the past year. Plus at the end of the story, the newspaper offers a sample track from each recording to give you even more guidance.

This year is no exception (below).

In fact, the listing might be even more welcome this year, given the  coronavirus pandemic with the lack of live concerts and the isolation and self-quarantine that have ensued.

The Ear hasn’t heard all of the picks or even the majority of them. But the ones he has heard are indeed outstanding. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a sample of the outstanding Rameau-Debussy recital by the acclaimed Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafssen, who scored major successes with recent albums of Philip Glass and Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/17/arts/music/best-classical-music.html

Of course not all critics agree.

The Ear has already listed the nominations for the Grammy Awards (a link is below), and more critics’ picks will be featured in coming days.

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/

You should also notice that a recording of Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison” — featuring soprano Sarah Brailey (below), a graduate student at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and a co-founder of Just Bach — is on the Times’ list as well as on the list of Grammy nominations.

What new recordings – or even old recordings — would you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Today is the Summer Solstice. What music best greets summer during this odd year? Plus, here is information about Make Music Madison this Sunday

June 20, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Saturday, June 20, 2020 – is the Summer Solstice.

Summer officially arrives this afternoon at 4:43 p.m. CDT.

Is The Ear alone in thinking that the time since the winter solstice has passed both more slowly and also more quickly than usual, thanks to the pandemic?

And now the days will start getting shorter. Can that be possible? Is the year really half over?

Well, it has been an unusual spring and promises to be an unusual summer, to say the least.

So how about some unusual Vivaldi?

If you listen to Wisconsin Public Radio, chances are good that today or sometime soon you will hear the hyper-popular original version of “Summer” from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

But The Ear finds this unusual contemporary version a welcome change from the over-programmed and too familiar original version, and more appropriate to the special summer that will follow the special spring.

It is a version that has been “recomposed” by British composer Max Richter (below top) with violin soloist Daniel Hope (below bottom), a protege of the legendary Yehudi Menuhin, who performed several years ago with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The Ear finds the entire work very appealing, but here is the YouTube video of just the Summer section as it was being recorded.

If you don’t like this music, what music would you choose to listen to as you celebrate the coming of summer?

And if you like this excerpt, here is a link to the complete version of “Vivaldi Recomposed”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJnxPgT83rw

MAKE MUSIC MADISON

Today may be the Summer Solstice, but this year’s Make Music Madison will take place this Sunday, which also happens to be Father’s Day.

The eight annual Make Music Madison – which includes classical music but also rock, jazz, folk, blues, hip-hop and country — is part of Make Music Day, an international celebration of the Summer Solstice that this year will take place in some 1,000 cities in 120 countries.

Here is a helpful listing with locations, time, performers and programs as well as form (virtual and online, with links, or real): http://www.makemusicmadison.org

Here is a story with more background about the event: http://www.makemusicday.org

If you attend or hear some of the events, let us know what you thought.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: NPR explores musical responses to epidemics and pandemics from The Black Plague through HIV-AIDS and COVID-19. Do you know of any more?

April 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

For many centuries, artists of all kinds have responded to major social catastrophes or crises. (Below is “The Dance of Death” from the Wellcome Library in London).

Musicians and composers are among them.

Many musicians are now performing and then live streaming music in their homes because of the need for self-isolation and quarantining or social distancing.

But here we are talking about composers who tried to translate the tragedy of sickness into sound.

So it is with the coronavirus and COVID-19.

But the writer puts in it in a context that transforms it into a kind of tradition.

Tom Huizenga, who writes for the “Deceptive Cadence” blog of NPR (National Public Radio), also provides audio samples of the work he is discussing.

He starts with The Black Plague of the 14th century and British composer John Cooke (below), who wrote a hymn to the Virgin Mary.

He offers an example of how Johann Sebastian Bach (below), who suffered his own tragedies, responded to a later plague in France in one of his early cantatas.

The story covers the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and how both the disease and the government’s slow response to it inspired a symphony by the American composer John Corigliano (below).

The survey concludes with a contemporary American composer, Lisa Bielawa (below), who is in the process of composing a choral work that responds to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here is a link to the NPR story, which you can read and or else spend seven minutes listening to, along with the audio excerpts of the works that have been discussed.

Here is a link: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/04/13/827990753/when-pandemics-arise-composers-carry-on

What do you think of the story?

Do you know of other composers or musical works that responded to epidemics, pandemics and other public health crises?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Renowned organist Hector Olivera will play classics and also improvise spontaneously in Overture Hall on Tuesday night

February 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

At 7:30 p.m. on this Tuesday night, Feb. 11, in Overture Hall, the renowned Argentinian organist and composer Hector Olivera (below) will make his local debut on the Overture Concert Organ Series sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Olivera will perform on the Klais Overture Concert Organ (below)

All tickets are $20.

The program includes works by: Johann Sebastian Bach; Cesar Franck; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Astor Piazzolla; Louis Vierne; Marco Enrico Bossi; and William Ralph Driffill.

For the specific works on the program, plus information about buying tickets, biographical background and reviews of his past performances, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/organ-hector-olivera/

Says Greg Zelek (below), the MSO organist and Juilliard School graduate who also organizes the organ concert series:

“Known as one of the most exciting organists of the 20th century, international concert organist Hector Olivera will entertain and exhilarate the audience with an unforgettable performance.

“Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Mr. Olivera has performed all over the world and has had audiences leaping to their feet with applause for years.

“His debut performance at Overture Hall will feature organ classics like Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster, as well as transcriptions like “Oblivion” by another Argentine native, Astor Piazzolla.

“He will close the concert with an improvisation on a submitted theme that is sure to enthrall and amaze everyone in attendance.”

Want proof or a preview?

You can hear Olivera improvise on a traditional Chinese folk song, first sung to him, during a concert in Shenzhin, China, in the YouTube video below:


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Classical music: The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge sings a varied program with organ accompaniment this Wednesday night in Overture Hall

September 9, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The new season of the popular Overture Concert Organ series, sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and curated by MSO organist Greg Zelek, begins this Wednesday night, Sept. 11, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall.

All single tickets are $20. (A subscription to all four organ concerts is $63.)

The opening program features the world-famous Choir of Trinity College Cambridge (below), on tour from its home in the United Kingdom.

Adds Zelek:

“Our season opens with the amazing Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, named by Gramophone Magazine as one of the best choirs in the world.

“Conducted by the choir’s music director Stephen Layton (below top) and accompanied on the mighty Klais concert organ (below bottom), this 25-voice choir will present a program of music spanning many centuries that will display its beauty of tone and depth of feeling. These rich voices will make this varied program soar through Overture Hall and leave everyone in the audience breathless.”


Here are some sample reviews:

Virtuoso is the right word. I, for one, can’t immediately think of any more appropriate way of describing singing of such staggering accomplishment.  – BBC Music Magazine

Sitting front and center at a recent Trinity Choir of Cambridge concert at Grace Cathedral was, sonically speaking, a heavenly experience.                    -The New York Times

Here is Wednesday night’s eclectic program:

William Byrd | Sing joyfully
William Byrd | O Lord, make thy servant, Elizabeth
Thomas Tallis | Salvator mundi
Henry Purcell | Thou knowest, Lord
Arvo Part | Bogoroditse Djévo
John Tavener | Mother of God, here I stand
Vasily Kalinnikov | Bogoroditse Djevo
Robert Parsons | Ave Maria
Eriks Esenvalds | The Heavens’ Flock (You can hear a different Esenvalds work, “Only in Sleep,” sung by the Trinity College Choir, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Morten Lauridsen | O magnum mysterium
Jaakko Mantyjarvi | Stuttgarter Psalmen
Herbert Howells | Take him, earth, for cherishing
Herbert Howells | Trinity St. Paul’s

For more information about the Overture Organ Series, detailed background about the Trinity College Choir and how to purchase tickets, call (608) 258-4141 or go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/overture-concert-organ-performances/ or https://madisonsymphony.org/event/organ-trinity-choir/ 


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Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Here is patriotic music to help celebrate, including a portrait of a truly presidential president for the purpose of comparison

July 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Fourth of July – a celebration of Independence Day when the United States officially declared its separation from Great Britain in 1776.

The day will be marked by picnics and barbecues, by local parades and spectacular fireworks – and this year by armored tanks and fighter jets in yet another expensive display of military power by You Know Who: that loudmouth man who overcompensates for dodging the draft by acting more like King George than George Washington.

The “Salute to America” sure looks like it is really going to be a “Salute to Trump.”

But whatever your politics, your preferences in presidents or the festive activities you have planned for today, there is classical music to help you mark and celebrate the occasion. Just go to Google and search for “classical music for the Fourth of July.”

Better yet, tune into Wisconsin Public Radio, which will be featuring American classical music all day long.

In addition, though, here are some oddities and well-known works that The Ear particularly likes and wants to share.

The first is the Russian immigrant composer and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his own version of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” something he apparently did out of respect for his adopted country before each recital he played in the U.S.:

And the second is by another Russian immigrant and piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, who was a friend and colleague of Rachmaninoff. Here he is playing his piano arrangement, full of keyboard fireworks that sound much like a third hand playing, of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by American march king John Philip Sousa. Horowitz used the patriotic march to raise money and sell war bonds during World War II, then later used as an encore, which never failed to wow the audience:

For purposes of artistic and political comparisons of presidents, you will also find Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” – with famous actor and movie star Henry Fonda as the narrator of Honest Abe’s own extraordinary oratory and understated writing — in the YouTube video at the bottom.

And in a ironic twist The Ear can’t resist, here are nine pieces — many orchestral and some choral –chosen by the official website of the BBC Music Magazine in the United Kingdom to mark and honor American Independence Day. It has some surprises and is worth checking out:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/nine-best-works-independence-day

If you like or favor other works appropriate to the Fourth of July or have comments, just leave word and a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Recorder virtuoso Piers Adams solos in baroque and contemporary concertos this Friday night with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

April 18, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

During his long and successful tenure with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), music director and conductor Andrew Sewell has established a reputation for championing unusual repertoire and booking young or relatively unknown soloists as well as for offering insightful interpretations of classic masterworks.

But Sewell (below) seems to be surpassing himself with the concert he will lead this Friday night, April 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

For one, the concert features the British recorder virtuoso Piers Adams (below), who established his own reputation as a part of the unusual baroque quartet Red Priest, the nickname for Antonio Vivaldi, who was indeed a priest in Venice with flaming red hair. (In the YouTube at the bottom, you can sample Adams’ virtuosity as he makes bird calls on the recorder while playing a section of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”)

You can also go to the following websites for more information about Piers Adams:

https://piersadams.com

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piers_Adams

The Ear can’t think of another time any major group in the area offered a soloist on the recorder – a baroque wooden flute-like instrument — except for the Madison Early Music Festival.

True to form, Adams will perform baroque music with the WCO – specifically, the Concerto for Recorder in C Major by Georg Philipp Telemann.

But to add to the more unusual aspects of the concert, Adams will also perform a contemporary work with the WCO – specifically, a 1994 recorder concerto by the English composer David Bedford (1937-2011, below) that was commissioned by Adams and has proven popular both on a recording and in concert.

For more information about Bedford, go to:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bedford

To round out the program, Sewell has programmed two other rarely heard works: the “Brook Green” Suite by Gustav Holst, best known for “The Planets”; and the Serenade in E-Flat Major, Op. 6, by the Czech composer Josef Suk (below), a very accomplished violinist and composer who studied with Antonin Dvorak and then became his son-in-law.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Suk_(composer)

For more information about the concert, including tickets ($12-$80) and notes on the performers and the program, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-iv-4/


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Classical music: We should hear more operas sung in English translation – like Wisconsin Public Radio’s live broadcast TODAY at noon of the Metropolitan Opera’s shortened version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”

December 29, 2018
6 Comments

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.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear thinks that we in English-speaking countries should hear more operas sung in our native language.

Yes, sung in English – not the original Italian, French or German.

You can see how you’d like it for yourself if you listen at noon TODAY– Saturday, Dec. 29 — to Wisconsin Public Radio. That’s when you can hear the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of its family-friendly production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

The Ear did so and – except for deleting the wonderful overture — loved it.

So, apparently, did a lot others. (You can hear Nathan Gunn in a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

After many years, the production has now become a holiday tradition for the Met to offer children while school is out for the holidays.

And one suspects it is developing new audiences – especially with the colorful staging and costumes by Julie Taymor, who won such acclaim for her staging of “The Lion King” on both the stage and film.

Sure, a lot of purists will probably object to substituting English for the original Italian, French, German and Russian. But it is so freeing and feels so good to understand what you are hearing without the distraction of constantly going back and forth trying to look at both the supertitles and the stage.

It also seems worth a try, given the problems that many opera companies are having competing with the “Live from the Met in HD” productions that you can see in movie theaters for far less money, and the decline of both season subscribers and single tickets.

To be honest, of course even in English you will miss some of the words. That’s the nature of singing. But excellent diction helps. And if you are lucky enough to see the production in person, supertitles in Italian, French German and Spanish and, yes, English are still provided.

It is not a completely new idea. After all, Great Britain has the English National Opera, which performs standard operas by Verdi and Puccini, Monteverdi and Handel, Mozart and Wagner, in English. So, many of the very great operas have already been translated into English and could be staged in English elsewhere.

Here are links where you can learn more about the English National Opera:

https://www.eno.org

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_National_Opera

Do you question how the text is hurt in translation?

It’s worth remembering that Mozart himself used the vernacular German instead of his usual opera house Italian so that he would reach the general public. Why not do the same today? Translation could make opera much more accessible, less pretentious and more populist.

The same is true for cutting the show down to 100 minutes from almost 3 hours. Let’s just admit that the attention span of the general public is much shorter than it used to be.

Orchestra and chamber music concerts as well as solo recitals are trimming their running times often down to 90 minutes or less, and meet with great approval from the public. Why not try the same approach with opera? Indeed, both the Madison Opera and the University Opera have limited but successful experiences with editing operas and using English.

It is also worth recalling that in translation we read greater words than an opera libretto. If we can translate Homer and Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Proust, why can’t we translate opera librettos? One just has to be sure to find a great translator with a sensitive musical ear– such as American poet Richard Wilbur is with his award-winning, rhyming translations of Moliere’s comedies and Racine’s tragedies. Similarly, American poet J.D. McClatchy has done a fine job with The Met’s “Magic Flute.”

Here is a link to more information about the production, including a synopsis:

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/the-magic-flute/

And here is a review of the Met’s  “Magic Flute” by Tommasini:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/arts/music/review-mozart-magic-flute-met-opera.html

What do you think?

Should more operas be staged in English?

Should long operas be edited?

Why or why not?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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