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: “Just Bach” — a monthly mid-day FREE concert series — starts this Thursday at 1 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church. Plus, the FREE fifth annual UW Brass Fest takes place Friday and Saturday

September 25, 2018
2 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like It”) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

ALERT: This Friday and Saturday, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music will host  Brass Fest V. It features guest artists and the faculty group The Wisconsin Brass Quintet. Events are FREE and OPEN to the public. For a schedule and more information about events and performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/brass-fest-v-alumni/

By Jacob Stockinger

A new and noteworthy monthly event starts this Thursday. Here is an announcement:

“Just Bach” is a new monthly mid-day concert series in Madison. It celebrates the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below).

The series of hour-long concerts kicks off at 1 p.m. this Thursday, Sept. 27,at Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue.

Admission is free, but goodwill offerings will be accepted.

The Madison series, inspired by a model and successful program established by conductor Julian Wachner at the Trinity Wall Street Church in New York City, will offer monthly concerts at Luther Memorial Church, presenting programs curated from Bach’s sacred vocal repertoire.

As in New York City, the concerts will open with all present singing a hymn, followed by an organ solo, with the rest of the program devoted to cantatas, motets, and possibly oratorios or passions. An important component of the initiative will be the training and inclusion of local singers for the chorus. The period-instrument orchestra will include local and regional players.

Audience members may take in food and beverage for their lunch, which can be consumed during the program.

This Thursday afternoon, organist Mark Brampton Smith (below) will play the “Little” Fugue in G Minor, BWV 578 (heard, with a graphic depiction, in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the choir and orchestra will perform two beautiful cantatas: O heileges Geist- und Wasserbad (O Bath of Holy Spirit and Water), BWV 165; and Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (Dearest Jesus, My Desire), BWV 32.

Adds the organizer Marika Fischer Hoyt (below), who also directs the annual Bach Around the Clock event in March: “The goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large.

“The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach would have conceived. Members of the artistic team will prepare local singers to perform alongside seasoned professionals and develop a familiarity and love of the repertoire.

“The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

“The dream team bringing this venture to Madison consists of four individuals who have each dedicated a significant portion of their careers to the music of J.S. Bach: soprano Sarah Brailey, who did her master’s at the UW-Madison and won the Handel Aria Competition; mezzo-soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe; UW-Madison professor and bass-baritone Paul Rowe; and modern and baroque violist Marika Fischer Hoyt who also performs with the Madison Bach Musicians, Sonata à Quattro and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The vocal soloists for the concert on this Thursday will be Sarah Brailey (below), Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, tenor Wesley Dunnagan, and Paul Rowe. The period orchestra of local and regional baroque players will be led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim.

After the debut, Just Bach dates go to Wednesdays and will take place at 1 p.m. on Oct. 31, Nov. 28 and Dec. 12.

Our Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/SingetdemHerrn

Our Instagram account is at https://www.instagram.com/_just_bach_/

A website is in the process of being constructed.

We are extremely grateful to Pastor Brad Pohlman and the congregation of Luther Memorial Church for hosting the series this Fall.

We invite the Madison community to come spend a lunch hour with the sublime music of J.S. Bach – feed your body and soul!”


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