The Well-Tempered Ear

University Opera’s original online video project celebrates the life and music of American composer Marc Blitzstein. It will be posted for FREE on YouTube this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m.

October 21, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera presents its first project of 2020-21 in video format as it turns to the music of the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” will be released free of charge on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s YouTube channel this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. CDT at the general site www.youtube.com/meadwitterschoolofmusic or the official specific link: https://youtu.be/77FXFZucrWc.

Director of University Opera David Ronis (below top) is the director of the original production and will give introductory remarks. UW-Madison graduate Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) is the musical director. The production lasts 1 hour and 40 minutes, and features four singer-actors, a narrator and a piano.

Marc Blitzstein’s life story parallels some of the most important cultural currents in American history of the mid-20th-century.

Known for his musicals — most notably The Cradle Will Rock in 1937 (you can hear Dawn Upshaw sing the lovely song “I Wish It So” from “Juno” in the YouTube video at the bottom) — his opera Regina and his translation of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Blitzstein was an outspoken proponent of socially engaged art. Like many artists of his time, he joined the American Communist Party. But he also enthusiastically served in the U.S. Army during World War II (below, in 1943).

Nevertheless, in 1958, long after he had given up his Communist Party membership, Blitzstein (below) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he “named no names.”

An extremely gifted yet underappreciated composer, he was a close friend of and mentor to Leonard Bernstein (below right, with Blitzstein on the left) and traveled in a close circle of American composers including David Diamond and Aaron Copland.

Although openly gay, he married Eva Goldbeck in 1933. Sadly, she died three years later from complications due to anorexia.

Blitzstein’s own death was likewise tragic. In 1964, while in Martinique working on an opera about the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, he was robbed and badly beaten by three Portuguese sailors whom he had picked up at a bar. He died the next day of internal injuries. 

Although throughout his life and afterwards, Blitzstein’s work was championed by Bernstein and others, many claim that neither the composer nor his stunning music and beautiful lyrics ever received the attention they deserved. So University Opera is proud to present this show celebrating his life and his works.

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” is a unique production put together by David Ronis. A biographical pastiche, it tells the story of Blitzstein’s life by recontextualizing 23 songs and ensembles from his shows, juxtaposing them with spoken excerpts from his working notes and letters, and tying it all together with a narration.

The result is a dramatic, evocative and enjoyable portrait of Blitzstein’s life and his art, according to Ronis.

“We’ve discovered a lot of “silver linings” while working on this production,” says Ronis. “We were disappointed at not being able to do a normal staged show. But working with video has had tremendous artistic and educational value.

“Our students are learning on-camera technique, not to mention how to work with a green screen (below, with soprano Sarah Brailey), which allows for post-production editing and digital manipulation of backgrounds. They’re also working with spoken text as well as sung pieces. Mostly, we’re just very grateful to have a creative project to sink our teeth into during the pandemic. 

“And the music of Blitzstein is so fantastic, we’re very happy to be able to share it with our audience. This project is like none other I’ve ever done and we’re thinking that it’s going to be pretty cool.”

Research on the project was completed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where Blitzstein’s archives are housed. University Opera gratefully acknowledges the help of both Mary Huelsbeck of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, and the Kurt Weill Foundation for their assistance with this project.

The cast features five UW-Madison graduate students: Sarah Brailey, Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Lindsey Meekhof (below) and Steffen Silvis.

The video design was done by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park.

Others on the production staff include Will Preston, rehearsal pianist; Elisheva Pront, research assistant and assistant director; Dylan Thoren, production stage manager; Alec Hansen, assistant stage manager; Teresa Sarkela, storyboard creator; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video will be accessible for 23 hours starting at 8 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 23. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted. A link for donations will be posted with the video. 

University Opera, a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, email opera@music.wisc.edu or visit music.wisc.edu.

 


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The third LunART Festival celebrates Black women in the arts with FREE streaming concerts and events this Saturday night, Oct. 10, and next Saturday night, Oct. 17

October 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The LunART Festival is back for its third season, continuing its mission to support, inspire, promote and celebrate women in the arts, with a special presentation, “Human Family,” available via two FREE video livestreams on LunART’s website and Facebook page on Saturday, Oct. 10, and Saturday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. CDT. 

The events will be co-hosted by LunART founder and flutist Iva Ugrcic (below top), and by vocalist and art administrator Deja Mason (below bottom).

In response to the most recent and ongoing racial inequality and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, LunART will present the “Human Family” virtual festival featuring art created by Black women.

These FREE streamed events will feature a palette of emerging and established artists drawn from Madison’s rich arts scene, while also celebrating those who have paved the way for generations to come.

Radical inclusivity has been part of LunART’s mission from its conception. While women have historically been underrepresented in the arts, we cannot deny that there are segments of women that have been doubly marginalized, including women of color, women in the LGBTQIA+ community, older women and women with disabilities. 

Part of creating a more just, inclusive world means recognizing that even within the space of underrepresentation, there remain disparities.

Works from the past include Florence Price’s “Five Folksongs of Counterpoint” for string quartet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom), which is deeply rooted in the African-American spiritual tradition; Margaret Bonds’ Spiritual Suite for solo piano, written in a neo-Romantic classical style infused by jazz harmonies and rhythms; Afro-American Suite for flute, cello and piano by Undine Smith Moore, based on authentic spiritual songs used to express and record everyday life of slaves in America. 

Florence Price (below), Margaret Bonds and Undine Smith Moore all fought against both racial and gender discrimination throughout their lives. To be a woman composing classical music in the mid-20th century was unusual; to be a Black woman composer was even more so. And yet, these women forged ahead, making history and paving the way for the women who would follow them.

Along with these pioneers of the past, LunART will also celebrate contemporary Black women who are making a big impact in the world of arts, culture, advocacy and activism, following the footsteps of their predecessors. 

“Voodoo Dolls” for string quartet by Jessie Montgomery (below in a photo by Jiyang Chen) is influenced by West African drumming patterns that are interwoven with lyrical motifs in the improvisatory style. 

“Fanmi Imen,” a work for flute and piano by Valerie Coleman (below) — LunART’s 2019 Composer-in-Residence) — is based on a powerful poem by Maya Angelou, “Human Family.” Angelou calls for peace and unity, while acknowledging differences due to ethnic and cultural background in her famous refrain: “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

The chamber music will be performed by Madison’s finest musicians: Isabella Lippi, Karl Lavine, Peter Miliczky, Magdalena Sas, Marie Pauls, Satoko Hayami, Yana Avedyan and Iva Ugrcic.

Celebrating women’s creativity across many art forms has been a core component of LunART’s artistic mission from its inception, and this year is no exception. While music will create a sound painting, “Human Family” will also feature women who use words and movement to tell their story.

Enter a world of phenomenal talent with emerging singer-songwriters Danielle Crim and Akornefa Akyea performing their most recent original songs; magically moving poems and spoken-word pieces by Jamie Dawson and Shasparay Lighteard; and join dancer and choreographer Kimi Evelyn in self-exploration of what happens when the body and the soul are left in complete solitude through her powerful piece “Body, Sweet Home.”

To commemorate the Festival events, LunART has commissioned digital artwork (below) by local artist and activist Amira Caire, which is inspired by the “Human Family” concept. This stunning piece of art will be available for purchase in printed form on LunART’s website. 

We are calling our community to eat local, drink local and support local. By supporting LunART, you are also supporting local nonprofits and small businesses. 

This project would not be possible without the generosity of Madison’s creative media agency Microtone Media, The Piano Gal Shop from Sun Prairie, Dane Arts and a grant from the Madison Arts Commission at  https://www.cityofmadison.com/dpced/planning/madison-arts-commission/1580/, with the additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board.

Events are free and available for anyone to watch online, and donations are welcomed. For more details about the artists, events, programs and links, and donation methods, please visit https://www.lunartfestival.org


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Classical music: Meet Mariana Farah, the new choral director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

August 17, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Following a national search, Mariana Farah (below) has been chosen to succeed Beverly Taylor as the new director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Due to prior commitments, Farah cannot start her duties until the fall of 2021. But the delay is understandable given that the coronavirus pandemic continues and group singing remains a particularly hazardous or high-risk activity during the public health crisis. (See her comments about choral singing during Covid-19 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

(In case you are wondering, Taylor, who retired from the UW-Madison last spring, will continue as director of the Madison Symphony Chorus. One wonders if she will still have a chance to do performances of the requiems by Verdi and Dvorak, both of which were canceled due to Covid-19.)

At a time when more focus is being placed on diversity, the Brazilian-born Farah (below) seems an especially apt choice.

Here is the official UW press release about Farah’s appointment along with much biographical material:

“Mariana Farah is the Associate Director of Choral Activities at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, where she teaches courses in graduate choral literature and conducting, directs the university’s Concert Choir and Women’s Chorale (below bottom), and helps oversee all aspects of the choral program.

Born in Brazil, Farah received her Bachelor of Music degree from the Universidade Estadual de Campinas; her Master’s degree from the University of Iowa; and her Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Her choirs have successfully performed at the Missouri and Kansas Music Educators Association conventions and at the 2008 and 2018 Southwestern ACDA conferences.

Farah’s research focuses on Brazilian choral music, particularly the a cappella choral works of Ernani Aguiar (b. 1950, below). Her edition of Aguiar’s “Três Motetinos No. 2” has been published by Earthsongs, and she expects to introduce more of his music to the United States through performances, recordings, editions and future publications of his unknown choral literature.

In addition to her work at KU, Farah (below) maintains an active schedule as a clinician for festivals in Brazil and in the U.S., where she is often sought out for her expertise in Brazilian choral music.

Farah has presented at several conferences for the National Association for Music Education and the American Choral Directors Association.

Recent engagements include appearances as a conductor at the 2019 Northwest Kansas Music Educators Association High School Honor Choir; the 2018 Southwestern ACDA conference, 2016 and 2014 Kansas Music Educators Association Convention; Universidade de São Paulo-Ribeirão Preto; Universidade Estadual de Campinas; Universidade Estadual de Maringá; Festival de Música de Londrina; Adams State Honor Choir Festival; the 2015 Kantorei Summer Choral Institute, a residency with the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum; and the 2014 Idaho All-State Treble Choir.

Farah is the music director at First Presbyterian Church in Lawrence, Kansas, where she directs the Chancel Choir and oversees a thriving music program. She also serves as the interim 2019-20 conductor for the Wichita Chamber Chorale (below) and as a board member of the National Collegiate Choral Organization.

She has served as the president elect (2018-2020) and R&R Chair for Ethnic and Multicultural Perspectives (2014-2018) for the ACDA Southwestern Division.

As a singer, Farah performed with the Kansas City Te Deum Chamber Choir (2015-2018) and participated in their 2016 recording of Brahms’ “A German Requiem” (Centaur Records). The recording was recognized by The American Prize, naming Te Deum a semi-finalist for best Choral Performance (community division) for the 2019-20 contest.

Do you have an observation or words of welcome to say?

Please use the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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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: During the COVID-19 pandemic, hosts at Wisconsin Public Radio suggest music that expresses gratitude and hope

May 13, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The various hosts of Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) — an indispensable companion during self-isolation at home — listen to a lot of music and think a lot about it, especially about its meaning and appeal to the public.

So it comes as no surprise that they have once again suggested music to listen to during the coronavirus pandemic and the mounting toll of COVID-19.

Almost two months ago, the same radio hosts suggested music that they find calming and inspiring. They did so on the WPR home page in an ongoing blog where they also included YouTube audiovisual performances.

Here is a link to that earlier posting, which is well worth reading and following: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Wisconsin+Public+Radio

This time, the various hosts – mostly of classical shows but also of folk music and world music – suggest music that inspires or expresses hope and gratitude. (Below is Ruthanne Bessman, the host of “Classics by Request,” which airs at 10 a.m. on Saturdays.)

Here is the genesis of the list and public service project:

“At a recent WPR music staff meeting, we talked about the many ways music can unite us and about how music can express the gratitude we feel for people and things that are important to us, often much better than words.

“That discussion led to this collection of music, which we wanted to share with you. It’s eclectic and interesting, just like our music staff.”

The composers cited include some familiar names such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Benjamin Britten and John Williams.

But some new music, based on historical events and written by contemporary or modern composers, is also named. It includes works by the American composer Daniel Gawthrop (b. 1949, below top) and the Israeli composer David Zehavi (1910-1977, below bottom). Here are links to their biographies.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_E._Gawthrop

https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/zehavi-david

Sound-wise, it is quite an eclectic list that runs from solo harpsichord music to orchestral and choral music as well as chamber music.

Many of the performers have played in Madison at the Overture Center, with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at the UW-Madison and on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos.

They include: the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; cellist Amit Peled and pianist Eli Kalman, who received his doctorate from the UW-Madison and now teaches at the UW-Oshkosh; conductor-composer John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers;  and superstars violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma along with Venezuelan pianist-improviser Gabriela Montero  in a quartet that played at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Here is a link to the new WPR suggestions: https://www.wpr.org/wpr-hosts-share-music-gratitude-and-hope

Happy listening!

If you read the blog or listen to the music, let us know what you think in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Spring arrives today. Here is music to lift your spirits. What music do you like to greet spring?

March 19, 2020
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ALERT: All events, including worship, are canceled at Luther Memorial Church “until further notice,” and that includes the monthly free Just Bach concert scheduled for noon on next Wednesday, March 25. Organizers say they hope the church reopens in time for the Just Bach concert scheduled for April 15.

By Jacob Stockinger

Spring arrives today – Thursday, March 19 – at last!

The Vernal Equinox will occur at 10:49 p.m. CDT.

Given all the fear and anxiety, isolation and discomfort caused by both the coronavirus and self-quarantining at home, maybe some music inspired by spring will lift your spirits.

At the bottom is a two-hour compilation – with more than a million hits – from YouTube with bright and upbeat, tuneful and melodic spring-like music.

The composers are Baroque, Classical and Romantic and include Bach, Corelli and Vivaldi; Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky; waltzes by Strauss; and songs without words by Mendelssohn and Grieg.

But the choice of spring music is endless, as you can no doubt also hear by listening to Wisconsin Public Radio today.

Is there a special piece you like to hear when you greet the arrival of spring?

Please leave the composer, title, performer and, if possible, a YouTube link, in the Comment section.

 


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Classical music: The UW Choral Union, UW Symphony Orchestra and guest soloists took the audience on a memorable musical voyage in Ralph Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony”

January 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It took a postponement of almost two months before the UW Choral Union (below) finally got to perform last Saturday night in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center.

But the wait was worth it.

The combined forces – conducted by the retiring choral director Beverly Taylor – proved convincing and accomplished in the challenging score of “A Sea Symphony” by the early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The performers did justice to the score’s vivid sound painting. You could hear the sea wind whistling through the rigging; you could feel the ship plowing through the swells and waves.

The American poet Walt Whitman (below) – whose epic-like poetry provided the text for this ambitious nautical and musical journey – would have been proud of the performance.

After all, like Whitman’s poetry, Vaughn Williams’ music — his first symphony — can be forceful and spacious at many moments, tender and reflective or even intimate at other times. The music matches the text, and the performers matched both.

The forces were precise under Taylor’s baton, with sharp attacks and no ragged stopping. True, there were a few moments when the balance seemed a bit off, when the UW Symphony Orchestra overpowered the large campus and community chorus, especially in the very brassy and thickly scored first movement. You just wanted to hear the words better and felt frustrated not to.

But for the most part, though, the student orchestra proved impressive. They were tight and crisp, accurate and transparent, allowing listeners to hear the inner part playing and even certain modernist harmonies of the generally conservative Vaughan Williams (below).

Moreover, the symphony, the chorus and the soloists blended especially well and movingly in the symphony’s quieter moments.

Those moments included the second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone”; and the quiet, understated ending where the idea of voyage and exploration becomes personal and metaphorical or spiritual as well as literal: “Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me … O my brave soul! O farther, farther sail!”

(You can hear a sample in the hymn-like opening of the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition, the outstanding acoustics of the new hall – where the chorus sits above and behind the orchestra – brought the performance to life even more convincingly.

There were two soloists (below): soprano Chelsie Propst and baritone James Harrington.

Harrington possessed a pleasing tone, but he seemed to be holding back for some reason. He could have projected more confidence and been more energetic or assertive in his delivery. After all, neither Whitman nor Vaughan Williams is shy in this large-scale work.

Curiously, it was the woman soloist, Propst, who roared like the sea, whose big voice easily soared over the orchestra and chorus. Her singing was thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly engaging.

Unfortunately, the very successful concert was not sold out, but the audience proved attentive and very enthusiastic.

This debut performance in the new hall made one look forward all the more to another big piece and big performance by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra, one that will wrap up the season and end Taylor’s long tenure at the UW-Madison: the dramatic and operatic Requiem by Verdi on Saturday and Sunday, April 25 and 26.


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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players perform a mini-opera version of “A Christmas Carol” this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

December 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Over several deuces, the Oakwood Chamber Players have built a solid reputation for their top-notch performances of unusual and neglected repertoire.

So it comes as no surprise that the group will offer one of the newer, more unusual and promising takes on the holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

Twice this weekend, the Madison-based, widely experienced musical theater actor and baritone Robert A. Goderich reprises his tour-de-force performance, last done in 2016, of Charles Dickens’ characters for the Oakwood Chamber Players’ presentation of the mini-opera “The Passion of Scrooge” by New York composer Jon Deak.

A dozen musicians, including ensemble members with special guest artists, provide the platform for Goderich’s characterizations on this coming Saturday night, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m., and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 8, at 2 p.m.

The concerts take place at Oakwood Village University Woods Auditorium at 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets are available at the door and are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors, and $5 for students. Go to https://www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

Members of the ensemble for this program are: Marilyn Chohaney (flute), Nancy Mackenzie (clarinet), Anne Aley (horn), Elspeth Stalter Clouse (violin) and Maggie Darby Townsend (cello), and guest musicians Hillary Hempel (violin), Emma Cifrino (viola), Brad Townsend (bass), Mike Koszewski (percussion), and Margaret Mackenzie (harp).

Over the past two decades, New York Philharmonic bassist and composer Jon Deak (below) has created a variety of “concert dramas” that tell stories through words and sound. 

Performed annually at the Smithsonian, this two-act musical setting re-imagines Ebenezer Scrooge’s struggle to transform his past, present and future from a life of avarice to warmth and humanity.

As singer and narrator, Goderich, who plays all the parts, is the focal point; but the composer has given the instrumentalists an integral part in the story line, too. Conductor Kyle Knox (below) leads the ensemble through many facets of this humorous work filled with dramatic effects.

Deak requires the musicians to be nimble performers, juggling melodic lines while interjecting entertaining sounds into Dickens’ traditional tale. You can hear the opening introduction by the Storyteller in the YouTube video at the bottom.

One of the score’s important aspects is the varied use of percussion, which provides a broad range of instruments and sound effects. Audiences can enjoy both the aural and visual artistry of chains rattling, doors creaking and footsteps echoing in this holiday classic.

Additionally, the Oakwood Chamber Players will perform a suite of British reels and carols, including songs mentioned in the text of Dickens’ original story.

For example, when the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of his first employer Fezziwig, a fiddler plays the tune “Sir Roger De Coverley.” This Scottish-English country dance, arranged by composer Frank Bridge in 1922, is one of the tunes providing an engaging introduction to “The Passion of Scrooge.”

 


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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
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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.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra honors retired music critic John W. Barker with a special performance of Brahms and a season dedication

September 11, 2019
7 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

How does an individual  musician or musical group pay tribute and say thank you to a critic?

By performing, of course.

And that is exactly what 30 members of the Middleton Community Orchestra did, playing under guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top), last Friday night for the veteran music critic John W. Barker (below bottom).

The orchestra performed for him at the downtown Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, near the Capitol Square, where the ailing Barker lives with his wife Margaret.

Because of space limitations, word of the special performance never went public. But the large basement room was packed with affectionate and respectful fans and friends.

The MCO members played the lyrical and sunny Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, of Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Serenade by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The orchestra also announced that it would dedicate its upcoming 10th anniversary season to Barker as a gesture of thanks for all he has done over the past nine years to promote the mostly amateur orchestra — which opens its new season on Wednesday, Oct. 9. 

“I’ve known this piece most of my life,” said Barker, who soon turns 86 and who started reviewing in his teens. “It’s lots of fun.”

And so was the unusual honor.

“An orchestra paying tribute to a critic? It’s unprecedented,” Barker quipped, as both he and the audience laughed. Barker also quoted the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who once said, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

After the 40-minute performance, Barker spoke briefly to the players and audience.

“The job of the critic,” he said, “is to stimulate performers to play up to their best standards and to give readers some background and context. Being critical doesn’t mean being negative, although at times I have made some negative comments. But you never have to be nasty. I guess I’ve succeeded,” he said looking around at the players and the public, both of whom generously applauded his remarks.

Barker’s list of personal accomplishments is impressive. He has written local music reviews for The Capital Times, Isthmus and this blog.

But he is a participant as well as a critic. He has sung in many choirs, including 47 years in the one at the local Greek Orthodox Church, and has performed with the Madison Opera. He directed Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the Madison Savoyards.

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which may help to explain his general taste for the traditional. He also is a well-known classical music critic, with a national reputation, who has written for 63 years for the American Record Guide. For many years, he hosted an early music radio show on Sunday mornings for WORT-FM 89.9.

He also worked with Opera Props, the support group for University Opera, and was a member of the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival. And he frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison. He has published two books on Wagner and written a definitive history of the Pro Arte Quartet.

But this time even the voluble Barker had to admit, “I am grateful and thankful. I am very moved, even floored. But I’m afraid I’m finally at a loss for words.”

You can leave your own words of tribute in the Comment section.

To see the full “Barker season” schedule for the Middleton Community Orchestra and to read many of Barker’s past reviews of the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Thank you, John, for all you have done to enrich the cultural and musical life of Madison!


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