Sarah Brailey already hosts a Madison radio show, runs a music competition, co-founded a popular local live performance series, and is a month away from finishing her doctorate at UW-Madison.
On Sunday, she also won a Grammy Award.
A Madison-based soprano praised by the New York Times for her “radiant, liquid tone,” Brailey received the Grammy for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album along with bass-baritone Dashon Burton and conductor James Blachly for “Smyth: The Prison.”
The collaboration was the result of years of work by Blachly to create the world premiere recording of the 1930 work “The Prison” by the British composer Dame Ethel Smyth. An activist in the suffrage movement in England, Smyth even went to jail for fighting for the cause.
“The Prison” was recorded in 2019 and released in August 2020 to coincide with the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment that gave women in the U.S. the right to vote.
Reviewers had gushed over “The Prison,” calling it “splendid work” by the vocalists (The New Yorker) and “a journey of exploration” (The Financial Times). It was up against four other nominees during the Grammy ceremony Sunday afternoon, which took place prior to the prime-time pop music awards broadcast live on CBS.
Though they’re usually given out at an elegant ceremony in Los Angeles, this year the awards for classical music were announced online. Brailey heard her name called over a video conferencing platform while sitting in her Downtown Madison apartment.
“Wow, this is unreal,” Brailey said during her 30-second acceptance speech thanking those who worked on the recording.
“But thanks most of all to Dame Ethel Smyth for giving us this incredible piece and showing us … an example of … strength and perseverance,” she said.
Brailey, 39, grew up on a farm near La Crosse playing the cello and piano. On her website she describes her mother as an “amateur Bach-obsessed pianist and organist turned nurse,” and her father as “a physician with an encyclopedic knowledge of opera and a voice to match his six-and-a-half-foot frame.”
A chorus director in high school helped her fall in love with singing, and Brailey attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, for her undergraduate degree before returning to Wisconsin to get her master’s degree at UW-Madison.
“She got a Collins Fellowship” for her graduate studies, “which is one of the most prestigious fellowships we offer,” said Paul Rowe, her longtime professor of voice at the Mead Witter School of Music.
Brailey next moved to New York City, where she spent 11 years as a freelance musician before returning to UW-Madison to pursue her doctorate of musical arts, which would open the door to teaching at the university level.
In Madison, she is now artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition for emerging singers and a co-founder of the monthly concert series Just Bach, usually performed at Luther Memorial Church (currently with online performances on YouTube). Last month Brailey also became the director of Grace Presents, a monthly concert series at Grace Episcopal Church. Her latest performance for Grace Presents will be shown on the series’ YouTube channel at noon on March 27.
Brailey also rotates hosting duties for the radio show “Musica Antiqua,” heard Sunday mornings on WORT Radio 89.9 FM, and continues to freelance — although the COVID-19 pandemic has put a stop to live performances for the past year, she said.
When Brailey came back to UW-Madison in 2018, “we knew she would be gone a lot, and she was,” Rowe said. She has appeared on other Grammy-nominated works and on many other recordings listed at her website, sarahbrailey.com.
Brailey is remarkable for her beautiful lyric soprano voice, he said, but also for her intelligence and her ability to connect that intelligence with emotion in her singing.
In “The Prison,” two-time Grammy winner Burton sings the role of a prisoner at the end of his life searching for meaning. Brailey sings the role of the prisoner’s soul helping him search for peace.
“As a piece of music, it is profound and beautiful,” Brailey said. The work features an orchestra and chorus as well as soloists, and Brailey already knew many of the musicians on the project.
She was invited to perform on “The Prison” after Blachly, founder of the New York-based Experiential Chorus and Orchestra, heard Brailey sing a piece he had composed. The project took on even deeper resonance because she finished the recording just before her father died.
“I played it for him the morning he passed away,” she said through tears during an interview. “He was by far my biggest fan and I wish he could have seen this.”
Blachly and Burton urged her to be the one from their group to accept the Grammy Award during the online ceremony, Brailey said. She just bought a house on Madison’s East Side, but hasn’t yet picked out a place for her new Grammy statue, which is supposed to arrive soon.
Brailey noted that musicians have been especially hard hit during the pandemic, and she hopes that people have taken this time to reflect on the important role the arts play in their lives.
“Everybody this past year has turned to the arts — music and TV and film and more — to help (get through) COVID,” she said. “I hope people can make that connection.”