The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music preview: The Madison Early Music Festival concludes Saturday night with the All-Festival concert of early English choral music | July 16, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on the UW campus, the 11th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) will wrap up its week-long exploration of English music from the 11th through the 16th centuries with the All-Festival Concert.

The  concert features not only faculty members and festival students or participants, but also guest performers and community members.

The choral and instrumental concert will feature famous works by John Taverner and Thomas Tallis as well as works by Robert Carver, Robert Johnson and Christopher Tye.

Tickets are $17, $14 for students with ID and seniors over 62, and will be available at the door.

At 6:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW emeritus professor of Medieval History and early music expert John Barker will give a free pre-concert lecture on Christianity and the fear of the arts under the Tudor monarchs.

To offer a preview of the concert, the festival co-artistic directors baritone Paul Rowe (below top) and soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe (below bottom) recently answered an e-mail Q&A for The Ear:

What is the purpose of the all-festival concert in terms of participants/performers and the public?

In order to include as many different performers as possible in the All Festival concert, we have chosen several large, primarily choral works that would have been performed with voices and instruments. The Tudor era is known for smaller works but these pieces display some of the large works including Thomas Tallis’ motet for 40 voices and the “Western Wind Mass” of Taverner.

What variety of styles will be represented this year?

This year’s festival has a wider than normal historical focus. We will have concerts containing music from Medieval to Elizabethan times. We have added new wrinkle by combining “original” instruments with film in the Robin Hood concert on Monday night.

What are the total forces you expect to be performing?

The total number of participants is not set yet, but we expect to have approximately 120 musicians on stage for the final concert.

Piece by piece, can you tell readers briefly what they should listen for or take away?

It is not really necessary to take each piece individually. It may be more useful to talk about what the pieces have in common and how they differ.

The main works on the program are examples of sacred choral music from the Tudor era (featured in the recent HBO series called “The Tudors”). The things to listen for in this type of music are the changes from chordal (homophonic) writing to fugue-like imitation between voices and the dance rhythms that all of these composers incorporate into the structure of the music.

Another favorite technique is to alter the meter of the music either explicitly or by writing rhythms that blur the bar lines creating a feeling of great flexibility. The changes between sections are usually signaled by changes in the text. The music immediately reflects these changes with great freedom of expression. These characteristics are most obvious in the giant choral work of Tallis (below) that is written for 8 separate five-voice choirs. The voices sometimes sound all at the same time and then switch to trading imitative phrases back and forth between the various choirs.

The logistical problems of this kind of piece are many and Tallis handles the structure very adeptly and to great effect. As a contrast, the mass by Taverner is for four voices. Even in this smaller format, the composer incorporates the same kind of variety of harmonic and rhythmic texture, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Will you two be singing in the concert?

We always enjoy the communal music making and positive energy that comes from preparing for and performing in the final concert. We wouldn’t miss the culmination of the week any more than we would miss the party afterwards.

This year, despite a bad economy, the MEMF has increased attendance while other early music festivals around the county have reported decline. To what do you attribute this?

We have a lot of local support and many of our participants come from the upper Midwest. The cooperation between the various musical groups in Madison has meant that we try not to compete with each other for audience members.

It allows Madison and Dane County residents to take in all the different kinds of performances that are produced by the local organizations. It also seems many people are looking for activities closer to home. We in this area are very lucky to have so many excellent choices.

How successful has the past week of learning and performing been? What stands out for you?

Every year the Madison Early Music Festival provides us with new opportunities and new challenges. There is so much great music to learn about and the chance to put it in historical context is always illuminating.

Each year a community of people is formed that is unique. We all strive for gaining knowledge and experience as we study, practice and learn together. We looked forward to this coming week with anticipation of just such an experience. We hope the audiences will join us on this journey of exploration of this fascinating country and its artistic and social history.

If you went to the Madison Early Music Festival — either the All-Festival Concert or some other event — let readers and musicians know what you thought?

The Ear wants to hear.

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