The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra turn in convincing and moving performances of a neglected masterpiece by Felix Mendelssohn and a great anti-war cantata by Ralph Vaughan Williams. | November 25, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger 

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union, conducted by Beverly Taylor, with the UW Symphony Orchestra, gave two performances on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon of a program that deserved even more of an audience than actually turned out.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Only two works were involved, and quite contrasting ones.  The first was Felix Mendelssohn’s “Die erste Walpurgisnacht “ (“The First Witches’ Sabbath”), using a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The second was the cantata by Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Dona nobis pacem,” using a deliberately ironic mix of texts.

UW student violist and conductor Mikko Utevsky, who sang in the tenor section, has already described these two works in his preview article recently posted on this blog, so there is no need for me to repeat what he has set out.

Here is a link to his preview:

http://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/classical-music-the-uw-choral-union-and-uw-symphony-orchestra-will-perform-works-by-mendelssohn-and-vaughan-williams-this-saturday-night-and-sunday-afternoon/

The work by Felix Mendelssohn (below) is a sadly neglected masterpiece, one on which he worked intermittently down to his last years. It pictures Druid devotees, standing up to fierce persecution by intolerant Christians. The Druids’ weapon is traditional pagan rites, and the making of a ghostly hullabaloo in order to frighten off their enemies.  (A precedent not for Halloween but rather for the spooky folk celebrations of St. John’s Eve (celebrated by Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain and the Brocken scene in Gounod’s opera “Faust.”)

Mendelssohn

One may debate if the text was worth the effort that Mendelssohn put into it, and whether its brief requirement of a large performing force makes it not an economic concert favorite.

Still, its extended overture is, quite simply, one of the composer’s finest piece of orchestral writing, and the vibrant choral segments are the work, after all, of one of the handful of composers who could compose truly idiomatic choral music.

There were a few rocky orchestral moments at the very beginning of the piece, especially in the strings, and occasional touches of weak co-ordination.  But the orchestra pulled together some fine sound, worthy of the standards that James Smith’s training has set for it.

Of the three vocal soloists (below, with conductor Beverly Taylor of the far left) tenor Klaus Georg (middle) had a strong voice, but a not very smooth one.  Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Ruby Miller (far right) had such smoothness for her one solo, but not much projecting power.  Baritone Erik E. Larsen (second from left) brought a bit more character to his solos.

The real star, though, was the chorus: it can always be counted on for robust sound, and its singers really had a ball working up the Druids’ pagan, anti-Christian frenzies.

UW Choral Union 11-2013 Mendelssohn soloists

The cantata by Ralph Vaughan Williams (below) was composed in 1937, reflecting the composer’s disillusioning experience in World War I, and his just apprehensions about what would become World War II.

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

An admirer of the poetry of Walt Whitman (below) long before American composers began to pay attention to it, Vaughan Williams took three of Whitman’s poems of American Civil War vintage, adding a few other (mostly Scriptural) passages, which he juxtaposed against the Latin text from the Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary, the “Agnus Dei” – especially its repeated words “Dona nobis pacem” or “Give us peace.”

Walt Whitman 2

Such a juxtaposition of compassionate poetry against Latin liturgy was made famous by Benjamin Britten, of course, in his acclaimed “War Requiem.” But, in his more compact venture, Vaughan Williams set a bar of expressiveness so high that not even Britten, with all his cleverness and monumentality, could really match.

Indeed, I would place Vaughan Williams’s cantata as one of the supreme examples of anti-war art–matched not by Britten (if by Wilfred Owen’s poetry) but certainly by the crushing Ancient Greek play by Euripides, “The Trojan Women” and perhaps also Pablo Picasso’s painting of mass horror, “Guernica.”

Each of the movements of the cantata carries potent messages of poignancy and protest, while there is even some final (if uncertain) optimism. The score’s centerpiece is the long setting of Whitman’s “Dirge for Two Veterans,” a movement of absolutely shattering anguish amid discredited military posturing.  There are few other things like it in the choral literature.

There are two soloists required for this work.  Visiting faculty soprano Elizabeth Hagedorn (below right with Beverly Taylor in the center) was beautifully chilling in the reiterations of the “Dona nobis pacem” motto, while baritone Jordan Wilson (below right) captured the poignancy of Whitman’s “Reconciliation” (at bottom in a YouTube video) a more concise and heart-grabbing predecessor to the culminating Wilfred Owen poem that Britten used in his grander work.

UW Choral Union 11-2013 Vaughan Williams soloists

But, again, with stout backing from the orchestra, the chorus was a tower of choral strength, equally forceful in parodistic militarism, in piercing anguish, or in hopeful joy.

Say what you will about the acoustics of Mills Hall in the UW’s Humanities Building, but it is the proper home for a powerful chorus confronting an enthusiastic audience with clarity and presence.

UW Choral Union 11-2013 applause

Praise, by the way, for the program booklet, which included all the vocal texts, as well as some excellent program notes.  It proved an ideal topping for a rich, but nourishing cake of a concert!

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