The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music tribute: On Thanksgiving Day let us give thanks for the people who do the hard work of making beautiful music

November 25, 2010
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To mark Thanksgiving Day, here is a special post by a frequent guest critic and writer on The Ear, John W. Barker (below).

Today seems the perfect occasion for it – a time to honor the people who make music whether they are students, amateurs or professionals, whether they do it in a home, a school, a place of worship or a concert hall.

Barker 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. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Madison’s swelling of schedule cultural overload reached a climax the weekend of November 20-21. There was a great handful of events, any and all of which I ached to attend.

That was problem enough, but on top of it I had to be out of town for the weekend, and thus would miss everything.

I found some solace, however, in attending, on two successive evenings, the final rehearsals for two of these events, thanks to the kindness of their directors.  They happened to give me a respective focus on the two towering geniuses of the late Baroque — Handel and J.S Bach.

On the one hand, there was the UW Choral Union, under Beverly Taylor, preparing a performance of Handel’s unique oratorio, “Israel in Egypt,” in the UW’s Mills Hall. (Below is an excerpt – the closing solo and chorus with soprano Emily Birsan, tenor James Doing and the UW Chamber Orchestra – from the second of two performances.)

This curiously experimental work of 1739 is not a true oratorio, in the sense of a sacred drama with characters and a plot. It is rather a vast ode, setting a string of texts from the Old Testament that generally reflect on the escape of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.

I have long considered it the greatest major choral work ever written, in terms of choral sound. In this work, it’s the chorus that matters. The six fine vocal soloists (here, of faculty and student ranks) really provide only brief interludes between the torrential unfolding of Handel’s choral splendor, one movement after another. Backed by a very able student chamber orchestra (with properly opposed first and second violins), the true protagonist was the huge Choral Union, mighty in sound, but kept under remarkable discipline by Taylor.

On the other hand, there was Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians, preparing a group of three sacred cantatas by Bach (BWV 4, 104, and 196) for performance at Grace Episcopal Church.

Stephenson’s forces for this consisted of a small choir of eight singers, plus about a dozen period-instrument players. The cantatas chosen benefit from this scaled-down approach, while the intimate and atmospheric church venue provides an ideal setting.

(Below is the final chorus from Cantata, BWV 196, “The Lord Remembers Us.”)

For both of these rehearsals, I used the term “final” rather than “dress.” They were not fully polished run-throughs of the program from A to Z.

These were rather working rehearsals, fixing things right down to the wire. All the music was given, but with many stops and starts, repetitions and adjustments.

Now, attending these rehearsals renewed my long conviction that people who attend performance events can never fully appreciate what goes into them without some personal experience of the preparation of such events.

Experience either in actually doing some performance work, or at in least attending some rehearsals – to see all the otherwise invisible people or advance effort that go into them the finished performances.

Those sessions are where the real work is done. The actual performances are almost anti-climactic, in terms of dealing with the mechanics of works.

Thus, in both these rehearsals, a lot of time is spent on details never evident in the final performances, going over such details endlessly. (What fun to see the soloists going over with conductor and orchestra their personal cadential embellishments!) Balances, both musical and acoustical, must constantly be challenged and resolved — especially with the MBM, where one stood or sat and when.

Different ensembles require different kinds of rehearsing. For such giant forces as the Choral Union, the authoritative leadership of the conductor–a kind of musical traffic cop–is required. In the case of the MBM, however, while Stephenson is the group’s director, he is not in any sense its conductor. He organizes things, and “leads” in the continuo from the harpsichord.

But his performers are musicians he knows well and has worked with regularly, and who have worked with each other. They are colleagues rather than subordinates, exchanging ideas or suggestions and sharing the final shaping of the ultimate results.

Beyond the purposes they serve for performers themselves, rehearsals can also teach the layman much. I invariably learn so more about the music by seeing how it is put together for performance. And I come to understand the talents of these performers more fully when I can watch them at work, in the laborious, if glorious, task of bringing great music to life.

Such experiences I warmly commend to music lovers who want to deepen their musical sensitivities.

Posted in Classical music

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