The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Con Vivo comes to life – and a higher public profile – in its all-Schubert concert.

May 23, 2011
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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. 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 vibrant musical life is a product of the abundance of talented musicians in the area, ready and eager to perform.

The instrumental co-operative of Con-Vivo (below) draws upon exactly such talent. Most of the players are experienced orchestral musicians — a number from the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — who relish the busman’s holidays of playing chamber music.

Con-Vivo (the name is a musical term that means “with life” or “lively”) is one of Madison’s many “lesser” musical organizations that too readily slip under the radar of general public awareness. I am ashamed to say that I finally caught up with them only in the final concert of their ninth season, on Friday, at their home base, the First Congregational Church.

Their program was an irresistible one, devoted entirely to music of Franz Schubert (below) — that most warmly human and genial of composers, to my mind.

The program began with two (Nos. 3 and 6) of the half-dozen “Moments musicaux,” played with sympathetic deftness by pianist Dan Lyons (below). They are pieces that are quintessentially Schubertian in sound, in their deceptive simplicity. It is easy to associate their sound world with Schubert’s larger compositional style. No. 3 could have been a dance number in his “Rosamunde” incidental ballet music, while No. 6 could have been a sketch toward some projected German Lied, or art song. They reminded me further of Anton Bruckner‘s Latin motets, many of them little nuggets of harmonic experimentation that could be expanded into one or another of his great symphonic Adagios.

The program’s second item, Schubert’s last work, was one of the two ventures in song wherein Schubert paired a singer with a wind instrumental obbligato: this one, with clarinet, is Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“The Shepherd on the Rock”); the other, with French horn, being Auf dem Strom (“On the Stream”).

Such combinations in early Romantic Lieder were by no means uncommon, but it is fascinating to hear Schubert, the virtual “father” of the German Lied, going beyond the standard voice with piano combination to test further possibilities. To think what Schubert, who died at the heart-breaking age of 31 might have gone on to do …

Schubert treats the pairing of voice and instrument (supported by piano, of course) as a duo, the two virtually never competing, but instead alternating in the exchanges of thematic ideas. The singer, Saira Frank (below right), is one of the UW Music School’s many splendid vocal products, heard in the full blossoming of her strong, rich soprano voice. Her conversational partner was the group’s eloquent clarinetist, Robert Taylor (below left).

The major item, however, was Schubert’s longest, largest, most expansive chamber work, his Octet for clarinet, bassoon, horn, string quartet and double bass). This six-movement work was composed four years before his death in 1828, on the prompting of a patron who apparently proposed that Schubert emulate Beethoven’s youthful Septet.

Schubert achieved this in his very own stylistic terms, in something that ranges from intimacy to near orchestral sonorities, balancing easy-going lightness with underlying seriousness. In a very real sense, Schubert beat Beethoven at his own game in this work.

First violinist Olga Pomolova (below left) led the ensemble with panache. Impossible runs imposed on her part and that of the clarinet in the final movement suffered some inevitable scrambles. But precision of playing was otherwise quite consistent, and carried by a buoyant spirit of enjoyment that the players showed in facing all their challenges. It was the kind of performance whose zest is readily passed on to the audience.

One rarely has a chance to hear this Octet in live performance, so the Con Vivo venture was a very particular treat indeed. And, in a moving statement at the beginning, violinist Kathryn Taylor announced the dedication of the concert to the memory of the recently deceased Ann Stanke (below), who had been (among so many other things, including co-founder and general director of the Madison Opera) a member of the Con Vivo’s board.

It proved a fitting tribute in superlative music to a superlative musical personality.


Posted in Classical music

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