The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Saving the land and hearing great music make for an outstanding double-header at the Prairie Rhapsody benefit concert

July 19, 2011

An ADDITION: Yesterday I linked to two reviews of the Madison Opera’s “Opera in the Park” on Saturday night. After they were posted, Greg Hettmansberger’s posted his review for Dane101. Here is a link:

By Jacob Stockinger

It would be hard to imagine a better way to meld classical music and land conservation than the Prairie Rhapsody benefit concert that took place last Thursday night at the Holy Wisdom monastery on Highway M in Middleton.

Even at $50 a head, the annual event drew a record crowd of 250, according to Holy Wisdom sources, and for good reason.

The musical performers were period musicians Madison-based keyboardist Trevor Stephenson, who played the fortepiano, and several musicians from Chicago: violinist Brandi Berry, cellist Anna Steinhoff and soprano Emily Birsan (below), who studied at Lawrence University and the UW-Madison and who now is in a program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Several things made the event, which included light dinner and desserts plus wine and other beverages (below top and bottom), a success.

One attraction was the lovely setting. The monastery itself is set in a prairie field that seems perfect for such an event. You can gaze at meadows, fields, woods and prairie from the outside (bel0w top) and even from inside the large windows in the architecturally handsome and crisp new buildings and assembly hall (below bottom).  This would also be a great place for local music groups to rent for more concerts, by the way.

From the hearty applause that came between movements, you could tell that two crowds were present: What I will call The Music People and  The Land People, including of course many crossovers.

But what brought both of them together were two things: the pleasure of great music wonderfully explained and performed; and the cause of restoring the land  (the Benedictine prioress informed the crowd that the program has already reclaimed to a pre-settlement state some 100 acres of prairie plus an 11-acre, 10,000-year-old glacial lake fittingly named named Lost Lake and has also restored trails and ponds to improve run-off and protect nearby Lake Mendota.

The director of the music program was the well-known early music specialist Trevor Stephenson (bel0w), who founded and directs the Madison Bach Musicians. He proved the other glue of the fundraising event.

This was his second year, and you can easily see why. He didn’t sound a false note for 2-1/2 hours. Last year, he and others performed Baroque music. This time, he chose music from the Classical era – works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert. It was a fitting choice for a program if you recall that the 18th century gave rise to notions of natural law and to even Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “the noble savage,” a respect for the state of nature as well as civilization.

But more than the fine performances, it was Stephenson’s unbeatable talent as an educator and teacher, a witty and congenial laugh-worthy popularizer in the mold of Leonard Bernstein, who bridged the two communities. He was nothing short of a born natural as he explained how the fortepiano, the successor to the harpsichord and the predecessor to the modern piano, worked and why it worked so well with this particular music. He also had the string players explain the differences between their instruments and more modern ones.

I particularly liked the way he organized the program for variety.

First came Stephenson himself in a fortepiano solo (Mozart’ dark Fantasy in D Minor). Then came Emily Birsan in three of Haydn’s London songs in English followed by Mozart’s Violin Sonata in A Major, K. 305 with Brandi Berry (below). (It used theme-and-variations, the ultimate rational form for the Age of Reason.)

After a brief intermission, during which Stephenson did more explaining and demonstrating (below top), came: two Schubert songs (including the famous “The Trout”); Beethoven’s early Cello Sonata, Op. 5, No. 2, with Anna Steinhoff (below middle); and two Mozart works, a song and then an opera aria where the fortepiano, violin and cello filled in as a bare bones orchestra (below bottom) – all very successfully and impressively. And there was even encore to send the satisfied listeners home: a Schubert song about night and dreams.

And why not that song? After all, this was a dream of a concert and a dream of a fundraiser — described by Holy Wisdom as a “great financial success” thanks to both tickets sales and donations. I simply can’t imagine a more enjoyable night replete with socializing amid nature and high art, all to raise money for a great cause. And it all went down so easily, so enjoyably.

The fun-loving Mozart, the cheerful Haydn and the social Schubert would have been proud and approving, as would that most ardent of nature lovers, Beethoven.

Did you go to the Prairie Rhapsody concert?

What did you think?

Would you consider going next year?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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