The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison Early Music Festival 2011 revealed and explored a new world of music in the New World | July 22, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

How did the Madison Early Music Festival go this year? I asked a veteran early music fan.

His response? “I would say it was, to used a much overused journalist’s word, revelatory.”

Well, The Ear would completely agree, even just on the basis of the concluding All-Festival concert last Saturday night.

For various reasons, I couldn’t make it to other events during the 12th annual week-long festival that explored early music in the New World. (Next year, MEMF will offer the same theme, but go north of the Mexican border into the US and French Canada.) But I heard high praise for the faculty concert and for the imported group Chatham Baroque, among other events.

Was such praise exaggerated?

Not at all, judging from what I heard during the All-Festival concert.

The evening got off on the right foot with a fascinating and engaging slide-lecture by guest scholar Drew Edward Davies (below) of Northwestern University. He pulled together many strands of scholarship about music in the new world in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. He synthesized musicology, ethnology, anthropology, linguistics, art history, religion and other disciplines to build a great and accessible sense of context to the music that the audience was about to hear.

Then came the actual performances, with a stage filled by dozens of instrumentalists and singers (below) performing under the talented guest conductor Kristina Boerger from New York City. The program featured a dozen different composers and focused on reconstructions of Vespers Music for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and Nativity.

And The Old Veteran was right: It was nothing short of revelatory.

Of course, much of the music derived from the Old World and transplanted composers. So some of it sounded familiar (below) and reminded one of other more famous Old World composers.

But the music and its history also dealt with issues that are still alive today.

For example, clearly, the “Old World” music ended up incorporating many elements of indigenous New World culture, from notation (below) and languages to sounds and dance rhythms, especially as heard in percussion.

When you think about it, the conflict between Old World and New World is still relevant, even five centuries after much of this music was composed and first performed. After all, it wasn’t until that 20th century pioneer, Leonard Bernstein (below), that American-born and American-trained conductors were allowed to direct major American orchestras. And you can argue that there still exists a bias that favors Old World music over New World music, at least in some quarters.

And the question of how to incorporate vernacular native culture is still a major issue, even in a largely postcolonial global culture. Cultural synthesis is still the goal for many groups, including the famed Kronos String Quartet, and for many Asian and Latin American composers today. We saw a painting  (below) of The Nativity, for example, with the typical Joseph, Mary and Jesus with Indian chief instead of the Wise Men. And we heard ancient Aztec language that was permitted in liturgy by the Roman Catholic Church and is still spoken by one million people today.

So the concert was every bit as eye-opening as one hoped.

But even more, it was ear-opening.

What a delight it was to hear Baroque and pre-Baroque music from the old New World. One wonder why such music, which often seems so infused with energy and infectious vitality, isn’t performed and recorded more often, or played on the radio, more often, or seen on TV more often (see bottom).

I still don’t expect to hear a lot of it.

Which is all the more reason why I am grateful for the outstanding performance that the Madison Early Music Festival participants,  teachers and students as well as guest performers alike, put together in such a short time and with such exceptional results.

It certainly whets the appetite to hear more New World music – which is still waiting to be explored and performed  – next summer.

Did you attend the Madison Early Music Festival this summer?

What did you think of the concerts and events?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. Great review, Jake! I agree the lecture was wonderful, and left me interested in learning much more about this time and place. I couldn’t believe the concert had been put together in a week–it was complex, flawlessly performed, and the conductor was a wonder of low-key control. I always wish they would invite the audience on to the stage after these concerts to talk to the performers and see some of the exotic instruments up close. What was the thing that looked like a lute but with an extremely long neck?
    Mary Gordon


    Comment by Mary Gordon — July 23, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

    • Hi Mary,
      Thank you for the kind words and for reading and replying.
      I think you might be referring to the theorbo.
      And I suspect they think we all have plenty of time to mix during the week-long festival.


      Comment by welltemperedear — July 23, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

  2. I enjoyed the concert – as you know, since we sat next to each other – and it was fun to see the video and to rehear the castanet virtuoso whose deftness I admired.


    Comment by Larry Wells — July 22, 2011 @ 11:24 pm

  3. Another MEMF participant here (2011 was my fifth festival). So glad you enjoyed it, Mr Stockinger. After my 2nd MEMF I learned to buy CDs in the general geographic/chronological/stylistic domains of the *next* MEMF (kind of “studying ahead”) and this time I picked up a wonderful CD called “Salsa Baroque” []. “Hanacpachap cussicuinin”, the choral piece that introduced the MEMF Saturday night concert, just haunted me from the very first day I listened to it in March. When I got to sing it for the first time in rehearsal, it reverberated with deep profundity in my soul, and I do think that Latino is one of the few ethnic/racial categories I don’t occupy 🙂


    Comment by Catherine Arnott Smith — July 22, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    • Hi Catherine,
      Thank you for reading and then replying so thoughtfully and so helpfully.
      I think your approach is a good one — good preparation that allows for good execution, a kind of practicing if you will.
      It is terrific that the experience lived up to your anticipation.
      And congratulations on such a fine record of attending and participating in the Madison Early Music Festival.
      Until next year, when we go north, best wishes.


      Comment by welltemperedear — July 22, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

  4. Thanks so much for posting this. The festival was a great time (my first) and I’m glad you enjoyed it!
    Dan (the male harpist)


    Comment by Dan Lam — July 22, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    • Hi Dan,
      You’re very welcome.
      That you for reading and replying.
      And most of all for playing your harp.
      It was a terrific experience hearing the New World early music.


      Comment by welltemperedear — July 22, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

  5. Thanks for posting “Los Coflades!” I didn’t even notice at first when I opened up your post last night! I am singing the high voice solo and I wondered how some of my last minute improvised ornaments sounded! What a fun week of learning a new language and a new genre of music! The ensembles/artists in residence this year were fantastic! We are really lucky to be part of Madison during the early music festival!


    Comment by Jennifer Sams — July 22, 2011 @ 11:42 am

    • Hi Jennifer,
      Thank for reading and replying.
      And for “‘fessing up.”
      You did great. And so did the others.
      It was a very impressive performance for both the soloists and ensembles.
      I can’t wait until next year — and bet you can’t either.


      Comment by welltemperedear — July 22, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

  6. As you probably know, Joel Cohen’s group (Boston Camerata?) did issue a couple of CD’s of Mexican (?) baroque music some years ago. One was “Nueva Espana”.

    We attended the Rose Ensemble concert and found it fascinating — much use of dance rhythms in the religious songs, and a lightheartedness that one doesn’t often find in European church music.

    I was delighted to hear the Rose Ensemble in Madison, because in recent years, as they became better known, they haven’t performed here very often.


    Comment by Ann B. — July 22, 2011 @ 6:35 am

    • Hi Ann,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      Yes, I do know of some CDs of early new World music including those.
      Some of the music is out there, but it is far from being commonplace.
      I wish I had heard more, like the Rose Ensemble concert, but circumstances didn’t allow it.
      And I agree with you completely about the lightness and dance qualities that indigenous or native music brought to more serious church or liturgical music. That is why i included an audio except with percussion and that special sound.


      Comment by welltemperedear — July 22, 2011 @ 9:58 am

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