The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Modern and contemporary vocal music can be both original and accessible, says Beverly Taylor who will conduct two concerts this weekend by the University of Wisconsin Choral Union and Chamber Orchestra.

December 9, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

If you are like many people, you are intimidated by modern and contemporary classical music.

But a MUST-HEAR concert that has two performances this weekend aims to counter that impression, to calm that fear.

At 8 p.m. this Saturday and 4 p.m. on Sunday in Mills Hall, the 154-voice campus-community group the UW Choral Union (below) and the 41-piece UW Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Beverly Taylor, will perform what Taylor calls her “20/21” program.

Normally, the Choral Union does more traditional repertoire from the 18th through 20th centuries. But this unusual program includes three masterpieces from the late 20th and 21st centuries, plus an early 20th-century work by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The works are:  “Lux aeterna” by Morten Lauridsen; “Evensong:  Of Love and Angels” by Dominick Argento; “O Clap Your Hands” by Ralph Vaughan Williams; and “Water Night” by Eric Whitacre.

Tickets are $15 for general admission; $8 for seniors and all students. They are available through Campus Arts Ticketing at (608) 265-ARTS (2787) or

UW choral director and Choral Union conductor Beverly Taylor (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) recently gave The Ear an email interview about the concert and the vocal ensemble:

Is there a theme or organizing principle to the concert?

The works are all 20th– and 21st-century works.  Basically, as an educator, I try to make sure that we vary the genre of works from semester to semester. Last year was Baroque and Classical/Romantic. This fall is more modern, and the spring will be late Romantic.

Beyond that, I was looking for something about grief and hope, mostly in my own feelings about the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

In addition, I knew the Morten Lauridsen work is scored for a chamber orchestra, with which we usually perform in the fall, and I’ve always liked Dominick Argento’s works. A good friend had heard a performance of this Argento work in Minneapolis and I looked at the program and committed to it without even having the score in front of me (it was undergoing some minor revisions) – which is unusual for me. It resulted in orchestra director and my colleague Jim Smith having to round up a few additional brass players who aren’t normally in the UW Chamber Orchestra.

Can you talk a bit about each piece and what makes it special or what the public should listen for specifically in each one? Let’s start with the work by Vaughan Williams (below).

As a prelude and contrast to the beautiful but rather somber piece by Argento, which works through grief to hope and love, the Vaughan Williams’ “O Clap Your Hands” is an early 20th-century fanfare of praise, that particularly shows off the winds and chorus.  It’s about 4 minutes long.

And the piece by Dominick Argento (below)?

The Argento text is unusual. After the death of his wife, Dominick Argento composed the text for the commission for the National Cathedral around texts of healing, loss and love, and interpolated some of the Vespers, or Evensong Catholic service.

Although most of the text is in English, we have bits in Latin, such as the famous “Nunc dimittis,” which says “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen your salvations which you have prepared before the face of all your people, a light to the Gentiles and glory to the children of Israel.”

It is something of a tableau–we have scenes that involve a narrator; the sermon giver is a soprano soloist (Kyeol Lee), a treble brings angelic good news and peace (Natalie DeMaioribus), and candles are lit as the spirit is invoked.

The listener can trace the mood from the suffering of the opening instrumental Threnody, to the prayers of the people and angel (Phos Hilarion) to an a cappella Psalm 102 (“Hear my prayer, O Lord”).  A spoken reading follows, then the soprano “sermon”, an orchestral meditation, the “Nunc dimittis” by the chorus alternating with orchestral groups, a gentle, lightly scored lullaby by the angel, and a final anthem for chorus and orchestra which traces Argento’s text of our transformation to love and light.

The writing is largely tonal, but not entirely homophonic, and with some surprising harmonic and melodic shifts.  It runs about 50 minutes.

What about piece by Eric Whitacre (below), whose work was just nominated for a Grammy?

After intermission we have a shorter “half.” My talented graduate assistant, Russell Adrian, will conduct the Choral Union in one of the most famous of late 20th century a cappella works, the “Water Night” of Eric Whitacre, who became almost a choral pop star with this piece that he wrote in his 20s.

It’s a magical setting of Pablo Neruda‘s poetry, and the size of Choral Union really enriches the clusters of sound from high very low notes.  It is about 4 minutes long.

And then?

Then the orchestra and I return for the work by Lauridsen (below, receiving a National Medal of the Arts from President George W. Bush), a favorite of many people.  Without meaning to be pejorative, I can call it “easy listening” 20th century, meaning the harmonies are soft, clear and acceptable — lots of the soft 7th and 9th chords we might associate with jazz, but in a gentle setting of “Lux aeterna” –eternal light.

The work is “Lux aeterna” is about 25 minutes long, and it calls for chamber orchestra and chorus, but no soloists.  It was written for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and was performed in the Overture Center by that group a few years ago. (It is Pleasant Rowland’s favorite piece!)

It’s a gentle piece, with a hidden Chorale tune in one movement, several a cappella sections, and warm and Romantic writing.  It’s basically the Faure Requiem in modern guise!

As you can see, light is a central theme in our 20/21 coming-of-age Choral Union birthday party!

What is the effect of past and future state budget cuts on the Choral Union? How could they affect repertoire, soloists, whatever?

Obviously as artists and educators, we try to do the best with what we have, but the general public doesn’t really understand how cost enters into the choices we make.

Choral scores may range in price from $7 per copy to about $35 depending on the work. Modern works under current copyright and foreign works are more expensive. The accompanying orchestral parts and scores purchase or rental can run from $35 to $2,400 (two days’ rental for Britten’s “War Requiem,” below).

With continued budget cuts, we could come to the point of never doing anything written under copyright. It would be like never studying any literature written after Jane Austen, even though we could still produce programs of value.

Alternatively, it means we have to raise the money to produce special programs — scrimping in other areas, taking up special collections, raising ticket prices or looking for donors, all of which tends to encroach on our basic mission to teach and perform, to open minds to new creative ideas, to bind community members together in works meant for ALL people, and to encourage ears and minds to hear NEW ways of expression, and not just what they’ve always seen or heard on TV or their iPods.

What are your plans for the Choral Union in the spring?

This spring, I’m excited that we can finally perform the famous Requiem by Verdi on Friday, April 20, in Overture Hall (below), thanks to budgeting, adding a user fee for current community singers, finding a few special donors, and saving some extra from last year.

We have excellent soloists. Some, from our university family, are of international caliber but will donate their services, others will be booked like normal concert artists.

As we do our final review of the budget, we will see if the money will extend to a little extra rehearsal time in the hall, since most of our rehearsals will take place in Mills Hall, where I can’t fit all the percussion for this work. (When we last did the work in 1999 we were in the Stock Pavilion, which can’t really work for performances at this time).

Is there something you would like to add about this weekend’s concerts?

I think it is very accessible modern and contemporary music, and people should have an enjoyable evening or afternoon.

Posted in Classical music

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