The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: The 13th annual Madison Early Music Festival starts this Saturday and will focus on Canadian and early American music from the Colonial period and Revolutionary War to the Civil War. Part 1 of 2. | July 5, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

The 13th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) will take place on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus from this Saturday, July 7, though next Saturday, July 14. (And this year, the public All-Festival concert on July 14 will NOT have to compete with the Madison Opera’s FREE Opera in the Park concert, slated for July 21.)

Continuing the theme it started last year of Early Music in the Americas, the festival will turn its attention  from the south to the north. Specifically, it will change its focus from South America and Latin America to the United States and Canada. “Welcome Home! An American Celebration’’ will focus on music from the Colonial and the Revolutionary War periods through the Civil War.

For complete information about the many lectures, master classes and public concerts, visit the festival’s homepage:

Co-director and soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe (below) recently gave The Ear an extended interview about the festival, its events and its participants, which includes the acclaimed singing group Anonymous 4. Her interview will appear in two parts, today and tomorrow:

How successful is this year’s festival compared to others in terms of enrollment, budgets, performers, etc.? Is MEMF clearly established now nationally and internationally?

MEMF’s enrollment is a bit larger in participant numbers, although we are seeing more singers enrolled this year because of the tradition of singing in early America. We do have national recognition due to many factors, including ads and articles in the publication Early Music America: and the ensembles and artists we bring in to perform on the MEMF Concert Series.

For the first time this year we were the only festival from Wisconsin listed in the New York Times Summer Festivals for Classical Music and Opera:

Internationally speaking, we are contacted regularly by ensembles in Europe, Canada and the United States, who would like to perform at MEMF.  We have had several international students at our workshops, from Germany, France, Canada, several South American countries, and Puerto Rico. Like every arts organization, we have had to be careful about our budget, to write grants, to cultivate our donor base and to get the word out that we are here and have interesting and unique programming to offer the public.

What is new and what is the same in terms of format, students, faculty members and performers?

Our format is basically the same as it has been for the past 10 years.  It seems to be working, so we don’t feel the need to tweak things at the point.  The workshop runs in conjunction with the concert series, and the teaching faculty is drawn from the ensembles performing on the concert series. We have brought in several new ensembles this year, including the rock stars of early music, Anonymous 4, the opening performers of the festival on Saturday, July 7. For background, see,

The baroque and wooden flute player Chris Norman (below top), who is a true crossover artist in both the early music and folk worlds: will be performing with Chatham Baroque (below bottom) on Sunday, July 8.

We also added another special event this summer, which will be free and open to the public.  On Wednesday, July 11, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. there will be “A Singing Introduction to Four-Shape Music.” It is an evening of shape note singing taught by specialist Jim Page, which is an early American a cappella choral folk music form that emphasizes participation, not performance. There is a great DVD documentary on this tradition that I’ve pasted in below if people would like more information:

On Friday night, audiences will hear Michael Miles (below top), the first banjo player to perform at MEMF, on the program by the  Newberry Consort (below bottom) “Beautiful Dreamer: The Music of Lincoln’s America,” with a pre-concert lecture by Madison filmmaker Jim Carrier, on his documentary “The Librarian and the Banjo Player.”

Another first, which pianists in the community will be happy to know, is the Chicago keyboard phenom, David Schrader (below top), will be playing works of Louis Gottschalk on the newly rebuilt 1879 Steinway Centennial Grand Piano (below bottom), lent to us by Farley’s House of Pianos for this concert.

Why was the topic of the New World chosen for an early music festival last summer and this summer? How will this year’s sequel pick up from last year’s topic and further the exploration?

We chose the New World theme because we had spent so much time over the past 10 years in Europe.  I have a great love for American music due to the five years I was a member of the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, where we performed works of early American composers, such as William Billings (below). See  (Another former member of that ensemble, Lawrence Bennett, will present the opening night lecture at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday night.)

So, when were in the planning stages for 2011, we decided to group the two years together, beginning with the New World in South America, then traveling North to the United States and Canada. Three years ago the group Piffaro, who have been part of the festival almost from the beginning, had recently taken part in Bolivia’s most prestigious cultural event, the 22-town festival, Bolivia International Renaissance and Baroque Festival, so we had a wealth of ideas and repertoire to plan MEMF 2011.

All of the music presented for these two festivals has shown or will show the influence that immigrants brought to their new countries and how it mixed with indigenous cultures, especially the music from religious groups, which include the Catholic church in South America and Mexico, and the Moravians, Shakers, Harmonists and the great Singing Schools all over the United States that were created to help the congregation sing better in their churches.

Tomorrow: More specifics about the Madison Early Music Festival’s focus on early American and Canadian music.


  1. Nice interview – Congrats Cheryl. lotta memories in it for me!


    Comment by Jan Opalach — July 6, 2012 @ 9:11 am

  2. Thank you, Jake! We are looking forward to a great week at MEMF! Cheryl Bensman-Rowe


    Comment by Cheryl Bensman Rowe — July 5, 2012 @ 7:35 am

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