By Jacob Stockinger
The number 13 might just be the luckiest number of all for the Madison Early Music Festival.
That is because the annual festival opened its 13th annual season Saturday night with an outstanding and memorable success. It did so by presenting the award-winning and best-selling a cappella quartet of women singers, Anonymous 4.
It helped, one suspects, to have an acclaimed headliner group like Anonymous 4 and also to co-sponsor the event with the well-known Milwaukee-based early music presenter Early Music Now, which drew quite a few Milwaukeeans to Madison.
The combination brought a record-setting audience to both the pre-concert lecture and the concert itself.
The lecture, given by Prof. Lawrence Bennett (below) of Wabash College, filled the audience in on the evolution and various periods and genres of early American music from church hymns and folk hymns to fuguing tunes. His talk was a model of clarity made even more appealing and enlightening by Bennett’s unabashed willingness to draw on his own professional experience and sing solo when he offered examples of what he thought should be familiar tunes.
After the lecture came the concert, which filled Mills Hall more than I have ever seen for any MEMF event, including the popular All-Festival wrap-up concert, which is next Saturday night. The hall was almost sold-out (below).
Festival co-directors Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman-Rowe (below) were clearly elated with the packed and enthusiastic house, which seems to The Ear to mark a historic turning point for the festival.
Of course an argument can be made that the festival has stepped outside its usual boundaries. Much of the American music dates from after the deaths of Mozart and Haydn, and even of Beethoven and Schubert – and those are composers that the festival chooses to ignore in favor of emphasizing pre-Baroque music.
But then again, why be a purist? This was indeed early music, very early in fact for North America — even if not for Europe. In any case, the audience clearly loved it and the choice proved an outstanding one to build up attendance, which one expects will carry over to future years.
As for the music and the performance, it is hard to find anything to criticize negatively.
Dressed simply in black, Anonymous 4 (below, in Mills Hall) kept the audience’s attention and interest – there was remarkably little coughing or page-turning, sure signs of distraction — by grouping works and varying what they sang, which included two different versions of “Amazing Grace,” “The Lost Girl” and “Shall We Gather at the River.”
Each singer demonstrated time and again that she possessed a strong voice with a distinctive tone. They all sang strongly, without strain and also without amplification. Yet they also sang softly very often, with depth of tone, and with great balance and dynamics in the parts.
All four blended and harmonized beautifully and confidently. But they also sang as soloists and in duos, demonstrating that there was not a weak link in the chain.
I was especially impressed with the diction and articulation. There were only a very few words of the many texts that I did not catch. How refreshing it is to understand the text without staring at program notes while listening at the same time. This way, you could really concentrate on the music and the performance.
If such a thing as a Time Machine exists, it is surely this kind of music in this kind of performance. You only had to listen intently to be transported back to the age of Shape-Note Singing and of that plaintive Appalachian quasi-wail or yelp, done with little or no vibrato, to step backwards into a wholly different era.
Everything was minimal and focused your attention on the music and the musicians. The “Gloryland” program was an ideal 75 minutes long and was performed straight through without the distraction of an intermission.
The bare stage was set up with only four sitting chairs and four music stands to stand at plus a few bottles of water for the singers to keep their vocal chords lubed.
In every way, it proved an exceptionally musical and exceptionally enjoyable concert that the audience rewarded with a prolonged standing ovation (below) and loud cheers. And apparently that experience was shared by the performers since the beaming members of Anonymous 4 returned twice to sing an encore, including a greta version of “Thank You.”
Just maybe the MEMF has found a formula that works and will bring an even wider public to their significant achievements.
As a fan of MEMF, I will repeat what I have often said: Along with neglected or unknown pre-Baroque composers, why not also occasionally feature some of the more popular composers like Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert in authentic performances.
I still recall MEMF’s performances of Vivaldi, Handel and especially J.S Bach, which drew big houses and which – for me at least and, I suspect, for many others – also did not compromise the cause.
But I leave that to MEMF to decide – though your input in the COMMENTS section here might be appreciated and provide helpful guidance.
In the mean while, you should know that many more lectures, concerts and master classes – including a FREE class in Shape Note Singing on Wednesday night — await you before the festival ends next Saturday night.
For more information about programs, performers, tickets and history of the festival, visit:
You can also visit the two-part Q&A I did with MEMF co-director Cheryl Bensman-Rowe: