The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How do various venues or performing spaces affect the music? Consider three examples of the same early vocal music sung by Eliza’s Toyes. | November 28, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Through the month of November, I have been tracking the efforts of the same group in the same program, but in three different presentation spaces and situations. I have always found much illumination in attending rehearsals as against performances, but comparative performance study can also be quite stimulating.

First, let’s consider the performers and their program. The musicians (below and at bottom) call themselves Eliza’s Toyes (after an image in an Elizabethan madrigal text), as founded and lead by the formidably versatile Jerry Hui. Their program is a collection of sacred and secular works from the first half of the 17th century, by three composers who were pioneers in the transition from Renaissance to early Baroque styles in Germany — from the old vocal polyphonic style to the new idiom of singers with instruments, over the new basso continuo.

These three are Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672, below top), Johann Schein (1586-1630, below middle), and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1672, below bottom), good friends and comrades in a common enterprise. We’ve all heard of “the Three B’s” (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms), and it has become frequent to describe our early German masters as “the Three S’s”–or, as Jerry and his crew would have it, “the Three Sch’s”.

Their program took shape as far back as last spring, when they first performed it on May 12, at The Gates of Heaven (below). I reviewed that for Isthmus (May 18). At that time, the program consisted of a first part containing sacred works: three by Scheidt (one in Latin, otherwise German) and two by Schein. Two of these were in eight vocal parts, and varied in textures to very simplified motet style to the newer and more complex concertato idiom of combining voices with instruments; two of these even for eight parts.

The second half offered secular music, partly by Schein: two five-voice vocal works, an Italian love-madrigal and a comic German song about monks making whoopee while the abbot was away, plus a suite of four dances from his instrumental collection, Banchetto musicale. But Schütz was predominant, with two five-voice Italian madrigals from his Venetian publication in 1611, and a splendid eight-voice dedicatory piece for double choir from the same collection. As an encore, a late neo-polyphonic German motet of 1648 was added. The performers consisted then of seven singers (two of whom also played instruments) and five instrumentalists.

This was the program that was used, in revised form, for three performances this November.

To begin with, the group was diminished by one singer, so that his vacated vocal parts had to be filled in by instrumental substitution–a not unusual practice at that period. Also in the second half, one of the Schütz madrigals from the 1611 publication was replaced by a longer, two-part example from that source.

The first of the November performances was held at the downtown Grace Episcopal Church (below, the exterior) on Saturday evening, Nov. 3, with reduced forces, eliminating instrumentalists, and specifically the Schein dance suite. Also eliminated was one Scheidt sacred piece, Schein’s merry-monks song, and Schütz’s eight-voice double-choir madrigal of 1611; and there was no intermission. Full forces (less the departed tenor) were on display at the second concert, at Luther Memorial Church at 4 p.m. on the afternoon of Nov. 17, in the full revised program. And this same revised program was then presented at 12:30 p.m. last Sunday as one of the “Live from the Chazen” concerts broadcast live statewide by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Through these three performances, circumstances dictated certain obvious adjustments in the program and performer placements. But what particularly interested me is how the music, and the performers’ responses to it, varied through no less than four different venues.

All of the music in the program represented moves away from the old, grandly architectural styles of vocal polyphony that had been the glory of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and into the newer, more intimately textured complexities of writing for essentially modest (not to say, greatly enclosed) spaces, where clarity of part writing was crucial.

The setting last spring at Gates of Heaven, a small and tight public space (below, interior at the Gates of Heaven), was quite ideal for this newer German idiom, and close audience involvement was guaranteed. The first two locations in November were, however, quite different: spacious churches with the problems of projection and reverberation. Grace Episcopal on the Square is large, but not overwhelming, whereas Luther Memorial on University Avenue is comparatively huge, a large space of echoes and extended sonic decay. Finally, Brittingham Gallery III at the Chazen, though a generously sized room, suggests a rather tight and confined ambience, especially when full of audience.

I had my own reactions to the differing results of these differing settings, but it was instructive to compare notes with some of the performers. The two church locations (below, the interior of Grace Episcopal) added a wondrous glow to their singing, in which they could luxuriate. But such spacious conditions are more sympathetic to sonically expansive polyphony, whereas the smaller, closer forms of their program are less at home, and the singers found problems in hearing each other as they sang.

On the other hand, they surprised me by their enthusiasm for the Chazen situation. It had less tightness and more warmth than they expected: they could hear each other clearly, and they plainly took particular pleasure in doing their work. I, too, found unexpected advantages in this room—madrigal-like pieces worked especially well, and the climactic eight-voice Schütz madrigal came off with particular lucidity and beauty, it seemed to me.

The greater confidence in their repertoire that the performers seemed (to me) to display may partly have resulted from the value of repeated presentations.  But I think that also a factor was the extent of rehearsal opportunities at each site.  At the churches, there were preliminary warm-up opportunities, but not much chance to work fully into the differing acoustical situations. At the Chazen, apparently there were a few hours in the morning allowed for rehearsal, so that a little fuller adjustment to acoustics there gave the performers a greater sense of comfort with them.

Obviously, the Chazen folks can take pride in this further endorsement of their concert setting. It might be added that the performance/broadcast format, with gracious commentary interspersed by Wisconsin Public Radio announcer Lori Skelton, added a more leisurely and less formal quality to the event.

For me, this adventure also brought home how very important performance setting is to performance results–the more so when the same music and same performers shift among different places. This is a point of concern not only for musicians themselves, but also for the public, which would benefit from developing sensitivity to the effects of venue and acoustics — especially when varied — upon musical achievements as one listens, experiences and enjoys.


4 Comments »

  1. As always, thanks to you, Jacob and John, for this insightful look (and listen) inside some great choral music. (Sorry I was unable to hear these concerts…)

    SIDELIGHT: Ah yes, Schutz, Schein and Scheidt–the “Three Great Sch’s!” There was a “formidable fourth” as well: the early Baroque German composer Michael SCHULTHEIS (1571– 1621) of MUSAE SIONAE and SYNTAGMA MUSICUM fame. He too is worthy of this noble company…except that he chose to latinize his name to “Praetorius!”

    (Indeed–would Schutz have such great name recognition today had he gone by the name
    “Heinrich Saggitarius?”)

    David J. Susan (a “Praetorius partisan”)

    Comment by David J. Susan — November 29, 2012 @ 9:47 am

  2. I’ve always been fascinated by the way, as you say, the same musicians and music can be presented to a different affect each time. I think it’s that uniqueness of the moment that makes live performance so special.

    Comment by hashimeansbridge — November 29, 2012 @ 8:45 am

  3. I briefly attended the first rehearsal and then happened to hear the Chazen performance on NPR while driving back from Minnesota. I don’t know the size of the audience at Luther Memorial, but assume it was probably a full house at the Chazen. Could the size of the audience have been another factor in the way that it sounded? Not to mention the psychological fact of having a larger, close-up audience?

    Comment by Ann Boyer — November 28, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

  4. I also heard all 3 performances and could appreciate some of the differences. I was really happy to see this detailed account of your astute observations.

    Comment by Mary Gordon — November 28, 2012 @ 6:26 am


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,201 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,078,998 hits
%d bloggers like this: