The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Co-artistic directors Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman Rowe discuss the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival that begins this Saturday and ends next Friday. It will explore the German Renaissance and the bridge between pre-Baroque and early Baroque music including J.S. Bach and Handel, and it will feature several major early music groups as well as a new Handel aria competition.

July 2, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

The fact that it is the ONLY Wisconsin classical music festival listed in The New York Times summer guide and NPR’s summer guide tells you something about the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF).

Specifically, those honors tell you that MEMF has come of age and is now a firmly established classical music event with a national and even international following and audience as well as performers (Cantus Consort Leipzig, Dark Horse Early Brass Consort, the Renaissance band Piffaro and the Parthenia Consort) and students.

Here is a link with complete information about the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival, including venues, dates and times as well as performers and programs. As a general rule, FREE pre-concert lectures are at 6:30 p.m.  in Room L-160 of the Elvehjem Building of the Chazen Museum of Art and concerts are in Mills Hall at 7:30 p.m.

I recently spoke with UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe his wife soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe, who serve as co-artistic directors of the festival. (Both are seen below in a photo from the 2012 sold-out MEMF concert by Anonymous Four.)

Here is their email Q&A:

MEMF 2012 Anon 4 Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe

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

We are running ahead of normal this year in terms of participants, and we are sure that once the festival gets closer we will have a larger number of people involved than usual. This is partly due to the success of last summer’s festival and partly to the music and era that we are focusing on this summer.

memf 14 logo

The addition of the Handel aria competition has given us a different kind of visibility. The large number of entries and inquiries shows how established the festival is nationally. It is gratifying to see that we are now being listed in several national publications.

This year’s music has something for everyone interested in early music since it is situated during the change in styles between what is usually called the Renaissance and the early Baroque.

This means that while music was changing there was still a great deal of carry-over in terms of musical style and the instruments that are used. So there are recorders, sackbuts (early trombones, below top) and shawms (early oboes, below bottom) but also violins, cellos, harpsichords and other more instruments that are more familiar to “classical” audiences.



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

The main differences this year are the addition of a masked ball on Wednesday night and the new Handel Aria Competition, the finals of which will take place on Monday night. (A portrait of Handel is below.)

handel big 2

Why was the topic of the German Renaissance chosen for the early music festival? What composers and works will be highlighted?

The specific time of the international celebration in March of 1616 gives a specific focus to the festival this year. The reason for the two-week party was the christening of the fifth son of the Duke of Württemberg (below), who was very well-connected in social and political circles.

John Frederick Duke of Wurttenberg

This time in history saw many such celebrations all over Europe and normally included theatrical, sacred and other celebrations. Much of the music and other details about the activities were printed in a kind of souvenir book that was distributed among the important guests. The events included a sacred mass (which will provide much of the music for the all festival concert), a masked ball, dances and theatrical presentations on allegorical themes.

This was also the time of many great composers including Heinrich Schütz (below), J.H. Schein, Samuel Scheidt, Michael Praetorius, Claudio Monteverdi, Hans Leo Hassler, the two Gabrielis and many lesser-known names.

This was also the first flowering of music publishing so much of the music from this time is available to us.

Heinrich Schutz

How does the German Renaissance in music differ from its counterparts in, say, Italy, France and England. What is the historical origin and role of the music from that era in that part of the world?

There is a great deal of crossover between the musical styles. International music was heavily influenced by the Italian composers, with whom many composers from other countries went to study. There was some attempt to incorporate styles to suit the language and fashion in each country.

In Germany, this meant attempts at opera in German most famously in Heinrich Schütz’ opera “Dafne,” which was presented some 10 years after the event we are using as a starting place. Germany also attempted to blend the dominant Italian style with the post-Reformation church music including the Becker psalter and the hymns of Martin Luther (below).

martin luther color

What music and composers of the era have been most neglected and least neglected by historians and performers?

Schütz is the most famous German composer from this era but there were many other including the aforementioned Schein, Scheidt, Praetorius (below), Hassler and also Matthias Weckman, Christoph Bernard, Heinrich Albert and Johann Kaspar Horn.

michael praetorius

Can you tell us about the program “Stuttgart 1616” for the All-Festival Concert on Friday, July 12?

Most of the music for the final concert will be drawn from the mass that was composed by Leonhard Lechner (below top and at bottom in a YouTube video), for the christening along with traditional chant and other sacred music by Ludwig Daser, Balduin Hoyoul, Simon Lohet, Gregor Aichinger, Michael Praetorius and Hans Leo Hassler (below bottom).

Leonhard Lechner

Hans Leo Hassler

Are there other sessions, guest lectures and certain performers that you especially recommend for the general public?

The lineup of guest groups is very strong this year. Most of the groups will be familiar to Madison audiences with the exception of Calmus Ensemble Leipzig from Germany and the Dark Horse Consort from New York. Calmus (below top) is an award-winning vocal ensemble whose concert will feature music from several different eras, including some works by J.S. Bach. Dark Horse Early Brass Consort (below bottom in a photo by Tatiana Daubek) is presenting a program of music for brass, voices and continuo.

Some of this music will be the most familiar music of this time with the Venetian-influenced double choirs and echo effects and extremely powerful blocks of sound for which brass ensembles are known.

Calmus Ensemble Leipzig

Dark Horse Early Brass Consort CR  Tatiana Daubek

Is there anything else you would like to add?

This summer promises to be a window into this time in history when many changes were in the air. It was a time of peace and prosperity all over Europe that was soon to end in the Thirty Years war.

In some ways it is similar to our “Roaring” Twenties with all kinds of musical styles mixing together as fashions shift. All the economic activity encouraged exchanges of art, music and literature, which was promoted further by the expansion of print.

It is also different to examine Germany at this time when we normally look at Italy, England and northern Europe. Germany was seen as a kind of artistic backwater but this era is what began a change in that perception.

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