The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Critic John W. Barker tells his sideswiped “Tale of Two Concerts” as he reviews the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble and pianist Frank Glazer.

August 6, 2013

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 Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.


By John W. Barker

A funny thing happened on my way to a concert commitment—a funny and increasingly all-too-familiar thing.

I agreed to do this review of the concert by the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below top) last Sunday.  (It had to be Sunday afternoon, because another cultural commitment prevented me from attending the first performance of their program on Friday.) But then I discovered that Farley’s House of Pianos was presenting a recital by the seemingly immortal Frank Glazer(below bottom), that same afternoon.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble group concert dress

Frank Glazer

That opened the wound I carry from having had to miss his last appearance in Madison two years ago—again, for the same reason of schedule conflict!  That’s Madison’s musical life for you, over and over again, now even in the summer.

Fortunately, however, this situation was less the usual head-on collision in schedule and more of a side-swipe. The choral concert was at 3 p.m., the piano recital at 4:30 p.m. That fact made it almost possible to be at two places at once, thank goodness.

Attending each concert has had personal reasons for me.  In the case of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble, the issue was my recognition of guilt.

The group’s director, Scott MacPherson (below) — a credit to UW School of Music background — founded the organization in 2002, drawing together some 35 passionate devotees of choral singing for the sole purpose of presenting a concert in Madison each summer.

Scott MacPherson older BW

That allowed MacPherson to maintain an important tie to this city, while holding professional positions elsewhere, and it gave wonderful performing experience to singers here devoted to him.

It also created an annual audience in Madison that allowed the group to move from one performance to two of each year’s program.

And yet–here comes the guilt–through all these seasons, for whatever reasons (excusable or otherwise), I have failed to attend any one of the IVE’s concerts.  Clearly it has been a loss on my part, one to be made up.

Both performances this years were in ample church venues: the Friday night one in Luther Memorial Church, the one on Sunday afternoon, which I attended, at Covenant Presbyterian.

The first half of the program offered what might be called a “classical” sequence.  The opener was a three-section setting for eight voices of Psalm 150, in French, by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), who compose and published polyphonic settings of all the Psalms.

MacPherson deliberately positioned the singers in the usual SATB (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) spread, rather than dividing them into two distinct choirs, to stress eight-voice integration over the antiphonal effects Sweelinck used so flexibly. But for the next two units the singers shifted about in fact into separate choirs.  And the resulting antiphonal effects were simply glorious.

Isthmus vocal Ensemble men

The motet “Ich lasse dich nicht” is a beloved and much-recorded work long attributed to Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703), a relative of Johann Sebastian Bach. The latter is known to have used the piece in his Leipzig repertoire, and scholars now are inclined to award its composition to J.S. himself.  (Personally, I am still inclined to the older attribution.)

Among its fascinations are the juxtaposition of a chorale sung by one section against the contrapuntal workings of the rest of the choir.  Hearing that wonderful effect after the Sweelinck work gave a clear contrast in the seductive elegance of the Calvinist Psalm idiom as against the four-square assertiveness of the German Lutheran chorale style.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble women

The latter style was given a new twist in a rarely heard work for double choir by Brahms (below), the “Fest und Gedenksprüche,” composed in thanks for an honor accorded him by his natal city of Hamburg.  Brahms was not only a professional choir director, but a pioneering booster and editor of early Baroque choral music, whose style he could assimilate and recast in his own distinctive way in these settings of three Scriptural texts.


The first half of the program ended–after another shift in the singers’ positions–with an arrangement for 16 voices made by one Clytus Gottwald of a single one (“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”) from the  “Rückert-Lieder” for solo voice and orchestra by Gustav Mahler (below).  The texture for, in effect, four four-part choirs, resulted in a density of sound that virtually obliterated the all-important text, producing a purely choral sound that completely left behind anything of Mahler’s intentions or musical character.  This should have been called a “motet after Mahler” rather than identifed as somehow still his music.

Gustav Mahler big

The concert’s second part shifted to music of our times. One does not even require the fact that 2013 marks the centennial of Benjamin Britten’s birth to justify presenting any of his important choral contributions.  This one, his “Hymn to Saint Peter,” sets a combination of English and Latin Scriptural texts celebrating Peter as the “rock” on which the Church was founded–an echo of the claims of the Roman Church that might not have been expected someone grounded in Anglican Church background.

Benjamin Britten

The Anglican tradition (also involving organ accompaniment of the choir) was even more directly evoked by “The Canticle of Brother Sun,” a text attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and colorfully set by British composer Grayston Ives.

By way of intermezzo, the organist Kathrine Handford (below top) played a lively Dance-Rondo for her instrument.  Then came a composition of a UW-trained Wisconsin composer, Linda Kachelmeier (below bottom), in which words of the Good Friday responsory “O vos omnes and of the “Stabat Mater” Sequence were glommed together in a great choral blur, to some extent surmounted by the lovely voiced mezzo-soprano Sarah Leuwerke in the piece’s solo part.

Kathrine Handford

Linda Kachelmeier

The official finale was a setting by Haitian-American composer Sydney Guillaume (below) of a text about competing drummers.  Nominally in French, this text really serves onomatopoeic purposes in suggesting the exuberant rhythms of Caribbean dance. As an encore, the choir sang a nostalgia-drenched arrangement of “Shenandoah.”

Sydney Guillaume

As may be concluded, not all of the program choices were ones I would have made.  But I am grateful to MacPherson for allowing me the chance to hear them.  Even more, I am delighted to express admiration for his extraordinary group.  For this pair of concerts, he doubled its normal number to 70, in view of the demands of the selections.  (I could spot a number of familiar Madison musicians among his “ringers.”)

Whether he will continue this practice remains to be seen.  But it is clear that he has a core group that is totally dedicated to working with him.  Each year they spend a busy week of rehearsals leading to the concerts. From him they have learned remarkable discipline and flexibility in ensemble singing and in stylistic range.  Perhaps above all, they just love working with him, and their joy in performance is quite evident.

In addition, I must express admiration for Scott MacPherson himself (below, conducting a rehearsal).  Now based at Kent State University in Ohio, he has achieved a national reputation in choral music–as a conductor of great skill, a choir-builder of magnetism, and an enterprising explorer of choral literature old and new.  An all-Wisconsin product, he was in his UW-Madison days an assistant and colleague to the revered Robert Fountain.  I can imagine the time when Scott MacPherson’s reputation will at least equal that of Fountain, if not eclipse it.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble rehearsing with Scott MacPherson

Now, as the final applause for the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble swelled at 4:35 p.m., I dashed to my car and was able to arrive at Farley’s House of Pianos, having missed Haydn’s Sonata in E Minor and the bare beginning of Beethoven’s rarely heard “Phantasie,” Op. 77.  That was followed by one of Beethoven’s “late” Piano Sonatas, No. 31 in E major, Op. 109.  Both of these works display Beethoven’s constant straining of the forms and mentalities he inherited from his predecessors.

The second half brought a series of shifts.  Samuel Barber’s four “Excursions display a clever ability to inhabit convincingly the differing styles of jazz, blues, cowboy song, and ragtime.  Then came the glittering world of Franz Liszt (below): his free-ranging “Petrarch Sonnet No. 104,” followed by the nature-picture of St. Francis preaching to the birds (“Franziscus Legende” No. 1).  [St. Francis thus, coincidentally, linked the two concerts!]

And a final Lisztian showpiece, his “Paraphrase” on the quartet from Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto.”

After that, still more contrasts, in one of Liszt’s adaptations of dances by Schubert, No. 6 of the former’s Soirées de Vienna” sets, as an encore.

Liszt at piano 2

Now, to the pianist.  Frank Glazer (below) really one the most remarkable American musicians.  Again, he is a Wisconsin native.  Born in 1915, he is accordingly now 98.  He has developed a sideline in writing and lecturing.  He is still artist-in-residence at Bates College in Maine.  And he is still actively performing!

Frank Glazer at the piano

I began collecting his early LP recordings in my student days, so for me he is a living legend.  His tastes in repertoire have always been voracious, and they still are.  He has been a continuing player in chamber-music groups, while his repertoire of solo piano music is astounding in its range.  A list, circulated at this latest appearance, of a series of eight performances this past season at Bates demonstrates that range vividly.  And it ends with a concert this past April in which he played, back-to-back, Beethoven’s cosmic “Diabelli” Variations and the herculean “Hammerklavier” Sonata–a feat comparable to doing two Mahler Symphonies on the same program (something, in fact, that Simon Rattle tried in his rambunctious earlier years).

Glazer’s attributes his resilience to exercise and mental self-discipline, but also to an early study of anatomy, so as to understand how to play with the least strain on his hands.  I was able to watch his hands, if from a distance, and I think I could observe something of his very straight and level hand positions, which nevertheless allowed his fingers to range securely from the dazzling runs of Liszt to the power of Beethoven.

With the aid of a page-turner, Glazer played from printed music rather than from memory, but one could hardly fault him for that.  Yes, here and there, a very tiny suggestion of a faltered note, but the technique was confident, and the stylistic sense always on point in whatever he played.

If you heard Glazer (below) blindfolded, you would take him for a player of maturity and insight.  Up close, his complexion gives clues to his age, but, seen from a distance, his appearance and movements make him look hardly a day over fifty-five.

Frank Glazer

Frank Glazer is, in sum, a phenomenon.  The ability of Tim and Renee Foley to fit him into their lineup of star performers for their incomparable recital events is a remarkable testimony to their reputation. And the splendid 1885 Steinway, so lovingly restored by the Foley technicians, and played by Glazer, was certainly no small draw to him, I would guess.

In all, it proved a memorable experience, allowing us to ponder over which is more remarkable — Glazer’s artistry or his longevity.

Frank Glazer at piano


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