The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Early music is now mainstream here, thanks in large part to the Madison Bach Musicians, which opened its 10th anniversary season with a first-rate Baroque string program that drew a big and enthusiastic audience, and demonstrated the importance of live performance. | October 7, 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  FM 89.9. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) opened their 2013-14 season — which marks the 10th anniversary of the local early music group — with a splendid concert of Baroque string music at the First Unitarian Society’s Atrium Auditorium on Saturday night and then repeated it again on Sunday afternoon at the Madison Christian Community Church on Old Sauk Road.

MBM 10th

I went to the Saturday night performance. As always, the proceedings were prefaced by a talk from founder, director and keyboardist Stephenson (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) in his usual witty and informative style.

MBM 10th pre-concert talk

The rich program proved to be a study in string sounds.  Joining harpsichordist Stephenson, along with cellist Anton TenWolde, were five guest players.

Marilyn McDonald (below) is something of the matriarch of Baroque violin playing and teaching, and two of the other players here have been her students: violinist Kangwon Kim and violist Nathan Giglierano. Two others were Brandi Berry and Mary Perkinson, both skilled players known here.

Marilyn McDonald baroque violin

The program was, to a considerable extent a constant switching of these talented violinists.  A Concerto for Four Violins without Bass was one of those endlessly fascinating experiments by Georg Philipp Telemann, complete with a finale of fanfares.

Two chamber works by George Frideric Handel (below top) graced separate parts of the program.  A Sonata for Violin and Continuo featured the amazingly deft McDonald, with the continuo pair.  And a Trio Sonata, Op. 2, No. 9, joined her with the spirited Kim.  A Sonata for Two Violins by Jean-Marie Leclair (below, bottom) brought together Berry and Kim.

Handel etching

Jean-Marie Leclair

The first half concluded with a revitalized warhorse: the notorious Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel, reclaimed from all its stupid arrangements, and restored as a contrapuntal delight for three violins with continuo, as well as reunited with its brief concluding Gigue.  Perkinson joined McDonald and Berry for this.

johann pachelbel

Here, I must say, I found another example of how attending a live performance makes all the difference.  Watching the players in person, I could follow how leading lines were transferred in turn, canonically, from one violin to another, with a clarity that no recorded performance could allow.

MBM 10th 3 before Handel

In the second half, after Handel’s Trio Sonata, Stephenson himself played on the harpsichord the final Contrapunctus or fugue from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “The Art of Fugue.”  Along the way in this, Bach (below) introduced the motto of his own name, made up of the German musical notes of B, A, C, B-flat (“H” in German notation).  And then the piece trails off abruptly where, story has it, Bach dropped his pen forever.

Bach1

The grand finale was a truly exhilarating performance of the Concerto in A minor for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo, No. 8 by Antonio Vivaldi (below and in a popular YouTube video with over 3 million hits at the bottom) and included in his Op. 3 publication.  (Bach himself so admired this work that he made a keyboard concerto transcription of it.)

vivaldi

Here again, too, I had one of those moments of insight that live performances alone can give.

The players were arrayed, one to a part, with the cello by its harpsichord continuo partner on the far left, the strings then spread out towards the right. The violist Giglierano, in his only appearance, was furthest on the edge.

That isolation from the cello–which really belongs to the continuo, not to the string band–was telling, for it enabled me to appreciate how Vivaldi used the viola as the lowest voice in what is really three-part string writing.  This was notably obvious in the middle movement, which was written almost entirely senza basso (without bass).  Again, such awareness can come only from a live performance, rather than a recorded one.

It goes without saying that all the performers played with the highest level of skill and stylistic sense, joined with infectious enthusiasm.

MBM concerts used to be held in the lovely intimacy of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below top) on Regent Street.  Now, they can virtually fill the First Unitarian Society’s Atrium (below bottom), in a photo by Zane Williams) with an audience close to 200 –and a very enthusiastic bunch, at that.

St. Andrew's Episcopal Madison Front

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

Thirty years ago a concert like this would have been inconceivable.  The Madison public was just not as aware and as prepared and as receptive as it has come to be by now.  Stephenson and his colleagues in the Madison Bach Musicians are one of the major forces that have brought about that process.  How much we owe them!


2 Comments »

  1. I was at this concert and enjoyed it very much. Just a reminder for those of us who love early music: the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble will perform this Saturday at 8:00 pm at the Gates of Heaven.

    Comment by Famous Hat — October 8, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

  2. I was seated in the same row, just across an aisle, from Mr. Barker & I’d concur totally with his perceptive review. One thing that always brings me back to anything Dr. Stephenson does is that I almost always learn something new. Prior to this concert, he commented on every piece being played except a Sonata in g minor by J. M. Leclair, a well-known French Baroque composer. As he was setting the music holder frame for his harpsichord, Dr. S asked if there were any questions to which a lady in the front row mentioned Leclair. The harpsichordist immediately replied that this composer was the notorious Frenchman who was allegedly murdered by his second wife.

    I was astonished but knew Stephenson wasn’t kidding so as soon as I got home, I dialed up Wikipedia and sure enough Leclair was murdered, stabbed in the back. No one, however. is quite sure it was his 2d wife for pecuniary gain or simply a common criminal. Whichever, I hope to try some of Leclair’s kybd music soon. In any event, the entire ensemble performed with verve and insight at a truly world-class level for the duration. Another truly musical Dane county gem.

    Comment by Larry Retzack — October 7, 2013 @ 2:28 am


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