The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians serve up a superb concert of “holiday” baroque music that goes beyond the holidays and shows the group has a new local tradition in the making.

December 17, 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 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

On Saturday night, the Madison Bach Musicians presented their third annual Baroque Holiday Concert at the First Congregational Church. That the event has taken solid hold was attested to by a record audience of over 300 people.

MBM group Holiday 2013

The idea is to avoid all the seasonal fluff and music mandated for hearing just because of its Christmas associations, and instead to present a program of excellent Baroque music, performed on period instruments, with stylistic skill and artistic vitality — material to be cherished any time of the year, not because the calendar tells us so.

The performers were, in effect, a vocal quartet and a string quartet (plus harpsichord and a bassoon for good measure). The guest singers were soprano Chelsea Morris, alto Sarah Leuwerke, tenor Peter Gruett, and bass Joseph Hubbard; the string players were Kangwon Kim and Brandi Berry, violins, Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola, and Martha Vallon, cello, with director Trevor Stephenson on harpsichord, and UW-Madison bassoonist Marc Vallon lurking in the wings. 

The program contained, in fact, almost no pieces with any Christmas connections.

The a cappella vocal quartet (below) launched the proceedings with a late Renaissance piece, to be sure: William Byrd’s beloved motet, “Ave verum corpus.” That is a work usually identified with choral repertoire, but Byrd composed it for more-or-less underground Catholic liturgies in Protestant England, probably to be sung by no more than one singer per part. It sounded very beautiful in this form, with the singers expertly balanced.

William Byrd Ave Verum Corpus MBM

Next, Morris sang the first half of George Frideric Handel’s setting of the Gloria segment of the Mass Ordinary, composed in Italy as a cantata for soprano, strings, and continuo.  Only recently discovered, this is not great Handel, but any Handel is good to have, and the bright and confident voice of soprano Chelsea Morris (below left) carried the segments beautifully.

MBM Chelsea Morris Vivaldi Gloria Holiday 2013

Marc Vallon (below) then joined in for one of Antonio Vivaldi’s many bassoon concertos, this one in A minor.  A bouncy but also thoughtful piece, it allowed appreciation of the very rich sounds of the Baroque bassoon.

MBM Marc Vallon bassoon Vivaldi holiday

Vivaldi also served to round out the first half of the program with his Trio Sonata, Op. 2, No. 12, a set of variations on the “La Folia” formula.  That idea was first carried out by Corelli in the last of his 12 Violin Sonatas, Op. 5. But Vivaldi showed that he could beat Corelli at his own game with a line of spectacularly varied variations. Kim and Berry (below left and right, respectively) brought off the virtuosic violin parts with precision and flair, a real rouser!

MBM Vivaldi La Folia

The second half was devoted in large part to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 153, “Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind” about resisting the destructive temptations or “enemies” of the world in the coming year. The work calls for three soloists and a choir, with strings and continuo. In this case, the four singers constituted a “chorus” for the three chorale treatments, while the string players were one to a part. (The group is below.)

I fear I do an injustice to the other singers, but I have long admired the work of alto Sarah Leuwerke (below bottom, left) , and her singing this time was pure joy.

MBM Bach canata 2013 Dec

MBM Bach canata alto Sarah Leuwerke

Almost as an afterthought came three scant excerpts from — you guessed it — Handel’s Messiah. Hubbard gave sturdy renditions of the “darkness” recitative and aria from Part I, and then the four singers and the players (Vallon jumping in on bass line) joined in the chorus “For unto us a child is born”: it was fascinating to hear the almost madrigal-like qualities this familiar music took on in such a minimalist rendition.

MBM Handel Messiah 2013

As an encore, we were given the final chorus from Bach’s cantata 172, which is an elaboration of the Christmas chorale “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (How brightly shines the morning star). (You can hear a different setting of the well-known tune from Bach’s Cantata No. 1 in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

It should be noted, too, that Stephenson (below) prefaced the concert with one of his witty and personable but exceedingly informative lectures.

Prairie Rhapsody 2011 Trevor Stephenson

The event was a totally delightful concert, proving ideal and much-appreciated musical respite from all the dunning of seasonal rituals. This is a tradition that Stephenson and his MBM should surely continue in years ahead.  Meanwhile, though, watch for their all-stops-out presentation of Bach’s great Mass in B Minor, this coming April 18 and 19.

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