The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Sound Ensemble Wisconsin excels in a concert of songs, poetry and chamber music to a small audience hurt by competing concerts.

February 18, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker, who also took the performance photos. 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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Sound Ensemble Wisconsin is one of a number of new and enterprising chamber groups that has been developed in Madison in recent years.

This one is in its second season, and offered its second concert of that season in the Atrium auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison on Sunday night.

The group’s premise is to seek “a provocative and original approach to chamber music.”

Something of that aim was represented in the unusual seating plan set up in the auditorium, with double ellipses (below) surrounding the performing space.

SEW setup Barker

Further, for this concert, the approach was to match a number of vocal and instrumental pieces with readings of the poetry that provided the inspiration or even the very texts for the selections.  These were read by Katrin Talbot (below, far right), herself a poet, as well as an admired photographer and violist.

SEW Katrin Talbot Barker

The first half of the program offered (though not in this order) some songs. One, by Debussy, “Nuit d’etoiles” (Starry Night) , was sung by soprano Rachel Eve Holmes (below right) with pianist Jess Salek.  They were joined by violinist Mary Theodore, the group’s guiding spirit, and cellist Maggie Townsend to present one of Franz Joseph Haydn’s settings of Scottish folk songs.

SEW songs Barker

Without the soprano, this trio went on to present the Three Nocturnes of Ernest Bloch. The trio in turn yielded to a quintet (below), with Susanne Beia and Mary Perkinson, violins, and Chris Dozoryst and Jen Paulson, violas, joining Townsend in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Nocturne and Scherzo for String Quintet — for which Holmes returned to sing the English folksong, which inspired that gentle and thoughtful music.

SEW sextet Barker

The high point came as the closing music, Arnold Schoenberg’s string sextet (below), “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), with cellist Parry Karp, acting as a last-minute substitution for Karl Lavine, joining the previous quintet.

In the past I have found that I much prefer the original chamber form of this remarkable 1899 work over the more commonly heard adaptation of it for string orchestra; though, to be honest, one does not often have a chance to hear either in live performances.  The chamber version allows the richly complex six-part writing to be heard more clearly, without the lush overload of the orchestral version. (You can hear it for yourself at the bottom in the YouTube video of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center playing the opening of “Transfigured Night.”)

SEW Schoenberg sextet Barker

I have also found that this outpouring of late-Romantic, hyper-chromatic polyphony makes particular sense when one can experience this music not only played close-up, as in this concert, but also in plain view.

The result is that one can really see as well as hear which instrument is doing what as the piece unfolds.  I note, in fact, that, thanks to this hearing, I understood better than before the important role of the first viola, even amid the propelling forces of Beia and Karp. All the players were caught up in a unified and impassioned performance that was simply riveting.

It was a pity that barely 30 people turned up as an audience.  Perhaps that was due to so much competition, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra concert among other things.

Still, those who attended certainly came away feeling richly rewarded by this experience, and with heightened awareness of the stimulating contributions to the Madison chamber music scene that SEW is making.

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