The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Easter music abounds. The UW Concert Choir and UW Chamber Orchestra convey the strength of Bach’s “St. John Passion,” despite some serious problems. The Madison Bach Musicians perform Bach’s Mass in B Minor tonight and Saturday night. Plus, the UW Madrigal Singers give FREE concert of Orlando di Lasso on Saturday night.

April 18, 2014
1 Comment

TWO ALERTS

Some perfect music for Easter is on tap this weekend:

Tonight and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., the acclaimed early music and period-instrument group the Madison Bach Musicians, joined by the Madison Choral Project and guests vocal soloists and instrumentalists, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor, first at the First Congregational United Church of Christ and then at the First Unitarian Society of Madison in the new Atrium Auditorium. Both performances feature MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson giving a pre-concert talk at 6:45 p.m. Tickets are selling fast. Here is a link to an earlier post with more details about the performances and the music:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/classical-music-qa-the-mass-in-b-minor-is-perfect-music-for-easter-it-reconciles-catholicism-and-protestantism-and-is-a-distillation-of-bachs-cantatas-and-passions-says-trevor-stephe/ 

On Saturday night at 8 p.m in Mills Hall, the UW Madrigal Singers, under director Bruce Gladstone, will perform the “Lagrime di San Pietro” (Tears of St. Peter) by Orlando di Lasso (below), one of the greatest composers of the late Renaissance. Completed just weeks before di Lasso died, the “Lagrime” consists of 21 pieces for seven voices; 20 spiritual madrigals in Italian and a concluding motet in Latin. The poetry describes the remorse and anguish Peter suffered after he denied Christ, and though the subject matter is sacred, the emotional content – betrayal, disappointment, remorse and forgiveness – are universally human.

Orlando di Lasso

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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Passion According to St. John” occupied the composer Johann Sebastian Bach (below) for over three decades as a work-in-progress, one that he never really completed in definitive form. Yet editors are able to make a workable compromise version of it that allows us to appreciate its dramatic power—very different from the broader, more contemplative character of his “St. Matthew Passion.”

Bach1

Despite the frenzied musical schedule of the weekend of Palm Sunday, this work was an entirely appropriate choice for a performance on last Saturday night by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Concert Choir and the UW Chamber Orchestra (both below), all under the direction of Beverly Taylor.

Concert Choir

UW Chamber Orchestra entire

But there were problems, and they could not be overlooked.

First of all, there was the chorus, 32 singers strong, which made a mighty sound. Nevertheless, choral director and conductor Beverly Taylor (below) followed a doctrine subscribed to by many choral conductors, requiring the breaking up of voice sections and the mixing of the singers. That is supposed to make the singers more self-reliant, and produce a greater overall blend.

But one listener’s “blend” is another listener’s “blob.” For all the sonority, this chorus was an amorphous blob, seriously compromising the part writing over which the composer worked so hard, and undermining sectional definition.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

The orchestra started out a bit roughly, with the winds not precisely in pitch with each other at first, and some coarse string playing. These issues were worked out along the way, but difficulties in balances with the singers were recurrent.

The vocal soloists were mostly young.

Solo soprano Emily Weaver (below top) is only a freshman voice major, but her instrument, still in the making, is bright and full of promise. Joshua Sanders (below middle), who sang a small role and two of the three tenor solos, used his strong voice to bellow a bit. Benjamin Schultz (below bottom), both as Pilate and in one of the three bass solos, was hobbled by pallid tone and not always precise pitch.

Emily Weaver

Joshua Sanders

Benjamin Schultz

Two of the soloists, however, were experienced elders. UW baritone Paul Rowe (below top, in a photo by Michael Anderson), on the UW-Madison School of Music voice faculty, made a dignified and authoritative Jesus, but assigning him two of the bass arias disrupted the portrait he made of Jesus. His wife, soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe (below bottom), was really stretching her lower range to sing the alto solos: in the first one, her weak sound was almost obliterated by the obligatto oboes, though she did recover somewhat for the potent “Es ist vollbracht,” the gamba accompaniment to which was eloquently brought off by Anna Steinoff. (You can hear the aria at the bottom in a YouTube video with Bernarda Fink and conductor John Eliot Gardiner.) 

The Music of Franz Schubert

Cheryl Rowe color 1

Anna Steinhoff

Perhaps the star of the proceedings, though, was tenor Daniel O’Dea, a doctoral student who is already a seasoned professional singer. He has the high, clear voice ideal for the central role of the Evangelist, only briefly succumbing to temptations to shout excitedly towards the end. I am told that this was the first time O’Dea had sung the part of the Evangelist in any Baroque Passion work, but this kind of role could easily become an important specialty for him. As with Rowe, though, it was a wrenching in this performance to have him shift suddenly from narrator to aria soloist at one point.

Daniel O'Dea

It has not been easy for me to rack up all these criticisms. But I take this venture seriously enough to hold it to the generally high level of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music’s performing standards. And I should not want it to be excused as “just a student performance.” The truth is that Taylor understood the dramatic character of the piece and brought it together in a propulsive totality that did ultimately put across the work’s beauty and power.

Above all, it was a kind of performing experience that the student participants deserved to have.

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