The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear catches up with the 15th annual Madison Early Music Festival, and takes in the second annual Handel Aria Competition and the All-Festival Concert. Both get big, hearty shout-outs and Hallelujahs. Plus, see how the WYSO tour to Argentina is going. | July 26, 2014

ALERT: If you want to find out the latest news about the tour to Argentina by the Youth Orchestra (below) of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, here is a link to the blog:

www.wysotour2014.blogspot.com

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

As you probably already know, The Ear is running a bit behind.

That’s how busy even the summer season has become, when it comes to classical music in the Madison area. And reviews take a second seat to previews and advance Q&A’s that benefit the performers and audiences.

So over the next few days, I want to provide some critiques and reviews, and even more shout-outs, to various events that took place over the past couple of weeks. I hope you will forgive my tardiness.

You should also know that I am not going in chronological order because some things seem more important or more timely, and therefore more overdue, than others.

So, first things first.

As you probably know, this summer marked the 15th anniversary of the annual Madison Early Music Festival that takes place each July at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Here is the official website of the competition with the results plus background and biographies of all the finalists and other information:

www.handelariacompetition.com

memf banner 2014

True, the second annual Handel competition is not strictly speaking a part of MEMF. But it is affiliated with MEMF. And since I have already covered the extraordinary MEMF opening concert “The Leonardo da Vinci  Codex” by the Toronto Consort, I wanted to bring you up to date with the results of the aria competition, which has begun to attract national and even international attention.

Here are the big point to note: What a difference a year makes!

This year there was no unsatisfactory split or disagreement between the four judges and the public, as there was last year. BRAVO!!!!

This year, both the judges and the public — which had some pretty discerning listeners in it — agreed on the winner: She was Chelsea Morris (below), who might be familiar from other appearances in Madison with the Madison Bach Musicians and Trevor Stephenson, who whom she has released a CD of songs by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn and  Franz Schubert.

Morris met all the criteria that Professor John W. Barker, an insightful critic and devoted Handelian, had outlined in his pre-concert lecture. He emphasized that it was not only about beautiful singing but also capturing the sense of drama in a role, of great diction, of ornamentation, of mastering the Handelian style.

Chelsea Morris did all of them, and the second time proved the charm. (You can hear her entry in last year’s aria competition in a YouTube video at the bottom.) And she is moving from Chicago to Madison as her base, where she will be a Studio Artist with the Madison Opera this coming season  So The Ear hopes to score a Q&A with her soon. She won $1,000 and free tuition (worth just under $500) to next summer’s Madison Early Music Festival.

Morris sang “Svelato il cor ti vedo” and “L’amor que per te sento” from “Alessandro” and “O Sleep, why dost thou leave me?” from “Semele.”

MEMF 2014 Chelsea Morris

Second Prize went to Daniel Moody (below), a countertenor who sang “Pomoe vane do morte! And “Dove aei, amato ben” from the opera “Rodelinda”:

MEMF 2014 Handel Daniel Moody

Third Prize ($500) went to soprano Yukie Sato, a Tokyo native who is now based in Basel, Switzerland where she won a similar competition. With much drama, she sang “A Ruggiero crudel” and “Ombre palle” from “Alcina” and “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” from the oratorio “Messiah.

MEMF 2014 Yukie Sato

You read me right: Tokyo and Switzerland. This past year, some money had been raised to help pay travel expenses, and that paid off in the quality of singing, which was higher overall.

The applicants this time numbered 60, and they came from around the nation and world. That was whittled down to 30, and then 15 and then, in the end, to seven finalists (below) because the judges couldn’t agree on just six.

Each contestant had to sing one aria in Italian and another in English. The Ear likes that. It helped us in judging diction, and helped you to appreciate the range of Handel’s music. But The Ear wishes that in future competitions they would ban arias from “Messiah” since you hear that music enough already.

MEMF 2014 7 Handel contestants

One downside: Held in Music Hall, the Handel aria smack-down drew an audience about half as big as last year, maybe 250 instead of the 500 in Mills Hall. No doubt that fact that admission this year was $10, while last year it was free, figured in that lower attendance. I would sure like to see it return to free admission, if possible. It is a great way to introduce people to the world of Handel, and draw a general audience –- not just specialists.

But another plus this year was that the singers were accompanied by a small five-person pickup orchestra or consort (below) made up mostly of faculty members and professional instrumentalists from the Madison Early Music Festival. The sound sure added authenticity and helped both the singers and the listeners get into the mood of Handel operas, which have been rediscovered big time. Plus, it was just more fun to listen to with great variety of sound, timbre and tone.

MEMF 2014 Handel consort

This year’s Handel Aria Competition was nothing short of a triumph. The competition is well on its way to becoming an impressive and fun Madison summertime institution. All thanks go, then, to founders and sponsors Dean and Orange Schroeder (below, holding a bust of George Frideric Handel), the business owners of Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street, who are such reliable and generous supporters of Madison’s classical music scene.

MEMF Handel 2014 Handel Orange and Dean Schroeder

THE ALL-FESTIVAL CONCLUDING CONCERT

A week ago tonight, the Madison Early music held its All-Festival Concert in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue. (MEMF had to use Music Hall and Luther Memorial as alternative venues this summer because Mills Hall at the UW-Madison School of Music was undergoing repairs.)

And speaking of triumphs, the thematic program was based on the sonnet cycle of “Triumph” by Petrarch (below), who examined the importance of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity. It is a work that both anticipates and sums up the emerging humanism of the Italian Renaissance.

francesco petrarca or petrarch

There are not a lot of specific remarks I can make except that:

The program was well constructed by Grant Herreid (below), who also conducted it.

MEMF 2014 All-Festival Grant Herreid

The orchestra played beautifully and produced big full sound enhanced by the church’s acoustics. Yet a balance was maintained, and vocal and instrumental parts blended.

The various soloists -– and there were many –- were impressive.

Lasting just over an hour, it was a perfect wrap up to a great festival.

MEMF 2014 All-Festival

Co-founders and co-artistic directors UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman Rowe, who both sang in the chorus parts, also announced that next year’s theme will be Early Music in Central and Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia, Poland and Bohemia.

Sounds great.

Can’t wait.


2 Comments »

  1. Thanks, Jake – for the great report on MEMF! I, too, attended the Handel Aria competition, and the only negative for me was the use (however well-intentioned, and however talented the players) of the small orchestra to accompany. With little rehearsal time, no conductor, and no eye contact possible between singer and ensemble, the deck was really stacked against any genuine ensemble. Having both sung and conducted Handel, I can report that the challenges are many in the best of circumstances. Several of the singers had noticeable stumbles, and all of them had a “moment” somewhere in their performance where there was doubt about connecting with the orchestra. In my opinion, a competition is not the time to throw singers and an unknown ensemble together. Hope that MEMF will rethink this for next year.

    Comment by Kathy O — July 26, 2014 @ 7:30 am

    • Hi Kathy,
      You are the trained and professional singer, so I have to trust your observations and judgment.
      But as for me, I really enjoyed the little orchestra and hope they keep it next year.
      Maybe they could use more rehearsal time; or have a conductor; and use a different seating arrangement so that the singers and players can get cues from each other.
      But I really like the quality of the sound the instruments added, and I think the audience in general did.
      I wonder what other readers who heard the competition think.
      Maybe we will hear from them.
      As always, thanks for reading and responding so thoughtfully.
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 26, 2014 @ 9:40 am


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