The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra, with guest soloists, offered a welcome trio of rarely heard works. | November 29, 2014

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 for 20 years hosted 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

Well, last weekend was another train-wreck weekend with too many good things in competition with each other: pianist Valentina Lisitsa at the Wisconsin Union Theater (Thursday, Nov. 20), the Madison Opera’s Fidelio at the Overture Center (Friday, Nov. 21, and Sunday, Nov. 23), the UW-Madison Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra (Saturday, Nov. 22, and Sunday, Nov. 23), and the intimate Solo Dei Gloria concert at Luther Memorial Church (Saturday, Nov. 22). I won’t mention the basketball game, as well.

I was able to revel in Beethoven’s Fidelio on Friday evening, enjoy the SDGers on Saturday, and catch the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra (below) on Sunday evening. And a rewarding finale that was.

UW Choral Union and Symphony Nov. 2014

Conductor and director Beverly Taylor (below) wisely avoided any seasonal associations and gave us the chance to hear music that we are rarely likely to hear otherwise.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

There were three pieces.

The “filler” in the middle was a lushly exotic curiosity by Ralph Vaughan Williams (below), his Flos campi (or “floss campy,” as a Wisconsin Public Radio announcer identified it) — “Flower of the Field,” inspired by lines from the Biblical Song of Songs, and scored for the unusual combination of solo viola, wordless chorus and orchestra.

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

It is a rhapsodic affair, in six interconnected sections, exploring the sonorities and novel colors that his scoring allows. While it evokes a perfumed “eastern” ambiance, much of its musical character really derives from the composer’s steeping in folksong and folk spirit.

The chorus’s size gave its sound a good carrying power, helping the wordless ah-ing and humming to come through well against the orchestra, while viola soloist Sally Chisholm (below), a UW-Madison professor who also plays in the Pro Arte Quartet, made a beautifully ecstatic web of sound that only the viola can really achieve. When have you last heard such a dreamy novelty, and when again are you likely to?

UW Choral Union Sally Chisholm

On other side of that music came two different settings of the familiar Latin canticle, Te Deum laudamus, by two different composers. This all-purpose liturgical text has been set many, many times by a procession of composers over the centuries, but it would be difficult to imagine two more utterly contrasting treatments than the ones we heard.

The better known (or less unknown) one of the two was that by opera composer Giuseppe Verdi (below), among his very last compositions and now reckoned as the fourth of his Quattro pezzi sacri or “Four Sacred Pieces.”

Verdi 2

It is in a style familiar from his only other important setting of Latin liturgical texts, his Requiem. It is straightforward but noble, monumental and powerful music, and it was brought off with eloquence. (You can heard it, accompanied by the art of Michelangelo in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

That was the closing work.

The opening one was the other Te Deum. Antonin Dvorák (below), though a devout Roman Catholic, composed very little sacred music in Latin. Setting aside a purely functional Mass setting, his only familiar and recognized examples are his Stabat mater and his Requiem. Both of those are deeply felt, but are grandiose concert works.

dvorak

The only other such work is his setting of the Te Deum, cruelly neglected and unappreciated. It was composed in 1892 as a debut work for Dvorák’s new residence in New York City, and was intended as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World.

Against Verdi’s solemnity, Dvorák’s setting is festive. It is patterned along the lines of the traditional four-movement symphony, with a “slow movement” of folksong-like lyricism and a passionate “scherzo,” framed by flanking outpourings of extraordinary exuberance — all in unbroken succession.

For anyone who loves the music of this composer — as I do — or who is still discovering it, this work is an exciting revelation.

There were solo passages in the two Te Deums, beautifully sung by undergraduate soprano Emi Chen (below right) and graduate student baritone Joel Rathmann (below left).

Choral Union Joel Rathmann, Emi Chen

The UW Choral Union itself, 123 singers strong, sang with appropriate sonority. There were some rough spots in the opening of the Dvorák, with its off-putting rhythmic eccentricities, but the UW Symphony Orchestra played quite well otherwise — even if it sometimes was allowed to overshadow the other participants.

In sum, this proved an evening of truly refreshing choral experience, and another tribute to Beverly Taylor’s enterprise.

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1 Comment »

  1. I was at the same concert as Prof. Barker, and in general, I agree with a lot of his review. However, there are issues that I feel were not touched on, and should have been.

    Overall, the orchestra was too loud. More than once they overpowered the chorus and soloists. Frankly, when the only way you know that the opera singer up there on the stage was singing was because her mouth is moving, then the orchestra is WAY too loud!

    I’m a violist, and have played in that hall almost since the day it opened, through 5 years of Youth Orchestra, and many more years after that in the UW Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, and under a wide assortment of conductors.

    They were all able to get the orchestra to play not just softly, but in some cases, even down to that Holy Grail of dynamics, the quadruple piano. Unfortunately, Prof. Taylor didn’t seem to have that sort of control over the orchestra.

    And while the soprano soloist was in fine voice (when you could hear her over the orchestra), the baritone soloist suffered from a pretty bad case of “mush-mouth”. He was very difficult to understand, and when I could understand him, the speed of his vibrato made me wish I couldn’t.

    Which brings up something I have wondered about ever since Prof. Taylor arrived in Madison. Why in the world does she seem to prefer voices that utilize such a fast vibrato? I realize that she had an almost impossible act to follow, being hired to fill the position left vacant by the retirement of Dr. Robert Fountain, but surely the thin sound created by that fast vibrato really can’t match what she hears in her inner conception of a work.

    Having said all that, I can only commend Prof. Taylor for programming these three pieces, especially the Vaughn-Williams. I have only ever heard it in recordings, and only maybe two or three times even then. Prof. Chisholm played it beautifully, and the chorus provided the perfect underpinning to the lively quality of her viola.

    Lynn Washington, violist, WYSO and SOM alumna.

    Comment by bratschespeilerin — November 29, 2014 @ 8:31 am


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