The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Chamber Choir plus instrumentalists turn in a beautiful and memorable performance of a too rarely heard “madrigal fable” by Gian Carlo Menotti. | May 17, 2015

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 12 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. Barker also provided performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Madison Chamber Choir (below) delivered a true spring treat on Friday evening at the First Presbyterian Church downtown.

Madison Chamber Choir singers and players performing JWB

The curtain-raiser was a group of Four Pastorales by American composer Cecil Effinger (below), to texts by Thomas Hornsby Ferril. The poems are varied and sensitive, and are set with a good feeling for choral texture.

Cecil Effinger

The catch is that Effinger composed an obbligato part for a single instrument (oboe or, as here, clarinet) that is generally irrelevant musically and even a hindrance at times to choral projection and diction. It may have been partly the composer’s fault, but the diction could have been more clearly delivered, too. (Hit those consonants, folks!)

Diction issues were somewhat lessened, thanks to the composer’s care, in the major work of the concert.

Gian Carlo Menotti (below) was at a creative peak in 1956, when he created his work for 10 dancers, nine instrumentalists, and chorus, entitled The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore, or the Three Sundays of a Poet. He called this a “madrigal fable,” using the Renaissance form of the “madrigal comedy,” in which action is conveyed without soloists but by the choir.

This Italian idiom of the late 16th-century was something Menotti apparently discovered as he mastered Renaissance polyphonic style for the choruses in his supreme opera, The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954)—following his triumphs of The Consul (1950) and Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951).

Gian Carlo Menotti

As always, Menotti wrote his own text, which reflects on the phases of the creative life (as represented by the three animals), but also satirizes the shallow understanding and reflexive faddism of ordinary folk. In the process, he showed how wonderfully he had mastered the elements of colloquial American speech patterns.

And, above all, he put this in music that combines hilarious comedy with extraordinarily moving poetry.

I know of only one prior performance of this gem of a work in Madison, by the UW-Madison Madrigal Singers, in April of 2001, and it included the dance dimension.

Dancers were not involved in this latest production, but the music still carried the work brilliantly. The nine instrumentalists (below, on flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, percussion, cello, double bass and harp) were excellent.

Madison Chamber Choir Menotti iinstrumentalists JWB

The chorus of 33 voices (below) sang with superb sonority and ensemble. You could see them relishing the humor as well as the pathos.

Madison Chamber Choir singers Menotti 2 JWB

And credit is due for the church’s fine acoustics especially in furthering the richness of choral sound.

Conductor Albert Pinsonneault (below), who also teaches at Edgewood College and heads up the Madison Choral Project, led with confidence and obvious delight.

Albert Pinsonneault 2

It really pains me that so wonderful a work as this is so little known and — partly for practical reasons — so rarely performed. Nothing but gratitude is due these performers for bringing it to life for us this time. And the quite sizable audience expressed that gratitude in a prolonged ovation.

Madison Chamber Choir Menotti players and singers JWB

 

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