The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here are seven big things The Ear liked about the latest concert by the Madison Choral Project and two small things he did not like. Go this afternoon and see if you agree. | May 31, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night, The Ear attended the latest concert by the estimable Madison Choral Project. He was very glad he did. It was terrific. You should go hear it.

MCP group 5-15

The concert was called “Music of Our Time” and was programmed and conducted by the legendary Grammy-nominated conductor Dale Warland (below top). Edgewood College professor Albert Pinsonneault (below bottom), who just got a new job at Northwestern University near Chicago and who founded and directs the Madison Choral Project, studied under Warland.

Dale Warland

Albert Pinsonneault 2

It was and will remain a memorable event, and I encourage music fans to attend a repeat performance this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave. (Free parking is available two blocks west at the UW Foundation.)

Tickets are $20 general admission; $10 student admission; and $50 for preferred seating to support the outstanding organization.

For more information, visit

Here is The Ear’s review in the form of points he liked and didn’t like:


  1. The program was not too long, yet it featured a wide variety of repertoire, texts and composers.
  2. The chorus sang with seemingly exemplary diction in English, Latin and Russian.
  3. The many a cappella portions were broken up by adding other instruments. UW-Madison professor John Aley (below top) played the trumpet, especially in a haunting finale where he played from a distance. Eric Miller (below bottom) played the cello with energy, sensitivity and lyricism.

MCP John Aley

MCP Eric Miller

  1. UW-Madison piano professor Martha Fischer (below) played with mastery, never too loudly or too softly. She demonstrated the art of blending. Little wonder that she heads the collaborative piano faculty – that is what used to be called the art of “accompanying” – at the UW-Madison School of Music.

Martha Fischer color Katrin Talbot

  1. The chorus showed absolute precision with crisp attacks and unbroken releases. There was no sloppiness to discern. Warland’s hands were expressive “batons” to observe.
  2. The chorus displayed an exemplary mastery of balance. Too many choral performances sound monolithic, with all parts being emphasized pretty much equally when it comes to volume and dynamics. Instead, conductor Dale Warland brought out lines and gave each piece a foreground, mid-ground and background. That added a richness you often don’t get to hear.
  3. The acoustics and atmosphere of the church seem ideally suited as a concert venue for choral or vocal music. You have to love all the dark wood, the color scheme and especially the rows of organ pipes as a metaphor for the human voices and human “pipes.”

MCP church setting


  1. Too many of the songs had the same slow tempo. The Ear loves ballads, elegies and laments as much as — and maybe more than — the next person. But only one piece really jumped out as an upbeat contrast, and that was with very mixed success – as you can see below.
  2. The Ear doesn’t like choruses or conductors that think they have to entertain the audience and do something active besides stand there and sing well. I don’t like it, for example, when singers clap their hands and stomp their feet during spirituals in mock-folk, mock-slave style that comes awfully close to being something out of a minstrel show. Luckily, the singers did not spoil the fabulously beautiful and stirringly poignant version of “Deep River” with such shenanigans.

For that reason, I did not like the chorus waving their hands and turning their heads as if being buzzed by stinging bees in one third-rate song “Of Crows and Clusters” by Norman Dello Joio (below), who used a third-rate poem by Vachel Lindsay. (You can hear it in a YouTube video at bottom, where the University of Southern California singers forego the cliche theatrics.) Yet most of the audience seemed to like the novelty piece a lot, right along with the rest of the program that deserved the enthusiastic reception it got.

MCP audience

But The Ear found it too cute, completely unconvincing and totally unnecessary. The Ear doesn’t do cute -– at least not in music.

Norman Dello Joio


  1. For me, this was by far best concert I’ve heard in Madison, and one of the best I’ve heard anywhere. And I am supremely happy that they chose to do contemporary works which in my experience are woefully neglected here. Warland brought out a sound that the MCP has not had in the past and I hope it lasts. Superb!

    Comment by Ruby Mumm Fillian — June 1, 2015 @ 7:56 am

  2. Maybe instead of saying “From the Balkans” the program of the Madison Choral Project should have said, “From the Baltics”? Both of the composers mentioned do hail from Baltic states but that is a long, long way from the Balkans (normally considered Turkey, Greece, and the states composing the former Yugoslavia like Croatia and Serbia). Another nice anecdote to show that Americans do not know their world geography!

    Comment by fflambeau — May 31, 2015 @ 5:16 am

  3. “For that reason, I did not like the chorus waving their hands and turning their heads as if being buzzed by stinging bees in one third-rate song “Of Crows and Clusters”.

    Perhaps. But, the writer of that song is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and he’s an American so he fits into the sketchy geographical concept of the program, more on that later. Second, on the hand waving and turning of heads, I suspect it was done for a couple of reasons. Perhaps because the conductor thought it brought some movement and hence life to the chorus rather than having them remain motionless as statues. Second to convey some emotion. I agree that this is all a matter of taste and should not be overdone. In spirituals, I think the clapping of hands by any chorus is in good form.

    My own rather small criticism of the program is the program itself. Instead of the rather vague concept of “music of our time” broken down into geographic regions (and getting the geography wrong), why not just call it a “program of Dale Warland’s favorite contemporary songs”? (Because I suspect that is was what it was). Note that Vytautas Miškinis (a Lithuanian) and Arvo Pärt (an Estonian) are NOT from the Balkans! Lithuania and Estonia are definitely not included in any definition of the Balkans.

    These may be petty criticisms of the music and the musicians who certainly deserve an emphatic pat on the back. Well done!

    Comment by fflambeau — May 31, 2015 @ 3:37 am

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