The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear gives a hearty Shout Out! to the All-Festival Concert of early Slavic music by the Madison Early Music Festival. | July 22, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, in Mills Hall, The Ear saw and heard the All-Festival Concert by the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF).

MEMF 2015 All Festival group

Historically, that concert – which brings together students, faculty and guest artists – is the closing wrap-up of the festival, and The Ear has been to quite a few of them over the past years.

But this year’s event proved one of the best ever, right at the top of the list.

The topic this year was “Slavic Discoveries: Early Music from Eastern Europe.”

MEMF 2015 Slavic banner

To be honest, the music itself was not one of my all-time favorites of MEMF, although it had many beautiful moments.

What proved most impressive to my ears and eyes was the incredible variety that the various performers managed to instill into a concert that otherwise could have been pretty monotonous.

But this concert was anything but monotonous. The performances were well-rehearsed and quite polished.

The program presented a wide variety of works by Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Russian composers from the 16th through the 18th centuries.

MEMF 2015 John Barker

There was, as usual, a lot of vocal music by some of the biggest orchestral and choral forces I recall seeing.

But there was also some impressive instrumental music that featured some pretty eye-catching instruments, including the oversized lute-like theorbo (below top) and the Celtic harp (below bottom).

MEMF 2015 All Festival Theorbo

MEMF 2015 All Festival Celtic harp

And the forces used the entire hall, even putting brass at the top of the back balcony at one point.

Plus, early music expert and retired UW-Madison professor Medieval history John W. Barker served as the narrator in an engaging piece about the slain Polish trumpeter whose battle call is still played today in Krakow in his honor.

MEMF 2015 All Festival John W. Barker

The singers sang in large groups and small groups — solo, duets (below) and quartets — and all permutations performed superbly. The voices were strong and clear, and the diction always seemed excellent.

MEMF 2015 All Festival duet

Conducting duties – split between guest main conductor Kristina Boerger (below top) and assistant conductor Jerry Hui (below bottom) – were exemplary.

It can be easy to lose a sense of balance and control with such large forces. But the range of dynamics from soft to loud, from slow to fast, never felt awkward or wrong. Not here. The blending and flow were superb.

MEMF 2015 All Festival Kristina Boerger

MEMF 2015 All Festival Jerry Hui

So The Ear offers a hearty Thank You! to all the participants of this year’s Madison Early Music Festival who made this final concert so satisfying.

And to listeners, I say: If you can only make one concert during the Madison Early Music Festival each summer, the All-Festival Concert is a good bet — and a great place to start if early music is new to you. 

Judging from this latest installment, you won’t be disappointed.

And you just might catch The Bug!

 

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