The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: John W. Barker reviews conflicting concerts by the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra and the choral group Voces Aestatis. | August 24, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a two-fer or double 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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Scheduled train-wrecks are, sadly, all too familiar in the regular music season, say in October and April. But at the very end of August? Absurd! Unacceptable!

And yet there it was. Last Friday night, August 21, we had two concerts needlessly set at loggerheads. One had been scheduled for months; the other was hastily set and on terms that had little to do with the risks of spoiling the logical audience for both.

The two events were: the second and final summer concert by the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO); and the only summer concert by the new choral group Voces Aestatis (Latin for Voices of Summer).

Feeling the need to report on both, I was boxed in and forced by circumstances to review one concert directly and the other though its dress rehearsal.

That is grossly unfair to the disadvantaged choice, the MAYCO concert, for obviously the ensemble needs to be judged on its definitive public performance. Still, rehearsals are themselves often fascinating, and so I hope my approach is not without merits of it own.

MAYCO

The MAYCO rehearsal (below, in a photo by John W. Barker; other performance photos were taken by The Ear) was held on Thursday morning, August 20, in the venue of the concert itself, Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill on the UW-Madison campus.

The program is one that was connected to that of the earlier concert this summer, on June 20, in that each explored approaches to the Baroque ensemble idiom of the concerto grosso and brought together examples old and new.

MAYCO rehearsal 2015 JWB

This second program opened with an outstanding example of a Late Baroque masterwork, the fifth of George Frideric Handel’s great set of 12 Concerti Grossi, Op. 6.

Conductor and ensemble founder, Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below) showed his fresh and enterprising approach in so many ways.

Mikko Rankin Utevsky MAYCO 8-15

He used the supplemental wind parts that double merely the string voices but are authentic survivals. He opposes first and second violins, allowing the concertino’s trio of soloists a proper place in the texture. He had the players (save for cellos) stand for the performance, rather than sit. (In the rehearsal, too, he himself conducted while playing the viola part.) The performance stressed vitality and vigor, and showed that the 19 string players could make a quite coherent ensemble sonority.

By contrast, the second work was a modern counterpart, Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Strings and Piano, the latter played by UW-Madison student Jason Kutz (below). Composed in 1925 — and followed by a second one some years later — this is a remarkable example of neo-Classicism, in which a Baroque form and mentality could be recast in 20th-century harmony.

Bloch knew that the piano could not match the harpsichord as an “authentic” continuo instrument: while he often uses it to reinforce the string bass line, he gives it roles across the texture, while even allowing it tiny solo moments. The style is richly varied, with elements of folk dances, and an overall suggestion of the neo-Hebraic sound with which he was becoming identified.

Jason Kutz MAYCO

The final work was Franz Joseph Haydn’s beloved Symphony No. 94 in G major, the “Surprise.” Utevsky showed a thorough command of the score’s varieties and possibilities, exploiting them with some fine subtleties.

At the dress rehearsal and at the performance, Utevsky also gave two of his conducting students Maynie Bradley and Majestic Lor (below top and bottom respectively)  the chance to lead parts of the slow movement, as an introduction to actual podium experience — a wonderful idea!

Maynie Bradley

Majestica Lor

This has been the MAYCO’s fifth summer season. Utevsky promises to be back leading it at least one more year. He deserves every encouragement to arrange the extension beyond that, as an extension of this wonderful program he has created to allow talented young student players to have orchestral experience.

SUMMER VOICES

The conflicting choral concert was held Friday night in St. Andrew’s Church on Regent Street.

The group “Voces Aetatis” (Voices of Summer) is in its second season and offered a single concert. The group consists of 16 mixed voices, four singers to a part. They are devoted to “early” choral music, predominantly from the Renaissance, an age that offers particularly superlative choral writing just waiting to be exploited. Conductor Ben Luedcke has shaped them into a finely balanced ensemble, with beautifully nuanced overall sound.

Voces Aestatis 2015

The first (and larger) part of the program was devoted to sacred music by eight composers, chronologically: Jean Mouton (1459-1522), Jean Lhéritier (1480-1551), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594), William Byrd (1540-1623), Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1512), Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), and Antonio Lotti (667-1740). Of the last two, Gesualdo is a very late Mannerist, while Lotti is really a Baroque composer, represented by his retro-polyphonic warhorse, the eight-voice Crucifixus. Otherwise, the selection represented some prime Renaissance art.

The selections sounded lovely — and all the same. Director Luedcke (below) takes everything at a consistently smooth and stately pace, often rather too slowly to get at the textual and spiritual meanings. Only the Gesualdo Tenebrae motet conveyed any propulsive power. Pieces by Byrd and Gabrieli should have surged in excitement, but did not.

Ben Luedcke conducts voces aestratis

The program’s second part was devoted to madrigals by Jacques Arcadelt (1507-1568), Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), John Bennet (1575-1614) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). Now, the problem is that madrigals are not (and were not) intended as choral music. The particular attention to the texts the composers so carefully set is simply steamrollered by the blurred diction of a sizable chorus.

The ideal is one singer per part, and it is a pity that Luedcke did not pull out individual singers from the ensemble in varying combinations of such limited scale.

The obscured clarity of the Italian texts was bad enough, but was disastrous in the English pieces. The words to The Silver Swan (at bottom in a YouTube video) by Orlando Gibbons (below), offered as an encore, and to his What Is Our Life? were totally lost — a particular injustice since the latter sets an ironic poem attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh as he awaited execution, with interesting Shakespearian parallels. To render the words unintelligible is no way to treat madrigals, however prettily.

Orlando Gibbons

This ensemble has so much potential, and is a brave vehicle for an area of musical literature too little performed. One hopes it can mature in future years to the effectiveness of which it is capable.

And without competing with another event for attendance.

 

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