The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Trevor Stephenson talks about the Baroque concertos that the Madison Bach Musicians will perform this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. | September 30, 2015

ALERT: The Ear apologizes for mistakenly listing this item last week: The weekly FREE Friday Noon Musicales at the historic  First Unitarian Society of Madison, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and located at 900 University Bay Drive, begin the new season this week. This coming Friday, Oct. 2, at 12:15-1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium, mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sanuda and pianist-composer Jeff Gibbens will perform songs by Gustav Mahler, Gabriel Faure, Manuel de Falla and Jeff Gibbens.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend Trevor Stephenson, the founder and artistic director as well as the keyboard player of the Madison Bach Musicians, writes:

The Madison Bach Musicians (below) is thrilled to start its 12th season this weekend with an entire program of baroque concertos for strings. I will be discussing the program today on Wisconsin Public Radio’s The Midday program with host Norman Gilliland from noon to 12:30 p.m.

Kangwon KIm with Madison Bach Musicians

There will be two performances: this coming Saturday night at 8 p.m. at  Immanuel Lutheran Church (below), 1021 Spaight Street, on the near east side; and Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. at Holy Wisdom Monastery on the far west side at 4200 County M in Middleton. I’ll give pre-concert lectures at both events at 7:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., respectively.

Immanuel Lutheran interior

Tickets are $28, $23 for students and seniors over 65, in advance; $30 and $25 respectively at the door. Student rush tickets are $10 and are available 30 minutes before the concert. For information about single tickets and subscriptions, go to:

http://madisonbachmusicians.org/buy-tickets-online/

Our soloists will be MBM concertmaster Kangwon Kim (below top) and internationally renowned baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe (below bottom).

Kangwon Kim

Steuart Pincombe

Right out of the gate, we’ll dive into a programmatic 17th-century masterpiece, Battalia (Battle, heard played by the renowned Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations in a YouTube video at the bottom) , by Heinrich Biber (below).

Composed around 1673, Battalia’s sequence of epigrams outlines a timeless narrative: from the drunken good humor and singing of disparate songs in several keys at once (long, long before Charles Ives) in the soldiers’ camp, to the sabre rattling of Mars, to the love song (aria) before the battle, to the battle itself, to the lament of the wounded musketeers (the slow descending chromaticism must be the oozing of wounds).

Biber’s sense of just how far to take each scene is what makes the work memorable. His instinct here is unerring in knowing how many repetitions to give a motive before finally closing it with a cadence — Scarlatti and Stravinsky are later masters of this technique.

Heinrich Biber

After Biber, we’ll move on to the elegant and rightly famous Violin Concerto in A minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). Bach learned an immense amount about ritornello form from his careful study of Antonio Vivaldi, whose music we’ll hear from at the end of the program.

In ritornello structure, the band and the soloist trade off sections; the band’s sections are full and fleshed out, more like a crowd or a Greek chorus, the soloist’s material is usually more intricate and virtuosic.

But the soloist and the band are only minimally contrasted in baroque style, since usually the band backs up the soloist and in many performance approaches the soloist will also play along during the band’s louder sections; the feeling is very convivial.

MBM chamber ensemble, April 2015

I’m always amazed by how much Bach’s music is at once thoroughly inspired by Italian music — with its leaps, drive and energy — and yet is never overrun with Italianisms.

Take the opening ritornello of this violin concerto. The first four measures could come from almost any Italian master, and then Bach brilliantly extends and twists and cantilevers the cadence for another 20 measures to set the stage for the soloist’s refined entrance in the upbeats to measure 25.

The Andante middle movement has a compelling, heartbeat-like rhythmic underpinning (regularly punctuated by a swaying figure) in the opening ritornello, which then gives way to the solo violin’s utmost tenderness and rhetorical conviction. The finale is a propulsive gigue in the somewhat unusual meter of 9/8.

Bach1

The piece on our program that very few in the audience will have heard before is the Cello Concerto in A major by Leonardo Leo (below). Leo was born near the end of the 17th century in Naples, where he worked for much of his career, writing primarily both comic and serious operas.

His cello concertos date from around the mid-1730s and are characterized by transparency of texture and form that in some ways make them precursors to the coming neo-classical style of the later 18th-century. It is not certain that he played the cello, but the writing in the concertos is idiomatic, colorful and virtuosic. MBM is delighted that guest cellist Steuart Pincombe has brought this work forward for these concerts.


leonardo leo

The final work is Vivaldi’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in B-flat major, RV 547. Vivaldi (below), nicknamed the “Red Priest” because of his magnificent mane of red hair, was of course a spectacularly gifted violinist who wrote hundreds of compositions for that instrument. But he also teamed the violin with the cello on several occasions.

I’m always awed by Vivaldi’s consistently successful use of irregular phrase lengths. The music just seems to roll on out there and be perfectly balanced, but the measure groupings are often in fives or sevens, and not so much in the four-measure groupings that typically connote stability. A few other composers have mastered this technique of hiding wonderfully asymmetrical structures, and J. S. Bach is most notable.

vivaldi

The entire concert will be played on period instruments: gut strings and baroque bows. We’re also delighted to welcome to this concert the specialist on the violone (baroque double bass) Marilyn Fung(below) from Michigan.

Marilyn Fung

 

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1 Comment »

  1. Nice programming and lots of good information here.

    It’s so refreshing to see a group add someone like Leo who was a very gifted composer but whose work is seldom played on the air or live. There’s nothing wrong with Bach and Vivaldi and their like, of course, but it certainly gives the audience needed context and further ideas if we hear more composers than the usual 3 B’s, Haydn, Mozart and Tchaikovsky–as great as these men were.

    This, by the way, is another reason to attend concerts given by smaller groups and by the UW Musical School because they tend to be more creative than the larger, local forces, it seems.

    Is the Cello Concerto in A on the program Leo’s first one or his fourth one? (I believe he wrote 6 of them for cello). (The link leads to a Dvorak Cello Concerto, by the way).

    Comment by fflambeau — September 30, 2015 @ 3:26 am


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