The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW Choral Union sounds magnificent in Haydn’s “The Creation”

April 26, 2016
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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 took the performance photos.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra (both below) again pulled off a choral spectacular on Sunday afternoon.

Choral Union and Chamber Orchestra Creation JWB

The one-time concert was devoted to the great Classical era oratorio by Franz Joseph Haydn, The Creation, which is too big a work to be performed very frequently. But Haydn modeled it admiringly on the great Baroque oratorios of George Frideric Handel, which we almost NEVER get to hear — let’s not talk about the quite unrepresentative Messiah — by comparison. So we can be grateful for the opportunities we do have.

As always, the campus and community Choral Union sounded magnificent. It is supposed to, with a complement of 116 listed singers, as against an orchestra of a mere 34 players. So it could not avoid overshadowing and overawing all other factors. And particular power, volume and homogeneity resulted from the practice of mixing the singers completely, instead of having them stand as members of vocal sections.

This follows the pernicious gospel preached, going way back, to Robert Fountain, who founded the UW Choral Union many decades ago. One argument for it was that each singer should become more self-reliant, less dependent on the one next to him or her.

But if this practice makes for blockbuster, socko sound, it does so at the cost of part-writing clarity, especially in fugal segments. It misrepresents musical texture by exchanging its definition for a power-oriented blend, a hyped-up sludge.

It strikes me as strange that advocates for applying this doctrine to choruses do not also demand it for orchestras. Think of it: each violin individually next to a trombone, each viola mixed in with the trumpets. Now there would be a chance for socko homogeneity!

The UW Chamber Orchestra’s winds were strong enough, but the strings were woefully understaffed. At times, the ensemble sounded just a tad under-rehearsed, but on the whole it did well under its handicaps.

The soloists played a multiplying game. In Parts I and II, the three Angels, Gabriel (soprano), Uriel (tenor) and Raphael (bass), who narrated and celebrated the stages of the Creation, were taken by a fixed trio (below).

Choral Union Creation Trio JWB

The familiar Jamie-Rose Guarrine (below top) has a strong and beautiful soprano voice. Faculty tenor James Doing (below middle) is also a valued local standby. Baritone Benjamin Schultz (below bottom) has a pleasant voice, but it lacks a true bass range.

Jamie Rose Guarrine 2016

James Doing color

Benjamin Schultz 2016

In Part III, when Adam and Eve come on the scene, Guarrine shifted to the latter role, and another baritone weak in the low-register, Benjamin Li (below top), took over as Adam. For the final ensemble, a choral alto slipped in to round out the solo quartet (below bottom).

Benjamin Li 2016

Choral Union Creation Quartet JWB

I note the title of the work as The Creation, rather than giving its original title, Die Schöfung, because the performance was sung in a modernized English translation.

Once in a while, those English words came through, but much of them were simply lost in mixed diction values. It might have been better — if not easier for the singers — to have kept to the original German. But all praise for an unusually ample program booklet, containing the full English text as sung.

Beverly Taylor (below), the conductor of the choir and orchestra, led with consistent energy and enthusiasm. Certainly the audience responded with great enthusiasm. (You can hear the famous chorus “The Heavens Are Telling” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

This was, to be sure, not an ideal performance, even a lopsided one. But, after all, the point of these events is to give the choristers a chance to participate in this wonderful music, and to give the audience a relatively rare opportunity to encounter it. On those counts, this was a highly successful event.

Now, even if we are not likely to get a follow-up with Handel, we at least have Haydn’s own successor oratorio, Die Jahreszeithen, or The Seasons. That would be wonderful to hear in its turn.

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