The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Great choral singing by the Madison Chamber Choir and the Madison Choral Project should serve great choral music – and fewer second-rate novelties | May 25, 2016

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. He also provided the performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Two of the city’s important choral groups joined forces for a program presented at the First Congregational United Church of Christ last Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

Albert Pinsonneault (below), who used to teach at Edgewood College and now teaches at Northwestern University, and who is the director of both groups, conducted.

Albert Pinsonneault 2

Each group had its own showcase in the program’s first half.

The Madison Chamber Choir (below) led off with the “Serenade to Music,” a setting of lines from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which Ralph Vaughan Williams  composed in 1938 for 16 of his favorite singers, with orchestra. He adapted this for full chorus, but that transition did not quite produce a work truly choral in character.

The choir sang the beautiful work very handsomely, but the substitution for the orchestra of a piano accompaniment was uncomfortable and, indeed, a disruption of diction. (You can hear the original version for chorus and orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Madison Chamber Choir JWB

The Madison Choral Project (below top) came next with a performance of “Images, Shadows, Dreams: Five Vignettes” by the late David Baker (1931-2016, below middle).

Baker was a noted scholar and promoter of jazz, and his goal was a “fusion” of jazz with classical forms. To the five composed poems, Pinsonneault added readings of poems written by five young participants (below bottom) in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Odyssey Project activities in cultural and educational support.

Madison Choral Project JWB

David Baker

Madison Choral Project jazz Odyssey student JWB

All this represents noble and praiseworthy efforts on behalf of disadvantaged African-Americans. But high ideals do not necessarily guarantee artistic achievement. Baker uses a combo of five instrumentalists, which bangs away behind the choir, hardly “fusing” anything in styles—neither honest jazz nor multicultural synthesis.

Madison Choral Project jazz drum and bass JWB

The choir, in its turn, sings mightily at music of generally simplistic technique — mostly unisons and chordal declamations. There is little to remember or admire, once the “messages” have worn off.

Fortunately, the intermission yielded to the one work of substance on the program, the Mass for Double Choir, by the Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974, below), a combination of neo-classical and modernist styles that is better appreciated in Europe than here.

Frank Martin

For this, the two choirs (below) merged, then divided into the requisite two components.

Martin’s writing is subtle, and his juxtaposition of the two choirs is not just antiphonal but artfully varied in their interaction—to which is added a great deal of harmonic experimentation. This is one of the choral masterpieces of the 20th century.

Pinsonneault and his 57 choristers gave it a glorious performance, showing what this conductor can do to make great choral sound out of great choral music.

Madison Chamber Choir and Madison Choral Project combined JWB

The final programmed piece was a somewhat pretentious setting by contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan (below) of a ballad by poet Robert Burns. As an encore, the singers perpetrated a glitzy, but uncredited, arrangement of “Loch Lomond”—the only piece that brought the audience to its feet.

James MacMillan headshot

This concert was an undeniable testimony to the splendid choral groups we have here, and to what Pinsonneault is accomplishing with these groups. But I kept returning to the dichotomy at which I hinted earlier.

Choral singing is a wonderful activity both to listen to and to participate in, and I share some of the enthusiasm for that. But I wonder how many in the audience were there seeking great CHORAL singing. I was there seeking great choral MUSIC.

Our choirs can give us the former, no question, and audiences can justly admire it. But has all this musical talent been applied responsibly to the latter? How much do our choral programs deal with trivia and little sweetmeats, rather than digging into the vast literature of magnificent choral art?

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6 Comments »

  1. While not defending his review, I think a few of his points are accurate. “Serenade to Music” in this incarnation is not truly “choral in character”. And the musical setting of the Robert Burns ballad “The Gallant Weaver” by contemporary composer James MacMillan is a bit pretentious…

    Comment by JW — May 27, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

  2. Please read these lines by Barker, if you have the stomach for it:

    “The Madison Chamber Choir (below) led off with the “Serenade to Music,” a setting of lines from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which Ralph Vaughan Williams composed in 1938 for 16 of his favorite singers, with orchestra. He adapted this for full chorus, but that transition did not quite produce a work truly choral in character.

    The choir sang the beautiful work very handsomely, but the substitution for the orchestra of a piano accompaniment was uncomfortable and, indeed, a disruption of diction…”

    1. It is not a “transition” (wrong word) to use a piano instead of an orchestra; it is a different adaptation, or a use of different musical forces. And it is frequently done for reasons that should be obvious (cost; less space etc.). The “critic” also does not seem to realize that “The piano was kept in his (Ralph Williams) study and in daily use for decades. Many of his lush orchestral pieces were first performed on the piano for a circle of friends and fellow musicians….” See https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/mar/03/ralph-vaughan-williams-piano-on-display-childhood-home-leith-hill Williams himself, then, would hardly have object to use of a piano instead of an orchestra in such a case.

    2. I think what Barker is really saying, and with him, only a psychiatrist can tell for sure, is that he believes “choral works” of any substance must be accompanied by what he regards as the only true “classical instrument”: an orchestra. Heaven knows what he would have written had the group performed something a capella.
    3. “disruption of diction” by a piano? Imagine the much greater disruption that a much louder orchestra would create. But he obviously doesn’t understand what diction is either (see his misuse of “transition” above). A better word would have been “enunciation.”

    Comment by fflambeau — May 26, 2016 @ 11:32 pm

  3. I heard the concert both Friday night and Sunday afternoon and totally disagree with John Barker’s assessment of the David Baker piece. Baker’s setting of Mari Evans’s poetry about struggle and survival–rent due, no heat, etc.–was a profoundly moving composition. The Odyssey Project (www.odyssey.wisc.edu) is not, as Prof. Barker states, a program only for African Americans, though we do have a high percentage of African Americans in our program–it is for adults near the poverty level who are transforming their lives and sharing their gifts. The students’ poetry read in conjunction with this performance fit the MCP’s mission of engaging with the local community around social justice issues. Dozens of audience members commented about how emotionally affecting the experience was. The “banging” of the drums in the piece brought in the syncopations of African rhythms, and the fusion of classical-jazz styles was hardly “simplistic.” I do not agree that the Madison Choral Project should only perform standard works in the canon and avoid “second-rate novelties.” The Baker piece was NOT second rate; the review was.

    Comment by Emily Auerbach — May 26, 2016 @ 7:57 am

    • Excellent comments Emily Auerbach. Why this column gives space to Barker and his idiocies is beyond me.

      His comment: “I wonder how many in the audience were there seeking great CHORAL singing. I was there seeking great choral MUSIC.” to me raises the question, aside from the larger one of what kind of idiot are you, of can you have choral music without choral singing?

      Comment by fflambeau — May 26, 2016 @ 11:09 pm

  4. “Perpetrated…?”

    Comment by MrMister — May 25, 2016 @ 6:59 pm

  5. Another Looney Tune “review”.

    Comment by fflambeau — May 25, 2016 @ 12:19 pm


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