The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Summer Choir addresses current events with outstanding performances of great choral music | June 28, 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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

For eight years, the Madison Summer Choir (below) has been giving an annual concert. This year’s, on Saturday night, under founder and conductor Ben Luedcke, was built around the theme “This is My Song! – Music in the Struggle for Peace and Justice.”

Madison Summer Choir 2016 with piano JWB

And, indeed, Luedcke (below) introduced most of the selections with pointed remarks, addressing issues faced today, and the need for making ours a better world.

Ben Luedcke.1jpg

The first part of the program began with the “big tune” from Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia, set to English words. This was sung a cappella, while the four short items that followed had piano accompaniment.

Two of those pieces—by composers Stephen Chatman and Sven Lekberg—carried poems by Walt Whitman, while another, by Joan Szymko, set a text by Wendell Berry. But the gem of the set was a short partsong, An die Heimat (To my Homeland), by that truly great choral master, Johannes Brahms. 

After the intermission, the chorus of 66 voices was joined by an orchestra (below) of 32, for the musical plateau.

Madison Summer Choir 2016 with orchestra JWB

Felix Mendelssohn is one of the handful of supreme choral composers (think of his oratorio Elijah!). As a warmer-upper, we were given his brief setting of Martin Luther’s translation of the Latin Dona nobis pacem as Verleih uns Frieden (Grant us Peace). (You can hear Mendelssohn’s beautiful “Verleih uns Frieden” in a YouTube video at the bottom)

But the true main event was a rousing performance of Mendelssohn’s unfairly neglected cantata, Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night). This sets a ballad by Goethe portraying a band of Druids arranging to celebrate a holy solstice rite in the face of newly triumphant Christian intolerance. By making an unholy racket, they drive away their persecutors and launch the myth of St. Walburga’s Night (Walpurgisnacht, on April 30) as an occasion of Satanic rumpus (think Goethe’s and Gounod’s Faust).

The work calls for three solo singers (below), this time contralto Jessica Timman Schwefel, tenor Dan O’Dea, and baritone Ben Li (of whom the tenor was the most impressive). This score is one of striking dramatic effect and musical force, but it is too brief to find a place in most concert repertoire.

Madison Summer Choir 2016 3 soloists No. 2 JWB

Singers and players threw themselves into it with wonderful gusto under propulsive direction. We must thank Luedcke for giving us a rare chance to enjoy it.

The final piece was a movement from a choral symphony by Srul Irving Glick: making a truly splendid choral sound that, however, quite obliterated the uplifting words.

Overall, the program showed that Luedcke had nurtured, in a short time, a choir of nicely balanced and blended voices. With the best of their material, they made a wonderfully glowing sound.

One more example, then, of the quite stunning riches of Madison’s summer musical life!

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1 Comment »

  1. While I agree with Mr. Barker about much of the performance, I found the Walpurgisnacht rather bombastic, and not Mendelssohn as I like to think of him. And while O’Dea had a strong voice and great German diction, I found Ben Li’s voice more beautiful.
    I was pleasantly surprised by the final piece by Srul Irving Glick, who was completely unknown to me.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — June 28, 2016 @ 6:37 am


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