The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Flutist and activist Iva Ugrcic is Musician of the Year for 2018

December 31, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The classical music scene in Madison is so rich that it is always a challenge to name a Musician of the Year.

There are just so many deserving candidates. One obvious example is conductor John DeMain, who is completing his 25th year of outstanding stewardship in directing the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera.

But part of the intent behind such an honor is not just to recognize well-known figures. It is to encourage a broader awareness of those people who do a lot for local classical music but who often fly under the radar for many people.

That is why The Ear is naming flutist and activist Iva Ugrcic (below) as the Musician of the Year for 2018.

As both a performer and entrepreneur, Ugrcic is always very busy broadening her varied career. Being both a player and an activist, she is making a difference, musically and socially, that deserves to be recognized and supported.

Serbian by birth and educated in Belgrade and Paris, she came to Madison where she completed her doctorate in flute performance and also took business courses at the UW-Madison Business School.

She is a first-rate performer who has won a national prize for performing. While at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, she won both the concerto competition (below) and the Irving Shain competition for wind instruments in duets. (You can hear her amazing technique in the YouTube video at the bottom. In it Ugrcic performs “Voice” for solo flute by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.)

She now plays with the Black Marigold Wind Quintet and Sound Out Loud, both of which are based in Madison and both of which devote themselves to contemporary composers and new music.

This year, Urgcic also soloed with the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by John W. Barker), performing to critical acclaim a relatively unknown concerto by 19th-century composer Carl Reinecke.

This year, Urgcic also took over as artistic director of the Rural Musicians Forum, which brings classical music, jazz, world music and ethnic music, played by outstanding performers to the Spring Green area, often at the Taliesin compound of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

But perhaps her most long-lasting contribution is her founding and now directing the LunART Festival that, in the same year of the Me Too movement, sought to present an all-women event that featured composers, performers, visual artists and writers.

Such was its inaugural success in 2018 that it won a national prize from the National Flute Association and a second festival will take place from June 9 through June 9, 2019.

2019 will also see the release of her second solo recording devoted to the music of the contemporary Romanian composer Doina Rotaru, even while she is working on a recording of “Beer Music” by contemporary American composer Brian DuFord.

And all that is just the beginning for such a promising talent. We will be hearing much more from her and about her in years to come.

To see her impressive biography, as well as updated activities, video and audio clips, photographs and other information, go to: https://www.ivaugrcic.com/bio

Here is one more thing that speaks to The Ear. It feels important, even necessary, to recognize the positive contributions of an immigrant at a time when the current “America First” administration under President Donald Trump seems so paranoid and negative, so xenophobic and afraid of foreigners.

The U.S government should be less intent on condemning or stigmatizing immigrants, whether legal or undocumented, and should put more emphasis on their contributions and on the long and distinguished history they have in the United States.

Iva Urgcic is yet another example of the talent we Americans stand to lose if we do not accept and encourage the gifts that immigrants bring in so many ways — from the arts, medicine, education and technology to everyday life and work.

Please join The Ear is expressing gratitude and congratulations to Iva Urgcic.

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Classical music: We should hear more operas sung in English translation – like Wisconsin Public Radio’s live broadcast TODAY at noon of the Metropolitan Opera’s shortened version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”

December 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear thinks that we in English-speaking countries should hear more operas sung in our native language.

Yes, sung in English – not the original Italian, French or German.

You can see how you’d like it for yourself if you listen at noon TODAY– Saturday, Dec. 29 — to Wisconsin Public Radio. That’s when you can hear the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of its family-friendly production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

The Ear did so and – except for deleting the wonderful overture — loved it.

So, apparently, did a lot others. (You can hear Nathan Gunn in a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

After many years, the production has now become a holiday tradition for the Met to offer children while school is out for the holidays.

And one suspects it is developing new audiences – especially with the colorful staging and costumes by Julie Taymor, who won such acclaim for her staging of “The Lion King” on both the stage and film.

Sure, a lot of purists will probably object to substituting English for the original Italian, French, German and Russian. But it is so freeing and feels so good to understand what you are hearing without the distraction of constantly going back and forth trying to look at both the supertitles and the stage.

It also seems worth a try, given the problems that many opera companies are having competing with the “Live from the Met in HD” productions that you can see in movie theaters for far less money, and the decline of both season subscribers and single tickets.

To be honest, of course even in English you will miss some of the words. That’s the nature of singing. But excellent diction helps. And if you are lucky enough to see the production in person, supertitles in Italian, French German and Spanish and, yes, English are still provided.

It is not a completely new idea. After all, Great Britain has the English National Opera, which performs standard operas by Verdi and Puccini, Monteverdi and Handel, Mozart and Wagner, in English. So, many of the very great operas have already been translated into English and could be staged in English elsewhere.

Here are links where you can learn more about the English National Opera:

https://www.eno.org

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_National_Opera

Do you question how the text is hurt in translation?

It’s worth remembering that Mozart himself used the vernacular German instead of his usual opera house Italian so that he would reach the general public. Why not do the same today? Translation could make opera much more accessible, less pretentious and more populist.

The same is true for cutting the show down to 100 minutes from almost 3 hours. Let’s just admit that the attention span of the general public is much shorter than it used to be.

Orchestra and chamber music concerts as well as solo recitals are trimming their running times often down to 90 minutes or less, and meet with great approval from the public. Why not try the same approach with opera? Indeed, both the Madison Opera and the University Opera have limited but successful experiences with editing operas and using English.

It is also worth recalling that in translation we read greater words than an opera libretto. If we can translate Homer and Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Proust, why can’t we translate opera librettos? One just has to be sure to find a great translator with a sensitive musical ear– such as American poet Richard Wilbur is with his award-winning, rhyming translations of Moliere’s comedies and Racine’s tragedies. Similarly, American poet J.D. McClatchy has done a fine job with The Met’s “Magic Flute.”

Here is a link to more information about the production, including a synopsis:

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/the-magic-flute/

And here is a review of the Met’s  “Magic Flute” by Tommasini:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/arts/music/review-mozart-magic-flute-met-opera.html

What do you think?

Should more operas be staged in English?

Should long operas be edited?

Why or why not?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: A ticket to the concert here by the Imani Winds is an ideal gift to mark the African-American holiday Kwanzaa

December 27, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The African-American and Pan-African harvest and heritage holiday of Kwanzaa started Wednesday and runs through Jan. 1.

Many people know the name of the events that mark the African Diaspora.

But do you know more about the holiday itself?

Do you know the seven principles of Kwanzaa?

Do you know the history and person behind the celebration, which started the United States in 1966?

Here is a link to a comprehensive view of Kwanzaa in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwanzaa

If you are looking for a suitable gift to give during Kwanzaa, it would be hard to beat tickets to the concert by the Imani Winds (below) on Friday, Feb. 1, at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The Imani Winds have been nominated for a Grammy Award, and have established a reputation for world music and commissioning new works.

For more information about the group, the performers, ticket prices and how to buy tickets, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/imani-winds/

The group’s name comes from a principle of Kwanzaa — namely, faith. And one member, Valerie Coleman, composed a signature piece based on the first principle of Kwanzaa – Umoji, or Unity. You can hear that work in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Then in June, from June 6 to June 9, Valerie Coleman (below) returns to Madison as the Composer-in-Residence for the second annual LunArt Festival — a cultural and all-women festival devoted to performers, composers, writers and artists.


Classical music: You be the critic. Was there a specific piece or an entire concert of holiday music that you especially liked – or disliked — this year?

December 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Well, Hanukkah, the winter solstice and Christmas are over and we’ve just about made it through another holiday time, with Kwanzaa and New Year’s still to come.

Holiday music, especially choral music, is undeniably popular during holiday season.

Year after year, the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas program (below is a photo by Peter Rodgers)  – which uses local and ethnically diverse talent and well as imported guest vocal artists — usually comes close to selling out three performances in Overture Hall.

And year after year for a decade, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Festival Choir plus guest soloists (below) sell out their one performance of “Messiah” at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton.

Plus, there are lots of other holiday events – including the Madison Bach Musicians with Baroque chamber music favorites and the Madison Choral Project with spoken word narration and new music as well as programs of traditional carols and hymns– that drew good crowds or even full houses.

There are so many holiday music events, in fact, that it can often be hard to choose.

So here is what The Ear is asking: You be the critic.

Please tell us if there was a particular piece of music you especially enjoyed – say, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” or George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” or violin concertos by Arcangelo Corelli – music you really liked or disliked?

For next year, what do you recommend that people should keep an eye and ear out for, including programs on Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television as well as on other TV and radio stations?

Similarly, was there a specific program or event – an entire program or concert – that surprised you for better or worse?

Given the limited time that most people have during the holidays, what holiday concerts should people plan on attending or avoid next year?

Often the public trusts other audience members more than they trust professional critics.

So here is a chance for you to be a critic and to direct the public’s attention as well as to thank certain performers and groups for what you see as the Best Holiday Music of 2018.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Here are playlists of the best classical music for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. What music would you choose?

December 24, 2018
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REMINDER: A well-edited one-hour excerpt of the recent Christmas concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra will air on Wisconsin Public Television at 9:30 p.m. this Tuesday, on Christmas Night. The Ear saw the first airing of the broadcast and highly recommends it. Both the programming and the performing are top-notch. It is a perfect way to wrap up your holiday.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Eve and tomorrow is Christmas Day.

Some people celebrate tonight and some people celebrate tomorrow.

But no matter when you mark the holiday with gifts, gathering and special food, great music has an integral place in the celebration.

Indeed, music seems nothing less than a great gift to the entire world. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

To help you celebrate, here are playlists of the best classical music, from Medieval times through Baroque music up to living composers, for marking Christmas.

Here are two playlists, with a total of two hours of music, already compiled and available on YouTube. Be sure to hit SHOW MORE at the top to see the complete title, composer’s name and timing of the selections:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrFCdi7apV8&list=PLcGkkXtask_cCaCLkrmuDUfukHct9eut-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voIrzsxeE6w

And perhaps best of all, here are several lists in the same place from famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City. They not only have generous sound samples, but also allow you to choose what genre of music you prefer — say, choral music or brass music or piano music to string quartet chamber music:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/essential-christmas-recordings/

What music would you choose as favorite Christmas fare?

The Ear wants to hear.

Enjoy! And Merry Christmas to all!


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Classical music: Gift guide or gift or both? Critics for The New York Times name their top classical recordings of 2018, and so does National Public Radio (NPR)

December 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is “Panic Saturday” — another, newer theme day on the commerce-driven Holiday Consumer Calendar that goes along with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber-Monday and Giving Tuesday. 

In past years, by this time many media outlets would publish the list of the top classical recordings of the past year. And The Ear has offered them as holiday shopping guides with links to the lists.

They seem to be running late this year, probably too late for many shoppers.

But recently the team of critics for The New York Times named their Top 25 classical recordings of 2018 that run from the 15th century to today (sample album covers are below).

This time, the website didn’t just reproduce something that first appeared in the printed edition. And something more than small snippets or excerpts are offered.

This time, the newspaper took full advantage of the electronic possibility of the web and used streaming to add hours of sound samples — some as long as 40 minutes – so you can see what you think of the recordings before you buy them. (Be sure to look at reader reactions and comments.)

It is a new and innovative way to do a Top 25 list – very appealing or entertaining as well as informative. Even if you don’t use it to buy anything for others or yourself, it can provide many minutes of listening pleasure. You can think of it as a gift guide or a gift or both.

Of course, there are also the usual short and very readable, to-the-point narratives or explanations about why the recording stands out and what makes it great music, a great performance or a great interpretation.

So there is a lot to listen to and help you make up your mind. The Ear has enjoyed it and found it helpful, and hopes you do too, whether you agree or disagree with the choice:

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/arts/music/best-classical-music-tracks-2018.html

Since this is the last weekend for holiday shopping before Christmas, here is the previous list – notice the duplications in the two lists — posted here, which was of the nominations for the upcoming 2019 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/classical-music-here-are-the-just-announced-grammy-nominations-for-2019-they-can-serve-as-a-great-holiday-gift-guide/

And here is the Top 10 list, which was chosen by the always discerning Tom Huizenga (below) — who explains the reasons for his choices — and which also offers generous sound samples, from National Public Radio (NPR) and its Deceptive Cadence blog. Also look for duplications:

https://www.npr.org/2018/12/18/677776208/npr-musics-best-classical-albums-of-2018

What recordings would you suggest? 

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra impresses in a concert of “non-holiday” music for the holidays. Plus, what music is best to greet the Winter Solstice today?

December 21, 2018
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ALERT: Today we turn a  corner when the Winter Solstice arrives at 4:23 p.m. Days will start getting longer. What music would you celebrate it with? Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter” section of “The Four Seasons”? Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey”? Let The Ear know in the COMMENT section with a YouTube link if possible. Here comes the sun!

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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) proudly presented an alternative Christmas program of music, none of which had any connection whatsoever with that otherwise inescapable holiday.

It was a program of great variety, full of novelties.

It began soberly with Gustav Mahler’s early song cycle, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). This venture into German orchestral song (with a folk song background) provided symphonic inspiration for his First Symphony, the so-called “Titan,” so it unites many strains in the composer’s work.

Baritone Paul Rowe (below), of the UW-Madison’s music faculty, sang these songs. Rowe has a strong feeling for German, and he used clear diction to capture the dramatic meanings of the four song texts.

A contrast then, and a particular novelty, was the appearance of Matthew Coley (below), of the percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion, playing the cimbalom, the intensely Hungarian version of the hammered dulcimer. 

He was joined by the orchestra for a fancy arrangement of the Hungarian dance, the popular Czardas by Vittorio Monti. (You can hear Matthew Coley play the same piece on the cimbalom in the YouTube video at the bottom.) He followed this with an encore, a hand-me-down arrangement of a movement from one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo cello suites.

More contrast came with the mini-ballet score by Darius Milhaud Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) of 1919. This was one of the French composer’s trailblazing introductions of American jazz styles into European music.

It really works best with a small orchestra, so Middleton’s was a bit overblown for the assignment. But the elaborate solo role for violin was taken by Naha Greenholtz — concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and wife of the evening’s guest conductor, Kyle Knox, who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. There are some fiendish passages in the solo work, and Greenholtz brought them off with unfailing flair.

The final part of the program was devoted to the orchestral suite that Zoltan Kodaly derived from his Singspiel of 1926, Hary Janos, in which a comic Hungarian soldier upstages even Napoleon.

This is a satiric and highly colorful assemblage that offers wonderful opportunities for all of the instruments and sections to show off. And Coley was back with his cimbalom for Hungarian spice. The players clearly were having a great frolic, and conductor Knox drew the best out of them in a bravura performance.

Ah yes! Christmas without “Christmas” music. A wonderful idea to refresh the ears in December!


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Classical music: Combining a ticket to a live music performance with a book or recording that is tied to the concert’s program makes a great holiday gift

December 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The holidays seem to arrive earlier each year.

The Ear isn’t sure why that is.

Whatever the reason, a lot of holiday gift shopping can by now seem last-minute and somewhat frantic.

But if you are shopping for a classical music fan, you are in luck if you go local.

The best way to please the recipient and also to support the local arts is to give a ticket to a live concert – always the most powerful and exciting musical experience — perhaps coupled to a related book or recording. (Below is UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in a photo by Michael R. Anderson).

This blog doesn’t have room to list separately all the many musical groups in the area. But here are some samples that might interest you.

Through Monday, Dec. 24, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is once again offering a special deal for the remainder of the season. Tickets to both the “Beyond the Score” program and the remaining four season concerts, including Mahler’s mammoth “Symphony of a Thousand,” have been reduced to two price ranges: $10 and $25 for the former; $25 and $50 for the latter.

For more information, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/offers-discounts/holiday-tickets-sale/

If you want to see what other performers and presenters are offering – say, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), the Oakwood Chamber Players, the Madison Bach Musicians, the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Willy Street Chamber Players, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Overture Center and the Madison Opera, to name just a few of the more prominent names – just go to Google and type in their name to search and go to their home page on the web.

Many of them have all sorts of other discounts for students, seniors, subscribers, groups and others.

Don’t forget that Madison features many FREE concerts, especially at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

True, a few of the most attractive and gift-worthy UW concerts are ticketed ($17 for adults, $7 for UW students) – including the annual Schubertiade, the yearly recital by pianist Christopher Taylor and the world premiere of the new Viola Sonata by John Harbison (below). But you could offer to take someone to a free chamber music or orchestral concert and provide companionship, transportation and maybe even dinner.

Here is a link to the very busy lineup and informative previews at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music: https://www.music.wisc.edu

To top it off, you could add one of two outstanding local books The Ear puts at the top of the holiday gift guide.

The first is John Harbison’s “What Do We Make of Bach” (below top) which is short, very readable, thoroughly engaging and wonderfully informative in an autobiographical way that helps us celebrate both the 80th birthday of Harbison and the upcoming 334th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The second book, now in its second printing, is a comprehensive history of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) done by John W. Barker, who often writes for this blog as well as Isthmus.

Of course, a CD with one of the composers or works on a program also makes a fine complement, whether it is a Mahler symphony, a Bach suite or Schubert’s “Swan Songs” from his final year.

Finally, The Ear wants to know: What are your suggestions for a for holiday gift of classical music?

It could be a live concert or a recording, either something new or an old favorite.

It could be a particularly informative and enjoyable or entertaining book, including biographies of Leonard Bernstein (including one by his daughter Jamie Bernstein, below), whose centennial has been celebrated this season.

Over the next few days, The Ear will post suggestions  and Top 10 lists by professional critics. But in the end, it is the audience, the ordinary public, that many people want to hear from.

So perhaps you will leave your ideas in the COMMENT section.

Thank you! And have Happy Holidays — a Merry Christmas, a joyous Kwanzaa and a Happy New Year.


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Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra performs a non-traditional “holiday” concert of Mahler and Kodaly this Wednesday night

December 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

During the holiday season, many — maybe even most — classical music groups program music that goes with the theme of the holidays from Christmas and Hanukkah to Kwanzaa and the New Year.

But some groups wisely give listeners a respite from holiday fare.

That happened one week ago when the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Beverly Taylor, performed a memorable program that featured the brassy “Te Deum” by Zoltan Kodaly and especially the calming Requiem by Maurice Duruflé.

Something similar will happen again this Wednesday night, Dec. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable Middleton Performing Arts Center, attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol St.

That is when the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) will perform its “holiday” concert that is holiday-ish more as a matter of timing than of content or theme, since you won’t hear any carols or sing-alongs or the usual or traditional holiday fare. The Ear thinks it’s a smart approach and a welcome break.

The non-holiday “holiday” program includes “Songs of a Wayfarer” by Gustav Mahler, sung by UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe (below).

Also on the program is “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” (The Steer on the Roof) by Darius Milhaud with violinist soloist Naha Greenholtz (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), who is the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Matthew Coley (below top), a member of the acclaimed Madison-based percussion group “Clocks in Motion,” will perform two pieces of Hungarian music that use the rarely heard cimbalom (below bottom): the “Czardas” by Vittorio Monti and the “Hary Janos Suite” by Kodaly. (You can hear Monti’s familiar “Czardas” in a version for violin and piano in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Kyle Knox (below), who is the new music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the new associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and who is also the husband of Naha Greenholtz, will once again be the guest conductor.

Admission is $15 for the general public with students and young people getting in for free. Tickets can be bought at the Willy Street Co-op West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and doors to the hall open at 7 p.m.

As usual, there will be a meet-and-greet reception (below) – complete with Christmas cookies, you can be sure – at the end of the concert.

For more information about future MCO concerts, reviews of past concerts and details about how to join the orchestra or support it, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org/home


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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