The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The critically acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performs a program of “Sanctuary” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

July 31, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The two performances by the critically acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) have become an annual summer tradition over the past 17 years, first under the direction of founder Scott MacPherson and since last year under its new artistic director, Michael McGaghie.

This summer, as usual, McGaghie (below, rehearsing) returned to Madison for 2-1/2 weeks of intense rehearsals and two a cappella concerts on this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

The program this year has the theme of “Sanctuary,” and focuses on refuge, salvation and hope.

The chorus will sing “Come to the Woods” by Jake Runestad, using texts taken from the journals of John Muir, the environmentalist who attended the UW-Madison (you can hear the work in the YouTube video at the bottom); and “Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing” by Herbert Howells. The concert also includes unspecified music by Stephen Paulus, Anton Bruckner, Dale Trumbore and Choi.

Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for students.

Here are more details:

Friday, August 2, at 7:30 p.m.

St. Luke’s Lutheran Church
7337 Hubbard Avenue
Middleton, WI 53562

Friday Tickets

Sunday, August 4, at 3 p.m.

Christ Presbyterian Church
944 East Gorham Street
Madison, WI  53703

Sunday Tickets

For more information about the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble, including how to join it, how to support it, how to see a list of past concerts and hear excerpts, go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org


Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


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Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS – the “Meditation” for solo piano by Mexican composer Carlos Chavez

July 27, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The solo piano repertoire is huge, but The Ear knows quite a lot of it.

Yet here is a piece he had never heard, live or recorded, until he finally did hear it this week on Wisconsin Public Radio.

It is the five-minute ”Meditacion” – or Meditation – by the 20th-century Mexican composer Carlos Chavez (below, in a photo by Paul Strand).

It is played beautifully and sensitively in a live performance by the unjustly neglected Mexican virtuoso pianist Jorge Federico Osorio (below), and was recorded — perhaps as an encore, given the applause at the end — with the Piano Concerto by Chavez for the nonprofit Cedille Records in Chicago and distributed by Naxos Records.

Listen to it and let The Ear know what you think.

Does anyone else hear echoes of the eccentric French composer Erik Satie in the music? Shades of other pieces or composers?

Do you like the Chavez piece?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Is a local Dvorak revival in the making? This Friday night, Christopher Taylor joins the Willy Street Chamber Players to perform the famed Piano Quintet

July 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is a major local revival of music by Antonin Dvorak (below) in the making?

Many signs point to: Yes!

At the end of the past season, maestro John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which has also performed the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” announced that he was on board as a fan when he told the audiences about the upcoming season, which features the MSO performing Dvorak’s dramatic Symphony No. 7 in D Minor and the large-scale Requiem.

In recent seasons, we have also seen the Madison Opera stage the opera “Rusalka”; the Middleton Community Orchestra perform the Symphony No. 6; the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet and the Ancora String Quartet perform the miniatures “Cypresses”; the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra play some “Slavonic Dances”; and more.

What’s not to like about Dvorak? He was one of music’s greatest melodists, something that Johannes Brahms envied and a reason why Brahms helped promote his music. And his use of folk music – Czech, Native American and African-American – is captivating as well as multicultural.

Here is a link to more about Dvorak in his Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton%C3%ADn_Dvořák

As audience responses prove, there is so much Dvorak to be fond of.

But one of the greatest works will be performed this Friday night, July 26, at 6 p.m. in the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street.

That is when the Willy Street Chamber Players, in the final concert of their fifth summer series, will perform the famed Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81 (1887). (You can hear the engaging opening movement, played by pianist Evgeny Kissin and the Emerson String Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Willys will team up with the acclaimed UW-Madison virtuoso pianist and Van Cliburn Competition bronze medalist Christopher Taylor, who is a gifted chamber musician as well as a superb soloist.

Filling out the program are Three Nocturnes (1924) by Ernest Bloch and “Voodoo Dolls” (2008) by Jessie Montgomery.

Admission is $15 with a reception afterwards.

Dvorak, who has never fallen out of favor but who seems to have sparked a new enthusiasm, composed a lot.

In addition to the nine symphonies, the string serenade and the piano quintet, there is a lot of chamber music, including string quartets, piano trios, piano quartets; concertos for the violin, cello and piano; and many miniatures, including the lovely “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” There is also some solo piano music that has largely been neglected.

Do you love Dvorak’s music?

What about it do you especially like?

Do you have a favorite Dvorak work?

Let us know what it is, with a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival announces the dates and theme of next year’s 21st annual festival

July 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following news update:

As things wind down after the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF), we want to extend a big thank you to our visiting concert artists, lecturers and faculty, all participants enrolled in the workshops, those who volunteered, and the Friends of MEMF who provided coffee and treats every morning.

Thanks to the many concert and lecture attendees along with our promotional and financial supporters. We were pleased to welcome 103 registrants and over 2,800 people in attendance at our Concert Series, lectures, fringe concerts, and our dance event, Grand Tour Excursions.

Thank you to everyone who helped bring the Grand Tour to life during the 20th annual celebration of the Madison Early Music Festival! We look forward to seeing you July 11-18, 2020 for Music at the Burgundian Court. (You can sample some of the Burgundian court music in the YouTube video below.)


Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians summer workshops in early music are open to the public. A faculty concert is on Wednesday night and a FREE all-participants concert is on Friday at 12:30 p.m.

July 21, 2019
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REMINDER: Madison Opera’s annual Opera is the Park was cancelled last night because of weather and takes place TONIGHT in Garner Park at 8 p.m. For more information, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/classical-music-madison-operas-annual-free-opera-in-the-park-returns-this-saturday-night-july-20-in-garner-park-and-celebrates-18-years-in-madison-plus-a-glimpse-of-the-upcoming-season/

By Jacob Stockinger

The fifth annual Madison Bach Musicians Summer Chamber Music Workshop (below,  a cello class from last year) will be held from Monday, July 23, to Friday, July 26, at the West Middleton Lutheran Church, 3763 Pioneer Road, in Verona, Wisconsin.

The workshop is chaired by MBM assistant artistic director and baroque violinist Kangwon Kim (below), who says: “I’m excited to welcome 32 participants, our largest number ever, working in nine chamber groups this summer to share a week of intense music-making and learning.

” We will explore wonderful repertoire from the baroque and early classical periods, both familiar and rarely performed, while working intensely in an encouraging community that will support musical growth.”

Harpsichordist JungHae Kim (below top) from San Francisco and baroque violist Micah Behr from Madison will join returning faculty members recorder player Lisette Kielson, cellist Martha Vallon (below bottom), dance instructor Karen McShane-Hellenbrand, and MBM founder, artistic director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson.

Musicians who range in age from 13 to older adulthood will receive personalized ensemble coaching in violin, viola, baroque cello, viola da gamba, piano, fortepiano, harpsichord and recorder. (You can sample the Madison Bach Musicians in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The public is invited to an evening Faculty Concert and various afternoon classes exploring continuo playing, specific instrument master classes, stage presence for musicians, sight-reading, baroque dance, and more.

The Faculty Concert on Wednesday night, July 23, at 7:30 p.m. will feature works by Carl Heinirch Graun (below top), Francesco Turini, Jean-Henri D’Anglebert (below  bottom), Georg Philipp Telemann, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier and Henry Purcell on period instruments. Admission is $15 at the door.

The all-participants final concert of the music from the workshops is on Friday, July 26, at 12:30 p.m. It is FREE and open to the public.

An Auditor’s Pass for afternoon programming for the entire festival — including the Faculty Concert — is $40.

For more information, go to: https://madisonbachmusicians.org/summer-workshop/


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park has been CANCELLED for tonight and RESCHEDULED for tomorrow at 8 p.m.

July 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This news is just in from Instagram and other social media:

The Madison Opera has cancelled Opera in the Park tonight and rescheduled it for tomorrow, Sunday night, July 21, at 8 p.m. in Garner Park.

Here is a statement from Madison Opera: “For the safety and health of everyone involved, based on the current forecast and dangerously unstable weather patterns, we are postponing Opera in the Park to tomorrow, Sunday, July 21, in Garner Park. Tomorrow’s forecast is cooler and much more pleasant, so we look forward to seeing everyone in the park!”

For more details about the concert and other issues relevant to the event, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/classical-music-madison-operas-annual-free-opera-in-the-park-returns-this-saturday-night-july-20-in-garner-park-and-celebrates-18-years-in-madison-plus-a-glimpse-of-the-upcoming-season/

Pass the word on!


Classical music:  Two Madison pianists perform four-hand American music Monday night at a concert for the Rural Musicians Forum at Taliesin in Spring Green

July 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

For the first time ever, the Rural Musicians Forum will present music for piano 4-hands, where two pianists play simultaneously on one piano.

On this coming Monday, July 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater at architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green, Madison-based pianists Satoko Hayami (below top) and Jason Kutz (below bottom) will showcase four-hand piano music by American composers, spanning from 1864 to 2019.

The concert by the two graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music will present a variety of composers and works created for this ensemble: pre-ragtime composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s virtuosic arrangement of Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture; excerpts from Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs, a ballet suite (heard played tag-team style in the YouTube video below); a lush arrangement of themes from the Wizard of Oz by William Hirtz; and the riveting Gazebo Dances by John Corigliano, a four-movement work that, in his own words, suggests “the pavilions often seen on village greens in towns throughout the countryside, where public band concerts are given on summer evenings.”

Additionally, the audience will hear the world premiere arrangement of Music in 3/4 for Four by Kutz, excerpts from his solo piano suite, Music in 3/4.

Admission is by free will offering, with a suggested donation of $15.

Taliesin’s Hillside Theater (below) is located at 6604 State Highway 23, about five miles south of Spring Green.


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Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


Posted in Classical music
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