The Well-Tempered Ear

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?

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  1. Just to follow up on Catherine’s post, I can confirm that we were in fact using an edition that attempted to re-create the 17th-century “falsobordone” version Allegri actually wrote, though we did make a few cuts. The ornaments you heard on Saturday were – in the tradition of the papal choir’s “secret ornaments” – improvised by the singers. While I’ve also always loved those famous high C’s, I found the version that the choir and soloists performed at MEMF to be a fresh and fascinating take on this choral “warhorse.”

    And to reply to the previous post, I’ll note that MEMF was in fact a two-week festival in the first couple of years, but that proved to be unsupportable for host of reasons. As a board member and longtime participant, I’ll say that our concentrated one-week format, while just a bit exhausting, really works quite well.

    Comment by Michael Allsen — July 19, 2019 @ 10:48 am

    • “And to reply to the previous post, I’ll note that MEMF was in fact a two-week festival in the first couple of years, but that proved to be unsupportable for host of reasons.”

      But that was what, 20 years ago? Things have changed and it’s time to push the envelope. I appreciate your views and respect your knowledge but I think when you have created a demand for something you should push along too. Two weeks would allow the festival to focus on certain areas, using the first week as a general introduction. Imagine, for instance, this past festival: the Grand Tour in general (as was done) plus one week spent on the musical scene of Venice and Northern Italy. Plus, the students in classes would gain far more experience and teaching time. Yes, it would cost more to put on but I suspect, with the success of the festival, largely from people like yourself, this can be done. Forward!

      Comment by fflambeau — July 19, 2019 @ 9:32 pm

  2. After being inundated by later Baroque composers, I enjoyed the Late Renaissance-Early Baroque MEMF’s selections, with its modal harmonies. . (Sorry, Ear). Saw three concerts this year and not a clinker among them. Hard to choose favorite, although the Hunchback of Notre Dame was fun. Couldn’t help but think of the disastrous fire earlier this year.

    Comment by powelsj — July 19, 2019 @ 6:49 am

  3. Re the Allegri: I am a longtime MEMF participant who had to miss it this year. Thanks for the review telling me just what I missed. (Foot stomping?)

    The Ear (and Ear readers) might find these liner notes interesting in explaining the Allegri. I had the same reaction as the Ear — where are the high notes? — when listening to this wonderful album by The Sixteen:

    … which refers to the Miserere (“Evolution version.”) That turns out to be described briefly in the Guardian review here:

    … and a bit more information about the edition used by the Sixteen here (ignore link to composer in the Guardian story, that’s a bad link):

    Comment by Catherine Arnott Smith — July 19, 2019 @ 6:31 am

    • Great links. Thanks for them! The last one (Ancient Groove) is especially detailed, although I disagree with their conclusion.

      I still like the Mozart “myth” of the 14 year old writing down this music which the Vatican had forbidden to be distributed. It has the ring of truth to it because that’s the way the Vatican operated. Also, Leopold Mozart, more or less contemporaneously, confirmed this in writing (in a letter) and it just sounds like something a youthful Mozart would have loved doing. He certainly had the ability to do so.

      But this is the fascinating thing about history (and musical history). We really will never know for certain.

      Comment by fflambeau — July 19, 2019 @ 9:56 pm

  4. One should also salute one of the high-water marks of this year’s festival: the live music accompanying the silent film of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney. Great idea because this showing and music brought in people who otherwise might not have attended and furthermore it made the festival more interdisciplinary bringing in film studies and music. One hopes this continues in the future.

    Comment by fflambeau — July 19, 2019 @ 4:46 am

  5. Sounds like fair criticism.

    The MEMF has grown over 2 decades but should perhaps be expanded to a 2 week festival (one of the weeks could concentrate on a geographical area or put a composer(s) in the “spotlight”. That would make the training/music classes more popular and worthwhile too.

    Also, this kind of music has proven so popular perhaps UW should begin to look into adding a program in early music: they have the forces at hand.

    Comment by fflambeau — July 19, 2019 @ 2:55 am

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