The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Choral Union, UW Symphony Orchestra and guest soloists took the audience on a memorable musical voyage in Ralph Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony” | January 30, 2020

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By Jacob Stockinger

It took a postponement of almost two months before the UW Choral Union (below) finally got to perform last Saturday night in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center.

But the wait was worth it.

The combined forces – conducted by the retiring choral director Beverly Taylor – proved convincing and accomplished in the challenging score of “A Sea Symphony” by the early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The performers did justice to the score’s vivid sound painting. You could hear the sea wind whistling through the rigging; you could feel the ship plowing through the swells and waves.

The American poet Walt Whitman (below) – whose epic-like poetry provided the text for this ambitious nautical and musical journey – would have been proud of the performance.

After all, like Whitman’s poetry, Vaughn Williams’ music — his first symphony — can be forceful and spacious at many moments, tender and reflective or even intimate at other times. The music matches the text, and the performers matched both.

The forces were precise under Taylor’s baton, with sharp attacks and no ragged stopping. True, there were a few moments when the balance seemed a bit off, when the UW Symphony Orchestra overpowered the large campus and community chorus, especially in the very brassy and thickly scored first movement. You just wanted to hear the words better and felt frustrated not to.

But for the most part, though, the student orchestra proved impressive. They were tight and crisp, accurate and transparent, allowing listeners to hear the inner part playing and even certain modernist harmonies of the generally conservative Vaughan Williams (below).

Moreover, the symphony, the chorus and the soloists blended especially well and movingly in the symphony’s quieter moments.

Those moments included the second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone”; and the quiet, understated ending where the idea of voyage and exploration becomes personal and metaphorical or spiritual as well as literal: “Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me … O my brave soul! O farther, farther sail!”

(You can hear a sample in the hymn-like opening of the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition, the outstanding acoustics of the new hall – where the chorus sits above and behind the orchestra – brought the performance to life even more convincingly.

There were two soloists (below): soprano Chelsie Propst and baritone James Harrington.

Harrington possessed a pleasing tone, but he seemed to be holding back for some reason. He could have projected more confidence and been more energetic or assertive in his delivery. After all, neither Whitman nor Vaughan Williams is shy in this large-scale work.

Curiously, it was the woman soloist, Propst, who roared like the sea, whose big voice easily soared over the orchestra and chorus. Her singing was thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly engaging.

Unfortunately, the very successful concert was not sold out, but the audience proved attentive and very enthusiastic.

This debut performance in the new hall made one look forward all the more to another big piece and big performance by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra, one that will wrap up the season and end Taylor’s long tenure at the UW-Madison: the dramatic and operatic Requiem by Verdi on Saturday and Sunday, April 25 and 26.


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6 Comments »

  1. Jake, your review is totally on target. You are especially apt in describing the soloists. The baritone was off ( and I heard from a chorus member that he didn’t come prepared ) while the soprano was a delight to hear in this work .

    Marti

    .

    On Thu, Jan 30, 2020 at 12:02 AM The Well-Tempered Ear wrote:

    > welltemperedear posted: “PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG > POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not > just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw > potential audience members to an event. And you might even a” >

    Comment by martha g young — January 30, 2020 @ 11:44 am

    • I agree with both of you. The soprano was outstanding from start to finish!! A very challenging piece for all and I am glad to have heard it here!

      With regard to the baritone, though, I’m less interested in the question of preparation (is that fair to put on the internet?) than I am the question of his decision to take on this role.

      I saw him in A Midsummer Night’s Dream this fall and am quite certain he’s a bass. I was pleased if surprised to see him listed as the soloist here, though, as this piece is quite a high baritone solo (recorded by John Carol Case and more recently by the outstanding Roderick Williams)… I suspect that explains some tentativeness in his delivery. Too bad. I’d like to have heard him in the Verdi later this spring.

      Comment by Rich — January 30, 2020 @ 11:14 pm

      • I agree with Rich on the question of the Baritone “not being prepared.”

        That’s pretty hard to believe at this level and perhaps unduly harsh based on little more than hearsay.

        Comment by fflambeau — January 31, 2020 @ 1:27 am

  2. FYI – I believe the Requiem concert is in April.

    Comment by Doug — January 30, 2020 @ 7:51 am

    • Thank you for your reply and correction.
      You are right: the Verdi Requiem is on April 25 and 26, not May.
      The text has already been corrected.
      I apologize for the error.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 30, 2020 @ 8:12 am

  3. A nice review that even includes a nod to the new hall’s acoustics. It’s a nice work that evokes the sea in music and Whitman’s words (from “Leaves of Grass”).

    Comment by fflambeau — January 30, 2020 @ 1:31 am


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