The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Piano announces its new season of four concerts

August 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The reliably virtuosic and musically enjoyable Salon Piano Series has just announced its 2017-18 season.

A piano duo, piano soloists and the Pro Arte Quartet provide traditional salon concert experiences with informal seating and restored pianos.

The 2017-18 Salon Piano Series season again includes piano soloists and ensembles typical of 19th-century European salon concerts, with well-known concert artists from Italy, Russia, Israel and Ireland.

According to a press release, the season’s offerings are:

Roberto Plano and Paola Del Negro Duo (below) on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 at 4 p.m.

Italian husband and wife piano duo Roberto Plano and Paola Del Negro kick off the season with Schumann’s “Pictures from the East” (Bilder aus Osten, Op. 66), Brahms’ Hungarian Dances 1-5, “The Moldau” by Smetana, and Brahms’ Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b, the earlier version of his great Piano Quintet. The duo will perform on one piano for the first half of the program and on two for the second half. (You can hear them perform Hungarian Dances by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Ilya Yakushev (below) on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 at 4 p.m.

Returning by popular demand, Ilya Yakushev will perform an exhilarating program of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in D Major, Tchaikovsky’s “Sentimental Waltz,” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” in his November concert.

Alon Goldstein (below top) and the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below bottom in a photo by Rick Langer) on Saturday night, March 10, 2018 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, March 11, 2018 at 4 p.m.

To accommodate the crowds, Salon Piano Series booked two performances for Alon Goldstein and the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet in March. Goldstein will perform selected Scarlatti sonatas solo, then the Pro Arte Quartet and bassist David Scholl will join him for Mozart Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, in a reduced arrangement, and the Brahms Piano Quintet, Op. 34.

John O’Conor (below) on Saturday, May 12, 2018, 7:30 p.m.

To cap off the season in May, the great Irish pianist John O’Conor will perform Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert in his first Salon Piano Series appearance.

Visit salonpianoseries.org for complete concert programs, and artist information.

All concerts are at Farley’s House of Pianos, at 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west wide near West Towne Mall. All concert includes a post-concert artist reception.

Tickets are $50 at the door or $45 in advance; season tickets are $150.

You can purchase tickets online at brownpapertickets.com or in-person at Farley’s House of Pianos. Service fees may apply.

About the Salon Piano Series

Now in its fifth season, Salon Piano Series was founded by Tim and Renée Farley to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos.

The setting replicates that experienced by audiences throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and offers audiences the chance to hear artists whose inspiring performances are enhanced by the setting and the fine pianos.


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opens its 26th season with a bang worthy of its name. Plus, TONIGHT the Willy Street Chamber Players open the summer season of the Rural Musicians Forum in Spring Green

June 12, 2017
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A REMINDER: Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green, six members of the Willy Street Chamber Players will open the summer season of the Rural Musicians Forum. The program features works by Johannes Brahms, American composer Charles Ives, and Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. A free-will donation will be requested. The Hillside Theater is located at 6604 County Highway 23, Spring Green. For more information about the Rural Musicians Forum, go to: http://ruralmusiciansforum.org/home

By Jacob Stockinger

This guest review is by a new contributor, Kyle Johnson (below). As a pianist since elementary school, Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season — themed “Alphabet Soup” for 26 letters — began on Friday evening at the historic Stoughton Opera House (below bottom) with a program of underprogrammed French, German and Russian works.

BDDS is led by artistic directors (below) Stephanie Jutt, UW-Madison’s newly-retired flute professor and principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and Jeffrey Sykes, pianist of the San Francisco Piano Trio who studied at the UW-Madison. The two musicians assembled a “dynamite” group of musicians for their opening concert.

First on the program was Médailles antiques (Old Medals) for flute, violin and piano from 1916 by Philippe Gaubert (below). Like the weather throughout the day on Friday, the piece provided a sunny and spry start to the program in the centennial year of World War I.

At times, I wanted the ends of phrases to have a little more stretch and grace to them. However, the richness of sound from each musician, as well as the ensemble’s superb blend, made up for any small qualm I may have had.

The next piece, Gideon Klein’s String Trio (1944), featured three “apprentice” musicians from BDDS’s Dynamite Factory. Violinist Misha Vayman (below top), violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below middle) and cellist Trace Johnson (below bottom) are the program fellows for this year’s series.

Striking about the work was Klein’s musical optimism amid stark reality – the piece was written at the Auschwitz concentration camp just a few months before the death of the composer (below).

The Dynamite Factory artists gave a spirited rendition of the weighty work, which at times resembles the rollicking intensity of Bela Bartok’s folk dances.

Before the intermission, the audience was treated to Sergei Prokofiev’s chilling Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80, for violin and piano. Like the preceding piece, Prokofiev’s sonata was written during the strife of World War II. (You can hear the first movement, played by Maxim Vengerov, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Prokofiev labeled one passage at the end of the first movement as “wind passing through a graveyard”; the passage (a series of quick violin scales) returns at the close of the piece. Under the hands of violinist Carmit Zori (below top) and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below bottom), the sonata seemed both devastating and human.

A brief, unprogrammed presentation began the second half of the concert, which was a performance of “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from the oratorio Solomon by George Frideric Handel.

The work was lauded and produced by the Fourth Earl of Sandwich in the mid-1700s. Fittingly, during the music, characters clad in 18th-century attire roamed the Stoughton Opera House to hand out sandwiches.

Last on the program was Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26, played by violinist Zori; Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm (below top); Toronto Symphony principal cellist Joseph Johnson (below bottom); and pianist Sykes.

The quartet brimmed with musical swells and overlapping layers of sound. There are a number of memorable themes that allow the listener to simply ride the wave of sound throughout the 40-minute work.

All of the musicians were fully deserving of the ovation (below, in a photo by Kyle Johnson) they received in Stoughton, as all technical demands were met with superb musicality and passion.

Future BDDS concerts run through June 25 and are not to be missed! For more information about programs and about performers, performance dates, times and venues, go to www.bachdancing.org


Classical music: Mozart’s music requires the rhythms of both speech and dance, says maestro Gary Thor Wedow, who will also restore lost libretto text when he conducts two performances of “The Magic Flute” this weekend for the Madison Opera. Here is Part 2 of his interview with The Ear.

April 19, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute this Friday night, April 21, at 8 p.m. and this Sunday afternoon, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center. (Production photos are courtesy of the Arizona Opera from which the Madison Opera got the sets and costumes for its production.)

Yesterday’s post was the first of two parts. It has a plot synopsis and links to more information about the cast and production.

Here is a link to Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/04/18/classical-music-mozart-masterfully-melds-the-sensual-and-the-cerebral-says-maestro-gary-thor-wedow-who-will-conduct-two-performances-of-the-magic-flute-this-weekend-for-the-madiso/

The opera runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets are $18 to $130.

“The Magic Flute” will be sung in German with English supertitles.

For more about the production and cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/

And also go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/cast/

Here is Part 2 of The Ear’s recent email interview with conductor Gary Thor Wedow (below, conducting in an orchestra pit):

Are there certain “tricks” or “secrets” that you try to bring to conducting Mozart? Have you conducted “The Magic Flute” before? Do Mozart’s operas in general and this opera in specific present challenges? Where do you place the opera musically, both compared to other operas in general and in regard to its place in Mozart’s work?

I feel keenly that Mozart and all 18th-century music (probably continuing to this day) is either based on a rhetorical idea or a dance form; that music is either speaking or dancing. This style of music is “pre-French Revolution,” so No Two Notes are Created Equally! The lilt of language or the buoyancy of the dance has to infuse every moment; hierarchy and shape prevail.

I’ve been fortunate to have conducted The Magic Flute frequently, in many varied productions; it’s always been a part of my musical life. Because it’s a fairy tale, it lends itself to inventive and imaginative productions. Stage director Dan Rigazzi’s production (below) for Madison Opera is a whimsical one, influenced by the surrealist painter Magritte, steampunk and more, all rolled into one beautiful show.

Mozart was fascinated with German Singspiel, as it was opera in the language of the people. The Magic Flute is his masterpiece in this genre, though there are earlier works. There is the early Zaide – incomplete, but filled with gorgeous, innovative music –and also the more mature, sumptuous and comic The Abduction from the Seraglio; they are both rich and entertaining pieces.

The Magic Flute, I feel, has a special place in the opera repertoire for several reasons: its Masonic connections that were very important to Mozart, the drama, and its central themes that trace themselves back to ancient Egypt.

It also is a brilliant combination of comedy and deep spiritual drama in the guise of a heroic rescue tale. It uses an incredibly wide range of the most beautiful music written in every major genre: sacred music, opera seria, bel canto, folk song and complex Baroque counterpoint.

What would you like listeners to pay special attention to in the music of “The Magic Flute”?

I would say “Hang on!” Whatever style of music we are in, we are going to switch gears in a fairly short time. It’s a roller coaster, an Ed Sullivan Show, American Idol, and the Barnum and Bailey Circus all rolled into one.

This is your third time conducting at Madison Opera. Do you have an opinion about Madison musicians and audiences?

My previous two experiences in Madison have been the Opera in the Park concerts in 2012 and 2016 (below). These have been among the most sublimely satisfying moments of my musical life: a cornucopia of music played by this brilliant symphony orchestra with great singers.

The audiences have been magically focused and involved; the players are magnificent, dedicated musicians, and the community is very supportive of Madison Opera. It’s electric.

Is there anything else you would like to say about the music or this performance?

Magic Flute devotees might be startled to hear some new text in these performances, particularly in Tamino, Pamina and Sarastro’s arias and the duet with Pamina and Papageno. “Bei Männern” is now “Der Liebe.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Let me explain by telling you a mystery story. After Mozart died, Constanze was desperate for money. Mozart’s Flute manuscript conducting score belonged to Schikaneder, the librettist and producer, but it seems that Constanze had another original score: the first original manuscript, which she then sold to a nobleman who eventually allowed it to be published.

This must have been a “composing score” that Mozart wrote first, before making the conducting score with the help of his assistant. The text deviates in several sections in notable ways. Probably Schikaneder, perhaps assisted by his Masonic brothers, “improved” the text, but Mozart had already shaped his music to the first text.

In most sections the differences are minimal and the new text was indeed an improvement. But in some cases I feel the original text was what inspired Mozart to write and orchestrate the way he did. Our marvelous singers have generously agreed to make the changes and I think we will all see how it fits the music so much better.

Sadly, Constanze’s manuscript was lost in the wars, but many scholars had already seen it and considered it to be genuine. I love how it shows how fluid the creative process is and how it spurs us to look anew at Mozart’s creative process.

On with the show!


Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians perform Bach’s “St. John Passion” this Friday night and Saturday night in authentic early music style

April 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians (below), which specializes in authentic period performances of early music, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” this coming Friday  and Saturday nights, both at 7:30 p.m., in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

On both nights at 6:45 p.m., MBM founder and music director Trevor Stephenson (below) will give a free pre-concert lecture on the “Structure and Performance History of the St. John Passion.” In his remarks, Stephenson said he will discuss the question of anti-Semitism in the famous work.

(NOTE: Stephenson and some of the players will also be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland TODAY at noon.)

At the end of Part I, the Rev. Michael Schuler of the Unitarian Society will give a talk focusing on “Theological Reflections on Bach and the St. John Passion.”

This is only the second time the work has been performed in historical style in the state of Wisconsin. For more information and explanation, see the story in the Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/st-john-passion-to-be-performed-on-all-historical-period/article_0e6e3d51-c03e-5803-9230-faed6a48ed1d.html

Tickets are $28-$33 and are available online, at Orange Tree Imports and at the door. Ticket information is at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Trevor Stephenson writes the following about the work and the performance:

Bach was 38 years old when he composed the monumental St. John Passion during his initial year of employment in Leipzig, 1723-24. The work was first performed at the Nikolai Church during the Good Friday service on April 7, 1724.

As was the custom, no concerted music had been played in church during the previous six weeks of Lent, and the airing of the St. John Passion ― music of unprecedented complexity, lasting for over two hours — must have had an overwhelming effect on the fresh ears and devoted souls of the parishioners.

From its outset—with the whirling gear-like figures in the strings beneath the moiling of the oboes—the St. John Passion has an otherworldly aura of a story that has been foretold. Bach’s genius is in how he balances this inevitability with a sense of forward dramatic thrust: the passion story must happen, has already happened, but it also must be played out in real-time by living people, step by painful step. Time is at once both linear and circular. (Below is the manuscript for the “St. John Passion.”)

I believe that the objective of Bach (below) in setting the St. John Passion was to tell as vividly as possible the story of Jesus’ cruel earthly demise while at the same time tempering this vividness with frequent textual reminders, as well as an overarching tone, that convey the firm belief that Jesus’ Passion had not only been prophesied long before his birth but that Jesus’ suffering and death on earth was the only solution for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins.

 

The Evangelist John is our guide for the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. John sings his narration in the dry and angular recitative style, addressing the audience directly. He summarizes some scenes and introduces others, which are then played out in present-tense tableau format by various characters: Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Court officers, the angry mob.

Bach uses two techniques to pause and comment upon the narrative: first, with arias for solo voices and instrumental obbligato, that employ freely-composed poetry to reflect upon the story in a personal way — like the thoughts of someone observing the action; and second, by chorales which use tunes and texts that would have been familiar to Bach’s parishioners to elicit a broader communal response to the passion story. Many of the chorales are like a spiritual balm, providing moments of much needed rest throughout the work.

For the upcoming April 14 and 15 concerts of the St. John Passion on Good Friday and Holy Saturday ― the Madison Bach Musicians has endeavored as much as possible to recreate the early 18th-century sound world of that first Leipzig performance in 1724. MBM will use a 17-member baroque orchestra, conducted by UW-Madison bassoonist and performance-practice specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill).

The orchestra will play entirely on 18th-century style instruments:

  • Gut-strung violins, violas, cellos, and bass played with baroque bows which facilitate articulation and phrase grouping
  • Early 18th-century single-keyed wooden traverso flutes and single-keyed wooden oboes―uniquely warm-sounding and clear-toned. Plus the baroque ancestor of the modern English horn, the tenor oboe da caccia
  • A baroque chamber organ with wooden pipes tuned in 18th-century Well Temperament
  • And specialty instruments—even by 18th-century standards. The viola da gamba, featured during the tombeau– or tomb-like Es ist vollbracht (It is fulfilled) aria heard after Jesus’ death; and two violas d’amore, delicate and velvet toned, replete with sympathetic strings for a haunting after-glow of sound. (You can hear that aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These instruments will join with 10 outstanding vocalists—specialists in singing both solo and choral baroque repertoire.

Internationally recognized, and Grammy Award winning tenor, Dann Coakwell (below, in a photo by Mary Gordon) will sing the part of John the Evangelist.

The Passion will be sung in its original German; but an English translation of the text will be projected in supertitles scene-by-scene throughout the performance.

MBM is thrilled to be presenting this masterwork in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a  photo by Zane Williams) at First Unitarian Society, a space beautifully suited to early music. The sightlines are superb, and the acoustics offer a great balance of clarity, crispness, and spaciousness.

Seating is limited, so advance ticket purchase is suggested.


Classical music: Cellist Joel Krosnick will retire from the Juilliard String Quartet and is one more example of how musicians love their careers and how teacher-performers deserve more respect.

June 2, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear knows a lot of musicians.

And he considers them among the most privileged of people and workers.

That’s because he has never met a musician who regretted being a musician, even if they don’t get the job they want or earn as much as they need.

Musicians are happy, The Ear thinks, because they speak a higher language and never get tired of it.

We who listen are envious of those who play.

The latest example of it comes in a wonderful interview with cellist Joel Krosnick (below) that appeared on the Deceptive Cadence blog done by NPR (National Public Radio).

Joel Kroskick1

Krosnick is the longtime cellist of the legendary Juilliard String Quartet (below). He never thought he would retire, but now, after 42 years, he says he will indeed retire at the end of the 2015-16 season, although he will continue to teach at the Juilliard School.

Getting old, he explains, means that he can do one full-time career but no longer two. That should bring new respect to teacher-performers who are too often portrayed more as failed performers who have to teach by default.

Juilliard String Quartet copy

Read or listen to the interview for yourself and see what I mean.

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/05/18/406687266/after-42-years-juilliard-string-quartet-cellist-to-step-down

And here, in a YouTube video at the bottom, is a slow movement from one of the late “Prussian” Quartets that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed for the King of Prussia, who played the cello quite well. So Mozart gave the work a prominent role to the cello.


Classical music: Is Beethoven still relevant and our political contemporary with his opera “Fidelio”?

August 10, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall that Ludwig van Beethoven (below) composed only one opera.

It is “Fidelio,” and it reflected his Enlightenment-era political ideas about equality and democracy –- despite the composer’s own financial reliance on patronage by aristocrats and royals.

Beethoven big

And you may recall that the Madison Opera has slated “Fidelio” for a production this coming season in Overture Hall on Friday night, Nov. 21, and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 23.

The production comes during a time of great political unrest and perhaps upheaval at home, with crucial national and state elections, and especially overseas and in foreign affairs with Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Africa’s Ebola strife and many other hot spots showing no sign of letting up.

So will the local production of “Fidelio” be more or less a traditional one? Or will the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith and its artistic director, John DeMain, who is also the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, have other ideas about how to tweak the opera and recast it for modern or contemporary relevance?

It will be interesting to see, although The Ear understands that the production will be traditional.

Here is a link to the Madison Opera’s website:

http://madisonopera.org/performances-2014-2015/

Currently, the acclaimed Santa Fe Opera is staging a controversial new version of “Fidelio”(below), created by director Stephen Wadsworth, that takes place in the Nazi death camp Bergen-Belsen. Sounds very Peter Sellars-like. (You can hear the moving music from the Prisoners’ Chorus at the bottom in a YouTube video.)

FIDELIO in Bergen-Belsen at Santa Fe

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, of The New York Times, did not like it and, in fact, said it offended her because it belittled the Holocaust. She also complained that the roles in the actual text did not match the roles that the new staging created. She saw the production as too inconsistent.

Her larger complaint seems to reflect the notion that after the Holocaust, writing poetry and creating art is impossible, that beauty has been ruined.

It is an ambitious, lofty and tempting thought, but one that is clearly not true. In fact, it is downright wrong. Great suffering and art are old pals. Sometimes art takes you away from suffering; sometimes it takes you deeper into it. It depends on the work and on the performers. But we need both.

Anyway, here is the review from the Times as well as another one with a different take. Read them for yourself. Then decide and make up your own mind. It sure sounds like a concept worth pursuing, even if flawed, to The Ear.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/04/arts/music/santa-fe-opera-sets-fidelio-in-a-concentration-camp.html?_r=0

Critic Heidi Waleson, of The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, praised the production:

http://online.wsj.com/articles/opera-review-santa-fe-opera-1407191039

Be sure to tell The Ear, and other readers, including members of the Madison Opera, if you have ever seen an updated version of “Fidelio” and what you thought of it.

Where do you think “Fidelio could be recast to best advantage The Holocaust? The Spanish Inquisition? The Soviet Gulag and Great Terror? The Killing Fields of Cambodia? The Rwandan genocide? Abu Graib prison in Iraq? A CIA black site torture prison in Egypt? The Chinese Cultural Revolution?

Or, given the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, how about a Supermax prison in Wisconsin?

You get the idea.

Go wild with your imagination, and then write in.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical Music Q&A: Bach’s Mass in B Minor is perfect music for Easter. It reconciles Catholicism and Protestantism, and is a distillation of Bach’s own Cantatas and Passions, says Trevor Stephenson, the director of the Madison Bach Musicians who, with the Madison Choral Project, will perform the Mass in B Minor on Friday and Saturday nights.

April 14, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear still remembers fondly the beautiful and moving performance he heard five years ago of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” by the Madison Bach Musicians. 

Since then the MBM has turned in many memorable performances of cantatas and concertos by Bach and other early music on period instruments, including works by Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli and George Frideric Handel.

But this Easter weekend will bring a special treat.

The Madison Bach Musicians, will partner with the Madison Choral Project, under Albert Pinsonneault, to perform Bach’s magnificent and monumental Mass in Minor.

Performances are at on this Friday night at 8 pm. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ. And on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison at 900 University Bay Drive, near UW Hospital.

Advance tickets are $20 for adults; $15 for students and seniors over 65; at the door, $25 and $20, respectively. For more information about how to buy advance tickets, visit:

http://madisonbachmusicians.org/tickets/

For more information about the music and the performers, visit:

http://madisonbachmusicians.org

Stephenson (seen below, in a pre-concert lecture in a photo by Kent Sweitzer), who is a knowledgeable, articulate and entertaining speaker about Baroque music, agreed to an email Q&A about the Mass in B Minor.

Trevor Stephenson lecture at FUS October 2012 by Kent Sweitzer

Where do you place the B Minor Mass with Bach’s enormous body of work and choral music? How does it stand or rank in terms of quality and power to, say, the Passions and Cantatas?

Musicians often talk about their “desert island piece”— the work they would most want to have at hand if they were forced to live on a desert island. For me, the B minor Mass has always been my desert island piece. (But if I could sneak in the Well-Tempered Clavier too, that would be great.)

The Passions are incomparable investigations into the relationship between the human embodiment of divine spirit and the dark machinations of this world. The Passions are also Bach’s great statements on the importance of self-sacrifice for the greater good of love. (Jesus gave up his life for love of us, and we should in turn give of ourselves to that which we love.)

The Cantatas are the laboratory where Bach worked out–on a nearly weekly basis–the fusion of musical and textual material toward a spiritual end.

The Mass in B minor focuses more on the relationship between—and really the joining of–the metaphysical and the everyday. Just as an example, as Bach expert John Eliot Gardiner (below) points out in his wonderful new book, “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” look how the opening of the Credo fuses the gravitas, dignity, and mysticism of plainchant (in the voices) with the elegant, bubbling stride of the baroque bass line. And together these elements create a third thing, beyond themselves, a new joy. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the uplifting and joyous “Gloria” movement, performed by Karl Richter leading the Munich Bach Orchestra.)

John Eliot Gardiner

Why did a devout Lutheran like Bach turn to a Roman Catholic musical form? Is it appropriate to the Easter season, like the Passions and certain cantatas? What kind of liberties does Bach take with it? How does he reinvent it, if he does?

In Bach’s family, the work was often referred to as “The great catholic mass”–precisely because it was not usual Lutheran practice to set the entire Latin mass. The first appearance of the Mass in B minor comes in 1733 when Bach and his family copied out a beautiful set of presentation parts for the Dresden court–which had not only one of the greatest orchestras and vocal ensembles in Europe, but was also a Catholic court.

I’ve always felt that Bach’s Mass in B minor is something of a reconciliation with the Catholic church after the spiritual and political upheaval of the 17th century and the devastation of the 30-years War.

The Mass in B minor, though it is certainly Christian, also points toward a more inclusive picture of humanity’s universal — the original meaning of catholic — spiritual quest. It is hard to quantify, but I feel there is something in this music that speaks to—and really helps and inspires–us all.

Bach1

Why will Marc Vallon conduct it rather than you?

Marc and I have been working together for several years now. He has played several bassoon concertos with MBM; also with MBM he has conducted symphonies and concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus, Franz Joseph Haydn and Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach.

Marc, who now teaches and performs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, was principal baroque bassoon—for 20 years—with the internationally acclaimed Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under Ton Koopman. And during that time Marc performed and recorded many of Bach’s Cantatas, Passions and the B minor Mass.

Marc’s tremendous performance background with the Mass, and his infectious enthusiasm for this timeless masterpiece make him perfectly suited to lead the rehearsals and the concerts. I really can’t wait to hear what happens on Friday and Saturday when these amazing musicians and Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) and a great audience gather for the Mass in B minor.

Marc Vallon 2011 James Gill (baroque & modern)[2]

What are the special aspects (one-on-one versus larger chorus, for example, or the Madison Choral Project or the period instruments and practices) that you would like to point out about this performance?

The Madison Choral Project is providing a 17-voice choir for the Mass in B minor concerts. In this work, since Bach usually uses a five-part choral texture (soprano I, soprano II, alto, tenor, bass), this comes to about three voices per part, depending on how things are distributed in a particular moment.

In two movements of the Mass (first Credo and Confiteor), we’ll have the soloists sing one-voice-per-part.

The orchestra will consist of 25 players, all on period instruments: 12 strings, 2 baroque oboes, 2 baroque flutes, 2 baroque bassoons, natural horn, 3 baroque trumpets, timpani, and continuo organ, which I what I will play. The balance between choir, soloists and orchestra should work out beautifully. (Below is the Madison Bach Musicians performing the “St. Matthew Passion” in a photo by Karen Holland.)

MBM in 2009 St. Matthew Passion CR Karen Holland

What should the public listen for in the mass both musically and performance-wise?

I would say notice how Bach contrasts grandeur with intimacy, metaphysical inquiry and prayer with rollicking celebration, and yet makes an exquisitely coherent whole. I think the Mass in B minor is a miracle of form.

Also, these concerts will feature an entirely period-instrument orchestra of outstanding baroque performance specialists hailing from throughout the United States — Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

The wonderful thing about playing this incomparable baroque masterwork on instruments that Bach was familiar with, is that the sound becomes fresh and energized in a way that is readily apparent. It really is a way of going Back to the Present!

The 18th-century instruments typically speak faster than their modern descendants — that is, the pitch actually forms more quickly, often by just a fraction of a second. But in music-making—especially very intricate baroque music-making—that fraction of a second can be the critical difference.

Bach’s absolutely amazing counterpoint in the Mass in B minor, which he often weaves effortlessly in 4 and even 5 independent parts is much more transparent when played on period instruments. You can peer more deeply into the infinite world of Bach’s fugues.

Period instruments are also set up to articulate quite deftly, that is, baroque instruments help the players define the shorter musical groupings of connected and non-connected notes. This in turn assists the audience in assimilating the elegant rhetorical shapes of Bach’s lines.

I will also preface both the concerts starting at 6:45 p.m. with a 30-minute lecture on period instruments (below is Stephenson discussing the keyboard action of an 18th-century fortepiano), approaches to singing baroque music, and the structure and history of the Mass in B minor.

HousemusicStephensonfortepianoaction

Is there anything else you would like to say or add?

I’d like to say a bit about the two venues where we’ll perform the Mass in B minor. “Where is it?” is one of the first questions most people ask when they hear of an exciting upcoming musical event. Because–particularly for classical music–the acoustics really matter. And the feel of the place, the vibe, needs to be right too.

The sound will be rich and the mood will be spiritually focused on Friday and Saturday as the Madison Bach Musicians and the Madison Choral Project collaborate in two performances of J. S. Bach’s monumental masterpiece the Mass in B minor, BWV 232.

The Friday concert will be given in the magnificent setting of the sanctuary at First Congregational United Church of Christ, at 1609 University Avenue, a landmark building in Madison’s cultural life.

MBM Bach canata 2013 Dec

The Saturday concert will be in the acoustically brilliant Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. The performances will feature a 24-piece period-instrument baroque orchestra, 5 outstanding vocal soloists, and a 17-voice professional choir from the Madison Choral Project.

Bach composed the Mass in B minor during the final 18 years of his life; adding, editing, and re-working it into his final year, 1750. The result is about 100 minutes of music that is instantly engaging, highly varied in its variety of ensemble and style, unified to the Nth degree, and structurally perfect. And somehow the Mass in B minor it is at once both magnificent and intimate.

The First Congregational United Church of Christ, with its neo-Georgian design (begun in 1928), captures the 18th-century ideals of dignified ambiance and sonic balance that Bach understood. The sound has tremendous detail, yet everything contributes to the warm cumulative tonal glow.

The much more recent Atrium Auditorium (below), built in 2008, at First Unitarian Society brings out the immediacy of the music-making. The sight lines are direct, and the acoustics brilliant; the audience feels very connected with the performers.

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

Both venues are absolutely perfect for period-instrument performance, which emphasizes the detail and vitality of the music rather than sheer decibels.

Seating is limited at both venues, so purchasing tickets in advance is highly recommended.

 

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