The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How did the modern symphony orchestra get arranged the way it is?

May 6, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, seen from above) closes its season.

For information about the program, the performers, the performances and tickets, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/classical-music-madison-symphony-orchestra-closes-its-season-with-the-german-requiem-by-brahms-and-the-american-premiere-of-charles-villiers-stanfords-1921-concert-piece-fo/

But while you are watching and listening, you might wonder: How did the modern orchestra get to be arranged the way it is?

And here is a concise explanation of that evolution:

http://www.wqxr.org/story/why-orchestra-seated-way-explanation

Enjoy!!


Classical music: UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra resurrect Paul Hindemith’s long-neglected 20th-century secular Requiem with fine singing and committed playing

May 2, 2017
Leave a Comment

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 photographs below.

By John W. Barker

It is unusual that, within the space of a few days, we have parallel performances of two very untraditional Requiems, ones setting vernacular texts rather than liturgical Latin ones.

The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony(below) performed Paul Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem For those we love” last weekend. And the Madison Symphony Chorus and Orchestra will give us Johannes BrahmsEin deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) this coming weekend, May 5-7.

(NOTE: Here is a link with more information about the three MSO performances this coming weekend:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/classical-music-madison-symphony-orchestra-closes-its-season-with-the-german-requiem-by-brahms-and-the-american-premiere-of-charles-villiers-stanfords-1921-concert-piece-fo/)

It is hard to resist the temptation to compare them.

They were, of course, composed about a century apart, in the contexts of very different stylistic eras. They reflect very different aesthetics: High Romantic warmth for Brahms, conservative modernism for Hindemith.

The different texts chosen also determine crucial differences. Brahms selected Luther’s German translations of passages from Scripture, as a broad collage of human consolation and solace, whereas the German-born Hindemith, a naturalized American citizen who fled from Hitler’s Nazism, in a patriotic commemoration of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, chose the long poem of grieving that Walt Whitman (below) wrote over the death of President Abraham Lincoln.

The relatively concise Scriptural texts allowed Brahms to develop rich melodic and contrapuntal elaborations. Hindemith’s determination to set Whitman’s complete poem, of 208 verses in altogether irregular free verse, committed him to keep things in constantly moving continuity, with little chance for pausing and elaborating.

To be sure, Hindemith (below) was never a distinguished lyricist, for all his skills, so his writing is endless declamation by the soloists, backed by strongly cast choral statements. (You can hear famed baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the chorus sing the opening of the Hindemith requiem in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There are many lovely and powerful moments, but they pass by quickly and leave little of memorable expressiveness. There is much clever music here, but in sum total it is more dutiful than beautiful.

The performance in Mills Hall — I heard the one Sunday night — showed a stage packed with musicians. There were two soloists, a chorus of exactly 100 singers, and an orchestra (the UW Symphony) of 67 players, 46 of them on strings. UW choral director and conductor Beverly Taylor (below) drew from all of them deeply committed musical results.

Of the two soloists, soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below left) sang with beauty and expression, but it was baritone James Held (below right) who stole the show, with a ringing voice, superb diction, and a genuine eloquence.

The huge chorus was quite magnificent, well unified, fully serious in its enunciation, and capable of some truly musical sound — and Hindemith, though nowhere near Brahms as a choral composer, gave them some serious challenges. The orchestra sounded a bit rough at the very beginning, but settled into participating strongly in the performance.

Whatever reservations one may have about Hindemith’s score, this Whitman Requiem, one of his last important works and premiered in 1946, is a significant piece. It is far less frequently heard than that by Brahms, and so it is very good that UW choral director Beverly Taylor has brought it to our attention.


Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra closes its season with the German Requiem by Brahms and the American premiere of Charles Villiers Stanford’s 1921 Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra

May 1, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger 

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), led by music director John DeMain, will close out its current season this coming weekend.

For the season-closing concert, soprano Devon Guthrie and bass-baritone Timothy Jones will make their MSO debuts when they join the orchestra for Brahms’ A German Requiem.

The concert will open with the American premiere of Charles Villier Stanford’s Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra featuring Nathan Laube (below top), who is returning to the MSO.

The finishing touch to the 2016-17 season happens in the second half of the concert, when more than 100 members of the Madison Symphony Chorus (below) take the stage with the orchestra and organ to perform Johannes BrahmsA German Requiem.

Featured vocal soloists in the Brahms German Requiem are soprano Devon Guthrie (below top) and bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below bottom), who is familiar from multiple appearances with the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

The concerts in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., are on this Friday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m.; this Saturday, May 6, at 8 p.m.; and this Sunday, May 7, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16-$87. For more information, go to: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/brahms

Charles Villiers Stanford’s Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra was completed on April 15, 1921. Stanford (below) is one of the leading figures in what is sometimes called the “Second English Musical Renaissance” — which was a movement in the late 19th century, led by British composers.

Stanford (below) believed in more conservative English contemporary music, rather than the music of Wagner, for example. He composed in all genres but had a great commitment to the organ.

His Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra was never performed or published during his lifetime. This is the piece’s debut performance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and the American premiere of the work.

Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem was completed between 1857 and 1868. The word “Requiem” is Latin for “rest” or “repose” and in the Catholic faith the Requiem is the funeral Mass or Mass of the Dead. (You can hear the opening movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

While usually filled with “terrifying visions of the Last Judgment and pleas for intercession on behalf of the souls of the dead and the living,” Brahms however puts death in a different light. He took sections of the Bible that are religious, but not necessarily Christian, and tells a story of salvation for all.

Although upon its completion, Brahms (below) called this piece, “Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der Heiligen Schrift” (which translates to; “A German Requiem, from Words of the Holy Scripture”), he was quoted saying that his piece should really be called “A ‘Human’ Requiem.” It is believed to be dedicated to Brahms’ mother, and his musical father and mentor, Robert Schumann.

One hour before each performance, Beverly Taylor (below), MSO assistant conductor and chorus director, as well as director of choral activities at the UW-Madison, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, visit the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below) at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/8.May17.html

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Find more information at madisonsymphony.org

Major funding for the May concerts is provided by: Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, Inc., Larry and Jan Phelps, University Research Park, and BMO Wealth Management. Additional funding is provided by: WPS Health Solutions, Carla and Fernando Alvarado, and Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: First Unitarian Society of Madison will give two performances this Sunday of the “German” Requiem by Brahms in the more intimate “London version” that featues duo-pianists instead of an orchestra

April 6, 2017
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday, April 9, the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will give two performances of the “German” Requiem, Op. 45, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

Instead of an orchestra, the prize-winning duo-pianists Stanislava Varshavski and Diane Shapiro (below) will be featured.

The performances are at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Admission is a free will donation.

FUS music director Dan Broner (below), who will conduct the performance, explains:

“We are using the four-hand piano accompaniment and singing in English.

“However, we are including the fifth movement, with solo soprano, that was not included in the first London performance.

“More intimate than the orchestral version, the “London” version was a hit in New York City last season where they also had three performances of the “German” Requiem.”

NOTE: You can hear the first movement of the “London version” of the “German” Requiem in the YouTube video below.


Classical music: Georges Prêtre, the French conductor Vienna adored, has died at 92

January 10, 2017
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Vienna has been called “The Paris of the Reich.”

Perhaps that is why the Viennese took such a liking to the suave and debonair French conductor Georges Prêtre (below, in a photo by Dieter Nagli for Getty Images), who died last Wednesday at 92.

george-pretre-cr-dieter-nagli-getty-images

The urbane Prêtre – who specialized in French music but also was much in demand for a lot of German and Italian repertoire — studied karate and judo. But he also enjoyed the good life and by all accounts had a terrific sense of humor coupled to a “joie de vivre.”

He often said he preferred being a guest conductor to being a music director because the former was like a love affair and the latter was like a commitment. Yet Prêtre was committed: He is survived by his wife of more than 50 years.

His conducting career spanned 70 years. He was known for his association with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony. But he also conducted 101 performances of seven operas at the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He also frequently conducted in Milan, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Here is a good summary obituary, with sound clips of orchestral and operatic music, from National Public Radio (NPR):

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/01/05/508374381/georges-pr-tre-a-conductor-with-a-70-year-career-dies-at-92

And here is a longer obituary, which gives you the French flavor of the man and the musician, from The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/04/arts/music/georges-pretre-french-conductor-known-for-improvisation-dies-at-92.html

And here is George Prêtre’s most popular video on YouTube, which also serves as a fine memorial in sound:


Classical music: Give the gift of LIVE music. Plus, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Union Theater are offering holiday discounts.

December 13, 2016
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

A lot of holiday gift lists suggest recordings, videos and books related to classical music.

The Ear recently posted a link to the holiday gift guide by critics of The New York Times:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/11/27/classical-music-here-is-the-new-york-times-holiday-gift-guide-of-classical-music-for-2016/

The Ear also offered the 2017 Grammy nominations for gift suggestions:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/12/10/classical-music-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-2017-grammy-awards-they-make-a-great-holiday-gift-list-of-gives-and-gets/

But The Ear thinks the best gift by far is LIVE music – a ticket to one or more of the many concerts that take place in the Madison area. You can’t beat live music for excitement, insight and enjoyment.

There may be more, but at least two major arts presenters in Madison are offering holiday discounts to make your gift-giving easier and more affordable.

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Through Dec. 24, the Madison Symphony Orchestra is offering a special deal — two levels of tickets for $20 and $49. That includes values up to $89. Concerts in the next semester include two outstanding pianist soloists (Stephen Hough, below top, playing the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saens and Philippe Bianconi playing the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, or “The Rach 3”) as well as the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms, the “Beyond the Score” performance about Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” (with actors from American Players Theatre in Spring Green) and Norwegian trumpet virtuoso Tina Thing Helseth (below bottom).

Here are two relevant links:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/holidaysale

http://www.overture.org/events/madison-symphony-orchestra/

Hough_Stephen_color16

Helseth (c) ColinBell EMI Classics

WISCONSIN UNION THEATER

Through Jan. 8, at the Wisconsin Union Theater will forego the $4 per ticket handling fee for any event, including the classical pianist and improviser Gabriela Montero (below top), the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra with its famous outgoing music director Edo de Wart conducting (below bottom).

Here is  a link to shows for the second semester:

https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/AdvSearchForm?Locations[329]=329

Gabriela Montero

milwaukee-symphony-orchestra-with-edo-de-waart

And of course discounts are not the only reason to choose a certain program or performer.

Whatever you are looking for — early music or new music, chamber music or orchestral music, art song recitals or choral music — you can find it in Madison, and usually at a very affordable price.

Lots of specific concerts at the UW-Madison and elsewhere are either free or low in price, as is the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Here are two links:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/

http://www.middletoncommunityorchestra.org

And you can find numerous other sites by Googling the organization’s name.

Combine a ticket to a live performance with a recording of a work or an artist, and maybe even include an invitation to be a companion, and you have a fine gift package that promises to be truly memorable.

Are there any other holiday deals the Ear hasn’t heard about?

Any suggestions or ideas for giving live music?

Leave word and links in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble will mark its 15th anniversary this Friday night and Sunday afternoon with the “German Requiem” by Brahms and the world premiere of a new work commissioned from Andrew Rindfleisch

August 2, 2016
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) will mark its 15th anniversary with two performances this coming weekend of the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms and the world premiere of a work by the contemporary American composer Andrew Rindfleisch.

These performances mark the first time the vocal group will be joined by an orchestra.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble 2015

Performances are in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus this Friday, Aug. 5 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 7 at 3 p.m.

Soloists are soprano Sarah Brailey (below top) and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe (below bottom).

Sarah Brailey headshot

Paul Rowe headshot

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 with a student ID. Children under 6 under should not attend. More information can be found at www.isthmusvocalensemble.org

The Ear asked Scott P MacPherson (below), formerly of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and now the director of choral activities at Kent State University in Ohio, to talk about the anniversary and concert. MacPherson is the founder and artistic director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble.

Scott MacPherson headshot BW 2016

MacPherson writes:

“We are excited to announce that the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble is celebrating it’s 15th Anniversary with two performances of Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) with soloists and professional musicians for the 45-piece orchestra.

“Additionally, IVE marks this significant milestone by presenting the world premiere of the Song of Jubilation, by Andrew Rindfliesch, the native Wisconsin composer’s first choral-orchestral piece.

“Started in 2002, the critically acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble is Madison’s “temporary” choir—it gathers some of the region’s finest singers every summer for two intensive weeks of rehearsal (below) culminating in two performances on the first weekend of August.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble rehearsing 2016

“IVE started up as a summer group of dedicated singers who wanted to perform great choral music together. Many charter members sang under the direction of Robert Fountain in the Concert Choir or with me and the UW Madrigal Singers or Chamber Singers when I was on the UW faculty in the 1980s and 1990s.

“The group has grown from about 35 in its first year to averaging over 60 singers each year. This summer, I have expanded the choir to 115 singers in order to meet the musical and vocal demands of the Brahms German Requiem. (You can hear one of the most popular movements, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place,” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

“From the beginning, IVE has served the Madison choral community with excellent performances of a varied and demanding repertoire, from Renaissance and Baroque motets to part songs and motets of the 19th century to choral works either unaccompanied or with piano or organ accompaniment in the 20th century to music by living composers of our time.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble and Scott MacPherson rehearsing

“A few years ago, I suggested to the IVE board that we commemorate our 15th anniversary in 2016 by performing a completely different repertoire than our usual fare.

“The Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem immediately came to mind—there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that this would be the right piece to commemorate this milestone. A favorite for the singers and audiences alike, the music of Brahms has frequently been highlighted on IVE’s programs over the years.

“Also, IVE has never before collaborated with an orchestra for an entire concert, although in 2008 we prepared Coronation Anthem No. 2 by George Frideric Handel for Concerts on the Square with Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra). Performing the German Requiem, arguably Brahms’s finest work, symbolizes the “pinnacle achievement” for many choirs.

I also approached my dear friend composer Andrew Rindflebisch (below), a UW-Madison alumnus who now serves as professor of music and heads the composition program at Cleveland State University, about sharing in our celebration by writing a choral-orchestral piece especially for IVE.

I asked Andy for a brief piece to serve as an opener for the Brahms. Song of Jubilation is a fanfare, a short celebratory anthem of power and beauty. Since it specifically introduces the Brahms, Rindfleisch uses nearly the same instrumentation and even selected one of the texts from the Requiem for his new composition. We are honored and privileged to present the world premiere of this fine work.

Andrew Rindfleisch portrait

Brahms (below) was likely inspired to write his Requiem by the death of his mother in 1865 and possibly also by losing his dear friend Robert Schumann a decade earlier.

In contrast to the Roman Catholic Requiem or Mass for the Dead, which places a great deal of emphasis on the hoped-for salvation of the deceased, Brahms chose a path unheard of in his time: he selected biblical texts in his native German language mostly with themes of consoling the living, comfort in the time of loss, hope, and even a sense of joy for the bereaved for his Requiem.

brahms3

The resulting 7-movement work quickly became an enduring statement of universal consolation, a “Human” Requiem as Brahms once called it. We hope that not only our dedicated audience members over the years will come and be moved by this incredible music, but that many more new audience members will be there as well.


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society will wind up its current summer season of masterful music-making with two MUST-HEAR programs this weekend.

June 25, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

If you needed more proof about why you should take in one or both of the final two programs – “Crooked Business” and “Highway Robbery” — by the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, you should have been at one or both of the BDDS concerts last weekend.

BDDS poster 2015

For this coming weekend of the 24th season: “Crooked Business” features the Sonata for Flute and Keyboard in B Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach; the chamber music reduction of the Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and a chamber music arrangement version of the Serenade in D Major, Op. 11, by Johannes Brahms.

“Highway Robbery” offers the First Rhapsody for Clarinet by Claude Debussy; “Seven Seascapes” by the American composer Kevin Puts, who won the Pulitzer Prize; and the great Octet by Franz Schubert.

For more information about programs and performers, venues and tickets, visit: http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society continues to be incapable of being boring, ordinary or mediocre. It’s just not in their genes or DNA.

Last Saturday night, The Ear took in the “Breaking and Entering” concert in The Playhouse of the Overture Center. The theme was meant to explore how composers broke new ground and violated boundaries.

The theme might seem a bit of a stretch — they often do — and when one of the two fake security guards frisked an audience member for a gun or weapon, it might have struck some audience members as uncomfortable or in questionable taste rather than amusing or funny, given the recent shootings in Charleston, South Carolina.

BDDS Breaking 2015 guard

But humor and silliness aside, there is no question that the music received the superb performances it deserved.

The San Francisco Trio, veteran BDDS guest artists, delivered two masterful readings of two Romantic masterpieces. The trio opened the concert perfectly with the lovely and short “Notturno” (1827) by Franz Schubert. Then it closed the concert with the revised version of the substantial and even epic Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major (1854, revised in 1889), Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms. The trio is made up of pianist Jeffrey Sykes (a co-founder and co-artistic director of BDDS), violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau.

BDDS Breaking SF Trio

Then came the somewhat eccentric Sonatina for Trio (1934) by the rarely performed French composer and eccentric music critic Florent Schmitt.

The players were an unusual combination of flutist Stephanie Jutt (the UW-Madison professor is a co-founder and co-artistic director of BDDS as well as principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra); local pianist Thomas Kasdorf, who is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music; and the incredible clarinetist Alan Key from New York City who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School, and who plays with the respected Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

BDDS Breaking 2015 Jutt, Kasdrof, Kay

Violinist Axel Strauss, who teaches at McGill University in Montreal, sure showed some impressive fiddling skills in two crossover pieces – “Pining for Betsy” and “Who Let the Cat Out Last Night?” — by Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947). It brought audible WOWs and cheers from the audience. (Listen for yourself to the virtuosic “Cat” piece in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

BDDS breaking 2015 Axel Strauss

An unusual and rarely heard piece by the Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne (b. 1959)  imagines Franz Joseph “Papa” Haydn and a South American composer discussing music at the Esterhazy estate where Haydn worked. The work was delivered with great panache by flutist Stephanie Jutt, clarinetist Alan Kay and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau.

BDDS Breaking 2015 Jutt, Fonteneau, Kay. jpeg

Both the variety of the repertoire and the players and the quality of the performances recommend the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society to any serious classical music fan as well as to beginners. The Ear says: Go have some classical fun!

 


Classical music: John W. Barker finds the Wisconsin Chamber Choir “moving” and “overwhelming” in its performance of the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms.

April 21, 2015
2 Comments

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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also provided the performance photos for this review.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

Having already established an enviable level of achievement with his Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below), conductor Robert Gehrenbeck led it to new heights with the concert on Saturday night at Luther Memorial Church.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir with conductor Brahms 2015 JWB

The program opened with two examples of Gehrenbeck’s interest in promoting new choral works through commissions.

The first, sung by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Chamber Singers at his academic base, was by American composer Christian Ellenwood (below).

Entitled “Prairie Spring,” it set a poem by Willa Cather, celebrating the Nebraska landscape, scored for choir and string orchestra. This is a gentle piece, full of lyric grace, in a neo-Romantic style, and reflecting a confident command of choral texture. It made me think a little of the music of British composer Gerald Finzi. The words were somewhat obscured, but that may partly have been a function of the church’s spacious acoustics.

Christian Ellenwood copy

The second new work was by the older British composer Giles Swayne (below) that sets selected lines from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, under the title of “Our Orphan Souls.” Solo baritone Gregory Berg (below) delivered reflections of Captain Ahab, with chorus, alto saxophone, harp, double bass and percussion.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Ahab JWB (1)

The solo writing has strength, and might have been built into a more extended soliloquy—and baritone Gregory Berg delivered it with strength. But the choral writing — sung by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir itself — was unsettled and unidiomatic, running from word to word without much continuity of lines.

Giles Swayne

Ah, but the main event! Nothing less than the “German” Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem), one of the greatest of choral works, by one of the greatest of choral composers, Johannes Brahms (below). Setting passages from Scripture in the Martin Luther translation, Brahms made this a big work, both in length and in performing demands.

brahms3

The chancel of Luther Memorial has only so much space, forcing a lot of crowding. The orchestra—37 players, familiar local performers—was arrayed through the center, while the two blended choirs were stationed on risers to either side: sopranos and tenors on the left, altos and basses on the right (below).

Wisconsin Chamber Choir, Brahms altos, basses JWB (1)

Such an arrangement could have strained ensemble coordination, but in fact it worked quite well. Indeed, it actually made it possible to follow the interaction of voice parts better than when the whole choir is in a single clump. German diction was a bit blurred, but, again, acoustics must take some blame. (I should note that I sat close and up front, so that what and how I heard may have been somewhat different from those in seating further back.)

The two soloists were both engaging. A last-minute replacement, soprano Catherine Henry (below left), was deeply expressive, a rich-voiced exemplar of the comforting mother we would all want to have.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Brahms Catherine Henry soprano JWB (1)

The baritone, Brian Leaper, was a deft guide to the mysteries of mortality.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Brahms Brian Leaper JWB (1)

The orchestra took on its large assignment with skill, and the choral singers were simply magnificent. But the highest praise must go to Gehrenbeck himself. His tempos were flexible, his balances neatly coordinated, and his sense of what each of the seven movements had to say was perfect. This is not only a superb choral conductor, but a musician of true artistry.

I write as someone for whom the Brahms Requiem has profound meaning. I have known and loved it since student days. I have sung in it several times, and listened to it in many recordings and performances. It is one of the musical threads of my life.

But I think I can honestly say that this was the most meaningful performance of the work that I have ever experienced. I often felt moved to tears by the beautiful, truthful messages that Robert Gehrenbeck (below) — who heads the choral program at UW-Whitewater — brought to realization out of it.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

There is a small lifetime list I keep of concerts and performances that I forever cherish, and this one is a rare addition—a presentation I will remember for the rest of my days.

One more reminder, then, of the riches Madison offers in choral music alone!


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform the “German” Requiem by Brahms plus two world premieres this coming Saturday night in Madison and Sunday afternoon in Whitewater. Also, here are the winners and sonatas you can hear in the FREE Beethoven piano sonata recital this Sunday afternoon at the UW-Madison.

April 15, 2015
Leave a Comment

ALERT: The Ear has been informed of the winners of the annual UW-Madison Beethoven Sonata Competition. The FREE winners’ recital is this Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. Three major late sonatas will be featured on the program: the Sonata in A Major Op. 101, played by Kangwoo Jin (below right in a photo by Katherine Esposito); the last Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, played by  SeungWha Baek (middle); and the titanic “Hammerklavier” Sonata, Op. 106, played by Luis Alberto Peña (left).

For more information about the student performers and their teachers, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/beethoven-competition-recital/

Beethoven 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Our friends at the Wisconsin Chamber Choir write:

This coming weekend, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) performs the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms plus world premieres by Giles Swayne and Christian Ellenwood.

wisconsin-chamber choir 2012

The two performances are:

This Saturday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue, Madison. Tickets are $25 in advance ($30 at the door); students pay $10 ($15). Visit: www.WisconsinChamberChoir.org

luther memorial church madison

This Sunday, April 19 at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium, 930 West Main Street, Whitewater. Tickets are $20.50, $18.50, $15.50; UW-Whitewater students pay $10.50. Visit http://www.uww.edu/youngauditorium

One of the most beloved and popular of all choral works, the German Requiem by Johannes Brahms (below), is a masterpiece of musical Romanticism. (You can hear the opening movement on a YouTube video at the bottom.)

brahms-1

Brahms began the work as a memorial to his mentor, Robert Schumann (below), but the death of Brahms’ own mother spurred him to complete it several years later.

Schumann photo1850

The score embraces a wide variety of emotions, from the lush sounds of the choir and orchestra that envelope the audience in a message of consolation, to lively fugues, worthy of Bach or Handel, that promise the hope of salvation. This music will thrill audiences as well as comfort all who have ever lost a loved one.

Sharing billing with the Brahms are two world premieres, one commissioned by each choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will present Our Orphan Souls by British composer Giles Swayne (below top) on a transcendental text from Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.

The UW-Whitewater Chamber Singers will present Prairie Spring by UW-Whitewater professor of music, Christian Ellenwood (below bottom), a setting of the poem by American author Willa Cather.

Giles Swayne

Christian Ellenwood copy

Joining the WCC in this performance are soprano soloist Tanya Kruse Ruck, baritone Brian Leeper, and bass Gregory Berg; the UW-Whitewater Chamber Singers; and Sinfonia Sacra, the WCC’s own fully professional orchestra made up of members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble.

Founded in 1998, the Madison-based Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart and Haydn; a cappella masterworks from various centuries; and world-premieres. Robert Gehrenbeck (below) who directs the Choral Program at the UW-Whitewater, is the Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s Artistic Director.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

 


    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,201 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,078,660 hits
%d bloggers like this: