The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here is a year-long list of concerts at the University of Wisconsin Mead Witter School of Music. They start Tuesday night with the 40th annual Karp Family Labor Day Concert

September 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Get out your datebooks and calendars.

Here is a complete listing for major concerts and events at the University of Wisconsin Mead Witter School of Music during the new 2019-20 season.

The calendar starts with the FREE season-opening 40th annual Karp Family Labor Day Concert this coming Tuesday night, Sept. 3, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. The program features chamber music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Dvorak. For more information about the program and performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/40th-karp-family-concert/

Using the search engine on this blog, you could also consult whenever individual or group you want. You could print it out and have it in hand instead of the usual brochure, which will not be printed this year. See a previous blog post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/08/19/classical-music-the-uw-madison-school-of-music-will-not-have-a-complete-brochure-for-the-new-season-go-to-the-website-and-sign-up-for-an-email-newsletter-the-30th-karp-family-labor-day-concert-is-s/

Most concerts this season will take place in the new Hamel Music Center (below), which has a three-day opening celebration Oct. 25-27.

Please note that just a few programs are listed. For other programs, and for information about any admission charge, you can go to the School of Music’s home website closer to the event and click on Concerts and Events: https://www.music.wisc.edu/events/

Tuesday, Sep 3, 2019

Karp Family Concert

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7:30 PM

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Mills Hall

Sunday, September 29, 2019,

Jessica Martin & John O’Brien – Nordic song recital

4:00 PM

Morphy Hall

Monday, Sept. 30, 2019

Beth Wiese, Tuba, Guest Artist Recital

7:30 PM

Morphy Hall

Friday, October 4, 2019

Pro Arte Quartet

8:00 PM

Mills Hall

Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019

Chanticleer

7:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019

Wind Ensemble

7:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Friday, October 11, 2019

UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra

8:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sunday, October 13, 2019

University Bands

2:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Contemporary Jazz & Blue Note Ensemble

7:30 PM

Collins Hall

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Wisconsin Brass Quintet – Faculty Concert Series

7:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Thursday, October 17

Jazz Faculty Quintet with special guest Michael Dudley, trumpet

7:30 PM

Collins Hall

Monday, October 21, 2019

Afro-Cuban Jazz Ensemble and UW Jazz Orchestra

7:30 PM

Play Circle

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Concert Band

7:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Wed, October 23, 2019

Jazz Composers Group & Jazz Standards

7:30 PM

Collins Hall

Thu, October 24, 2019

Parry Karp with Eli Kalman, piano

7:30 PM

Collins Hall

Friday, October 25, 2019

Opening Celebration Weekend: Hamel Music Center. Please check our website for details.

All Day

740 University Avenue

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Opening Celebration Weekend: Hamel Music Center. Please check our website for details.

All Day

740 University Avenue

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Opening Celebration Weekend: Hamel Music Center. Featured Event: Collins Fellows Concert

1:00 PM

Collins Recital Hall, Hamel Music Center

Wed, October 30, 2019

Master Class with Violist Nobuko Imai

6:30 PM

Collins Hall

Thu, October 31, 2019

Violist Nobuko Imai with Pro Arte Quartet

12:00 PM

Collins Hall

Fri, November 1, 2019

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Madrigal Singers

8:00 PM

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Mead Witter Hall

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Sat, November 2, 2019

Alicia Lee, faculty clarinet

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8:00 PM

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Collins Hall

Sun, November 3, 2019

Wind Ensemble

2:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Fri, November 8, 2019

Wingra Wind Quintet

8:00 PM

Collins Hall

Sat, November 9, 2019

UW Chorale

8:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Thu, November 14, 2019

UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra

7:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Fri, November 15, 2019

University Opera: Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

7:30 PM

Music Hall

Sun, November 17, 2019

University Opera: Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

2:00 PM

Music Hall

Tue, November 19, 2019

University Opera: Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

7:30 PM

Music Hall

Sat, November 16, 2019

Low Brass Ensemble

4:00 PM

Collins Hall

Sat, November 16, 2019

Combined Choirs

8:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sat, November 16, 2019

Timothy Hagen, faculty flute

8:00 PM

Collins Hall

Fri, November 22, 2019

UW Concert Choir

8:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Fri, November 22, 2019

Pro Arte Quartet

8:00 PM

Collins Hall

Fri, November 22, 2019

UW Jazz Orchestra

5:00-7:00 PM

Rathskeller

Saturday, Nov 23, 2019

Undergrad Audition Day

All day

Sat, November 23, 2019

World Percussion Ensemble

12:00 PM

Music Hall

Sat, November 23, 2019

Brass Ensembles

1:00 PM

??

Sun, November 24, 2019

UW Concert Band with Winds of Wisconsin

5:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Mon, November 25, 2019

Chamber Percussion Ensemble

7:30 PM

Mills Hall

Tue, November 26, 2019

Opera Scenes

7:30 PM

Music Hall

Mon, December 2, 2019

Piano Studio Recital

6:30 PM

Collins Hall

Tue, December 3, 2019

Jazz Composers & Contemporary Jazz Ensembles

7:30 PM

Collins Hall

Wed, December 4, 2019

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Jazz Standards Ensemble & Afro-Cuban Jazz

7:30 PM

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Collins Hall

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Thu, December 5, 2019

UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra & UW Wind Ensemble

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7:30 PM

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Mead Witter Hall

Fri, December 6, 2019

Saxophonist Greg Ward with the Blue Note Ensemble and UW jazz faculty

8:00 PM

Collins Hall

Sat, December 7, 2019

UW & Madison Metropolitan Jazz Festival

Final Concert, 3:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sat, December 7, 2019

Choral Union: Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “A Sea Symphony”

8:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sun, December 8, 2019

University Bands

2:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sun, December 8, 2019

Choral Concerts at Luther Memorial Church

2:00 PM

Luther Memorial Church

Sun, December 8, 2019

Choral Concerts at Luther Memorial Church

4:00 PM

Luther Memorial Church

Sun, December 8, 2019

All-University Strings

4:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

BEGIN 2020

Sun, January 26, 2020

Annual Schubertiade

3:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sat, February 1, 2020

Christopher Taylor and Friends — Beethoven Symphony Extravaganza

8:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Wed, February 5, 2020

Daniel Grabois, horn

7:30 PM

Collins Hall

Thu, February 6, 2020

UW Symphony Orchestra

7:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sat, February 8, 2020

The Knights

8:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sun, February 16, 2020

UW Wind Ensemble

2:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Monday, February 17, 2020

Chamber Percussion Ensemble

7:30 PM

Mills Hall

Tue, February 18, 2020

Concert Band

7:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Thu, February 20, 2020

Parry Karp, faculty recital

7:30 PM

Collins Hall

Fri, February 21, 2020

Marc Vallon & Friends

8:00 PM

Collins Hall

Sunday, Feb 23, 2020

Les Thimmig, faculty recital

2:00 PM

Collins Hall

Sat, April 18, 2020

Low Brass Ensemble

4:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Fri, February 28, 2020

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Pro Arte Quartet

8:00 PM

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Collins Hall

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Sat, February 29, 2020

Wingra Wind Quintet

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8:00 PM

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Collins Hall

Fri, February 28, 2020,

University Opera – Mozart’s Così fan tutte

7:30 PM

Music Hall

Sun, March 1, 2020

University Opera – Mozart’s Così fan tutte

2:00 PM

Music Hall

Tue, March 3, 2020

University Opera – Mozart’s Così fan tutte

7:30 PM

Music Hall

Sun, March 1, 2020

Winds of Wisconsin

5:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Wed, March 4, 2020

Afro-Cuban Jazz Ensemble & Jazz Composers Group

7:30

Collins Hall

Thu, March 5, 2020

Blue Note Ensemble & Jazz Standards Ensemble

7:30 PM

Collins Hall

Sat, March 7, 2020

UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra with guest pianist Wu Han

8:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sun, March 8, 2020

University Bands

2:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Tue, March 10, 2020

Percussion Department Recital

7:30 PM

Collins Hall

Weds March 11, 2020

UW Jazz Orchestra

7:30 PM

Play Circle

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Wisconsin Brass Quintet – Faculty Concert Series

8:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Thu, March 12, 2020

UW Wind Ensemble

7:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Fri, March 27, 2020

Le Domaine Musicale with Marc Vallon and Friends

8:00 PM

Collins Hall

Sun, March 29, 2020

Concert Band

2:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sun, April 5, 2020

Beethoven Competition Winners’ Recital

3:30 PM

Collins Hall

Sun, April 5, 2020

“Symphony Showcase” Concerto Winners’ Solo Concert

7:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sat, April 11, 2020

Chorale

8:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Fri, April 12, 2019

Perlman Trio Chamber Concert

3:00 PM

Collins Hall

Tue, April 14, 2020

Opera Scenes

7:30 PM

Music Hall

Wed, April 15, 2020

Contested Homes: Migrant Liberation Movement Suite

7:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Thu, April 16, 2020

Pro Arte Quartet

7:30 PM

Collins Hall

Fri, April 17, 2020

Combined Choirs

8:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sat, April 18, 2020

Low Brass Ensemble

4:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sat, April 18, 2020

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UW-Madison Choral Reunion concert featuring Concert Choir, Madrigals and alumni

8:00 PM

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Mead Witter Hall

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Mon, April 20, 2020

Afro-Cuban Jazz Ensemble & Blue Note Ensemble

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7:30 PM

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Collins Hall

Tue, April 21, 2020

Jazz Standards Ensemble & Jazz Composers Group

7:30 PM

Collins Hall

Wed, April 22, 2020

Chamber Percussion Ensemble

7:30 PM

Mills Hall

Thu, April 23, 2020

UW Jazz Orchestra with the UW Honors Jazz Band

7:30 PM

Music Hall

Fri, April 24, 2020

Concert Band and Wind Ensemble

7:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sat, April 25, 2020

All-University Strings

2:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sat, April 25, 2020

Choral Union: Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem”

8:00 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sun, April 26, 2020

Choral Union: Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem”

7:30 PM

Mead Witter Hall

Sun, April 26, 2020

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University Bands 2 PM Mead Witter Hall

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Classical music: Stage Director Norma Saldivar talks about Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” The Madison Opera gives three performances of it this coming weekend.

February 2, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will present its first-ever production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” by Stephen Sondheim (below) this coming weekend on Friday and Saturday nights and on Sunday afternoon in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts.

The company has built a new production of this American masterpiece — which is so popular that it was made into a 2007 film by director Tim Burton that starred Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham Carter. The powerhouse cast, Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra all promise to bring a very operatic theater score to life.

stephen-sondheim-aa58e636211efdc134e6540533fff5cc52c73909-s6-c30

The show tells of the barber Sweeney Todd, who returns to the gas-lit streets of Victorian London after 15 years of unjust imprisonment to claim vengeance on those who wronged him. He is aided in his murderous activities by Mrs. Lovett, maker of some rather tasty meat pies.

One of Sondheim’s most renowned works, “Sweeney Todd” has a stunningly inventive score containing drama, macabre humor, lyrical purity and an unforgettable final scene.

“I love this piece,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “It’s a true American classic, with a story that is simultaneously dark and comic, and music that ranges from beautifully lyrical songs like ‘Not While I’m Around’ (at bottom in a YouTube video ) to vaudevillian turns like ‘A Little Priest,’ all with some of the wittiest lyrics ever written.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Although it premiered on Broadway in 1979 – winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical – “Sweeney Todd” has been a staple of opera companies since 1984, when Houston Grand Opera first staged it, followed a few months later by New York City Opera. With a score that is almost entirely sung, it has been described by Sondheim as a “dark operetta.”

That first Houston Grand Opera production was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera, who will conduct these performances.

“For me, it is a brilliantly composed work for the musical theater that has marvelous melodies, incredible lyrics, a unique and thrillingly fascinating story, and a climax that is the stuff of grand opera,” says DeMain. “I can’t wait to conduct our stunning cast in this masterwork for the lyric stage.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Corey Crider (below top) and Meredith Arwady (below bottom) make their Madison Opera debuts as the vengeful barber and the ever-practical Mrs. Lovett. Crider has sung leading roles with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Arizona Opera, and the Castleton Festival. Arwady has sung leading roles with San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Santa Fe Opera.

Corey Crider

Meredith Arwady

In the role of the mysterious Beggar Woman, Emily Pulley (below) makes her Madison Opera debut after recent performances at the Metropolitan Opera, Central City Opera, and Opera Theater of St. Louis.

tEmily Pulley

Returning to Madison Opera are former Madison Opera Studio Artist Jeni Houser as Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter; Daniel Shirley as the young sailor Anthony Hope; and Thomas Forde as the evil Judge Turpin. Three tenors round out the cast. Joshua Sanders, who has been singing with Madison Opera since high school, plays the innocent Tobias Ragg. Jared Rogers makes his debut as the menacing Beadle Bamford. Robert Goderich, a local theater and opera favorite, plays Sweeney’s rival barber, Adolfo Pirelli.

Performances are on Friday, at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

The production will be sung in English with projected text.

Tickets are $25-$110 with group discounts available. Contact the Overture Center Box Office,
201 State St., Madison, WI. You can also call (608) 258-4141 and email www.madisonopera.org

Madison Opera is building a new production specifically for the Capitol Theater. Stage director Norma Saldivar, set designer Joseph Varga, costume designer Karen Brown-Larimore, and lighting designer Hideaki Tsutsui are creating a world set in an Industrial Age factory, with the orchestra on stage to bring the action even closer to the audience.

“Building a new production allows us to take advantage of the Capitol Theater,” says Smith. “The gorgeous venue is ideally suited to this piece and it is exciting to create something new.”

Stage Director Norma Saldivar (below, in a photo from Madison Magazine) is Executive Director of the UW-Madison Arts Institute and a professor in the Theater Department, recently granted an email interview to The Ear:

Norma Saldivar color

Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers?

I’m Norma Saldivar, and I am the stage director for the Madison Opera’s production of “Sweeney Todd.”

How does directing an opera differ from directing a play?

I know that you’d like me to say that there is some real difference in directing opera or straight theatre productions – and there are distinct differences. However, the work of the director remains the same.

I am a storyteller, a chief creative leader of a team of people who bring the story to life and three-dimensional form. There are differences in working with music that obviously involve expressing the intention of the composer, which means working with a conductor who brings to life and secures the intention of the composer and lyricist.

But ultimately, we all work to bring the story to an audience and to engage and entertain them.

In the case of “Sweeney Todd,” how does such a grim and gory or grotesque plot – about murdering men by slitting their throats and then baking their bodies into cannibalistic meat pies –- end up being an enjoyable and entertaining opera? Does being so over the top help or offer special challenges?

The story predates Sondheim and began in “penny dreadfuls” — these stories of suspense were very popular and connected to their audience in a way that so many contemporary suspense and horror stories do now for our audience.

I think there is a great deal of suspense in the story, in that as it unfolds an audience can’t believe their eyes or ears. The audaciousness is surprising and tantalizing –- and then there is also humor, heartbreak and love in the story. It is a different take on an age-old story of revenge.

What does Stephen Sondheim do in the libretto and music to overcome that kind of inherent handicap?

I don’t see the aspects of the genre — suspense and horror – as handicaps. There are other musical pieces – “Phantom of the Opera” is one – that make for great drama.

The music is the added character to the story.

Sondheim writes in one of his books that he was inspired by the movie music of Bernard Hermann – his work in horror films by Alfred Hitchcock fueled Sondheim’s work on Sweeney. But Sondheim is so brilliant that he integrates other musical genres in the piece to create a very specific effect. There are intricate pieces that pull us momentarily away from the suspense. Like any good storyteller, his music takes the audience on an unexpected ride.

What is your approach to staging it? Are there special things in this production that you would like the audience to take notice of?

I am a very visual director. I love that Sondheim himself talks about this piece being a movie for the stage. What a great challenge for the stage director to try and interpret quick cuts and split screens, or changes in time and location on stage. We have a great design team that provides me the tools and background to work with the singers to support the musical story and to work in visual harmony. Without the design team and singers — well, I wouldn’t have much.

The challenge with this piece in particular is the length of the story. It moves quickly, spans months of time, and exists in a theatrical and psychological platform all at once. It’s a terrific challenge for a director, production team and performers. All the nuances that have to play to make the story clear is what makes the challenge really interesting.

Is there anything else you would like to add or say about this work and this production of it — the cast, the sets, the costumes — for The Madison Opera?

It has been a pleasure to work with the extraordinary John DeMain and the entire Madison Opera family. From the administration to the designers to the principal artists to the lovely chorus to the folks building the show — what more can a director ask for? Everyone is top-notch and devoted to giving everyone the best show. I feel honored to be working with them — really honored.

 


Classical music Q&A: Choral director Robert Gehrenbeck talks about his favorite works by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. You can hear some of them when the Wisconsin Chamber Choir — which unveils its 2014-15 season here — performs works by Vaughan Williams and his followers this Saturday night. Part 2 of 2.

May 30, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will wrap up its current season with a special concert of “Ralph Vaughan Williams and Friends.”

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Nov 17, 2012 Bethel Lutheran

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. on this Saturday, May 31, in the acoustically resonant Grace Episcopal Church, West Washington Avenue at Carroll Street on the Capitol Square, downtown Madison.

grace episcopal church ext

The soloists include violinist Leanne League and organist Mark Brampton Smith.

Admission is $15, $10 for students.

One of the best-loved choral composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams was renowned not only for his compositions, but also for his friendship and advocacy on behalf of countless other musicians.

The concert features some of Vaughan Williams’ best-known works including, “Serenade to Music,” Mass in G Minor, and the powerful anthem, “Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge.”

Vaughan Williams shared a passion for collecting folksongs with his close friend Gustav Holst, whose heartfelt setting of “I Love My Love” will be heard alongside several of Vaughan Williams’ own folksong arrangements.

Works by Herbert Howells and Vaughan Williams’ students Imogen Holst and Elizabeth Maconchy will demonstrate Vaughan Williams’ influence on succeeding generations.

Finally, selections from the motets and anthems of Thomas Tallis exemplify Vaughan Williams’ debt to his English predecessors, notably Tallis’ “Third Mode Psalm Tune,” the inspiration for Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.”

Joining the WCC in this performance are violinist Leanne League, associate concertmaster of both the Madison Symphony and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; and organist Mark Brampton Smith.

Advance tickets are available for $15 from http://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Willy Street Coop (East and West locations) and Orange Tree Imports. Student tickets are $10.

Founded in 1998, the Madison-based Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Joseph Haydn; of a cappella masterworks from various centuries; and of world-premieres. Dr. Robert Gehrenbeck, who teaches and directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, is the Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s Artistic Director.

Gehrenbeck recently agreed to an email Q&A about the upcoming concer.

Yesterday, Part 1 appeared. Here is a link to Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/classical-music-qa-choral-director-robert-gehrenbeck-talks-about-how-british-composer-ralph-vaughan-williams-sparked-two-renaissances-or-revivals-you-can-hear-the-results-when-the-wisconsin-cha/

Today’s post features the second and last part of the Q&A.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

What are your favorite works –- choral or otherwise — by Vaughan Williams, ones you would recommend to those listeners who don’t know him?

Many discussions of Vaughan Williams’ body of works start with his visionary orchestral work, the “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” from 1910. The “theme” of this work is a choral psalm tune in the Phrygian mode by Tallis (below) that Vaughan Williams discovered while working as music editor for the 1906 “English Hymnal.” (The WCC’s concert includes this Tallis work in its original form, using words from the English Hymnal.)

Not only did Vaughan Williams borrow Tallis’ melody, but, more importantly, his harmony, which is full of jarring cross relations, such as E-minor juxtaposed with E-major. Throughout his “Fantasia” — and throughout his career —Vaughan Williams exploited and extended this harmony based on what I like to call “consonances in unusual relation” (that’s a quote from the Grove Dictionary article on an obscure English composer named Alan Bush).

Thomas Tallis

Unlike his contemporaries who developed increasingly chromatic music around the same time, Vaughan Williams stuck with simple triads but subjected them to various sorts of modern treatments, especially by juxtaposing seemingly unrelated chords, as in the 1910 Fantasia.

Finally, the form of this piece is not, as one might expect, a theme and variations scheme, but rather a free, rhapsodic meditation on the ethos of Tallis’ tune, somewhat in the style of an Elizabethan keyboard fantasia by William Byrd.

So it is that in this work, we have the characteristics of Vaughan Williams’ mature style in a nutshell — a melody-based form that develops freely, rather than predictably, whose harmonic language is based on new, modally inspired ways of using common chords.

The overall effect is mysterious, awe-inspiring, and revelatory. The young Herbert Howells (below) was so awestruck by the premiere performance that he spent the rest of the night pacing the streets of Gloucester, trying to digest what he had heard.

herbert howells autograph

As I mentioned above, Vaughan Williams wrote nine symphonies, and several of these are favorites of mine, particularly the first, sixth, and ninth. His first symphony is a choral-orchestral masterpiece (following the examples of Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler). It’s called “A Sea Symphony,” with a libretto based on the poetry of Walt Whitman (below).

Completed the year before the Tallis “Fantasia,” this score gives voice to the muscular, optimistic humanism of Whitman’s poetry in triadic eruptions that stir the soul. I don’t claim to know all of Vaughan Williams’ music by any means, but, like many others, I am also a fan of his sixth symphony, composed in the aftermath of World War II and premiered in 1948, soon becoming the most popular English symphony of all time. The change in Vaughan Williams’ style during the 40-year period between his first and sixth symphonies is startling.

Walt Whitman 2

The sixth provides a good rebuttal to those who claim that Vaughan Williams remained a reactionary, rather than a modern composer. It’s full of dissonance and gnawing ostinatos that create an atmosphere of unease and dislocation, which seemed to fit the post-Hiroshima age — including our own times — extremely well.

The long final movement is marked “pianissimo, senza expressivo” (very quietly, without expression) throughout, eventually dissolving into a weird undulation between two unrelated triads, E-flat major and E-minor. Such a concluding movement is exactly the opposite of what traditional symphonic form leads listeners to expect. It’s one of the most eerie moments in the entire symphonic repertoire.

I’m afraid I’ll have to save a discussion of other orchestral works for another day, but I do want to mention a few additional favorite choral works: the war-time oratorio “Dona Nobis Pacem” (another Whitman libretto), the rarely heard oratorio “Sancta civitas” (libretto from the Book of Revelation), and the late “Three Shakespeare Songs” for unaccompanied choir. Several other favorite works of mine are on the WCC’s concert, so I’ll discuss them next.

shakespeare BW

What would you like the public to know about the specific composers and works on the program, and why you chose them?

We are looking forward to performing what I think is Vaughan Williams’ most inspired setting of William Shakespeare, his “Serenade to Music,” composed in 1938. Vaughan Williams adapted his libretto from Lorenzo’s meditation on the power of music to mediate between human passion and the harmony of the spheres in “The Merchant of Venice,” Act V

“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!

Here will we sit and let the sounds of music

Creep in our ears: Soft stillness and the night

Become the touches of sweet harmony….

Thus begins Vaughan Williams’ one-movement nocturne featuring some of his most lovely melodies, exquisite modulations, and ethereal scoring. The original version was for 16 solo singers and orchestra, so we will alternate between multiple soloists from the choir with the full chorus singing the tutti passages. Our fabulous organist, Mark Brampton Smith (below top), is responsible for most of the orchestration, Leanne League, who is the associate concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and a violinist with the Ancora String Quartet, is joining us to perform the original solo violin part. (You can hear “The Serenade to Music” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Mark Brampton Smith

leanne league

The remainder of our program draws on the rich a cappella repertoire of Vaughan Williams and several of his followers.

We’re doing two movements from his incredible Mass in G minor, which he wrote in 1921 in response to the revival of the sacred music of Byrd and Tallis at Westminster Cathedral. We’ll precede that work with an actual motet by Tallis, “Mihi autem nimis.”

In addition to the Serenade, the second half of our program features folk song settings by both Vaughan Williams and his closest friend, Gustav Holst (below), including Holst’s justifiably famous “I Love My Love,” based on a Dorian-mode tune. This piece is one of the absolute masterpieces in the genre of choral folksong arrangements.

Gustav Holst

From Vaughan Williams’ numerous additional “friends” (composers who were all literally good friends of his) we have chosen Herbert Howells, Gustav Holst’s daughter Imogen Holst (below top) and Elizabeth Maconchy (below bottom). Howells is represented by the “Jubilate” movement from his “Collegium Regale Service,” a set of Anglican canticles he composed in 1945 for King’s College in Cambridge.

The flowing melodies, modally flavored harmonies and Howells’ expert control of pacing in this work are all reminders of Vaughan Williams’ influence. Imogen Holst (below) was the only child of Gustav and Isobel Holst, and an important composer, conductor, writer, and organizer of musical festivals in her own right. Her teachers included both Howells and Vaughan Williams, and she became closely associated with Benjamin Britten during her later years.

We will perform Holst’s “Hymne to Christ,” a luminous setting of a poem by John Donne.

Imogen Holst

Finally, Elizabeth Maconchy was another of Vaughan Williams’ students and a classmate of Imogen Holst. Maconchy (below) is best known for her chamber music, but also composed operas and a significant body of choral music. We have chosen two movements from a 1979 work called “Creatures,” settings of poems written for children about various animals and their foibles.

The music of “Cat’s Funeral” is an example of the English predilection for “consonances in unusual relation” that I mentioned earlier. The string of unexpected, descending minor triads that opens this movement creates a mood of exaggerated pathos perfectly matched to the poem. The other movement is “The Hen and the Carp,” a humorous dialogue that doubles as social commentary.

elizabeth maconchy

What are the current plans and future projects including programs for next season, for the Wisconsin Chamber Choir?

We are very excited about our upcoming season. On December 19, 2014 we will present “Wolcum Yole,” a Christmas-themed concert featuring Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols,” and on April 18 and 19, 2015, we will perform Brahms’ “German” Requiem with full orchestra. Also featured on the April concerts will be the world premiere of a piece we have commissioned from English composer Giles Swayne, called “Our Orphan Souls.” Swayne has chosen an excerpt from chapter 114 of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” as his text, and his piece will be scored for two soloists and choir with alto saxophone, harp, double bass and percussion.

Swayne (below, in a photo by Alice Williamson) plans to begin writing this piece next month, and I’m eagerly anticipating receiving the completed score in the fall. An interesting connection to our current season is that Swayne’s first composition teacher was Elizabeth Maconchy, who was his mother’s cousin.

giles swayne CR Alice Williamson

 

 

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