The Well-Tempered Ear

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: Con Vivo turns in a polished performance of mixed and unusual repertoire, and allows a comparison of acoustics and seating distance to be made

January 20, 2016
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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 took the performance photos, some at the First Congregational United Church of Christ and some at the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Last Friday night, the chamber music ensemble Con Vivo (Music With Life) gave its winter concert at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Con Vivo core musicians

It was a large program of nine relatively short pieces, designed to allow eight members of the group to show off their skills in solos, in duets and in trio pairings.

Participants were: Robert Taylor, clarinet; Cynthia Cameron-Fix, bassoon; Olga Pomolova and Kathryn Taylor, violins; Janse Vincent, viola; Derek Handley, cello; Dan Lyons, piano; and Don DeBruin, organ.

The opening and closing items—Mikhail Glinka’s Trio pathétique and Felix Mendelssohn’s Konzertstück No. 2, combined clarinet and bassoon with piano (below).

Con Vivo 2016 bassoon, clarinet and piano

A corresponding combination of clarinet, viola and piano (below) was mustered for two of Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces, Op. 83.

Con Vivo 2016 viola, clarinet and piano

In string groupings, two violins (below) played one of Georg Philipp Telemann’s Canonic Sonatas (you can hear an example in a YouTube video at the bottom), and, with piano added, Three Duets by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Con Vivo 2016 two violins

Violin and viola rendered the Little Suite for Autumn by Peter Schickele (the real person behind “P.D.Q. Bach”).

Franz Danzi’s Duet, Op. 9., No. 1, called for viola and cello (below), while George Crumb’s Sonata was for solo cello.

Con Vivo 2016 viola and cello

And, for good measure, there was a duet by Clifford Demarest for piano and organ.

Con Vivo 2016 organ and piano

The program was certainly varied. It ranged from deeply diluted pseudo-Copland (Schickele) and unabashedly entertaining trivia (Shostakovich) through Telemann’s contrapuntal wit and Danzi’s artful string contrasts (though too deeply caught up in the viola’s upper register), to the varied colors of winds and piano.

Surely the most striking piece was Crumb’s sonata, a tough work that is not easy listening but provocatively interesting, and was dazzlingly played by Handley.

Rather a throwaway, though, was the Demarest duet, in which the powerful organ sound all but totally overwhelmed the piano.

As it happened, this group gave the same program (less the Demarest) at the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center the evening before.

I found it a good opportunity to compare the contributions of differing acoustics to chamber music listening. For such experience, I like to sit very close to the players, and I could do this at the Thursday performance, and in a modestly sized hall with fine acoustics for music.

But the First Congregational Church is a long, deep hall, and I sat about halfway back in it. Its reverberations can add a nice bloom to projected sound, but also some blur.

This was certainly the case where the two wind instruments tended to meld. And when the viola was at the piano, at the back of the chancel, it almost disappeared at times, while other two-string combinations were not always crystal clear.

I have had growing concerns about First Congo as a venue for chamber music, and I should think the Con Vivo folks must think about this. And listeners should, also. Clearly, where you sit for intimate music-making has its effects.

For all that, I enjoyed the group’s program in each setting, and renewed my admiration for their artistry and enterprise.

 


Classical music: The Madison Chamber Choir plus instrumentalists turn in a beautiful and memorable performance of a too rarely heard “madrigal fable” by Gian Carlo Menotti.

May 17, 2015
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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. Barker also provided performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Madison Chamber Choir (below) delivered a true spring treat on Friday evening at the First Presbyterian Church downtown.

Madison Chamber Choir singers and players performing JWB

The curtain-raiser was a group of Four Pastorales by American composer Cecil Effinger (below), to texts by Thomas Hornsby Ferril. The poems are varied and sensitive, and are set with a good feeling for choral texture.

Cecil Effinger

The catch is that Effinger composed an obbligato part for a single instrument (oboe or, as here, clarinet) that is generally irrelevant musically and even a hindrance at times to choral projection and diction. It may have been partly the composer’s fault, but the diction could have been more clearly delivered, too. (Hit those consonants, folks!)

Diction issues were somewhat lessened, thanks to the composer’s care, in the major work of the concert.

Gian Carlo Menotti (below) was at a creative peak in 1956, when he created his work for 10 dancers, nine instrumentalists, and chorus, entitled The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore, or the Three Sundays of a Poet. He called this a “madrigal fable,” using the Renaissance form of the “madrigal comedy,” in which action is conveyed without soloists but by the choir.

This Italian idiom of the late 16th-century was something Menotti apparently discovered as he mastered Renaissance polyphonic style for the choruses in his supreme opera, The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954)—following his triumphs of The Consul (1950) and Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951).

Gian Carlo Menotti

As always, Menotti wrote his own text, which reflects on the phases of the creative life (as represented by the three animals), but also satirizes the shallow understanding and reflexive faddism of ordinary folk. In the process, he showed how wonderfully he had mastered the elements of colloquial American speech patterns.

And, above all, he put this in music that combines hilarious comedy with extraordinarily moving poetry.

I know of only one prior performance of this gem of a work in Madison, by the UW-Madison Madrigal Singers, in April of 2001, and it included the dance dimension.

Dancers were not involved in this latest production, but the music still carried the work brilliantly. The nine instrumentalists (below, on flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, percussion, cello, double bass and harp) were excellent.

Madison Chamber Choir Menotti iinstrumentalists JWB

The chorus of 33 voices (below) sang with superb sonority and ensemble. You could see them relishing the humor as well as the pathos.

Madison Chamber Choir singers Menotti 2 JWB

And credit is due for the church’s fine acoustics especially in furthering the richness of choral sound.

Conductor Albert Pinsonneault (below), who also teaches at Edgewood College and heads up the Madison Choral Project, led with confidence and obvious delight.

Albert Pinsonneault 2

It really pains me that so wonderful a work as this is so little known and — partly for practical reasons — so rarely performed. Nothing but gratitude is due these performers for bringing it to life for us this time. And the quite sizable audience expressed that gratitude in a prolonged ovation.

Madison Chamber Choir Menotti players and singers JWB

 


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!


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