The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Choral Project gives its fourth annual holiday concert, “I Was Glad,” this Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Plus, pianist Bill Lutes gives a FREE recital of Schubert and Schumann this Friday at noon

December 14, 2016
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ALERT: The week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features pianist Bill Lutes in a solo recital. The program includes the “Papillons” (Butterflies) by Robert Schumann and the final Sonata in B-Fat Major, D. 960, by Franz Schubert. The program runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

For more information about Bill Lutes and his series of recitals, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/11/15/classical-music-pianist-and-piano-teacher-bill-lutes-to-perform-three-free-recitals-bach-haydn-schubert-and-schumann-to-say-thank-you-to-madison/

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Choral Project (below top), Madison’s professional choir under the direction of Albert Pinnsoneault (below bottom), a former Edgewood College professor who now teaches at Northwestern University, will present two performances of its fourth annual Holiday-themed program “I Was Glad.”

madison-choral-project-in-church

albert pinsonneault conducting BW

The performances are on Friday, Dec. 16, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday Dec. 17, at 3 p.m. Both performances will be held at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

i-was-glad-poster

Tickets are available in advance at www.themcp.org, or at the door.

(Preferred Seating is $40, General Admission is $24/$28 and Students are $10)

The concerts feature a carefully curated selection of vocal music and readings, with the intent to lead the listener along a sublime journey of music and text.

Madison Choral Project is will partner again with Wisconsin Public Radio’s news editor Noah Ovshinsky (below), who will perform readings from works of Tim O’Brien, Billy Collins, William Wordsworth and others.

noah-ovshinsky-reading-mcp

The Madison Choral Project will sing an eclectic mix of holiday-themed music in four sets, ranging from the 17th century to brand new compositions.

The program features two exciting world premieres by Eric Barnum (below top), the choral director at UW-Oshkosh, and MCP’s Composer in Residence, Jasper Alice Kaye (below bottom).

eric-barnum-uw-oshkosh

jasper-alice-kaye

The first set of pieces, “Welcome to the Holy Space,” includes A Child’s Prayer by James MacMillan, Sanctus from Mass in G by Francis Poulenc and Our Father by Alexandre Gretchaninoff.

The second set, “Winter Comforts,” features two new commissions written for Madison Choral Project. Winter by Eric William Barnum will be followed by The Invitation by Jasper Alice Kaye. Lux Aurumque by Eric Whitacre will finish the set.

The third set, “Glad Tidings,” includes the concert’s titular piece, I Was Glad by C.H.H. Parry (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom), as well as beautiful works by Matthew Culloton, William Dawson and Jan Sandstrøm.

The final set, “Gathering and Blessing,” contains joyous settings of familiar texts set by Francis Poulenc, Ludwig van Beethoven, and arranger John Ferguson.

For more information or tickets, go to www.themcp.org.


Classical music: The Festival Choir of Madison gives a lovely and lovingly committed exploration of the rarely heard setting of the Russian Orthodox All-Night Vigil by Tchaikovsky.

November 5, 2014
1 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 for 20 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Festival Choir of Madison (below top, in a photo by Stephanie Williams) undertook a brave venture into difficult novelty last Saturday night in the Atrium Auditorium (below bottom in a photo by Zane Williams) at the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

Festival Choir of Madison Tchaikovsky Fall 2014 CR Stephanie Wiliams

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

The venture involved the setting of the All-Night Vigil ritual for a cappella choir by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky .

One does not instantly think of Tchaikovsky as a choral composer, or in particular as a composer of sacred music. But he greatly admired the traditions of Russian Orthodox liturgical music, as it had been redefined in the 18th and 19th centuries, as bound up in the very special Russian propensity for powerful choral singing.

In 1879 he made a setting the text of the basic Orthodox Eucharistic service, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, published as his Op. 41. It was not well received, but Tchaikovsky (below) went on in 1882 to set the cycle of Vespers and Vigil texts, his Op. 52. Indeed, during the 1880s, he composed a dozen other settings of Orthodox liturgical texts.

young tchaikovsky

By his time, the functioning choral music of the Russian Orthodox Church, used amid traditional chants, was generally written by composers who specialized in the genre, quite separate from the growing school of Russian secular composers.

There were some jealousy and resentment expressed by the former against the latter. Few Russian musicians managed personally to bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular. Alexander Gretchaninoff (below) was one of the few who were successful in both.

Alexander Grechaninov in 1912

Tchaikovsky was not given much credit for his religious writing, and his liturgical works are generally ignored. It was his successor, as it were, Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), who achieved true musical greatness in leaping from secular composition into sacred, with his own settings of the Chrysostom Liturgy and the All-Night Vigil. Indeed, the latter has come by now to be recognized as a masterpiece and is ever more frequently performed internationally. (You can hear a section in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

rachmaninoffyoung

The Festival Choir’s conductor, Bryson Mortensen (below, with singer Nancy Vedder-Shults in a photo by Jon Lanctot) chose to preface the performance of the Tchaikovsky score with one movement from the Rachmaninoff counterpart. It was a good idea, though the brief section chosen, gorgeous in itself, was not enough to point up the contrasts in the two composers’ approaches.

Festival Choir of Madison Tchakovsky Fall 2014 CR Jon Lactot  Bryson Mortensen and Nancy Vedder-Shults

Rachmaninoff’s setting is charged with imagination and rich elaboration of the traditional; chants that are the music’s foundations. He even included parts for solo voices, which Tchaikovsky did not.

On the contrary, Tchaikovsky’s approach is really quite conservative and even simplistic. He chose to devise harmonizations of the chants and their liturgical formulas, in accomplished but texturally unadventurous realizations, relying upon the sonorous Russian choral sound to carry the effects. The results are quite lovely, if a bit repetitive as a cycle.

Mortensen made one interesting attempt to bring some variety into the proceedings by having three spiritual poems by Russian writers interspersed with the music at three points. An interesting idea, but the poems chosen were rather bland, and were not well delivered.

It is more a question is the musical performance. Setting Western choirs to singing Church Slavonic texts not part of their culture is not always easy. The singers clearly were working earnestly at it.

But Church Slavonic (like modern Russian) is rich in consonants, and these were just not spat out with the spirit they required. In addition, it seems that only Russian choirs have the gutsy basses that can provide the rock-solid foundation needed for the overall texture. The Festival Singers just could not muster up such power.

Or perhaps, as I suspect, maestro Mortensen (below) chose to restrain them in the interests of a beautifully balanced and blended choral sound — which he certainly achieved — rather than to risk having a section run away with the show. On the other hand, it seemed to me that by the final sections of the score he was infusing a really exciting range of dynamic inflection into the performance.

Bryson Mortensen BW

All in all, one had to admire what this conductor and choir achieved. How often, anywhere, is one likely to encounter this music in live performance? In this concert we were given a chance, and one in which the challenges were met with devotion and lovely music-making. Slava!

 

 


Classical music Q&A: Co-conductors Beverly Taylor and Adam Kluck explain the appeal of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” and why they are hard to perform and exotic to hear for Western ears. Hear them for yourself when the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union performs this a cappella masterpiece on this Saturday night, April 26.

April 21, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” or “All-Night Vigil.” (Below is St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is only one performance of this rarely heard work. One short and beautiful audio clip is at the bottom in a YouTube video, and will give you a sample of the gorgeous a cappella, or unaccompanied, sound.

Admission is $10 for adults and the general public. Senior citizens and students get in for free. Tickets may be purchased for concerts up to one month in advance. 
Remaining tickets will be sold at the door. 
You can call (608) 265-ARTS (2787) for ticket information and reservations.

The Ear asked co-conductors Beverly Taylor (below top) and Adam Kluck (below bottom) to answer a Q&A by email. Below are the answers provided by Beverly Taylor (BT) and Adam Kluck (AK).

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Adam Kluck conducting

Sergei Rachmaninoff is known primarily as a virtuosic piano and orchestral composer. How do his vocal compositions, in particular the “Vespers,” stand up in quality and characteristics of the melodies and harmonies, the rhythm and Russian feel, to his more popular works?

BT: I actually know little of his vocal output beyond the vespers, although I know there are some lovely works for women’s voices. Most of the Vespers are based on existing chant, and although the melodies are not always as expansive as Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, the flow and grace are part of his output, and his use of extreme dynamics from very soft ppp to very loud ff are those of a Romanticist.

AK: It is interesting to note that Rachmaninoff, lauded for his prowess as a “melodist” in his instrumental works, would choose to set the All-Night Vigil service of the Orthodox church (thus limiting himself to a composition that had to be completely a cappella or without accompaniment).

We know that Rachmaninoff grew up near the church in Novgorod (further down is an icon from a Russian Orthodox church in that city) and, although he was not a practicing Orthodox Christian, he certainly was familiar with the practices and — most importantly — the musical and liturgical aspects of the church. Interestingly, Rachmaninoff set another large-scale a cappella work based on another Orthodox church service, “The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Tchaikovsky and several other well-known Russian composers set this as well. Rachmaninoff did not like what he ended up with, and so he decided to set the All-Night Vigil.

Most movements are harmonizations and re-workings of chant melodies dating back to the Byzantines, although Rachmaninoff (below)  does create a few movements based on his own melodic content; and these latter movements are just as effective, if not more so.

The long melodic lines throughout much of the work are characteristic of Rachmaninoff, but even harmonically the compositional language is relatively conservative.

Rachmaninoff

How do the Vespers compare or rank when placed against some of the other great choral music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and other works and composers that the UW Choral Union performs?

BT: They’re simply–different! Most of what we sing in the UW Choral Union (seen below, with the UW Symphony Orchestra) is accompanied by orchestra, and most of the Classical and early Romantic works have more periodic phrasing, so that an overall form emerges. That is much less the case with these beautiful pieces; a few of them have verses and recognizable refrains.  Others are through-composed. They are more meditative, and show off particularly the low and mellow sounds.  The basses (and we have them!) are asked to sing low D’s, C’s and even a low B in the work.

AK: The pacing of the All-Night Vigil is atypical of those other composers. There are often several movements strung together with very similar tempi, and some of the movements are much longer than others.

The absence of any instrumentalists also means no break for the choir and a magnification of any intonation and tuning issues. Additionally, the first soprano and tenor parts sit quite high in the voice for sustained periods of time, compounding the difficulty.

It is certainly one of the most challenging pieces of any size and scope for these reasons, and for the audience it does require a somewhat different mindset as well. There won’t be the rollicking fugues we’ve come to love and expect from a Haydn or Mozart mass, or a Bach cantata. This piece is something else entirely.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Why do you think the Vespers aren’t better known or performed more frequently?

BT: They call for a fair amount of “divisi” — divided parts in all the ranges, but mostly it’s the lack of good low basses, which I think explains why they’re not done more often.

AK: Apart from the unique challenges it presents, I think that in the United States, Russian choral music is still intimidating to us. The language is still the primary barrier, but the choral sound in Eastern Europe and Russia is different to us as well. Rather than attempting to replicate these sonorities as accurately as possible, some directors often choose to program something that is more familiar to audiences and choristers alike. (Below is the interior of a Russian Orthodox Church.)

Russian Orthodox church interior

What specific things would you like to point out for the public to know about the Vespers and your performance of them?

BT: My assistant Adam Kluck loves this work, and so we’re splitting the conducting duties. We’re also doing some minor things involving projections and icons to convey somewhat the world of the senses in which these works would be performed — candles, beautiful art. (Below is an icon from a Russian Orthodox church in the city of Novgorod, where Rachmaninoff grew up.)

AK: In the Russian church tradition, there are many prescriptions for singing as part of a service. We will have one of our choir members, Father Michael, an Orthodox priest, sing the chant before the piece, so that it is permissible to sing the “amen” at the beginning of each of the first two movements.

Rachmaninoff’s setting of each movement illustrates the text very well, and so especially if you are able to follow along with the translations, the piece will really come alive.

Russian icon from Novgorod

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

BT: The concert will be lovely, but more meditative than some concerts.  It won’t always hit you in the face, but it will certainly be well worth listening deeply to.

AK: If your readers enjoy this piece of music, I would encourage them to seek out other choral music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Peter Tchaikovsky, Alexander Gretchaninoff, and any other Russian composers. The sacred and secular music of the Russian-Baltic region just after the turn of the century is wonderfully expressive and unique.

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