By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a special posting, a record 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.
By John W. Barker
For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.
A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.
Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.
Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).
It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”
It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.
Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)
Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.
The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.
Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.
Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.
I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.
They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.
While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.
One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.
This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.
ALERT: Today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear pianist Emanuel Ax perform the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven and soprano Alisa Jordheim in the Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler.
Here is a rave review for Madison Magazine by Greg Hettmansberger:
And here is another rave review for Isthmus by John W. Barker:
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has received the following information to pass along:
This workshop is co-directed by MBM founder and director, harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson (below top, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer), and MBM member, violinist Kangwon Kim (below bottom). There will also be guest instructors.
The workshop, which costs $400, is open to intermediate and advanced players who are high school age and older.
Instruments included are: violin, viola, cello, harpsichord, fortepiano, piano, flute, recorder and oboe.
Participants will be assigned to an ensemble group, and music will be sent in advance to allow musicians to learn their parts beforehand.
The workshop will include personalized coaching, master classes, a faculty concert, community lunches and a final closing concert for a supportive and appreciative audience.
All of this will take place in the beautiful and acoustically rich spaces of First Unitarian Society of Madison (below, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer), located at 900 University Bay Drive.
Applications are being be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis since Jan. 1, 2016. (There is an early application discount until March 15.)
For information, including the local and guest faculty members, and an online application, visit: http://madisonbachmusicians.org/education-and-outreach/summer-workshop/
A spokesperson for the Madison Bach Musician adds:
“Some people might ask how this workshop relates to the Madison Early Music Festival. The MBM workshop stands independent of the Madison Early Music Festival, and we do not intend to compete with the festival but to just add another great music option for Madison-area musicians. We intentionally set the dates for our workshop well after the Early Music Festival so as not to compete with it.
“The focus of the Madison Bach Musicians Summer Chamber Music Workshop is to create a supportive music community where participants can further develop their appreciation and playing ability of baroque and early classical chamber music through personalized coaching and performance experience.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!
By Jacob Stockinger
Last week brought sad news.
Paulus was probably best known to Madison-area residents for the many works and several compositions that the Festival Choir of Madison commissioned and performed.
And talk about timing.
The Festival Choir of Madison (below) will open its new season by performing the All-Night Vigil of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky –- NOT the more famous work with the same name by Sergei Rachmaninoff –- on this coming Saturday night, November 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Day Drive, on Madison’s near west side.
One wonders if the group will dedicate the performance to the memory of Paulus, whose music proved both modern and accessible, and often seemed Midwestern in that Aaron Copland kind of way.
Written nearly 35 years before the more famous Vespers by Sergei Rachmaninoff, the All-Night Vigil by Tchaikovsky (below) was written in an attempt to ensure that church music in Russia retained a uniquely Russian flavor. (You can hear a sample of the Tchaikovsky work in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
The work, containing settings from three “overnight” canonical hours (Vespers, Matins and First Hour), is a beautiful representation of the Russian liturgical repertoire.
A pre-concert lecture begins at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets are $15 for the general public; $12 for seniors; and $9 for students.
Here is a link with information and reservations:
And here is more about Stephen Paulus (below), whom The Ear interviewed many years ago when he was working for The Capital Times. He was the model of a cordial and gracious artist who cared deeply about the public’s ability to appreciate his work.
Here is an obituary that appeared in The New York Times:
And here is a story that appeared on Minneapolis Public Radio, which, like Wisconsin Public Radio, emphasizes classical music when many affiliates of NPR (National Public Radio) are increasingly turning to talk radio.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Festival Choir of Madison has announced its concerts for 2014-15 — its 40th anniversary season of three one-performance programs — that include a variety of music, from rarely heard Tchaikovsky vespers to choral music by Aaron Copland, and an entire concert that highlights living Wisconsin composers.
Here is a press release:
“Pre-concert lectures by the group’s Artistic Director Bryson Mortensen (below), who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County, will be on Saturday evenings at 6:30 p.m., with concerts beginning at 7:30 p.m.
“Season tickets can be purchased at http://festivalchoirmadison.org/Season1415/tickets.htm or by calling (608) 274-7089.
“Season ticket prices are: General, $40; Senior, $32; Student, $25. No word yet on single tickets or when they will be available.
“1. All-Night Vigil: Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky on Saturday, November 1, 2014
Written nearly 35 years before the more popular Vespers by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky (below) set the text of the All-Night Vigil to ensure that church music in Russia retained a uniquely Russian flavor. The work, containing settings from three “overnight” canonical hours (Vespers, Matins, and First Hour), is a sublime representation of Russian church music that inspired other Russian composers in the previously untouched genre of religious music. With the uniquely shifting harmonies and meditative melodies, this a capella work will be particularly suited to the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s chapel. (You can hear some of Tchaikovsky’s a cappella choral music in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
“2. Wisconsin Sings! on Saturday, March 7, 2015
The traditional of vocal and choral music is strong throughout Wisconsin, from the Appleton Boy Choir, to the Milwaukee Choral Artists, to the Festival Choir of Madison. Wisconsin is also home to many internationally recognized choral composers, and this concert celebrates the best of them. We will be singing works by composers such as Blake Henson (below 1) who teaches at the St. Norbert College; Eric William Barnum (below 2), Zach Moore (below 3), Jerry Hui (below 4), who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Stout; and Andrew Steffen.
“3. Aaron Copland: 25 Years on Saturday, May 2, 2015
2015 marks the 25th year since Aaron Copland’s death, and is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate his significant contribution to choral music. Instrumental in forging a distinctly American style, the compositions of Aaron Copland (below) are perfect to celebrate the beginning of summer. This concert will include performances of “In the Beginning” and his “Four Motets” as well as selections from Irving Fine’s choral arrangement of the Old American Songs.
“For more information, call (608) 274-7089 or contact email@example.com.”