The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
3 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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 photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


Posted in Classical music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Classical music: The University of Wisconsin Choral Union says goodbye to Madison architect and longtime member Rick Levin with Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers.” A memorial for Levin will be held May 18.

May 3, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Gradually The Ear is catching up with reviews of local concerts.

April has been such a busy month for music, that I have given priority, as usual, to previews and advance features. They better serve not only the performers and presenters, but also the public.

But here is one review — really more of an appreciation than a review — that I wanted to include before it was too late.

A week today, last Saturday night, April 26, we said good-bye to Richard “Rick” Levin (below), a local architect, an avid baseball fan and a devoted chorister.

rick levin 2014

We said that good-bye through the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union, in which Rick Levin (pronounced le-VINN) sang bass for 20 years or so.

But last year Rick was diagnosed with a form of oral cancer. He fought valiantly, with good humor and with hope, and many of us thought he would definitely make it.

Sadly, he did not.

He died on March 3.

So the UW Choral Union dedicated its one-night only performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s a cappella Vespers of “All-Night Vigil,” Op. 37, based on the Russian Orthodox liturgy, to Levin, who had started rehearsing the work at the beginning of the semester.

Rick was Jewish, the work’s liturgy was Christian; but it was the music by the Russian neo-Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), not the religion, that mattered.

Rachmaninoffold

Here is a link to some background, provided in a Q&A by the two leaders of the performance, conductors Beverly Taylor and Adam Kluck:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/classical-music-qa-co-conductors-beverly-taylor-and-adam-kluck-explain-the-appeal-of-sergei-rachmaninoffs-vespers-and-why-they-are-hard-to-perform-and-exotic-to-hear-f/

The performance proved a moving experience.

It is not a concert I really want to review artistically. I leave that task to this blog’s sometime guest critic John W. Barker, who usually writes for Isthmus.

Barker (below) knows the liturgical and religious aspects, the musical score, the Church Slavonic language and the dynamics of choral singing much better than I do. So I defer to Barker’s judgment and his review, which you can find a link to lower down on this posting.

John Barker

But I do feel capable of making some general observations.

This is the second time – the first was about 10 years ago — that conductor Beverly Taylor, the director of the choral department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and the assistant conductor to music director John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, had conducted the relatively neglected work and brought it to the Madison public. She also shared her conducting duties with graduate student conductor Adam Kluck.

The two switched on and off with great continuity, and both seemed in command of the score and the style.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Adam Kluck conducting

The chorus sang the difficult a cappella work, without accompaniment, with heart.

The singers changed their usually standing position on risers, and sat in a horse shoe-like semi-circle, which added to the intimacy. It almost felt like a comforting religious set-up, suggesting a surrounding circle of friends, the kind you might find in some church, synagogue or congregation.

Vespers seating UW Choral Union

Adding to the atmosphere of the work were some paintings of angels, mural-like or mosaic-like such as you might find in a Eastern Orthodox church

Vespers 1

Vespers angel 2

There were some red candles in golden church brass holders, forming an altar next to the conductor’s podium, where even an icon of the Madonna and Child had been placed on the stage.

Vespers podium and altar

Vespers stage icon5

In addition, the Vespers opened with Father Michael, of Madison’s Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, holding aloft a candle as an invocation.

Vespers Father Michael

The Choral Union did everything to create an atmosphere that would make this concert seem unusual, special and less concert-like, more intimate, if you will.

And it worked.

I sat in the audience with Rick’s wife and several friends.

We were all moved, especially, I thought, by the many verses about redemption and salvation. Unbeliever that I am, I ask: How else does one move forward from such loss of love and the grief that accompanies it?

The texture of the vocal sound enveloped us. The chorus seemed to sing with precise attacks and releases, and with good balances that shifted emphasis from section to section. Rachmaninoff’s rich sense of harmony and of melodic line showed through.

But a higher purpose than turning in an outstanding artistic performance was served, at least for some of us.

We all sat moved –- by the testimony of a great composer, unafraid of emotion, and by the many musicians paying tribute to one of their own. Such is the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Art and, for The Ear, especially of music.

It was a fine evening of fine music that served a fine purpose. I think Rick Levin would have been very pleased.

Is there more to say? Not for me, not now.

Except perhaps that a celebration or memorial gathering for Rick Levin will be held in two weeks, on Sunday, May 18, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., in the shelter in Warner Park (below) on Madison’s far east side.

Warner Park shelter

If you feel close enough to Rick and his wife Judy to join in the words and music, the ballpark franks and food that Rick so loved from his childhood in Chicago, where he was a Chicago Cubs fan and regularly went to Wright Field (below), I am told you are welcome and even invited to attend. As for memorials, Rick Levin modestly asked only that contributions be made to Wisconsin Public Radio.

Wrigley Field

Here is a link to Rick Levin’s obituary:

http://host.madison.com/news/local/obituaries/levin-richard-rick/article_9282977f-eb94-52f7-8e76-ded2b25864d2.html

And here is the link to the review of the UW Choral Union’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers,” done by retired UW-Madison history professor John W. Barker, that I referred to above:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42618&sid=1d5a87b16b85286f287599373df2f6be

Finally, here in its entirety is the beautiful and mysterious “Vespers” from a live performance in a popular YouTube video. Even just the opening will, I expect, move you:

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

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

    Join 1,204 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,090,159 hits
%d bloggers like this: