The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet plays in Spring Green this Monday, then tours Germany during August. It will perform the same tour program in several Wisconsin cities, including Madison, in early September

August 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about another Madison group – in addition to the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra’s tour of Peru and the Scotland concerts by the Madison Youth Choirs – that is bringing its music to international audiences.

The group is the Ancora String Quartet (below, in a photo by Barry Lewis), which will leave for a tour of Germany next week. From left are: violinists Wes Luke and Robin Ryan; violist Marika Fischer Hoyt and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb.

A sort of send-off concert is this Monday night in Spring Green. Here are the details:

The concert is for the Rural Musicians Forum and will take place on this coming Monday night, Aug. 13, at 7:30 p.m. at Unity Chapel, located at 6597 County Hwy T, in Spring Green.

The program features works by Joaquin Turina, Franz Joseph Haydn and Samuel Barber.

Admission is by free will offering, with a suggested donation of $15.

Soon to start its 18th season, the Ancora String Quartet has an impressive and extensive resume. The four players have well-established individual musical careers as soloists, chamber musicians and orchestral players. They perform regularly in Madison and beyond, appearing in such ensembles as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Bach Musicians, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, and the Bach Collegium of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Here is what violist Marika Fischer Hoyt says about the upcoming tour to Germany:

“The Ancora String Quartet looks forward with eager anticipation to our first overseas tour.

“We are partnering with a fabulous mezzo-soprano, Melinda Paulsen (below), who serves on the voice faculty at the Musikhochschule in Frankfurt.

“Together, we have selected a program of works by German and American composers, for mezzo-soprano and quartet, and for string quartet alone.

“The program includes: the beautiful Wesendonck Lieder by Richard Wagner; Melancholie by Paul Hindemith, Drei Lieder (Three Songs) by Victor Ullmann; and Dover Beach by Samuel Barber, as well as the iconic Barber String Quartet with the slow movement that was re-orchestrated as the “Adagio for Strings.” (You can hear Samuel Barber’s “Dover Beach” with a mezzo-soprano in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“The quartet will be in Germany (map is below) from August 17 to August 26, performing at the Rathaus in Nieder-Olm; the Musikschule Chroma in Vellmar (north of Kassel); the Lutheran Church in Schlitz (halfway between Frankfurt and Kassel); and at Phillipsburg in Braubach, as part of the festival in St. Goar. The concert at the music school in Vellmar will be a lecture-concert for students, so we’re brushing up on our German!

“Following our performances in Germany, we will all return to Wisconsin to perform this same program Sept. 4-9 in Germantown, Whitewater, Janesville, Beloit and Madison. That includes an interview with radio host Norman Gilliland on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” at noon on Wednesday, Sept. 5.

“We have secured funding from several German organizations, and received a generous grant from the Kassel County-Dane County Sister County Taskforce.

“Melinda and the members of this quartet are thrilled beyond words that this project has taken shape. We look forward to sharing with our audiences a program exploring the intersections between two cultures that are quite distinct today, but which share deep, common roots.”


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Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 2018
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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 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

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


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Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Independence Day is the right time to celebrate American classical composers and patriotic concert music. Here are three ways to do that

July 4, 2018
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Fourth of July – Independence Day.

That makes it exactly the right time to think about American composers and American patriotic music – both of which have been receiving well-deserved airplay all week on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here are three items that seem appropriate because they pertain to American composers and American classical music.

ITEM 1

Tonight at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capital Square in downtown Madison, guest conductor Huw Edwards (below) will lead the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in its Concert on the Square for the Fourth of July.

The “American Salute” program includes: “American Salute” by Morton Gould; the Overture to “Candide” by Leonard Bernstein; “Wisconsin Forward Forever” by march king John Philip Sousa; and, of course, “The 1812 Overture” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Blankets can go down on the ground starting at 3 p.m. For more general information about attending the concert including weather updates, rules and etiquette, and food caterers and vendors, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-2-2/

ITEM 2

Can you name 30 American classical composers? The Ear tried and it’s not easy.

But thanks to Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California – which will also play and stream (click on the Listen tab) such music today — it isn’t hard.

Here is a link:

http://www.capradio.org/music/classical/2018/07/02/the-30-american-composers-were-featuring-on-the-fourth-of-july/

You can click on the link “Playlist for Independence Day” and see the photo of the composers and the titles of compositions that will be played.

You can also click on the composer’s name in the alphabetized list and see a biography in Wikipedia.

Can you think of American composers who didn’t make the list? Leave the name or names – Henry Cowell and Virgil Thomson (below)  come to mind — in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

ITEM 3

Finally, given the controversial political issues of the day surrounding immigration, The Ear offers this take on perhaps the most virtuosic piano transcription of patriotic music ever played.

It was done by someone who immigrated permanently to the U.S. in 1939 and then became a naturalized citizen in 1944. He also raised millions through war bonds during World War II.

He was the Russian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz, here playing his own celebrated virtuoso arrangement – done in 1945 for a patriotic rally and war bonds concert in Central Park — of ”The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa.

Here is a link to his biography in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Horowitz

And here is the YouTube audio of his own performance of the Sousa piece, with the score, including all the special technical demands, especially lots of Horowitz’s famous octaves, to follow along with. It’s a performance that has become justifiably legendary:


Classical music: UW Choral Union and soloists succeed impressively in Bach’s massive “St. Matthew Passion.” Plus, a FREE concert of Leonard Bernstein songs is at noon on Friday

April 25, 2018
17 Comments

ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features two husband-and-wife teams. Singers bass-baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and pianists Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer will perform an all-Leonard Bernstein program in honor of his centennial. The program includes selections from Arias and Barcarolles,” “Mass,” “Peter Pan,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Songfest.” The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

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 photographs.

By John W. Barker

It comes a bit late for this year’s Holy Week, but the UW Choral Union’s impressive mounting of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last Sunday was still a major contribution to our music this spring.

Running at almost three hours, this is Bach’s longest single work, and is regarded by now as one of the musical monuments of Western Civilization. But its length and its demands make it something performed only on special occasions.

No antiquarian, conductor Beverly Taylor, who directs choral activities at the UW-Madison, tried to follow carefully Bach’s elaborate specifications, which call for both a double chorus and a double orchestra, along with soloists.

A traditionally ample agency, the Choral Union this time fielded a total of 100 singers, plus a 12-member children’s choir, as against a pair of student orchestras numbering 14 and 12 respectively, all playing modern instruments.

This was hardly a balanced combination and Bach himself could never have assembled, much less managed, so huge a chorus as this. It certainly overwhelmed the orchestras, and quite drowned out the children’s group in their appearance at the beginning and ending of Part I.

Still, there is no denying the magnificence of such a large choral force. It was just a bit challenged by the turbae or crowd passages. Nevertheless, to hear such a powerful choir sing so many of the intermittent chorales in Bach’s harmonizations is to feel the glory of the entire Lutheran legacy in religious expression.

A total of 16 soloists were employed, in functions of varying consequence.

At the head of the list stand two. Tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below left) has a voice of more Italian than German character, to my taste. But he not only carried off the heavy duties of the narrating Evangelist, he also sang the tenor arias as well, with unfailing eloquence.  And faculty baritone Paul Rowe (below right) was truly authoritative as Jesus in the parts reserved for the Savior.

The arias were otherwise addressed by a double cast of singers, two each on the other voice parts. Of the two sopranos, Sara Guttenberg (if I have the identity correctly from the confusing program) was strong and splendidly artistic.

Talia Engstrom was more a mezzo-soprano than a true contralto, and not an equally powerful singer, but I did like her very engaging singing. (You can hear the lovely contralto and violin aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The sharing of the alto arias with a countertenor was, however, not a good idea. Of the two bass-baritones, Matthew Chastain (if I have his identity aright) sang with strong and rich tone.  The other singers, mostly singing the character parts in the Gospel text, were generally students, ranging widely in maturity and appeal.

Taken as a whole, though, this performance was an admirable achievement for Beverly Taylor (below). Her tempos were on the moderate side, accommodating especially the large chorus. Above all, her enterprise was obvious in tackling this massive work, while the choral singers obviously found a special thrill in participating in it.

Compliments should be given the program, which contained the full German text interlarded with the English translation. With full house lighting, this wisely allowed the audience to follow along closely.

But the performance was divided into two sittings, one for Part I at 4 p.m., the second for Part II at 7:30 p.m., with a break in between of over two hours — really too long, I found.


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