The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
7 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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Classical music: Can the annual Handel Aria Competition be improved? Here are two modest proposals from a fan. What do you think?

June 13, 2018
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest posting by George Savage, a blog follower who is a self-described musical amateur. In his youth he sang in choirs and had a bit solo part of Morales in his college production of Bizet’s Carmen. Then, a long musical hiatus until his 60th birthday celebration, when he sang Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” black hat in hand, knees on floor.

Most of his adult life was spent teaching literature and composition at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, specializing in the American Renaissance. To the extent he has stayed connected to the world of music, it is through his daughter Kelly Savage, who has a D.M.A in harpsichord from Stony Brook University and now teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

By George Savage

As my bio indicates, I am a musical amateur, meaning simply that I am a lover (French amateur) of music. For the past three years, I have had this love rekindled through the annual Handel Aria Competition in Madison, Wisconsin.

The vocal quality has consistently been high — especially this year! — and it is fun to vote for the Audience Favorite, even when the judges disagree with your assessment.

(Editor’s note: This year the Audience Favorite was mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, below top, while the three judges awarded First Prize to soprano Suzanne Karpov, below bottom. Here is a link to story about all the winners: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/classical-music-here-are-the-winners-of-friday-nights-sixth-annual-handel-aria-competition/).

My heartfelt congratulations go to Dean and Carol “Orange” Schroeder (below) for establishing this annual competition in 2013 and for the many supporters who have made this competition a success.

I have two modest proposals, though, for improvement, one minor and one major.

A minor proposal: Unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of opera — and I know that some people reading this have that knowledge — you will not know the context of the arias.

I propose that the program notes contain a brief context for each of the arias. Alternatively, the singers – below are the seven finalists this year — could introduce their songs with a similar brief context.

A major proposal: As I listened this year to Handel piece after Handel piece after Handel piece, I wondered: “Could there be some variation?”

I started to think of other festivals that started with a single-artist focus but then gradually expanded, such as the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, or, closer to home, the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Both summer theater venues began with a single focus – Shaw and Shakespeare — but then evolved while at the same time staying true to their precipitating muse.

There is still lots of Shaw at the Shaw festival and lots of Shakespeare at APT. The same is true of the Carmel Bach Festival, which started with Bach but now has expanded to include many other forms of classical music. The same holds true for the famous Mostly Mozart Festival in New York City, which continues to expand its repertoire beyond Mozart.

In that spirit, I wonder if the singers at the Handel Competition, back up by the period-instrument Madison Bach Musicians, could in future events sing two selections — the first an aria by Handel and the second a non-Handel Baroque aria of the singer’s choice.

I think many singers would welcome the expanded repertoire and the audience would appreciate the added variety. The judging would be murkier, but it would be a good kind of murky.

I hope these proposals will engender a discussion: Should the competition be tweaked, or should it stay the same?

Your thoughts on these two proposals would be appreciated as well as other suggestions of your own.


Classical music: Here are the winners of Friday night’s sixth annual Handel Aria Competition

June 11, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The sixth annual Handel Aria Competition took place Friday night in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus at the Mead Witter School of Music.

It was, as usual, much fun.

Such serious fun deserved a bigger audience. But The Ear suspects that the opening night of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society at the Overture Center and the aria competition cut into each other’s audience. Maybe that scheduling conflict can be avoided in the future.

Everyone seems to agree that every year, as word of the competition continues to spread far and wide, the singers get better. This year, the seven finalists – five sopranos and three mezzo-sopranos chosen from 113 international applicants — were all terrific.

Special thanks should also go to the Madison Bach Musicians, who in a short amount of rehearsal time turned in outstanding accompaniment in music that can be hard to follow because or ornaments and embellishments as well as subjective interpretations and the Baroque singing style.

The wide repertoire included recitatives and arias from “Semele,” “Giulio Cesare,” “Rodelinda,” “Theodora,” “Hercules,” “Ariodante,” “Judas Maccabeus” and “Ricardo Primo, re d’Inghilterra” (Richard the First, King of England).

The biggest disappointment – in truth not very big — was that the competition had no male voices. There were no tenors, countertenor, baritones or basses to add to the variety. (You can hear the 2017 Audience Favorite, tenor Gene Stenger, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But that is how judging on merit works, so who can argue?

Once again, The Ear and many of his voice-savvy friends disagreed with the three professional judges. That seems to happen every year. But there will be more about that, as well as some other observations, another time.

In the meantime, let us celebrate the results.

Here, from left to right in a photo by David Peterson, are this year’s winners: soprano Sarah Hayashi, Second Prize; soprano Suzanne Karpov, First Prize; mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, Audience Favorite; and mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit, Third Prize.

All of the performances will be posted on YouTube at a later date, which The Ear will announce when it happens.

For more information about the seven finalists and the three professional judges, as well as updated news and how you can support the ever-expanding competition, go to:

https://handelariacompetition.com

https://handelariacompetition.com/2018-competition/


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