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
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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: Violinist and concertmaster David Kim will discuss becoming a professional musician and will give two public master classes plus a student performance of string music by Vivaldi, Massenet and Brahms

October 16, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison about upcoming events:

“From oboist to organist, whether one performs pop or Prokofiev, every musician has a story of an intricate and sometimes unsettling pathway to a professional career.

“Violinist David Kim, (below) who will visit the School of Music TODAY and Tuesday, Oct. 16 and 17, is no different. Since 1999, Kim has been the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“On Tuesday at 7: 30 p.m. in Mills Hall, Kim will offer a talk, “From Prodigy to Professionalism – A Life in Music.” (Editor’s note: You can sample Kim’s terrific conversational style and accessible analysis in the interview with him about his violin in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“He’ll describe his experiences and struggles to reach the pinnacle of his career, interspersed with performances of some of Mr. Kim’s favorite works. It will be a humorous, sometimes jarring, and often poignant story not to be missed.

“Kim’s talk will be followed by a concert with UW-Madison strings and pianist Thomas Kasdorf. The program will include “Sonatensatz” (Sonata Movement) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897); “Banjo and Fiddle” by William Kroll (1901-1980); “Meditation” from the opera “Thais” by Jules Massenet (1842-1912); and “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).

“I’ve always shared anecdotes about my crazy upbringing,” Kim wrote in an email. “From the beginning, my story seemed to resonate, especially with parents. After all, who doesn’t have a story of an overzealous parent from some stage of life!

“Now I share my story numerous times each season and have been urged by many to write a book – a la the widely read book, ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.’

“But that will probably never happen as I prefer speaking during my concerts and love seeing the audience react in person.”

“Join us for our “Conversation & Concert” with David Kim, our strings players and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below), a UW-Madison alumnus and graduate student. Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for students, except Mead Witter music majors, who receive free admission. Buy tickets here. They will also be sold at the door, starting at 6:30 p.m.

“Additional Events: 
Violin Master Class is TODAY, Monday, Oct. 16, at 7 p.m. in Morphy Hall;
 Strings Orchestral Excerpts Master Class is on Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 11 a.m. in Morphy Hall. Both classes are free and open to the public.

“Learn more here: http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/david-kim-vivaldis-four-seasons/


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