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
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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

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


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Classical music: This weekend, soloist Alban Gerhardt will give the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of the Cello Concerto by William Walton. Also on the program are an overture by Rossini and the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms

February 12, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, cellist Alban Gerhardt (below) returns to the Madison Symphony Orchestra to play the lyrically bittersweet Cello Concerto by William Walton for the first time in the history of the MSO.

Filling out the program are the lush and sweeping Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms and the rousing Overture to the opera Semiramide” by Gioachino Rossini.

The concerts are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on Friday, Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 18, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets cost $18-$90, and discounts are available. See below for details.

MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), who will conduct the performance, previewed the “Richly Romantic” program:

“Opening the concert is a favorite overture of mine by the prolific Rossini, from the opera Semiramide.

“Next, we welcome back Alban Gerhardt. This charismatic cellist has a huge repertoire and impeccable technique, as well as consummate musicianship. (NOTE: Gerhardt will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music on Friday afternoon from 2:30 to 5 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.)

“In my search to program important works that have not been previously performed by the MSO, I realized that we have never performed the cello concerto by William Walton. It is a very beautiful and lyrical work, and I look forward to collaborating again with Alban on this project.

“I never like to let too much time pass without programming the Brahms symphonies. The first symphony was a huge success at its premiere, and has been proclaimed a masterpiece. It overtly pays tribute to the great master who gave us nine great symphonies. Indeed, many people have referred to the Brahms first as Beethoven’s 10th.”

Here is more background about the three works:

The Overture to Semiramide marks a departure from other operatic overtures of the early 1800s, in that the themes are drawn directly from the opera’s score.

Written by Rossini (below), one of the greatest opera composers in history, the piece also represents some of his best orchestral writing, starting from the rhythmic opening, to the entrance of the horn choir taken directly from the score of the opera, to the joyously frenetic ending.

Written in 1956 in Ischia, a volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Cello Concerto by William Walton (below) reflects the composer’s love of Italy and has been described as subdued, brittle, bittersweet, and introspective.

The composition is suffused with Italianate warmth and a lyrical, singing quality reflecting both bel canto opera as well as Italian popular song. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the first movement played by Gregor Piatigorsky, for whom the concerto was written.)

Praised for the “warm songfulness of his playing” (The Telegraph) at the 2016 BBC Proms, Alban Gerhardt (below) has, for 25 years, made a unique impact on audiences worldwide with his intense musicality, compelling stage presence, and insatiable artistic curiosity.

His gift for shedding fresh light on familiar scores, along with his appetite for investigating new repertoire from centuries past and present, truly sets him apart from his peers.

Though he began writing sketches of the piece as early as 1854, the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms (below) was not completed for 21 years, premiering in Germany in 1876. The final movement contains melodies reminiscent of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which has led some critics to dub the work “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony” much to Brahms’ dismay.

One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below), artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra and interim artistic director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please view the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/6.Feb18.html

The Symphony recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk that is free for all ticket-holders.

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $18 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Major funding for the February concerts is provided by: The Madison Concourse Hotel & Governor’s Club, University Research Park, and National Guardian Life Insurance Company.

Additional funding was provided by Boardman & Clark LLP, Scott and Janet Cabot, Martha and Charles Casey, Gary and Lynn Mecklenburg, Rodney Schreiner and Mark Blank, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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