The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: You be the critic. Was there a specific piece or an entire concert of holiday music that you especially liked – or disliked — this year?

December 26, 2018
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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

Well, Hanukkah, the winter solstice and Christmas are over and we’ve just about made it through another holiday time, with Kwanzaa and New Year’s still to come.

Holiday music, especially choral music, is undeniably popular during holiday season.

Year after year, the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas program (below is a photo by Peter Rodgers)  – which uses local and ethnically diverse talent and well as imported guest vocal artists — usually comes close to selling out three performances in Overture Hall.

And year after year for a decade, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Festival Choir plus guest soloists (below) sell out their one performance of “Messiah” at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton.

Plus, there are lots of other holiday events – including the Madison Bach Musicians with Baroque chamber music favorites and the Madison Choral Project with spoken word narration and new music as well as programs of traditional carols and hymns– that drew good crowds or even full houses.

There are so many holiday music events, in fact, that it can often be hard to choose.

So here is what The Ear is asking: You be the critic.

Please tell us if there was a particular piece of music you especially enjoyed – say, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” or George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” or violin concertos by Arcangelo Corelli – music you really liked or disliked?

For next year, what do you recommend that people should keep an eye and ear out for, including programs on Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television as well as on other TV and radio stations?

Similarly, was there a specific program or event – an entire program or concert – that surprised you for better or worse?

Given the limited time that most people have during the holidays, what holiday concerts should people plan on attending or avoid next year?

Often the public trusts other audience members more than they trust professional critics.

So here is a chance for you to be a critic and to direct the public’s attention as well as to thank certain performers and groups for what you see as the Best Holiday Music of 2018.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Messiah” marks 10 years with another sold-out performance and two new soloists this Friday night. Then starting Saturday, it’s on to “The Nutcracker”

December 6, 2018
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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

There is no more iconic piece of classical music for the holiday season than the oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel. (You can hear the famous “Hallelujah” Chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For 10 years, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the WCO Chorus, the Festival Choir and four guest soloists (all forces from a previous performance are in the photo below) have been bringing the masterwork to Madison. And it usually plays to a full house.

This year’s performance once again takes place at 7 p.m. this Friday night, Dec. 7, at the Blackhawk Church, 8629 Brader Way in Middleton. And once again, all 800 seats are sold out.

For more information, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah-1/

“It is very successful and has become a real tradition,” says WCO’s Chief Operating Officer Sue Ellen McGuire. “We have people and families who come year after year.”

But that does not mean each year’s performance, both acclaimed by critics and popular with the public, is a repetition of the previous year’s.

True, some things carry over, such as the longtime soprano soloist Sarah Lawrence and bass soloist Peter Van de Graaff (below), who is also the overnight resonant voice of classical music on Wisconsin Public Radio via The Beethoven Satellite Network.

“It is such a great masterpiece that I feel I can play around with it somewhat and make each year’s performance distinctive and different,” says WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below). Some years, he says, he cuts out or adds certain choruses; or changes the intermission break; or alters the makeup of the instruments or choruses; or uses different soloists, or continues to adapt to and adopt early music practices.

Take this year. For the first time, the performance will include two singers who competed in the annual Handel Aria Competition held in Madison: mezzo-soprano Johanna Bronk (a finalist in 2017), and tenor Gene Stenger (bottom left, the second prize winner and audience favorite in 2017).

“It’s a no-brainer and a natural fit to use the world-class talent that takes part in a local event,” says Sewell, who is also the music director of the symphony orchestra in San Luis Obispo in California.

And for those of you who wonder what the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra does after Concerts on the Square end in the summer and before its Masterworks series starts in January, the answer is marking the holidays.

In addition to “Messiah,” the WCO will accompany the Madison Ballet’s performances of Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” that take place between Dec. 8 and Dec. 26 in the Overture Center. For details and tickets, go to: https://www.madisonballet.org/nutcracker/


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Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians perform their sixth annual Baroque holiday concert this coming Saturday night. Plus, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Messiah” on Friday night is close to selling out

December 5, 2016
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ALERT: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and its acclaimed music director Andrew Sewell are pretty busy these days playing the accompanying music for the Madison Ballet‘s multiple performances of Peter Tchaikovsky‘s holiday ballet “The Nutcracker.”

Then on this coming Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton, the WCO, the WCO Chorus, the Festival Choir of Madison and guest soloists, all under the baton of Sewell, also give their annual and usually sold-out performance of George Frideric Handel‘s oratorio “Messiah.” The Ear has been told that this year’s performance is also close to selling out to. For more information and tickets, go to: 

http://www.wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah-at-blackhawk-church-middleton/

By Jacob Stockinger

At 8 p.m. this Saturday night, Dec. 10, the Madison Bach Musicians (below top) will give their sixth annual Baroque Holiday Concert.

mbm-baroque-holiday-2015-all-singing

The event will once again be held in the beautiful and sonorous sanctuary (below) of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue.

mbm-baroque-holiday-2015-audence-and-players

MBM holiday 2014 Marc Vallon on bassoon JWB

There is a free pre-concert lecture by the always witty, informative and entertaining MBM founder, artistic director and harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson (below) at 7:15 p.m. NOTE: Trevor Stephenson will also discuss the upcoming holiday concert and play excerpts from past ones TODAY AT NOON on The Midday program aired by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Trevor Stephenson full face at keyboard USE

The program will feature: a cappella (solo vocal) masterworks by Orlando di Lassus and Josquin des Prez performed by a vocal quartet; a Christmas Cantata for soprano and strings by Alessandro Scarlatti—featuring soprano soloist Chelsea Morris (below top); a trio sonata by Johann Joseph Fux; an intriguing  Partita for two scordatura violins (scordatura means the open strings are re-tuned into a new interval configuration!) by Heinrich Biber; the Sonatina in A minor for baroque bassoon and continuo by Georg Philipp Telemann ― with soloist and UW-Madison professor Marc Vallon (below bottom, in a photo by James Gill); one of the Christmas Cantatas, BWV 122Das neugeborne Kindelein (The Newborn Baby) by Johann Sebastian Bach (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); and a bonus feature ― a preview of MBM’s upcoming April performance of Bach’s oratorio  St. John Passion, the tenor aria Ach, mein Sinn.

CHELSEA Shephard

Marc Vallon 2011 James Gill (baroque & modern)[2]

Advance-sale discount tickets: $28 for general admission, $23 for students and seniors 65 and over. They are available at Orange Tree Imports, Farley’s House of Pianos, Room of One’s Own, and Willy Street Co-op (East and West) . You can also find online advance-sale tickets at madisonbachmusicians.org 

Tickets at the door are: $30 for general admission; $25  for students and seniors 65 and over.
 Student Rush tickets are $10 at the door and go on sale 30 minutes before lecture (student ID is required)

Musicians will include: Chelsea Morris, soprano; Joseph Schlesinger, counter-tenor; Scott Brunscheen, tenor; Matthew Tintes, bass; Kangwon Kim and Brandi Berry, baroque violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt, baroque viola; Martha Vallon, baroque cello; Marc Vallon, baroque bassoon; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord


Classical music: Conductor Andrew Sewell reveals how he keeps Handel’s “Messiah” fresh. He will perform it on Friday and Sunday nights with the Wisconsin Chamber orchestra, soloists, the WCO Chorus and the Festival Choir of Madison

December 7, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The weekend will see two seasonal performances of the iconic oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel.

Conductor Andrew Sewell – who will also be busy leading performances of the Madison Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” this weekend — will again lead the combined forces of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra along with the WCO Chorus and the Festival Choir of Madison.

WCO Messiah stage and banners

There will also be four guest soloists:

Soprano Sarah Lawrence:

Sarah Lawrence photo

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck:

Jamie Van Eyck photo 2015

Tenor Calland Metts:

Callend Metts photo

Returning bass Peter Van de Graaff, who is also the host of overnight music on Wisconsin Public Radio:

WCO Messiah bass Peter Van de Graaff

The two performances will be in different locations and have different ticket prices:

The first performance is this Friday night, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Blackhawk Church, at 9620 Brader Way, in Middleton.

The second performance is on this Sunday night, Dec. 13, at 7 p.m. at the Westbrook Church, at 1100 Highway 83, in Hartland, about an hour from Madison and near Milwaukee. It is about 1-2 hours from Madison.

For more information, here are two links:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/messiah-at-blackhawk-church/

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/messiah-at-westbrook-church-hartland-wi/

Andrew Sewell recently talked via email to The Ear about “Messiah”:

andrewsewell

What keeps “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel so perennially popular with the public, especially at holiday time? In your mind, does it have to do more with the music or the text? And is it as popular with the performers as with the audiences?

I think the meaning of the text, the recounting of the story of the life of Christ particularly in the first part, which is always recounted at Christmas, makes this work so enduring. It gives people pause to stop and think.

It has become a tradition, not unlike the Nine Lessons and Carols, although one can perform it at any time.

It is both the text and the genius of Handel to set the text so beautifully to music. Especially when you realize he was not a native English speaker, yet wrote it for an English-speaking audience.

Back in the day when I was a violinist, we would perform the full “Messiah” (all 3 hours and 15 minutes) twice on two successive days. Yes, it became hard work after a while, just the sheer physicality of holding your instrument up with very few breaks. However, the score never became old, and there is always something new to be found whether a different soloist, or the way the choir is prepared.

WCO Messiah Cover 2

How many times have you conducted “Messiah”? As a conductor, how do you keep it fresh for yourself and not boring or predictable? How do you find new things to say or new ways to say them?

Well this is our seventh season since performing it at Blackhawk Church, and before then we performed it twice a year for the “sing-out” Messiah from 2000 to 2008. I have conducted it also in Syracuse. So, I’ve conducted it probably around 30 times.

I think it’s the same with any piece of great music that is often repeated year after year: you find ways to keep it fresh. Perhaps you try new things — new articulations, different repeats, adding or subtracting movements, using different “cuts” since we have the challenge of bringing a 3 hour and 15 minute work in under 2-1/2 hours.

WCO Messiah full orchestra and two choirs

How have your conception of the work and your performances of it evolved over the years?

I have found that the tradition in the United States was different to the one I had been accustomed to in New Zealand. Again, I found that for the most part, for local performances of “Messiah,” church choir directors usually cut it down to be about 2 to 2-1/2 hours in length.

I had never heard of the Christmas portion or the Easter portion before moving to the United States. My experience had always been to play the work in its entirety — merely a different tradition.

Nowadays, I enjoy including as many choruses and arias as we have time for, that both challenge the chorus and make sense of the text in some chronological capacity. And of course, there are those arias you cannot omit -– “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” for instance.

WCO Messiah WCO Chorus and Festival Choir 1

What would you like the public to know about Handel and “Messiah” that they may not already know or need to be reminded of?

That it ostensibly started out life as a secular work in a secular environment; and that, over the years, it has become to be considered more as a sacred work and performed in a church. In either venue it is okay and a great masterpiece, whatever your religious or non-religious affiliations may be.

WCO Messiah taking bows

Is there something else you would like to say?

I think as you pay attention to the ebb and flow of the arias and choruses, they should tell a compelling story that reaches its climax in the most positive way. It is a story of great redemption for humanity and is what Handel achieves with his setting of “Worthy Is the Lamb” and the “Amen.” (You can hear the glorious “Amen” in the YouTube video below.)

 


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