The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW-Madison’s first countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf returns to perform on Sunday night as a member of the acclaimed choral group Chanticleer. Here’s how he got from here to there. Part 1 of 2 

September 30, 2019
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ALERT: Madison Symphony Orchestra organist Greg Zelek did not announce his encore after he received a standing ovation at the MSO concert Sunday afternoon. It was the final movement from the Organ Symphony No. 1 by Louis Vierne.

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday night, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the inaugural  concert in the new Hamel Music Center’s main concert hall, the critically acclaimed a cappella singing group Chanticleer (below) will kick off the centennial anniversary celebration of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Tickets are $45 for the public; $40 for faculty staff and Union members; and $10 for students. For more information about the performers and the “Trade Winds” program, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chanticleer/

Among the 12 members of the San-Francisco-based Chanticleer is Gerrod Pagenkopf, who is in his fifth year with the group as both a countertenor and the assistant music director. (You can hear Pagenkopf singing music by Henry Purcell in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For a biography of Gerrod Pagenkopf, go to: https://www.chanticleer.org/gerrod-pagenkopf

Pagenkopf (below) is a graduate of the UW-Madison. When he performed here as a student, his high, clear countertenor voice was a new experience and made those of us who heard him sit bolt upright and take notice. “He is going places,” we said to each other. And so he has.

But Pagenkopf’s story is not only about him. It is also about the rediscovery of countertenors, about the changing public acceptance of them, and about the challenges that young musicians often face in establishing a professional performing career. So today and tomorrow, The Ear is offering a longer-than-usual, two-part interview with Pagenkopf.

Here is Part 1:

When were you at the UW-Madison?

I was a student at the UW-Madison from the fall of 1997 until I graduated in May of 2002. Although I received a bachelor’s degree in music education, performing ended up being a huge part of my last few semesters.

Growing up in rural Wisconsin about 30 miles north of Green Bay, I always thought that if you liked music and were good at it, you were supposed to be a teacher. It wasn’t until I was a junior that my voice teacher, the late Ilona Kombrink, and I discovered that I had a viable solo voice. Although I received the music education degree, embarking on a solo career became more important to me.

What did you do and how well did your studies and performances here prepare you for the life of a professional musician?

I was very lucky to have ample opportunities for performing during my time at the UW. Singing in choirs was very important to me. For many years I sang in the Concert Choir under Beverly Taylor (below top) as well as in the Madrigal Singers under Bruce Gladstone (below bottom,, in a photo by Katrin Talbot). I think there was one semester where I sang in just about every auditioned choir.

Beverly Taylor also gave me a lot of solo opportunities in the large-scale works that the Choral Union performed: Bach’s “St. John” and “St. Matthew” Passions, and Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” For a 23-year-old to have those masterworks, along with the B Minor Mass and “Messiah,” on his resume was very impressive.

I was also lucky enough to perform with University Opera, singing in the chorus at first, but then singing a solo role in Handel’s “Xerxes” my final semester, and then returning as an alumni artist to sing Public Opinion in Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” and several years later Polinesso in Handel’s “Ariodante.” Director Bill Farlow took a lot of chances on my young, “raw” countertenor voice and gave me several opportunities to succeed.

I should also note the importance of the guidance and mentorship of Professor Mimmi Fulmer (below, performing at Frank Loyd Wright’s Hillside Theater at Taliesin in Spring Green) after I graduated from UW. She afforded me the opportunity to sing in recital with her numerous times — usually Brahms and Mendelssohn duets. But she also was a catalyst in bringing me back to Madison several years later to sing with the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble. Our continued relationship is actually the primary reason Chanticleer is singing in Madison this fall.

How do you feel about returning to perform at your alma mater with Chanticleer?

I’m over the moon about it. It still feels like a dream that I’m singing in Chanticleer. To be able to bring a group that I’m so proud to be a part of back to Madison feels like a great personal triumph. And to be the opening performance in the new Hamel Center (below) is such an honor!

Throughout my studies at UW-Madison, I was torn between the solo performance track and the choral career. I managed to straddle both, but my dream was always to make ensemble singing my career. Way back in the early 2000s, I heard Chanticleer sing at Luther Memorial Church, and I thought, “That’s what I want to do!”

I went down several other paths since that concert — mostly in the realm of solo, operatic singing — but it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to say I achieved my dream, and I’m coming back to place where the seed of that dream was planted almost 20 years ago.

Tomorrow: How countertenors re-emerged and were treated, the “Trade Winds” program and Pagenkopf’s future plans


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Classical music: UW Choral Director Beverly Taylor talks about her life with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which she will conduct this Sunday afternoon and night

April 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” always ranks high on the short list of the greatest choral works ever composed.

And for good reason.

It represents a peak of Bach’s sacred music and his choral compositions.

This Sunday afternoon and night in Mills Hall, Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the assistant music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the UW Choral Union (below) — comprised of university and community singers — plus soloists and an orchestra, in a performance of the complete work.

At 4 p.m. they will do Part 1 and then at 7:30 p.m., Part 2.

Tickets (one ticket is good for both parts) are $15, $8 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Tickets will also be available at the door.

The Ear is always curious to learn more about the relationship between a professional musician and a towering masterpiece.

He found out more when Taylor (below) recently answered an email Q&A about her past and current experiences with the “St. Matthew Passion”:

When did you first hear the “St. Matthew Passion” and what was your reaction?

I never heard it until my late 20s, would you believe? I’d been through grad school and all its training, and learned German, knew a lot of Bach; and when Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony did it on Good Friday, I sat spellbound for over three hours.

I was shaken to the core by its beauty, and even though it was hardly an early music performance, it was well handled, and one of my favorite British singers, Robert Tear, was the Evangelist. I’ve never forgotten it!

Where do you place the “St. Matthew Passion” among Bach’s works and especially among his many choral works?

As with all masterpieces, it’s hard to choose. It’s the longest work, and its size and scope alone make it a frequent choice of many for favorite work.

It’s more dramatic than the breath-taking B Minor Mass and more meditative than the St. John Passion, but I also love the unbelievable variety of cantatas that Bach (below) produced.

Don’t make me choose!

What role has the “St. Matthew Passion” played in your personal and professional life?

I’d say it’s a pinnacle work. This is only my second time performing it, and I’m unlikely to have the chance again, although one hopes. So I’m invested in its beauty and in its core message of hope in the face of tragedy.

Are there things you would like audiences to know about your upcoming performance?

There are several things.

We have a wonderful cast of soloists, and the orchestra is not the usual student orchestra, since the UW Symphony Orchestra is committed to another program in the near future, but is instead a mixture of students, semi-pros and pros.

The work is set for the two choruses and two orchestras that play with them. Many of the choral movements are set for both orchestras, but Bach varies the texture of each movement by varying who plays in what.

If a listener hasn’t been to a Passion performance before, then you might want to know that:

The character of the Evangelist (sung superbly in this case by Wesley Dunnagan, below) is the narrator of the drama. He is accompanied by the continuo part—which is made up of a keyboard (usually organ with sacred works) and a low melody instrument, usually cello.

The chorus members sing sometimes in the character of Greek chorus commentary, sometimes as characters in the roles of Mob, Roman soldiers, Pharisees, and disciples. Most of this text comes from the book of St. Matthew. However, German theologians wrote commentary that is used for the beautiful Chorales-which basically are hymn-style settings of well-known Lutheran tunes. These chorales turn personal—for instance when Judas betrays Jesus, the chorus, after being a mob, turns around and says in repentance—It is I, I’m the one that killed you. (You can hear the final chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The text is so important, and Bach uses myriad details to bring it out. It is typical that when the text is about death, or evil, or sin, the writing is chromatic, or full of augmented fourth intervals (once nicknamed the devil’s interval). When Jesus has died and been buried, the chorus sings what feels like a lullaby, with the rocking cradle motion. When an earthquake follows Jesus’ death and the curtain of the temple is torn, the continuo cello breaks out of accompaniment mode and tears down the scale like lightning

Although this work presents Bach’s Christian view in the heart of the church year, the scope and issues of faithfulness and disloyalty, trust and fear, should resonate with listeners of all faiths.

We’ve chosen, as some other presenters have, to have a dinner/snack break between the two parts of the three-hour work. One ticket will get you into either or both halves. We do this to give singers and players a little rest, and a little movement to our listeners. Part I runs from 4 p.m. to about 5:15 p.m., and Part II runs from 7:30 p.m. to about 9:15 p.m.


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