The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Choral Union delivers an eclectic non-seasonal program of music by Beethoven, Brahms and Bernstein with power and lyricism

December 12, 2016
3 Comments

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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Eschewing any seasonal or holiday connections, the UW-Madison Choral Union (below) gave its December concert last Friday night with a program of three “B’s”.

uw-choral-union-with-chamber-orchestra-and-soloists-dec-2016-jwb

Well, two of the B’s are familiar ones. But in place of Bach, we got Leonard Bernstein, taking first place in reverse chronological order — his Chichester Psalms, dating from 1965.

This three-movement work probably represents Bernstein’s most important choral score. It sets texts in the original Hebrew, the middle movement calling for a boy treble to represent the young David in the rendering of Psalm 131 — a function here filled bravely by young Simon Johnson (below, front left) of the Madison Youth Choirs.

uw-choral-union-dec-2016-jwb-simon-johnson-of-myc

The platoon of percussionists in the first two movements confirms the composer’s flashy “modernism.” To be sure, there are some characteristic melodic twists that proclaim the composer familiar to us, and the swaying melodic tune of the third movement is really lovely.

But Bernstein (below) did not know what to do with it besides repeating it obsessively. Bernstein simply was not a savvy master of choral writing, and I firmly believe that this work—a trivial cross between Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bernstein’s own Broadway musical West Side Story—would not merit much attention were it not for Bernstein’s name on it.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: You can decide on the work’s merits for yourself by listening to the live performance, conducted by the composer himself, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Leonard Bernstein composing in 1955

Just how inadequate Bernstein’s choral sense was emerged clearly with the next work, the short ode for chorus and orchestra by Johannes Brahms, Nänie, Op. 82.

The title adapts a Greek word for a lament, and Friedrich Schiller’s German text evokes the death of beauty in the death of Achilles. Brahms was among the supreme choral masters, and this particular example is one of several of his “minor” choral works that we hear too rarely.

brahmsBW

The second half of the program was devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Op. 86. No, not the monumental Missa solemnis of the composer’s last years when (as with the Ninth Symphony’s finale) he had transcended the realities of choral writing. This earlier Mass setting, dating from 1807, was in the direct line of Mass settings for the Esterházy family composed by the aged Haydn.

But to Haydn’s incorporation of symphonic structure into Mass composition, Beethoven (below) brought his own strongly progressive personality, and a remarkable quality of melodic and thematic invention. This is a lovely work, and choirs who fling themselves doggedly against the Missa solemnis ought sometimes to revel in this beautiful work instead.

Beethoven big

The forces arrayed included a solo quartet (below, in the front from left) are bass John Loud, tenor Jiabao Zhang and sopranos Jessica Kasinski and Anna Polum.

uw-choral-union-dec-2016-soloists

The UW Chamber Orchestra proved able. But the star was, of course, the Choral Union chorus itself. Its diction worked from indistinguishable Hebrew through respectable German to really lucid Latin. Above all, it made mighty, full-blooded sound that bolstered Beethoven’s lyricism with powerful projection.

Once again, conductor Beverly Taylor (below) has gone beyond stale conventions to bring us valued exposure to music outside the conventional boundaries.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE


Classical music: Concerts of Beethoven, Brahms and Bernstein by the UW Choral Union on this Friday night and of Beethoven, Copland and Nielsen by the UW Symphony Orchestra on this Saturday night help finish off the first semester

December 8, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The end of the first semester is at hand. And this weekend two very appealing concerts will help finish off the first half of the new concert season at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. on this Friday night in Mills Hall, the UW Choral Union and the UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra (below) will perform, for one performance only, three rarely heard works.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

The orchestra and the campus-community chorus will be conducted by Beverly Taylor (below), the director of choral activities at the UW-Madison.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

The program of works that are relatively rare on programs includes the Mass in C Major by Ludwig van Beethoven, “Nänie: Song of Lamentation”  by Johannes Brahms (heard conducted by Claudio Abbado in the YouTube video below) and the “Chichester Psalms” by Leonard Bernstein.

Admission is $15 for adults; $8 for students.

Here are some notes about the works written by conductor Beverly Taylor:

“The Choral Union will present a 3 B’s concert, which includes masterpieces of three different types.

“The Bernstein “Chichester Psalms,” written in the 1960’s for a cathedral in Britain, is a setting of three psalms in Hebrew. The piece is for strings, brass and percussion, and lasts about 20 minutes. It features a flamboyant, joyful and somewhat dissonant opening full of exciting percussion writing.

“The second movement features a wonderful boy soloist, Simon Johnson, from the Madison Youth Choirs, with harp and strings. He is like the shepherd King David, who is peacefully in the fields with his sheep; contrasting that are the warring peoples, sung by the tenors and basses. The boy and women’s voices return singing peacefully above the warring mobs.

“The third movement starts in dissonant pain, but it dissolves into a beautiful, quiet psalm of praise and trust.

“The Brahms Nänie is a 15-minute setting of a poem by Friedrich Schiller on the topic of beauty and its inability to last; even beauty must die, and the gods weep too, but the beauty itself is worth all! The style is Romantic with the long arching melodic lines for which Brahms is well-known.

“The Beethoven Mass in C is one of just two masses that Beethoven wrote; in contrast to the long, loud, high, grand and overpowering “Missa Solemnis,” the Mass in C is more charming, Mozartean and approachable. It still has some Beethovenian touches of sudden dynamic changes, sforzandi (which are emphases or accents), and slow, elegiac quartets. Our solo quartet will be Anna Polum, Jessica Krasinki, Jiabao Zhang and John Loud.”

For more background and information about how to get tickets, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union-and-chamber-orchestra/

SATURDAY

On this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), under the baton of James Smith (below bottom, in a photo by Jack Burns), will give a FREE concert.

UW Symphony violins 2015

james smith Jack Burns

The program features three works: the late “King Stephan” Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven (heard below in a YouTube video as conducted by Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic)  the “Billy the Kid” Suite by Aaron Copland; and the Symphony No. 4 “Inextinguishable” by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.

The Ear has heard both groups often and highly recommends both concerts.

He was quite amazed at how good the last UW Symphony Orchestra program he heard was. It offered two Fifth Symphonies — by Sergei Prokofiev and Jean Sibelius – only about three weeks into the semester.

It was nothing short of amazing how well the orchestra had come together in such a short time. It was a tight and impassioned performance. The Ear expects the same for this concert, which has had a lot more rehearsal time.


Classical music Alert: Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols airs this year on Saturday, Dec. 24, at 9 a.m. and again on Sunday, Dec. 25, at 2 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio

December 23, 2011
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Although this is not technically a classical music event, it often features classical composers and it is itself a classic — a very popular, enjoyable and moving event that appeals to many of the same people as classical music does.

Plus, I am responding to a request by a loyal reader of this blog.

She asked me: When is Wisconsin Public Radio broadcasting the traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, started after World War I, from King’s College in Cambridge, England (below)?

I couldn’t answer for sure.

It was then that I realized I hadn’t heard any promo or teasers on the radio, so I checked it out.

Good thing I did.

It used to be broadcast twice on Christmas Eve, once live in the morning and then again in the late afternoon or early evening.

But this year the two broadcast times are Christmas Eve morning (Saturday, Dec. 24) at 9 a.m. CST and Christmas Day (Sunday, Dec. 25) at 2 p.m. CST. In the Madison area, that is WERN 88.7 FM.

I’ll confess: I am a devotee of the broadcast for many years and I never fail to get weepy when it opens with the solo a cappella boy soprano singing “Once in Royal David’s City” and then as the sounds swells with other boys, and then the organ, and then the full chorus.

And if there is a better opening prayer than the one this service uses — with its plea on behalf of “the lonely and the unloved” — I have yet to hear it.

And then there is usually a newly commissioned carol as well as traditional carols and favorite hymns.

If you don’t know the service or ceremony already, give it a listen. I don’t think you will be sorry you did.

For more information about Wisconsin Public Radio’s other holiday programs and schedules, visit:

http://wpr.org/holiday/

What do you think of the program?

And of the new scheduling?

The Ear wants to hear.


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