The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: It’s Christmas Eve — a good time to revisit how the Wisconsin Chamber Choir imaginatively and successfully used many versions of the “Magnificat” to combine the holiday seasonal and the musically substantial  

December 24, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger 

Here is a special posting that is perfect for Christmas Eve. It is 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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

On last Saturday night, at the fully filled Grace Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, director Robert Gehrenbeck led the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) through a program that managed blessedly to combine the seasonal with the musically substantial.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Magnificats 1

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Magnificat audience

The program was constructed with very great insight and imagination, around the Magnificat, the hymn in the Gospel of St. Luke that the Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth are supposed to have improvised during their Visitation.

Marys magnificat

The Latin version is probably, with the exception of passages from the Mass Ordinary,, the most frequently set of all liturgical texts, given its varied utilities — not only for Advent celebrations but as the culminating part of the Office of Vespers.

Of the absolutely innumerable settings made of this text and its counterparts through the ages, Gehrenbeck (below) – who directs the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — selected six versions, mingling them among related musical works. The program was organized in six segments, three given before intermission, three after.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

An initial German segment was dominated by the Deutsches Magnificat, which uses Martin Luther’s translation, a late and very great Baroque masterpiece for double choir by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672).

That was supplemented with a five-voice motet by Johannes Eccard (1553-1611) that absorbs some of the Magnificat imagery, and a textually unrelated double-choir German motet by the post-Baroque Gottfried Homilius (1714-1785) — a piece that reminded me strikingly of the neo-polyphonic style that Johannes Brahms would develop a century later for his own motets.

Johann Sebastian Bach found his place with three of the four Advent texts that the composer inserted in the original E-flat version of his Latin Magnificat setting. One of those adapts the chorale Vom Himmel hoch (From Heaven High), so the three were prefaced by a chorale-prelude for organ by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) that elaborates on that hymn. (NOTE: Bach’s lovely full choral version of the Magnificat can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom. It features conductor John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and period instruments played in historically informed performances.)

Then we had settings of the Latin text.

First, one that alternates plainchant on the odd-numbered verses with organ elaborations by Johann Erasmus Kindermann (1616-1655) on the even ones.

Second, we had a full setting by the late-Baroque Czech composer, Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745), with a skeletal “orchestra” reduced to oboe, violin and cello played beautifully by, respectively, Andy Olson, a graduate of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin,  who works at Epic and who has performed with the Middleton Community Orchestra; Laura Burns of the Madison Symphony Orchestra; and Eric Miller of the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble.

Andy Olson oboe

- Laura Burns CR Brynn Bruijn

Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble Eric Miller USE THIS by Katrin Talbot

A clever venture was made into Orthodox Christian treatments of the text in Church Slavonic. The full text in that form was given not in one of the more standard Russian Orthodox settings, but in a highly romanticized treatment by César Cui (1835-1918), a member of the “Mighty Five” group.

This was supplemented with beautiful settings of the Bogoróditse devo and the Dostóyno yest hymns of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, both of which paraphrase parts of Luke’s text: the former composed by the Estonian modernist Arvo Pärt (below, b.1935), the latter by the Russian Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998).

Arvo Part

English-language treatments finally came with one of the settings by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis pairing that is standard in the Anglican church. This was prefaced by a simple organ elaboration by John Ireland (1879-1962) of an unrelated English Christmas song.

The final group drew back from the Magnificat motif by presenting two works each of two contemporary American composers who, for their time, are able to write with lovely and idiomatic results for chorus: Peter Bloesch (below top, b. 1963) and Stephen Paulus (below bottom, 1949-2014).

Peter Bloesch

stephen paulus

Each was represented by an arrangement and an original piece. Paulus’ treatment of the traditional “We Three Kings” carol went with his setting of a charming poem by Christina Rosetti (slightly suggestive of what Gian-Carlo Menotti portrayed in his opera Amahl and the Night Visitors).

Bloetsch’s elaboration of an old French Christmas song was balanced with his lovely setting of a 15th-century poem that does vaguely hint at some verbiage of the Magnificat after all. Both works by Bloetsch, who was in the audience, received their world premieres.

The 53-voice choir sounded superb: beautifully balanced, precise, sonorous and often simply thrilling. Along the way, four women from the ranks delivered solo parts handsomely. Mark Brampton Smith (below) was organist and pianist as needed.

Mark Brampton Smith

It proved a superlative seasonal offering, in all, organized with a rationale that was both ingenious and illuminating.

For more information about the Wisconsin Chamber Choir and its future concerts, go to:

http://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org

 

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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform an unusual holiday program of several settings of the “Magnificat” as well as two world premieres this Saturday night. Plus, today is the 245th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven.

December 16, 2015
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ALERT: Today is the 245th birthday of composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). You’re sure to hear a lot of Beethoven on the radio. And maybe you will play some Beethoven. Why not let The Ear and other readers know what is your favorite symphony, piano sonata, concerto and string quartet or other chamber music work? Leave your choice in the COMMENT section with a link to a YouTube video, if that is possible.

By Jacob Stockinger

The acclaimed Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) is known delivering first-rate music in first-rate performance, often with some original twist or take or concept.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir RVW mixed up

This weekend of this holiday season is no different.

On this Saturday night, the critically acclaimed Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform an ambitious and unusual holiday concert called “Magnificat.”

The performance is Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in Grace Episcopal Church (below), at 116 West Washington Avenue, where it joins Carroll Street on the Capitol Square, in downtown Madison.

grace episcopal church ext

MBM Grace altar

Tickets are $15 (students $10) in advance; $20 ($12) at the door. Advance tickets are available from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Willy Street Coop (East and West locations) and Orange Tree Imports.

Featured performers include Andy Olson, oboe; Laura Burns, violin; Eric Miller, cello; and Mark Brampton Smith, organ

BACKGROUND AND PROGRAM NOTES

Here is more information from the Wisconsin Chamber Choir:

“My soul magnifies the Lord…”

Marys magnificat

It is how Mary’s song of praise, from the Gospel of Luke, begins. And it is one of the oldest Christian hymns, known as the Magnificat. (The hymn’s title comes from first word of the Latin version, Magnificat anima mea Dominum.

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will offer Mary’s song in English, Latin, German and Church Slavonic, with music by Heinrich Schütz, Johann Sebastian Bach, Jan Dismas Zelenka, Arvo Pärt, Herbert Howells and two world premieres by the Iowa-based composer, Peter Bloesch.

Widely regarded as the greatest German composer before Bach, Heinrich Schütz’s double-choir “German Magnificat” was his very last composition. In this piece, Schütz (below) brings the vivid imagery of the Magnificat text to life in some of his most inventive and compelling music.

Heinrich Schutz

Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka, known as “the Catholic Bach,” was the official church composer to the Catholic court in Dresden. A master of counterpoint like Bach, Zelenka frequently utilized energetic, syncopated rhythms and daring harmonic progressions in his music, qualities on display in his Magnificat in D-major for soloists, choir, and instruments.

jan dismas zelenka BIG use

From Bach himself, the WCC presents three charming, rarely heard movements that Bach inserted into his own “Magnificat” setting for performances during the Christmas season. (NOTE: You can  hear Bach’s complete “Magnificat” with conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Bach1

Complimenting these choral works by Bach, Zelenka and Schütz, organist Mark Brampton Smith performs solo organ works by Baroque composers Johann Pachelbel and Johann Kindermann.

Mark Brampton Smith

The spritely Bogoroditse Devo (the Russian equivalent of the Latin Ave Maria) by Arvo Part (below top) opens the second half of the program, followed by a glorious, Romantic version of the “Magnificat” sung in Church Slavonic. The musical setting is composed by César Cui (below bottom), a close associate of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin.

Arvo Part

Cesar Cui

Representing the Magnificat text in English is the setting for Gloucester Cathedral, composed in 1946 by Herbert Howells (below).

herbert howells autograph

The WCC’s program concludes with a set of seasonal carols by the late Grammy-nominated Stephen Paulus (below top) and Peter Bloesch, a multifaceted composer from Iowa City with extensive experience in choral music, holiday pops arrangements, and film and television scores, including collaborations with Mike Post on TV hits “LA Law” and “Law and Order.”

stephen paulus

The WCC will present two world premieres by Peter Bloesch (below): an original version of the medieval carol, Out of Your Sleep Arise and Wake, and a virtuoso, eight-part setting of the beloved French melody, Ding Dong, Merrily on High.

Peter Bloesch

Founded in 1998, the Madison-based Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart, and Haydn; a cappella masterworks from various centuries; and world-premieres. Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who directs the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, is the artistic director and conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

 


Classical music: The Ear gets to hear a masterpiece in the making -– Pierre Jalbert’s “Howl” Clarinet Quintet. It sure sounds like it will become a staple of new music. Plus, the FREE Noon Musicales at the First Unitarian Society of Madison resume this Friday.

October 2, 2014
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ALERT: The FREE Friday Noon Musicales (below) in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, resume again this Friday, Oct. 3, at 12:15 to 1 p.m. This week’s featured group is the Arbor Ensemble  with flutist Berlinda Lopez, violinist Marie Pauls and pianist Stacy Fehr-Regehr in the music of Jacques Ibert, Cesar Cui, Bohuslav Martinu, Astor Piazzolla and Josef Suk.

FUS1jake

By Jacob Stockinger

Imagine my unexpected joy at hearing the new Clarinet Quintet by American composer Pierre Jalbert (below), who was inspired by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s famous “Howl,” last Friday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Pierre Jalbert

The reason for my happiness is because I heard music that was so compelling and so moving that it made me want to listen to it again and again.

I know, I know.

A lot of proponents of new music say you have to listen to any new and unheard piece several times before you can pass judgment.

I don’t buy it.

True, as loyal readers know, I am generally not a fan of new music. I find too much of it unenjoyable and forgettable. It just doesn’t speak to me, for whatever reason. I like tunes and melody and harmonic mood as well as rhythmic pulse. New music too often seems detached from the emotional life of the listeners– or at least this listener.

I prefer music that speaks so deeply and movingly to me on the first hearing that I welcome any chance to hear it more often as another chance to experience beauty — not to fulfill some intellectual obligation or duty to the composer or the art form.

When I first heard Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, for example, I knew within one minute that I just had to hear it again and would hear it again many times. It never fails to disappoint. And so it is with any masterwork, from early music, through Baroque and Romantic music, to modern and contemporary music.

Anyway, the “Howl” Clarinet Quintet by Pierre Jalbert was performed last Friday night by the Pro Arte Quartet (below top, in a photo by Rick Langer), artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. The guest clarinetist was Charles Niedich (below bottom) from New York City, who has a major international reputation from working with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and other well-known ensembles.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

Charles Neidich CD Sallie Erichson

The performance came at the newly remodeled Wisconsin Union Theater, which the old Pro Arte Quartet helped to inaugurate when the theater opened 75 years ago in 1939. The theater was not sold-out Friday night, but there was a good and enthusiastic audience that rewarded the Jalbert with a prolonged standing ovation (below). So I know that I was not alone in my positive and approving reaction.

PAQ Jalbert audience ovation

Here is a link with more background:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/09/23/classical-music-the-free-world-premiere-by-the-pro-arte-quartet-of-american-composer-pierre-jalberts-clarinet-quintet-based-on-beat-poet-allen-ginsbergs-howl/

The program started off with the rarely heard and pretty tame String Quartet No. 2 by Juan Crisostomo Arriaga, a Spanish composer known as “the Spanish Mozart” who died at 20. The program’s fitting finale was the sublime Clarinet Quintet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In between the Arriaga and the Mozart came the Jalbert Clarinet Quintet, which was the final of six commissions done to mark the Pro Arte’s centennial. (The Pro Arte Quartet, originally from Belgium,  is now the oldest continuously performing string quartet in the world.)

Other elements added to the effectiveness. For one, the Pro Arte Quartet was in top form. Each voice was distinct and yet the overall blend was smooth, resonant and perfect in pitch. And their playing was enhanced by the terrific acoustics of the remodeled Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater and the new on-stage shell (below, in the background).

PAQ and Charles Neidich in Pierre Jalbert Howl

But it was really the music itself that swept The Ear away.

It started right away, with the pulsing and almost hypnotic rhythms of the opening measures.

The two outer fast movements proved infectious and involving. But I particularly loved the way the middle movement developed.

I heard various audience members talk about how the work reminded them of Samuel Barber, of Philip Glass, of John Adams, of Steve Reich. And yet it didn’t seem to imitate any of them. It possessed a pure, strong voice of its own that used the idea of “Howl” without becoming a didactic piece of program music.

It isn’t often you get to hear a new work that holds the promise of becoming a staple in the repertoire. But that is exactly how it felt as I listened to the Jalbert quintet. Others I spoke to agreed.

PAQ and Charles Neidich standing

Of the six centennial commissions that the Pro Arte has premiered over the past three years, this one seems the best one to end on because it seems the most likely one to succeed in coming years.

Sure, we may hear repeat performances of the String Quartets by John Harbison, Walter Mays and Benoît Mernier; of the Piano Quintets by William Bolcom and Paul Schoenfield. They are all recognized composers of quality.

But my money is on the work by Pierre Jalbert, which was by turns pensive and joyous, outraged and lamenting, much like the original poem “Howl.” The tone of both matched, and the clarinet, with its klezmer-like qualities, proved the perfect narrative voice imparted by Beat writer Allen Ginsberg (below).

Allen Ginsberg 1

It is a memorable night when you get to hear a masterwork in the making. All that work of chamber music needs now is history and many more repeat performances. I expect it will get those.

And to top it off, Pierre Jalbert (below right) -– who hails from Vermont and teaches at Rice University in Houston, Texas — was a very nice artist who was extremely amiable at the pre-concert dinner at the Chazen Museum of Art as well as insightfully candid during the pre-concert Q&A (below) that was so expertly hosted by Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (center) and also included clarinetist Charles Neidich.

Jalbert Q&A

Anyway, the “Howl” Clarinet Quintet by Pierre Jalbert will be recorded by the same players for Albany Records, under the supervision of the Grammy Award-winning producer Judith Sherman, and then released with the String Quartet No. 3 by Belgian composer Benoît Mernier.

I will be first in line to get it and set my CD player on repeat.

Can’t wait.

If you heard it, what do you think of the Clarinet Quintet by Pierre Jalbert, who offers his thoughts about composing in a YouTube video at the bottom?

Do you think it will become a staple of the repertoire?

The Ear wants to hear.

 

 


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