By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a special posting, a record 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.
By John W. Barker
For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.
A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.
Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.
Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).
It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”
It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.
Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)
Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.
The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.
Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.
Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.
I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.
They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.
While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.
One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.
This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.
By Jacob Stockinger
Today is Easter Sunday, 2016.
You don’t have to be a believer to know that the events of Easter have inspired great classical music, especially in the Baroque era but also in the Classical, Romantic and Modern eras.
Of course, there is the well-known and much-loved oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel, who wrote it for Easter, not Christmas as is so often assumed because of when it is usually performed. (NOTE: The Madison Bach Musicians will perform “Messiah,” with period instruments and historically informed performance practices, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ on Friday and Sunday, April 8 and 10.)
There is a lot of instrumental music, including the gloriously brilliant brass music by the Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli and the darker Rosary sonatas for violin by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber and the “Lamentation” Symphony, with its sampling of familiar tunes and intended to be performed on Good Friday, by Franz Joseph Haydn.
Easter music cuts across all kinds of nationalities, cultures and even religious traditions: Italian, German, English, Scottish, American, Russian, French and Austrian.
But the occasion — the most central event of Christianity — is really celebrated by the huge amount of choral music combined with orchestral music – perhaps because the total effect is so overwhelming and so emotional — that follows and celebrates Holy Week, from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and then ultimately to Easter and the Resurrection from death of Jesus Christ.
For The Ear, the pinnacle is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below), especially his cantatas, oratorios and passions.
But today The Ear wants to give you a sampler of 16 pieces of great Easter music, complete with audiovisual clips.
Here is one listing that features music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Thomas Tallis, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Gustav Mahler, Francis Poulenc and James MacMillan:
And here is another listing that features music by Antonio Vivaldi, Hector Berlioz, Gioachino Rossini, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Bach’s “Easter Oratorio” (rather than his “St. Matthew Passion” or “St. John Passion”) and “The Resurrection” oratorio (other than “Messiah”) by Handel.
Curiously, no list mentions the gorgeous and haunting “Miserere” (below) by Gregorio Allegri. It was traditionally performed in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel on the Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week, but was kept a closely guarded secret. Publishing it was forbidden. Then a 12-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard it and copied it down from memory.
Finally, The Ear offers his two favorite pieces of Easter music that never fail to move him. They are the passion chorale and final chorus from the “St. Matthew Passion” by Johann Sebastian Bach:
What piece of music is your Easter favorite?
Do you have a different one to suggest that you can leave in the COMMENT section, perhaps with a link to a YouTube video?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Today is the first day when you can vote early via absentee ballot for the presidential primary election in Wisconsin on Tuesday, April 5, when you can also vote to fill a seat on the state Supreme Court.
And tomorrow, Tuesday, brings more presidential primaries for both Republicans and Democrats in the Western states of Arizona and Utah. Plus, there will also be Democratic caucuses in Idaho.
So the following political piece — a pseudo-news report — seems timely and appropriate, especially given the drive by establishment Republicans to rally and choose the ultra-conservative U.S. Senator Ted Cruz from Texas (below) as a way to stop New York City businessman Donald Trump.
Sure, it’s a satire.
But it is a very well done satire — about something that was indeed banned in the Renaissance and Baroque eras by the Roman Catholic Church.
But like so much satire, it is fun that also cuts close to the bone and contains more than a grain of truth about Cruz and about his many “first day on the job” promises if he gets elected president.
Cruz, the son of an evangelical minister, is such a devout and intolerant Christian fundamentalist, it is almost as if he is waging his own jihad, much like the Islamic terrorist state ISIS, on any culture he considers unChristian and heretical to his personal faith and what he considers to be the inerrant and literal truth of the Bible.
Hmm. Does that qualify him as an extremist or radical?
To The Ear, what is really and truly scary is Cruz — not the music.
And it is hard to say who is more threatening as a potential president: Donald Trump or Ted Cruz?
Well, make up your own mind, fellow music-lovers.
Here is the satire from submediant.com. It’s a good read with lots of details, specific composers and food for thought.
And here is a YouTube lesson in music theory that offers an explanation with examples of the Satanic tritone:
A REQUEST: The Well-Tempered Ear blog is within 10 subscriptions of breaking 1,000. That would be so encouraging! The Ear wonders if either you or friends of yours who read the blog regularly might subscribe and help him meet the goal?
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has just a small — yet big — news item to pass along today:
The choir will perform under the direction of Sergei Pavlov (below), who writes:
“The Festival Internacional de Música Sacra in Quito is a long-standing tradition and one of the most prestigious Easter music festivals in South America.
“It is organized by the National Theater (Teatro Nacional Sucre) and the Municipality of the City of Quito.
“In previous years, it has featured groups from about 15 countries, and all the performances — around 20 concerts — are completely free for the audience and are presented in numerous historic churches in Quito.
“The Edgewood Chamber Singers is the first American youth choir to be invited (last year the group from the U.S. was the professional American Spiritual Ensemble). We will be performing together with the youth choir of Teatro Sucre and the National Chamber Choir of Ecuador.
“The concert will feature music by the Baroque composer Domenico Zipoli – who was an 18th-century missionary in South America; traditional African Christian music; music by Karl Jenkins and Aaron Copland; and spirituals. (You can hear a beautiful non-choral work — an Air — by Domenico Zipoli, performed by the Jean-Francois Paillard Chamber Orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
“The festival runs for two weeks before Holy Week. We will be there March 17-24 and our concerts are March 21 and March 22.
“Unfortunately, in South America people still rely on TV and newspaper advertising and the on-line info appears only a few weeks before the festival.”
For more information, visit:
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear received the following message from a loyal reader and thinks it is worth passing on:
“Two of your recent posts sing the praises of Wisconsin Public Radio.
“May I also suggest that we thank area churches?
“Not only do they provide concert venues for various groups, but their active promotion of music more generally — choirs, organ accompaniment — throughout the year is worth a blessing.
“On Christmas Eve, we went to the First Congregational United Church of Christ (below, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer of the Madison Bach Musicians performing its annual Baroque holiday concert) to hear an abbreviated Nine Lessons and Carols.
“We had the benefit of hymnals and for the first time for me could actually read or sing along with the service. Plus lighting dozens of candles in the darkness and wishing the congregation of the planet peace.”
The Ear couldn’t agree more and is happy to comply.
Quite a few churches or church-like organizations come immediately to mind.
There is the First Unitarian Society of Madison (below) with its FREE Friday Noon Musicales every week and its special concerts:
There is the downtown Luther Memorial Church (below) where University of Wisconsin-Madison choirs hold their annual holiday concert and where the Madison Early Music Festival has performed:
There is Grace Episcopal Church (below), on the Capitol Square, which is where the Wisconsin Chamber Choir held its concert this year of various settings of the Magnificat and which hosts the FREE Grace Presents series.
There is the Immanuel Lutheran Church (below), on the near east side, that hosts the Willy Street Chamber Players and the Madison Bach Musicians.
There is the St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below) on the near west side, which hosts many different concerts and groups:
There is Holy Wisdom Monastery (below) in Middleton, which holds a variety of concerts and hosts the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society in the summer.
And even though it is now a landmark building rather than an active place of worship, there is the historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue in James Madison Park, where the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble performs.
Thank you, all.
The Ear is sure there are many more that he is leaving out.
So he asks readers to please leave the names of other churches and concerts or musical events in the COMMENT section.
ALERT: This Sunday night at 8 p.m in Mills Hall, a FREE concert by the local percussion group Clocks in Motion will give the world premieres of two new works by composers Ben Davis and Anthony Donotrio.
By Jacob Stockinger
This Sunday night, Nov. 22, at 7 p.m. the public will have the chance to explore musically and visually the modern Saint John’s Bible, a large mutli-volume work. which is beautifully illuminated with original contemporary art that is reminiscent of Medieval illuminated manuscripts.
No tickets are required and the event is FREE. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m.
This musical and visual collaboration explores the themes of creation, incarnation and transformation. Inspired by illuminations from the Saint John’s Bible Heritage edition, choral selections will be accompanied by projected animations of the chosen illuminated images. It was on display this past year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s Chazen Museum of Art.
Edgewood College officials say that this concert is an invitation to the community to tap into the deep spirituality of the music and the illuminations in the presence of the Gospels and the Acts volume of the Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition.
Here is a link to the official website for the Bible, which was commissioned and cost $145,000 in 1998 and was finished in 2011:
And here is a link to an online exhibition of the Bible at The Library of Congress, so you can explore it more before or after the concert:
The event will feature the Campus-Community Choir, the Chamber Singers, the Women’s Choir (below) and the Guitar Ensemble. Sorry, no word about the specific pieces or composers that will be sung and played.
Here is a link to a brief audiovisual sample of the Edgewood presentation:
In the YouTube video below, art director Donald Jackson talks about creating the new Bible:
By Jacob Stockinger
Our friends at the Rural Musicians Forum — which is directed by Kent Mayfield (below) of Milwaukee and which does such a laudable service by bringing classical music to rural areas in south central Wisconsin — send us the following word about some remarkable performances this coming weekend:
“The Rural Musicians Forum welcomes the holiday season with two Advent concerts in early December. Each concert features the ancient text of the “Magnificat” in two dramatically contrasting modern musical settings for orchestra, chorus and soloists.
The second is at 3 p.m. on this Sunday, Dec. 7 at the basilica-like St. Luke’s Catholic Church (below), at 1240 Nachreiner Avenue, in Plain.
Both concerts will be directed by Gregory Dennis (below), who is widely appreciated around the state for his able choral direction.
The concerts are NOT ticketed. A free-will offering will be received. These concerts are underwritten in part by support from the Spring Green Area Arts Coalition, the Spring Green Arts and Crafts Fair, Kraemer Brothers LLC and generous individual donors.
“The first work is from the British composer, Jonathan Willcocks (below), who is known for a broad range of choral and orchestral music, much of it written for television and film, as well as for King’s College Christmas celebrations.
His “Magnificat” is a melodious, rhythmic and colorful piece, set in five contrasting movements from the Latin with two additional 15th-century texts in praise of the Virgin Mary and interweaves the Latin of the Church with the English of the common people — as if interweaving spiritual and secular themes through the use of two languages.
“The second setting for the “Magnificat” is strikingly different. Influenced by the sounds and rhythms of the Holy Land, Alan Hovhaness (below) — who is also known as an “American mystic” — captures the mysticism, the beauty and the burning ardor of early Christianity. The result is an experience of intense longing, a declaration of grateful praise and resounding jubilation from voices filled with faith. (You can hear the opening of the Magnificat by Alan Hovhaness in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
Announcing the concerts, RMF’s Artistic Director Kent Mayfield notes, “In Willcocks, we have vitality and joyful excitement. With Hovhaness, we sense mystery, inspiration and an unforgettable radiant beauty. Each brings an abiding sense of spirituality to an often-secular holiday. Each prompts a stirring emotional response appropriate to the season.”
“‘Two Magnificats: Ancient Texts – Modern Voices’ promises a rich musical experience exploring deeper themes of personal and universal, spiritual and aesthetic meaning in a single holiday celebration.”
“Two performances of “Two Magnificats” are scheduled with full orchestra and featuring soloists soprano Christina Kay (below top), alto Katie Butitta (below second), tenor J. Adam Shelton (below third) and bass Derek Miller (below bottom).
For more information about the Rural Musicians Forum and its concert series, here is a link:
By Jacob Stockinger
Today is a special day for two special people.
They are close friends of The Ear.
Their names are Rodney Hammer (below top), who is an accomplished professional interior designer, and the Rev. Michael Ingersoll (below bottom), who is the Communications and Creative Director of the expanding Center for Spiritual Living.
Today marks their 16th anniversary together.
It also marks their wedding day in Seattle.
Some of us have been waiting a long time for this kind of legitimate recognition to happen to gay and lesbian relationships. But when you think about it and compare it to other civil rights movements, it has not really been all that long.
Many of us never would never have guessed back in 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots and the beginning of gay liberation, that marriage equality – or same-sex marriage – would be accepted by the general public, sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court, endorsed by the President of the United States, enacted by more than a dozen states and remain a fast-rising tide by 2013.
So today I celebrate a private and personal joyous event, but also a social and historical event that these good friends, along with others, have brought me into and made me a part of. Thank you.
Cheers, I say, to them and to all the gay men and lesbian women who love each other and make a public commitment to that love, despite what various hate-mongers, bigots and misguided religious zealots try to say about that love and denigrate it as a “lifestyle” or “agenda.”
I am proud and fond of them, so I toast Rod and Michael with music.
Here is a little something as a “wedding gift” for them — a piece by George Frideric Handel that I chose precisely in order to use some of the same Christianity that has been so misused against gay and lesbian marriage to celebrate it. It is sung by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Chicago. For full effect and full fun, click on the FULL SCREEN icon so you can watch while you listen:
By Jacob Stockinger
Each had what the other one needed or wanted, so a deal was reached.
On the one hand, the Benedictine sisters needed a music group to play for their annual Prairie Rhapsody benefit, held in at the Holy Wisdom Monastery, 4200 County Road M in Middleton, not far from Allen Boulevard off University Avenue.
On the other hand, the annual summer performers in The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society needed a place to stay and eat, rehearse and practice.
And so a deal was reached.
On Thursday evening, June 13 — the night before BDDS opens its June 14-June 30 season called “Deuces Are Wild!” — the Prairie Rhapsody benefit will host members of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (which earned Musician of the Year last year from The Ear) as performers along with food and walks around the beautiful grounds of the monastery.
In return, the BDDS players can stay and rehearse for a week at Holy Wisdom. (You may recall that the past two years featured outstanding performances by Trevor Stephenson and members of the Madison Bach Musicians in the spacious, airy and light-filled auditorium, below.)
Says Holy Wisdom’s director development Mike Sweitzer-Beckman: “I think it will be fantastic for Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society to stay here and rehearse here for the week. It should be interesting to mix things up a little bit since we try to maintain a very quiet, serene space most of the time.”
Adds BDDS’ Executive Director Samantha Crownover: “We’re thrilled to embark on this partnership. We are performing in the Prairie Rhapsody for them and they are hosting all of BDDS (food, lodging, rehearsal space) for our entire week 1. We’re excited to spend some quality time in the beautiful setting of Holy Wisdom!”
I have attended the event and it is well worthwhile — both enjoyable and constructive for a good cause. Here are details of the Prairie Rhapsody benefit, which benefit prairie restoration efforts and ecological work on the grounds of the monastery:
The benefit starts with a reception of eating, drinking and and socializing (below) at 5:30 p.m. There will be a silent auction. Then the concert runs from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Complimentary chocolates are available after the performance.
Tickets can be purchased on the Holy Wisdom website for $50 per person ($25 is tax-deductible) or you can download the registration form and return it to Benedictine Life Foundation, 4200 County Road M, Middleton, WI 53562. Space is limited, so it is suggested that you register as soon as possible.
According to BDDS, the program of music, with co-founders and co-directors flutist Stephanie Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (both below in a photo by C&N Photographers) at the center, is likely to feature contemporary composer Kenji Bunch’s “New Moon and Morning” for flute and string quartet; Mozart‘s “Kegelstatt” Trio in E-flat, K. 498, for clarinet, piano and viola; and Felix Mendelssohn’s Sonata in C Minor (the opening is in a YouTube video at the bottom) featuring Yura Lee on viola.
Here are links to the Holy Wisdom Monastery and to the Prairie Wisdom Benefit:
And here is a link to the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s homepage, which starts its summer season next weekend. The webpage has a full listing of performance times, venues, programs and performers as well as ticket information, CDs and photos:
By Jacob Stockinger
This weekend is a major weekend in terms of religion.
Both events celebrate freedom, one from slavery and the other from mortality.
I am often at a loss about what music best commemorates such events because so much religion seems to rely on a sense of its own superiority to other belief systems, toward which it can be downright hostile or even deadly.
But leave it Johann Sebastian Bach (below), that old Reformation Lutheran himself, to offer us all a work that is as universal as music as genuine religious feelings – NOT religion intolerance – can get.
It is the “Erbarme dich” from his St. Matthew Passion.
The German title means “Have Mercy” and it applies, I think, to all of us and to each other.
It is what we expect for ourselves and what should extend to others.
So in honor of the various religious holidays and just a sense of universal humane bonding, I offer it today as a “You Must Hear This” selection.
If you have a better suggestion, The Ear wants to hear about it.