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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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: Here are playlists of the best classical music for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. What music would you choose?

December 24, 2018
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REMINDER: A well-edited one-hour excerpt of the recent Christmas concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra will air on Wisconsin Public Television at 9:30 p.m. this Tuesday, on Christmas Night. The Ear saw the first airing of the broadcast and highly recommends it. Both the programming and the performing are top-notch. It is a perfect way to wrap up your holiday.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Eve and tomorrow is Christmas Day.

Some people celebrate tonight and some people celebrate tomorrow.

But no matter when you mark the holiday with gifts, gathering and special food, great music has an integral place in the celebration.

Indeed, music seems nothing less than a great gift to the entire world. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

To help you celebrate, here are playlists of the best classical music, from Medieval times through Baroque music up to living composers, for marking Christmas.

Here are two playlists, with a total of two hours of music, already compiled and available on YouTube. Be sure to hit SHOW MORE at the top to see the complete title, composer’s name and timing of the selections:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrFCdi7apV8&list=PLcGkkXtask_cCaCLkrmuDUfukHct9eut-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voIrzsxeE6w

And perhaps best of all, here are several lists in the same place from famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City. They not only have generous sound samples, but also allow you to choose what genre of music you prefer — say, choral music or brass music or piano music to string quartet chamber music:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/essential-christmas-recordings/

What music would you choose as favorite Christmas fare?

The Ear wants to hear.

Enjoy! And Merry Christmas to all!


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
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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.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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Classical music: Need a break from holiday shopping or final exams? A FREE “Just Bach” midday concert TODAY marks Christmas. On Friday at noon a free concert features violin music of Mozart and Ravel.

December 12, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Need a  break from holiday shopping or final exams this week? Today’s post brings announcements of two short and appealing midday concerts:

TODAY

Just Bach is a new monthly series of hour-long concerts in Madison celebrating the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The series continues with an end-of-semester performance at 1 p.m. TODAY, Wednesday, Dec. 12, at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Ave.

Admission is free with goodwill offerings accepted. Audience members are permitted to eat and drink during the performance.

Next semester’s dates are Jan. 23, Feb. 20, March 13, April 24 and May 29.

The orchestra of baroque period-instrument specialists will be led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim.

The goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large. The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach (below) would have conceived.

The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

Here is the complete program for today’s concert:

BWV 729: In dulci jubilo (Mark Brampton Smith, organ)

Chorale: Wie soll ich dich empfangen (How shall I embrace You?) from Part I of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

BWV 61: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Savior of the Heathen)

Chorale: Ich will dich mit Fleiss bewahren (I will cherish you assiduously) from Part III of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

Aria from BWV 213: Schlafe, mein Liebster (Sleep, my beloved)

Chorale: Schaut hin, dort liegt im finstern Stall (Look there, there He lies in a dark stall) from Part II of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

Duet from BWV 110: Ehre sei Gott (Glory be to God)

SELECTIONS FROM PART IV OF BACH’S “CHRISTMAS ORATORIO”:

Recit and Chorale: Immanuel, o suesses Wort! (Emmanuel, oh sweet word!)

Aria: Floesst, mein Heiland, floesst dein Namen (My Saviour, Your name instills)

Recit and Chorale: Wohlan, dein Name soll allein (Well then, Your name alone)

Aria: Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben (I will live only to honor You)

Chorale: Brich an, o schoenes Morgenlicht  (Break forth, oh beautiful morning light) from Part II of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing). You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom, performed by the critically acclaimed Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, sung to pictures of Bach’s own manuscript.

Singers are Sarah Brailey and Elisheva Pront, sopranos; Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, mezzo-soprano; Wesley Dunnagan, tenor; and UW-Madison Professor Paul Rowe, bass.

The orchestra includes: Kangwon Lee Kim (below) and Nathan Giglierano, violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt and Micah Behr, violas; James Waldo, cello; and Mark Brampton Smith, organ.

FRIDAY

This Friday, Dec. 14, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. the FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will features violinist Wendy Adams and pianist Ann Aschbacher.

The  duo will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 35, K. 526 – which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom — and Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2

Here is some background:

The First Unitarian Society of Madison presents “Friday Noon Musicales,” a distinguished artist recital series now in its 31st season.

Talented area musicians play most every Friday, from October through May. Mostly classical music, but Broadway, jazz, folk and other styles are presented at times as well. Enjoy complimentary coffee, tea and live music.

Concerts are free and open to the public. No ticket is required. All performances 12:15–1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

Visit https://fusmadison.org/music for upcoming featured artists.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” this Friday night in Madison and Sunday afternoon in Whitewater

December 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about performances this coming weekend by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) and the professional orchestra Sinfonia Sacra of what is, unfortunately and undeservedly, often considered, when compared to Handel’s “Messiah,”  “The Other Oratorio” for the holiday season:

There will be two performances of four parts of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” (1734). On Friday night, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m. at the Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave., in Madison; and on Sunday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater, 930 Main Street, in Whitewater.

Advance tickets for the Friday night performance at Luther Memorial Church in Madison are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports (Madison) and Willy Street Coop (all three locations in Madison and Middleton).

Advance tickets for the Sunday afternoon performance at Young Auditorium in Whitewater are available from www.uww.edu/youngauditorium/tickets

Of the six cantatas that make up the “Christmas Oratorio,” Part, 1, 2, 3 and 5 will be performed. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the brisk and energetic opening, performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir.)

Parts 1 to 3 tell the Christmas story: Mary and Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the shepherds and the angels. Part 5 introduces the magi from the East, traditionally known as the Three Kings.

The music offers a sampling of every style of music in the repertoire of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) as a composer.

Massive, concerto-like movements crowned by brilliant trumpet fanfares, booming timpani and virtuosic fugues highlight the full chorus.

Solo arias, duets and trios and even one instrumental movement provide a contemplative contrast with constantly changing instrumental colors—from lush strings to playful flutes and the pastoral sounds of oboes and bassoons.

Featured vocal soloists include mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below top) and tenor J. Adam Shelton (below middle), both on the faculty of UW-Whitewater. Highly accomplished members of the choir, including baritone Bill Rosholt (below bottom, and a Madison Savoyards regular), will share the solo parts with these professionals.

The members of Sinfonia Sacra, under concertmaster Leanne League (below), are drawn from the rosters of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and the music faculties of UW-Madison, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.

Trumpet virtuoso John Aley (below top) and oboist Marc Fink (below bottom) will also perform.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios, a cappella choral works from various centuries, and world premieres.

Bach’s music has always occupied a special place in the choir’s repertory, with performances of the Christmas Oratorio (2002 and 2003), the Mass in B minor (2005), the St. John Passion (2010) and the Magnificat (2017).

Artistic Director Robert Gehrenbeck (below) has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.


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Classical music: Today is Christmas Day 2017. The Ear’s gift is a concert of 16th-century British holiday music from Stile Antico and NPR

December 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Day, 2017.

As always, the holiday season has seen an outstanding time for choral music.

We all have our favorites, including the “Christmas Oratorio” by Johann Sebastian Bach and the oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel. Add in traditional music and carols, hymns and then Baroque instrumental music by Vivaldi and Corelli among others. The choices are vast.

But this year The Ear wandered across something new and relatively unknown.

It is almost a one-hour-long concert of 16th-century British holiday music from the Tudor era.

The performers are the award-winning, 13-member a cappella early music group Stile Antico (below, in a  photo by Marco Borggreve).

The featured composers in this concert that has been posted on the Deceptive Cadence” blog by NPR (National Public Radio) include Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

Here it is:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2012/12/03/166416569/a-choral-christmas-with-stile-antico

Enjoy!

And Merry Christmas to all!


Classical music: Merry Christmas from The Ear and Johann Sebastian Bach, who gave us the gift of his “Christmas Oratorio.” What is your favorite Christmas music?

December 25, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Day 2015.

ChristmasTreeBranch.j

The Ear has only a few words, but a lot of music, to offer.

First, he wants to thank all his readers for the ongoing gift of their eyes, ears and attention as well as their comments.

In return, The Ear is offering his readers his favorite Christmas music.

He loves it more than more popular works such as “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel or the “Christmas” Concerto by Arcangelo Corelli, more than so much other holiday music.

It is Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, which is not really an oratorio but rather a series of six interconnected Christmas cantatas that do not get performed live very often.

It is performed superbly below in a YouTube video by Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists in a superb performance that comes from their worldwide Bach Cantata Pilgrimage.

Listen to it for the energetic and brassy opening movement.

Listen to it for various other wonderful moments, including the lovely Sinfonia.

Listen to it for the gorgeous solo and choral singing.

Listen to it in its entirety or in parts.

Stream it on or around Christmas Day.

But listen to it, now or later, especially if you don’t already know it.

And be sure to let us know in the COMMENT section what your favorite piece of Christmas music is.

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!

 


Classical music: On Christmas Day, YOU MUST HEAR THIS – “The Shepherd’s Farewell” chorus from the oratorio “L’Enfance du Christ” by Hector Berlioz.

December 25, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Day, 2014.

As this year’s gift, The Ear wants to share something special.

It is a work that usually gets drowned out at Christmas time by more familiar works — from “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel, the “Christmas Oratorio” by Johann Sebastian Bach, “The Nutcracker” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Gian Carlo Menotti and the “Christmas Concerto” by Arcangelo Corelli.

The work I am talking about is the “Shepherd’s Farewell” to the infant Jesus whose family — Virgin Mary and father Joseph — must flee its homeland in face of the death threats posed by King Herod.

It comes from “L’Enfance du Christ” (The Childhood of Jesus) by the early French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz (below). The story goes that he was bored at a dinner party and sketched it out on a linen napkin.

berlioz

True story or not, the music is gloriously beautiful, calm and reassuring — in an appropriately pastoral way. This neglected chorus -– in fact, the whole neglected oratorio — deserves to be a much more integral part of Christmas celebrations.

Maybe in future years, Hector Berlioz’ “L’Enfance du Christ” could be performed, in part or in its entirety, by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union and UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra. It would make a wonderful holiday addition, or even tradition.

Anyway, you listen and you decide.

Then tell us what you think in the COMMENTS section.

The Ear wants to hear.

So here is the music, in a YouTube video at the bottom, running just under 5 minutes.

Enjoy.

And MERRY CHRISTMAS!


Classical music: Holiday Gift-Giving Guide Part 5: Does Christmas these days bring fewer classical music albums to mark the holidays and offer as holidays gifts?

December 20, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

In the midst of the holiday gift-giving season – well, at least in the last-minute throes of it anyway – NPR’s blog “Deceptive Cadence” has raised an interesting and intriguing question that should engage all classical music fans at this time of the year.

Are recording companies offering the public fewer holiday-themed classical albums? (Below is a collage sampling of some classical holiday albums from recent years.)

holidayalbums

Some individuals (vocalists especially) and ensembles (choirs and orchestras especially) still do seem to offer holiday treats often, if not every year – though nowhere near the number of holiday albums that more popular genres such as pop and country manage to produce. Nevertheless, The Ear still thinks there is something to the accusation.

However, I would also add that in general, the industry probably has too many old-time recordings of Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” or Handel’s “Messiah” or J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” or Corelli’s “Christmas” Concerto – to take four prominent or well-known examples — to do some new ones. (below is a remastered classic 1959 version of Handel’s “Messiah” with Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir.)

Messiah 1959 older version

Increasingly, I wonder, maybe the answer lies in more specialty titles of less well-known repertoire – perhaps pre-Bach early music or else Arvo Part-type contemporary music — that are not likely to be duplicates from the archives of earlier analogue and digital recordings.

Anyway, here is a link to the NPR story, with audio sample and links to holiday classical albums that make great gifts as well as reader comments:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/12/12/167061667/celebrating-the-increasingly-rare-classical-christmas-album

What do you think about the state of holiday recordings issued for the holidays?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music review: Madison Bach Musicians deliver splendid period performances of two cantatas and a motet by J.S. Bach

April 17, 2012
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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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Performers and audiences alike braved parking problems and high humidity for a concert of sacred music by the Madison Bach Musicians’ namesake composer.

J.S. Bach’s achievements as a religious composer are most readily identified with his four surviving major works–the two Passions, the Mass, and the Christmas Oratorio. Devout concert performances of these masterpieces are regularly given as sacral events.

But the true heart of the work by Bach (below) in this sphere is what survives of his vast output of cantatas, mostly composed to fulfill his weekly obligations in Leipzig. In them Bach explored varieties of spiritual expression with wide-ranging inspiration. They were, however, designed for church ritual use that is no longer alive, leaving this great body of his creation (almost 200 items preserved out of some 300) without a ready and conventional performing venue.

Presenting these cantatas has been one of the MBM’s long-term commitments, and it has logically given them not in secular concert settings but in current church facilities. This latest program was thus presented in the welcoming setting of Grace Episcopal Church (below) on the Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. (I attended the latter.)

Artistic director Trevor Stephenson rightly addressed his selections with the kind of intimate forces Bach so often used, with only one singer and player per part.

Thus, the vocal quartet of soprano Emily Birsan, countertenor Joseph Schlesinger, tenor Daniel O’Dea, and bass David Govertsen were partnered by oboist Luke Conklin, violinists Kangwon Kim and Alicia Yang, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt, and cellist Anton TenWolde, with Stephenson on harpsichord, all using period performing techniques.

Two full cantatas were presented: BWV 32, “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (a dialogue between the devout soul and Jesus), and BWV 22, “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe”  (Jesus Takes On The Twelve Disciples) intended for the Sunday before Lent and composed as Bach’s “demo” in his job application for Leipzig. Both scores include lovely obbligato work for oboe, played with stylish sensitivity by Conklin (below).

Each of the four singers (below) was satisfying and able, though Birson’s clear and powerful voice rang out with special glory, while Govertsen delivered truly commanding bass sonority. (Below, from left, are soprano Emily Birsan, countertenor Joseph Schlesinger, tenor Daniel O’De, and bass David Govertsen.)

It was not the cantata form, but a less-familiar category of Bach’s sacred writing that was represented in closing, via one of his six surviving “motets.” These were composed often for funerals or civic occasions, and feature no explicit solo sections but call rather for vocal ensemble throughout.

Such works are too easily reckoned today as “choral” pieces, but performance by simple vocal consort is at least equally plausible. Stephenson offered the best case I have encountered for the one-per-part approach, at least in “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden.” This is not only the shortest of the lot, but the only one for which a full continuo part is written out. The vocal writing, too, is highly soloistic within the ensemble structure, so that this “chamber” approach was brilliantly convincing.

As a kind of pre-encore, Kim and Yang (right and left, respectively, below) opened the second half by playing a brief, three-movement duo-sonata by French composer Jean-Marie Leclair.

This is “cutting edge” Baroque performance work by any standards anywhere, and Madison is among few cities blessed in having a group like Stephenson’s MBM to represent it.

 


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