The Well-Tempered Ear

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
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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
6 Comments

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.

 


Classical music: Merry Christmas! At holiday time we gather to celebrate and we gather to make music, especially J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”

December 25, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Most of the time during the year we treat music-making as more or less an individual activity even when it involves ensembles in chamber music, orchestral music and opera.

We generally seem to feel more comfortable when we recognize the individual talent and drive involved rather than the collective effort. We emphasize who stands out, not who blends in.

But then when the holidays come along, we shift of emphasizing soloists and individualism to the social bonding that happens through art and through music – which are indeed social as sell as individual acts. Just look at the amateur chorus singing along to “Messiah” below.”

This year has been an especially insightful one in underscoring that realization and phenomenon.

So to mark Christmas Day, this posting links to two terrific stories – both enjoyable and inspiring — that involve two individuals, professional and community members, who join together with others to make great music that is also appropriate to the occasion.

The first is a story that aired on NPR on Friday  The reporter talked to a single member of the ancient but restored St. Mary’s Church (below top is its exterior, below bottom is its interior) in Berlin, Germany, to find out what it means to sing J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” every year.

It is a short but moving and insightful radio piece in which the source is everything and the reporter is just about invisible except for providing some background. The amateur musician speaks as eloquently as the music:

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Here it is:

http://www.npr.org/2011/12/22/144078970/a-church-an-oratorio-and-an-enduring-tradition

The second piece aired last week on PBS’ NewsHour and featured prize-winning poet Mark Doty (below) reading one of his poems about a community sing-out of Handel’s “Messiah” at the Massachusetts seaside town where he lives.

It too is well done in both the words and the music with the added attraction of pictures or images.

I hope you enjoy this one too.

Here is a link:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec11/messiah_12-21.html

And here is a truly massive community sing-along of the “Hallelujah” Chorus:


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