The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The critically acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performs a program of “Sanctuary” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

July 31, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The two performances by the critically acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) have become an annual summer tradition over the past 17 years, first under the direction of founder Scott MacPherson and since last year under its new artistic director, Michael McGaghie.

This summer, as usual, McGaghie (below, rehearsing) returned to Madison for 2-1/2 weeks of intense rehearsals and two a cappella concerts on this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

The program this year has the theme of “Sanctuary,” and focuses on refuge, salvation and hope.

The chorus will sing “Come to the Woods” by Jake Runestad, using texts taken from the journals of John Muir, the environmentalist who attended the UW-Madison (you can hear the work in the YouTube video at the bottom); and “Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing” by Herbert Howells. The concert also includes unspecified music by Stephen Paulus, Anton Bruckner, Dale Trumbore and Choi.

Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for students.

Here are more details:

Friday, August 2, at 7:30 p.m.

St. Luke’s Lutheran Church
7337 Hubbard Avenue
Middleton, WI 53562

Friday Tickets

Sunday, August 4, at 3 p.m.

Christ Presbyterian Church
944 East Gorham Street
Madison, WI  53703

Sunday Tickets

For more information about the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble, including how to join it, how to support it, how to see a list of past concerts and hear excerpts, go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org


Classical music: The Madison Choral Project will sing and celebrate young people’s “Hope for the Future” at its concerts this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

December 13, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Christmas is for the children, goes the old saying — and in more than one way such as gift-giving. The birth of Jesus represents the birth of hope and salvation in Christianity.

Other holiday traditions can claim the same — the extra light theme of Hanukkah in Judaism and the harvest theme of the African celebration of Kwanzaa, for example — and of course the New Year will soon be here with its promise of hope and change.

Now the critically acclaimed and professional Madison Choral Project (below top, in a photo by Ilana Natasha) and its founder, artistic director and conductor Albert Pinsonneault – who used to teach at Edgewood College and now works at Northwestern University near Chicago while living in Madison – has taken that saying to a new level and given it new meaning.

You can hear the results for yourself this Saturday night, Dec. 15, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Dec, 16, at 3 p.m. in Madison, and at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday night, Dec. 18, in Milwaukee.

The Madison performances are at Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 East Gorham Street. The Milwaukee performance is at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, 812 Jackson St.

Tickets are $24 in advance online; $28 at the door. Students with ID are $10. Preferred seating is $40.

The theme of the sixth holiday concert by MCP is “Hope in the Future,” which is relevant at any time but seems particularly so this year. So it includes specially commissioned writings by young people, middle school and high school students from grades 6 through 12. Their work will be read by Noah Ovshinsky (below), the news director at Wisconsin Public Radio.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, so The Ear wants instead to direct you to a fine story about the MCP concert by reporter Gayle Worland for The Wisconsin State Journal.

There you will find out much more about the identities of the young writers, with a couple of examples of their work, and the inspiration or background of the theme that Pinsonneault (below) came up with.

Here is a link:

https://madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/madison-choral-project-offers-young-vision-of-hope/article_9aff921e-2446-51d7-9c8c-5195e41f4b32.html

Unfortunately, what you will not find in that story or at the MCP’s home web page is the music program. No composers or specific works are mentioned.

But judging from past performances, you can count on outstanding repertoire of both classics and new music.

For more information about the MCP and its past concerts as well as it personnel and singers, go to: http://themcp.org

Here is a sample of the outstanding work by the Madison Choral Project:


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Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 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

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


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Classical music: The acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performs old and new music this Friday night and Sunday afternoon when its new director also makes his debut

August 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Since it was founded in 2002, the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) has been critically acclaimed for the concert it puts together each summer in just a couple of weeks or less. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This summer, the group will be under the baton of its new artistic director, Michael McGaghie (below), who will be making his performing debut with the group.

McGaghie directs choral activities at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and also conducts the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The program this weekend ranges from the 16th century and early Baroque to the contemporary.

It will begin with works from  established masters such as Thomas Tallis, Heinrich Schütz and the Soviet conductor-composer Nikolai Golovanov.

It will then explore works from contemporary composers such as Jocelyn Hagen, Morten Lauridsen and Dale Trumbore in a program called Horizons. (Sorry, The Ear has not received the titles of specific works on the program.)

Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for students. Tickets can be bought at the door or ordered at the links below.

Concert venues are:

This Friday, Aug. 3, at 7:30 p.m. in the Lutheran Church of the Living Christ, 110 North Gammon Road, on Madison’s west side. For tickets, go to:

https://isthmusvocalens.yapsody.com/event/index/282736/ive-2018-friday-concert

This Sunday, Aug. 5, at 3 p.m. in Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 East Gorham Street. For tickets, go to:

https://isthmusvocalens.yapsody.com/event/index/282791/ive-2018-sunday-concert

For more about the impressive background of the new director, go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/

For more about the past performances and the organization, including sound samples to listen to and how to join or support the group, go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org


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