The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Summer Choir celebrates its 10th anniversary with one of the best concerts of the year

July 20, 2018
3 Comments

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 Madison Summer Choir (below) celebrated its 10th anniversary on Wednesday night at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Each year’s program has had a theme, and for this one it was “Old Wine in New Bottles”— though it might as well have been the other way ‘round.

The idea, though, was that the selections showed their composers looking back to the techniques and tastes of earlier generations while writing new music. Conductor Ben Luedcke (below) introduced each work to explain how such approaches worked out.

The first half of the program was devoted to four works, dating from three different centuries.

Two were by contemporary composers. A setting in English of the Psalm text “By the Waters of Babylon” by Sarah Riskind (below top) was followed by Amor de mi Ami, a tribute to his wife, in Spanish, by Randall Stroope (below bottom).

Each work had instrumental additions — in the first, piano with cello, in the second, just piano) which personally I found unnecessary. Riskind’s choral writing is attractively full and quite idiomatic, while Stroope achieves a natural lyricism. I would be interested to hear just the choral parts alone for each work. (Editor’s Note: You can hear the work by Randall Stroope in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These two items were framed by music of earlier epochs. The Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song) by Johannes Brahms showed his ability to create his own version of both pre- and post-Baroque polyphony. And Mozart’s Psalm setting Laudate pueri, from one of his Vespers collections (K. 339), showed his assimilation of Baroque counterpoint.

Bruce Bengtson played the part Brahms included for organ (or piano), and he also played the organ reduction of the orchestral part for the Mozart.

It was partly the acoustics, but also a weakness in diction that made the words in those four pieces all but indistinguishable, in whatever language was being sung—my one serious criticism of the performances.

The second part of the program was devoted to the first of the numbered Mass settings by Anton Bruckner. In some ways, such large-scale sacred works were studies for his majestic symphonies yet to come.

In this Mass No. 1 in D minor, Bruckner saw himself in the line of earlier Austrian church music, but anyone expecting bald imitations of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven would be disappointed.

In his dense and highly chromatic writing — something like a step beyond Schubert — Bruckner created some very fascinating music. It reached really exciting power in the Credo, and the words “dona nobis pacem” at the conclusion had a deeply moving sense of serenity.

The choir, of 68 mixed voices, was joined for the Bruckner by four soloists — Chelsie Propst, Jessica Lee Timman, Peter Gruett, Christian Bester (below on the left) — who sang their parts handsomely, and by an orchestra of 30 players, who provided strong and sturdy support.

Luedcke deserves particular praise for giving a chance to hear the Bruckner Mass, which was thought to be its Madison premiere. It climaxed a really enterprising event, one that I think will stand as among the Best Concerts of the Year.


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Classical music: This Saturday, the 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) starts a week-long exploration of how the Lutheran Reformation and the invention of printing changed Western music 500 years ago. Part 1 of 2

July 2, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this Saturday and running through the following Saturday, the 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival will explore the profound effects that the Lutheran Reformation had on Renaissance and Baroque music of the time.

The festival, to be held at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, is called “A Cabinet of Curiosities: A Journey to Lübeck.” For a complete listing of programs, lectures, concerts and workshops, with information about tickets, go to the website: https://memf.wisc.edu

Soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe — who co-directs the festival with UW Arts Institute’s Sarah Marty and with her husband and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe — recently agreed to do a Q&A with The Ear about the upcoming festival. Here is Part 1 of 2. The second part will appear tomorrow.

How successful is this year’s festival compared to others in terms of enrollment, budgets, performers, etc.? How does MEMF’s reach nationally or even internationally compare to previous years?

Each year enrollment in the workshop averages 100 students. As of June 15, we have 110 students enrolled. MEMF attracts students of all ages, from 18–91, amateurs and professionals, from all over the country and Canada.

What is new and what is the same in terms of format, students, faculty members and performers?

The ensemble Quicksilver (below, in a photo by Ian Douglas, and located at quicksilverbaroque.com) is returning to Madison after several years to open the MEMF Concert Series.

This will be an incredible virtuosic display of chamber music played at the highest level, and includes violinist Julie Andrijeski, sackbut player Greg Ingles and gambist Lisa Terry; harpsichordist Avi Stein and violinist Robert Mealy are on the faculty at the Juilliard 415 program, which is creating a fantastic opportunity for instrumentalists to study Baroque music with some of the finest early music professionals in the country.

Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, will return to play a live concert of the CD they just released, Back to Bach. For more information, go topiffaro.org

The Tuesday concert is at Luther Memorial Church. Abendmusik (Evening Music) features organists John Chappell Stowe (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), of the UW-Madison, and James Kennerley (below bottom) joined by the MEMF Faculty.

Abendmusik, refers to a series of performances at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, Germany. In the 17th century through 1810, a series of concerts were paid for by local business owners to provide admission for the public. Organists Franz Tunder and his successor Dietrich Buxtehude, organized the Abendmusiken with performances of organ, instrumental and vocal music. For more, go to: https://www.jameskennerley.com/

New to MEMF, Schola Antiqua of Chicago — see schola-antiqua.org — will perform on Friday, July 13, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. They will sing musical treasures from a program prepared last fall for The Newberry Library’s exhibit “Religious Change 1450-1700” on the occasion of the quincentennial of the Lutheran Reformation.

Printed musical artifacts from the multidisciplinary exhibit testify to a period filled with religious dynamism and struggle with both theological and musical traditions. Their director, Michael Alan Anderson, will give a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. with projections of the printed music from The Newberry Library.

Why was the theme of “A Cabinet of Curiosities: Journey to Lübeck” chosen for the festival? What composers and works will be highlighted?

We chose the 2018 theme to explore the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and how the shifts in religion and 16th-century printed materials, including music, changed the world.

The Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in Lübeck was an important musical center at this time. Built with Catholic ritual in mind, it easily was turned into a Lutheran church in the early 16th century as Lübeck changed into a Protestant town due to the Reformation that was inspired by Martin Luther.

The composer Dieterich Buxtehude (below) was the organist at the Marienkirche and was an improvisational genius. He attracted many musicians throughout Europe to come and visit, including Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann and George Frideric Handel.

Around this same time collectors were sorting their wide-ranging collections of objects into “cabinets of curiosities,” and sometimes the categorical boundaries were not defined. With new-found compositional freedom, 17th-century composers similarly created many musical wonders and curiosities, stretching the boundaries of musical conversation.

We will be featuring works of Buxtehude, Tunder and Matthias Weckmann, and there will even be a bit of Bach on Sunday night’s concert by Piffaro.

Tomorrow: Part 2 – How did a Reformation in religion and printing technology change music?


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