The Well-Tempered Ear

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
6 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 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: Today is the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. The murdered civil rights leader has become a character in opera, oratorios and musicals as well as popular songs

January 15, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the holiday to celebrate the 89th birthday of Martin Luther King (below), the American civil rights pioneer who was born on this day in 1929, won the Nobel Peace Prize and was assassinated in 1968, when he was 39.

For more biographical information, here is the Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King_Jr.

There will be many celebrations, including the 38th annual one at noon in the State Capitol of Wisconsin in Madison, which will be broadcast live and recorded by Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) and Wisconsin Public Television (WPT).

Music is always an important art of honoring King. There will be spirituals and gospel choirs.

But King himself has become a musical, and dramatic, figure.

Maybe you knew that.

The Ear didn’t.

So here are some links to sample from YouTube, which has many of King’s speeches and much of the music done to honor King over the years.

MLK is a character is the opera by Philip Glass called “Appomattox,” which deals with civil rights from The Civil War onwards and was commissioned and performed by the Washington National Opera.

Here is part of it in rehearsal:

And in performance:

And here is the one-hour video called “I Have a Dream”:

Do you know of any other musical works in which Martin Luther King Jr. actually figures and plays a role?

What piece of classical music would you choose to honor King?- Perhaps the poignant aria “Give Me Freedom” from Handel’s opera “Rinaldo” (performed in the YouTube video at the bottom) or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy” finale about universal brotherhood.

Let us know in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players mix classical and contemporary string quartets and again show off their exceptional artistry and adventurousness

January 23, 2017
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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. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also provided the performance photo.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

A Place to Be, at 911 Williamson Street, is a former store converted into a kind of near East Side clubhouse. Amid the chaos and entanglements of this weekend, it has been, indeed, the place to be for lovers of chamber music.

Just as last year, the Willy Street Chamber Players gave a concert in this intimate “chamber” on last Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

The string quartet fielded from the larger group consisted of violinists Paran Amirinazari and Eleanor Bartsch (who alternated recurrently in the first and second chairs), violist Beth Larson and cellist Mark Bridges.

willy-street-chamber-players-at-a-place-to-be-jan-2017-cr-jwb

Their program mixed music of two traditional classical composers with that of two contemporaries.

Opening the program was the String Quartet in D, Op. 20, No. 2 (1772), by Franz Joseph Haydn, which was played with delightful elegance and spirit.

Later came Felix Mendelssohn’s “Four Pieces for String Quartet,” dating from 1843 to 1847 and published as a set designated Op. 81. These called for a richer playing style, which the Willys managed easily, and with strong feeling for the extensive fugal writing in two of the movements.

For more recent material, the group offered a tango tidbit by the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla, and a recent work (2005) by Hawaiian-American, Harlem-based, crossover composer, string player and band leader Daniel Bernard Roumain.

The piece by Piazzolla (below), Four for Tango (1988, presumably scored for him by somebody else), is a kind of anti-quartet venture, requiring defiant employment of unconventional string sounds.

astor piazzolla

Even more unconventional is the three-movement String Quartet No. 5 (2005) by Roumain (below). Given the subtitle of “Rosa Parks,” it pays tribute to the heroic African-American civil rights leader who sparked the desegregation of buses in Montgomery, Alabama.

Roumain is a classically trained musician who draws upon a range of Black music styles in his compositions. He too asks the players to break norms by using hand-clapping and foot-stomping as well as exaggerated bowings.

His musical ideas are interesting but few, and developed only in constant, almost minimalist, repetition. I was impressed, however, by his command of quartet texture, and by how the instruments really could work both together and in oppositions, especially in the long first movement. (You can hear the String Quartet No. 5 “Rosa Parks” by Daniel Bernard Roumain in the YouTube video at the bottom. It is performed by the Lark Quartet, for which it was composed.)

daniel-bernard-roumain

The four Willys dug into this novel repertoire with zest and careful control. In the entire program, indeed, they displayed an utter joy in making music together. Their artistry and their exploratory adventurism mark the group, more than ever, as Madison cultural treasures, richly deserving of their designation by The Ear as “Musicians of the Year for 2016.”

They will be giving FREE and PUBLIC performances at: Edgewood High School’s Fine Arts Fest (Feb. 14); the Northside Community Connect Series at the Warner Park Community Center (Feb. 19); the Marquette Waterfront Fest (June 11); and at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green (June 12). And we await impatiently their announcement of plans for their third series of Friday concerts this July.

For more information about concerts and about the group, go to: http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

Then click on concerts or events.


Classical music: The Ear asks again — why hasn’t an opera about Martin Luther King Jr. been written? What classical music should be played to honor him?

January 16, 2017
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is an important and, in some parts of the United States, still  controversial holiday: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

martin luther king 2

Such an occasion and its artistic celebration assumes even greater importance now that we are on the verge of the Trump Era, which starts this coming Friday with the Inauguration of President-elect Donald J. Trump.

Once again The Ear looked for classical music to mark the occasion and the holiday. But the results he found were limited. Do we really need to hear Samuel Barber’s famous and sadly beautiful but overplayed “Adagio for Strings” again on this day?

So The Ear asks the same question he asked two years ago: Why hasn’t anyone written an opera about the pioneering civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in 1968 and would today be 88? 

Martin Luther King speech

Here is a link to that more extended post that asks the same question:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/classical-music-why-hasnt-anyone-written-an-opera-about-martin-luther-king-jr-and-the-civil-rights-movement/

If you know of such an opera, please let The Ear know in the COMMENT section.

Or perhaps a composer could write something about King similar to Aaron Copland‘s popular “A Lincoln Portrait.” King certainly provided lots of eloquent words for a inspiring text or narration.

And if there is classical music that you think is appropriate to mark the occasion, please leave word of it, with a YouTube link if possible.

In the meantime, in the YouTube video below The Ear offers the first movement from the “Afro-American Symphony” by the underperformed  black American composer William Grant Still (1874-1954):


Classical music: Civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr. was the Abraham Lincoln of his age – a Great Emancipator. To celebrate his birthday, here is Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”

January 18, 2016
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today we celebrate the birthday of the civil rights pioneer Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Ear thinks of him as The Great Emancipator of the modern age.

As the Abraham Lincoln of our age.

Just as Lincoln freed slaves, Martin Luther King Jr. (below) helped free so many members of different social groups from discrimination.

martin luther king 2

Blacks, of course.

But also women.

Latinos.

Asians.

Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.

Disabled people.

The poor.

The old and elderly.

So it seems fitting, then, to listen to Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”

The Ear loves the way that the Gertrude Stein-like repetitions of Lincoln’s own words build into a moving testament of the need for both compassion and democracy – a combination that today’s right-wing freedom-spouting and Constitution-citing bigots might do well to cultivate.

So we can listen about one man and think about the other.

Here is a great version, in a YouTube video at the bottom, with actor Henry Fonda as the narrator. There are other fine versions, including one with Leonard Bernstein conducting and composer Aaron Copland speaking the narration. But this version is the one that most moves The Ear.

And please leave your COMMENTS about this offering or other music appropriate to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day for others to read.


Classical music: Why hasn’t anyone written an opera about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement?

January 19, 2015
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is a federal holiday in the US: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

And The Ear has just one question: Why hasn’t anyone yet composed an opera about MLK?

martin luther king 2

His larger-than-life existence has all the necessary operatic elements about it, from being a prisoner in jail and winning the Nobel Peace Prize to meeting with President Johnson in The White House and being assassinated while defending garbage workers in Memphis.

He took part in momentous events, some of them dramatic and violent, that involved huge masses of people.

Plus, he and his staff experienced major individual and personal conflicts.

And the cause he fought for forever altered the course of American history and the civil rights of other individuals and groups advocating women’s rights, Latino rights, gay rights and disabled rights among others.

Martin Luther King speech

Could it be that MLK has not been treated in an opera because the composers are white or non-American?

Who, then, could or should do it?

The contemporary American composer John Adams (below top) comes immediately to mind. He used President Richard Nixon (below bottom is a scene from “Nixon in China, as it was staged at the Metropolitan Opera); physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project in “Doctor Atomic: to create the atomic bomb; and in the still controversial opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” the question of terrorism examined through the story of Jewish tourist Leon Klinghoffer and his Palestinian murderers, to create his successful reality-based historical operas.

John Adams

nixon in china plane

So, why not Martin Luther King Jr.?

Music certainly was vital to King and his campaign.

But what hasn’t he himself been treated as the central figure of an opera?

Maybe the difficulties posed by the King estate would have something to do with it, as they did with the current movie “Selma.”

But one can’t imagine that they are insurmountable.

Anyway, tell us what you think.

Should there be an opera about Martin Luther King Jr.?

Who would be a good composer to write one?

And why do you think one hasn’t already been written? Does racism play a role?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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