The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players celebrate the holidays this weekend with two performances of seasonal music

November 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their 2018-2019 season series “Vignettes” with a holiday concert on this Saturday night, Nov. 24, at 7 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 25, at 2 p.m.

On the program is a range of musical styles and a charming story set for chamber ensemble and narrator.

The cheery holiday-themed program will include familiar seasonal music, treasured classical composers, entertaining arrangements, and some delightful musical storytelling.

Both concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: the cost is $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors, and $5 for students. For more information, go to: www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com or call (608) 230-4316.

The program includes music from two beloved classical composers: “Joseph, dearest, Joseph mine” from “Geistliches Wiegenlied” by Johannes Brahms; and Suite of Christmas Songs, Op. 72, by Felix Mendelssohn.

In 1927, “The Adoration of the Magi” (below) by Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, who did many scenes of that subject, inspired Italian composer Ottorino Respighi to create an evocative composition that weaves traditional carols into his musical response to the famous painting. This version has been arranged for chamber ensemble of flute, harp and cello. (You can hear the orchestral version in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The group will be joined by special guest artist baritone Robert “Bobby” Goderich, who has appeared with the Madison Opera and the Four Seasons Theatre. He will sing an upbeat version of the traditional Welsh Gower Wassail as well as performing Silent Night set for the intimate combination of voice, clarinet and harp.

Central to the program, Goderich (below) will narrate Sweep Dreams, an enchanting tale about a lonely man who falls in love with an enchanted broom that dances in the moonlight.

The story by the late and prize-winning author Nancy Willard (below top) was set to music by the late and renowned American choral composer Stephen Paulus (below bottom), who lived in Minneapolis and created the piece while he was composer-in-residence for the Minnesota Orchestra.

Additional works on the concert are “A Winter’s Night” by American composer Kevin McKee (below) for flugelhorn and harp, Australian composer Percy Grainger’s warm-hearted setting of “Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” and two sunny woodwind quintet settings of beloved holiday songs.

The Oakwood Chamber Players will be joined by a significant array of guest artists: Margaret Mackenzie, harp; Wes Luke, violin; Ariel Garcia, viola; Brad Townsend, bass; Jennifer Morgan, oboe; John Aley trumpet and flugelhorn; Robert “Bobby” Goderich, singer/narrator; Nicholas Bonacio, percussion; and Carrie Backman, conductor.

Regular members, who play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and other local groups, include: Maggie Darby Townsend, cello; Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Nancy Mackenzie, clarinet; Anne Aley, horn; and Amanda Szczys, bassoon.

This is the second of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2018-2019 season series entitled Vignettes. Remaining concerts will take place in 2019 on Jan. 12 and 13; March 2 and 3; and May 18 and 19.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.

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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo flutist Iva Ugrcic turn in polished performances of a fun program to kick off the new season

October 12, 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 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 photo.

By John W. Barker

The opening concert on Wednesday night by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below top), under the baton of Steve Kurr (below bottom), was a relatively brief but pithy one, with only three short works on the program.

The opener was Autumn, the most frequently played section of the ballet The Seasons, Op. 67 (1899), by Alexander Glazunov (below) and one of the composer’s most frequently heard pieces. It is a rondo-like sequence of varied dance movements, full of lyricism and bright colors. The Middleton players dug into it with gusto.

Second came the Flute Concerto in D Major, Op. 283, by the prolific 19th-century German composer Carl Reinecke (1824-1910, below). He was conservative as a teacher and as a prolific composer.

Among his concertos, this one was his last, written just two years before his death. It is an engaging work, not notable for great ideas, but amiable, with a good virtuosic workout for the soloist.

The soloist was the Serbian-born flutist Iva Ugrcic, an absolute whiz of a player, and, among other things, a product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music doctoral program.  She played with super-precision and confidence, giving her instrument great personality.

Without intermission, the concert ended with the Symphony No. 100, known as the “Military,” by Franz Joseph Haydn (below). It was first played in 1794 among the composer’s “London” Symphonies during his second visit to England. But it may well have been begun while he was in Vienna, for it reflects a particular fad popular there.

This was the use in orchestral writing of an adaptation of the sounds of the Turkish Janissary band. In the second movement, whose tune was taken from an earlier chamber work of his, Haydn introduced recurrently the “Turkish” instruments (two clarinets, triangle, cymbals, bass drums) with startling effect.

At the movement’s end, a trumpet call brings these novelties back for a crashing conclusion. And then, in the fourth movement’s ending, the “Janissary” instruments return for another razzle-dazzle finish. (You can hear the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It’s all great fun, and the orchestra players seemed to find their own enjoyment in it.

The MCO continues its steady growth as a polished and reliable ensemble — all 98 players!


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Classical music: Prize-winning UW-Madison conductor Chad Hutchinson talks about the FREE and unusual all-American, all-20th century concert he will perform with the UW Symphony Orchestra this Friday night

October 9, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Chad Hutchinson (below) is starting his second season at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music by putting his own stamp on programming with an intriguing, all-American and all-20th-century concert that combines music for the concert hall with music for plays and films.

The FREE concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra is in Mills Hall this Friday night, Oct. 12, and starts at 8 p.m. with an informal pre-concert talk by Hutchinson (below) at 7:30 p.m.

Hutchison recently won one first prize and two second prizes from The American Prize for work he did – in opera conducting, orchestral conducting and orchestral programming — at the University of Minnesota and the University of South Dakota.

For more details, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-madison-symphony-orchestra-3/

The Ear asked Hutchinson how, after his first year, he feels about the UW-Madison.

He answered: “What makes the UW-Madison special is the camaraderie and support of the students, faculty and staff across the numerous disciplines within the Mead Witter School of Music.

“I’m thrilled to be back working with the orchestra (below), opera and conducting students and collaborating with the amazing faculty here. Seeing the “light bulb” moments when students realize and achieve a new level of competency for themselves and the ensemble is the best part of the profession.”

Here are his thoughts about the program:

“The UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra opens the 2018-2019 season with a program of three influential American composers. This concert will highlight the juxtaposition of traditional classical music and compositions heavily influenced by folk, jazz and the blues.

“A common thread throughout the concert is the idea of firsts and exploring new ideas as a composer.

“The Overture to “The School for Scandal” (1931) of Samuel Barber (below) was the first piece that he composed for full orchestra and is based on the Restoration comedy by Richard Sheridan.

“This performance will be the debut of one of the Symphony Orchestra’s new doctoral conducting students Ji-Hyun Yim (below). Ji-Hyun (Jenny) comes to Madison after completing a Master’s Degree in Orchestral Conducting from the University of North Texas.

“The second piece on the program is one that I have wanted to program for quite some time. The “Afro-American” Symphony (1930) of William Grant Still (below, in a photo by Carl Van Vechten), his first symphony, is widely regarded as the first large-scale piece of symphonic repertoire composed by an African-American and performed by a major symphony orchestra.

Each movement’s title is influenced by short poems by the 20th-century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (below, in 1890).

“Since the Barber and Still were composed within one year of each other in 1930-1931, I wanted to show the dichotomy of the straight-ahead classical world and the other side of classical music in the late 1920s and 1930s that was being heavily influenced by the more popular music of the time.

“Lastly, we feature the first and only film music that Bernstein composed. “On the Waterfront” (1954), an Oscar-winning film directed by Elia Kazan that starred Marlon Brando (below) and Eva Marie Saint, shows Bernstein writing simultaneously for the symphonic hall and the big screen.

“This work will feature UW-Madison professor of saxophone and composition Les Thimmig (below) and will showcase many soloists within the orchestra. While not programmed as often as his music from West Side Story or On the Town, I believe that Bernstein’s unique use of color, rhythm and melody in this work – heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — speak for themselves.”


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Classical music: YOU MUST SEE AND HEAR THIS: Tap dancing to Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations

October 7, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear really likes the “Goldberg” Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach (below).

In fast, he probably owns more recordings of that work than of any other.

And The Ear also likes tap dancing – although for his life he could not do even the most basic moves.

But it would never occur to The Ear to combine tap dancing and the “Goldberg” Variations.

But it did occur to tap dancer Caleb Teicher and pianist Conrad Tao (below) who teamed up to do just that — at least for the opening aria and first variation of the epic work.

It’s not profound, but it sure is fun.

And thanks to the Deceptive Cadence blog on National Public Radio, you can see and hear the four-minute video, done at the Steinway Factory and presented by the New York Philharmonic, for yourself.

Here it is.

Enjoy it.

You can find some other tap dancing and other dancing to the Goldbergs on YouTube . But please let The Ear know of any similar combination between other works of classical music and tap dancing that you have seen or heard or thought of and can suggest.

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/10/03/653607213/bach-on-tap-shoes-tiptoeing-through-the-goldberg-variations

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet opens its new season in top form

September 24, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night in Mills Hall, in an all-masterpiece program that featured Classical, Romantic and Modernist works, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) opened its new season .

And it did so in top form. The Ear came away with one thought: You just can’t find better chamber music in Madison — and it’s free!

In the “Sunrise” Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, by Franz Joseph Haydn, the Pro Arte exhibited the ideal Classical style with its balance, voicing and clarity.

The sunrise motif proved utterly convincing and evocative. Particularly noteworthy was how the group highlighted the dissonances in the Classical era’s slow movement. (Hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The interpretation offered more proof that when the work is consonant, you play for the dissonance; and when the work is dissonant, you play for the consonance.

In the short, non-stop Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, by Dmitri Shostakovich, The Ear was impressed by how the Pro Arte teased out the remnants of late Russian Romanticism that creep into the mostly modernist works of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Also remarkable was how the Pro Arte highlighted the structure and counterpoint that Shostakovich, a devotee of Bach, brought to his modernism. This seemed a softer and more lyrical Shostakovich, less strident or percussive, than you often hear. And the approach worked beautifully to engage the listener.

And then came the grand finale done grandly: the late Beethoven Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132. The quartet unraveled the often perplexing and thick texture; the epic length; and the forward-looking compositional methods.

The Pro Arte used a low-key and restrained approach that only highlighted the heart-rending lyricism of the “Heiliger Dangesang,” or Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving, that the aging Beethoven composed when he had recovered from what he thought might be a fatal illness.

How fitting! The perfectly planned program started with one dawn by the teacher and ended with another dawn by the student.

Madison keeps getting more new chamber music groups, all very accomplished and all very good. But the Pro Arte Quartet — now in its 106th season of existence and its 78th season in residence at the UW-Madison — is still tops. As one fan said in near disbelief, “That concert was out of this world.” He wasn’t alone as the performance drew a prolonged standing ovation and loud bravos from the two-thirds house.

When it comes to chamber music, you just can’t do better than the Pro Arte Quartet. It’s that simple. With such quality and affordability, the Pro Arte should always be playing to a full house.

The Pro Arte Quartet will repeat the same program on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 7, at 12:30 p.m. for “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen.” Admission to the Brittingham Gallery 3 performance space is free, and the concert will be streamed live. Go here for details and a link:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-10-7-18/

And the dates and times — without programs — of future Pro Arte Quartet concerts can be found here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/pro-arte-quartet/


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Classical music: The new FREE concert brochure for the UW-Madison’s music school is both entertaining and informative — it’s a MUST-GET, MUST-READ and MUST-USE

September 15, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The new 2018-19 concert season has started. And the Internet makes it very easy to take out your date book and plan out what you want to attend.

If you just use Google to go to home websites, you will find lots of information about the dates and times of performances; cost of tickets; works on the program; biographies of performers; and even notes about the pieces.

That is true for all large and small presenters, including the biggest presenter of all for live classical music events: The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. Just click on the Events Calendar when you go to http://www.music.wisc.edu

You can also subscribe to an email newsletter by sending an email to: join-somnews@lists.wisc.edu

And you can also download the helpful mobile app for your smart phone that gives you what is happening today with searches possible for other months and days.

But there is something more old-fashioned that you should not forego: the printed season brochure (below).

It is 8-1/2 by 11 inches big and has 24 pages, and it features numerous color photographs. Along the right hand edge is an easy-to-use calendar of major events for the month.

It is a fun and informative read that gives you even more respect for the School of Music than you already had because it contains a lot of background  and human interest stories about students, faculty members, guest artists, alumni and supporters. Editor and Concert Manager Katherine Esposito and her staff of writers and photographers have done an outstanding job.

The brochure also has a lot of news, including updates about the new Hamel Music Center that is being built on the corner of Lake Street and University Avenue and will open in 2019, and about the seat-naming, fundraising campaign ($1,500-plus) that is being used for the new performance center.

A particularly useful page (23) gives you information about ordering tickets (many have increased to $17 this year) either in advance or at the door (for the latter you are asked to show up 30 minutes early to avoid long lines); about finding parking, both free and paid; and about making special arrangements for disability access.

In larger and bolder type, the brochure tells you about stand-out special events: the 100th birthday tribute to Leonard Bernstein being held tonight (Saturday, Sept. 15) at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall; the fifth annual Brass Fest on Sept. 28 and 29; the University Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” on Nov. 16, 18 and 20; the annual Schubertiade on Jan. 27; the world premiere of a viola sonata by John Harbison on Feb. 17; the Choral Union’s joint performance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” (Symphony No. 8) on May 3, 4 and 5; and much, much more.

In short, the brochure is an impressive publication that also provides many hours of enjoyable browsing while you educate yourself about the state of music education at the UW-Madison.

The only major shortcoming The Ear perceives is that lack of specific programs by some individuals and groups that must surely know what they are going to perform this season but apparently didn’t report it. Maybe that can be remedied, at least in part, next year.

Still, the brochure is successful and popular, which is why the UW sent out 13,000 copies – up from 8,000 last year. If you want to get one, they will be available at concerts until supplies run out. You can also order one to be mailed to you by emailing music@music.wisc.edu

Do you have the UW music brochure?

What do you think of it?

Do you find it useful? Enjoyable?

What do you suggest to improve the brochure, either by adding something or deleting something or doing it differently?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS: “Madrigal” for cello and piano by Enrique Granados

August 27, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the great losses to classical music was the premature death of the Spanish composer Enrique Granados (1867-1916, below).

Chances are that if you know the work of this composer, who died in the sinking of the Sussex during World War I, it is probably through his beautiful and lyrical  piano works such as “Goyescas” and Spanish Dances,”  many of which are frequently heard through transcriptions, especially for guitar.

But his great gift for lyricism found many outlets that remain unknown, including chamber music.

Here is one you should hear: the Madrigal for Cello and Piano (1915).

It was recently played on Wisconsin Public Radio and it reminds The Ear of the “Elegy” by Gabriel Faure.

Listen to it yourself in the YouTube video at the bottom and then leave word what you think of this work and of Granados in general.

Also let us know if there are other works of Granados that you recommend listening to, with a YouTube link if possible.

And if you like it, why not forward a link to a friend or share it on Facebook?


Classical music: The Token Creek Festival will “harvest” gardens of music from next Saturday through Sept. 2

August 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The summer season for classical music in Madison has gotten busier and busier. But the summer still ends on the same high note — the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival that is co-directed by John Harbison and Rose Mary Harbison.

Here is the announcement about this year’s festival, the 29th, that begins this coming weekend:

“The late-summer garden inspires the 2018 season theme of “Harvest” at this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

“Both garden and festival share much in common:  risk, patience, experimentation, disappointment, and finally amazement that a piece —whether a piece of ground or a piece of music — is capable of such nourishment, abundance and variety.

“In the musicians’ garden, with its unpredictability and surprise, there is always the hope of reducing the variables — but they persist, and the richness of choice, the endlessness of the resources we inherit drive us to continue to create.

“One of the advantages of our season title is that it implies a summing up, a reaping of things planted, but of a kind that can occur each year,” writes co-artistic director and composer John Harbison (below). “Each planting retains certain elements and adjusts others with the hope of increased productivity. But so many of the adjustments made in hope of improvement do not work, but create new problems, require new approaches.  What a fine analogy for the making of art.”

Here are this year’s Concert Programs. Please note something new this year: All weekend concerts start at 4 p.m.

Program I: ROOTS – Music of Bach and Primosch. On Saturday, Aug. 25, at 4 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 26, at 4 p.m.

“Continuing our ongoing exploration of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) in cantatas and instrumental works, and its reflection in the music of James Primosch (below bottom), one of the few composers in our time able to grasp both the possibilities and responsibilities available in sacred music in a tradition inherited from Bach.”

Program II: NEW GROWTH – The Kepler Quartet (below, with composer Ben Johnston, and playing Johnston’s String Quartet No. 7 in the YouTube video at the bottom) on Wednesday, Aug. 29, at 7:30 p.m.

“A recital of beautifully alluring micro-tonal music “in between the notes.” The attractive and intelligible musical surface, and our experience hearing it, belies the at-times complex compositional methods.

“We are impressed by the pure pleasure of hearing tones combining differently but convincingly. The recital will be augmented with a demonstration and discussion by the Keplers.

Works are by Ben Johnston, Stefano Scodanibbio (below top), Henry Cowell (below middle) and Harry Partch (below bottom).”

Program III: CORNUCOPIA – Saturday, Sept. 1, at 4 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 2, at 4 p.m.

“Schumann’s beloved and timeless song cycle “Dichterliebe” (A Poet’s Love) with tenor Frank Kelley (below) and his impassioned, enigmatic and exuberant Piano Trio in D minor anchor this program.

“The program also includes the Violin Sonata in G Major, K. 301, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Piano Sonata in E Major by Franz Joseph Haydn sonatas and the world premiere of John Harbison’s new song cycle, “In Early Evening,” to poems by Louise Gluck.”

The ARTISTS are Mark Bridges, cello; Laura Burns, violin; Ryne Cherry, baritone; Ross Gilliland, bass; John Harbison, portative organ and piano; Rose Mary Harbison, violin; Frank Kelley, tenor; The Kepler Quartet; Karl Lavine, cello; Sharan Leventhal, violin; Jennifer Paulson, viola; James Primosch, piano; Brek Renzelman, viola; Eric Segnitz, violin;  Janice Weber, piano; and Sarah Yanovitch, soprano.

Performances take place in the Festival Barn (below top and bottom), on Highway 19 near the hamlet of Token Creek (10 minutes north of Madison, near Sun Prairie). 

The charming and rustic venue — indoors and air-conditioned, with modern comforts — is invitingly small; early reservations are recommended, and casual dress is suggested. Ample parking is available.

Tickets are $12-$32, and can be purchased at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/token-creek-festival-2018-harvest-tickets-47217166817

For more information about the performers and specific works on programs, call (608) 241-2525 or go to www.tokencreekfestival.org

ABOUT THE FESTIVAL

The Token Creek Festival has been called “ferociously interesting and important, an ideal musical experience, a treasure nestled in the heart of Wisconsin cornfields.” (Photo below is by Jess Anderson.)

“Now in its 29th season, this late-summer series near Madison is known for its artistic excellence, diverse and imaginative programming; a deep engagement with the audience; and a surprising, enchanting and intimate performance venue in a  comfortable refurbished barn.”


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Classical music: Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma goes to NPR to perform and talk about spending 58 years learning and playing Bach

August 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma has just recorded the six suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach for the third time.

Ma, now 62, started learning them when he was four years old.

Over so many years, his approach has changed. He says he finds new things in the music as he himself changes and matures, much the way you see different things in the same novel you read at 18 and then again at 55 after you have experienced more of life.

That’s why Ma calls his latest recording “Six Evolutions.” And truth be told, to The Ear his interpretations seem lighter, dancier and more up-tempo while his earlier readings seemed heavier, sometimes even gooey thick.

Anyway, the cellist (below), who has won 19 Grammy Awards and has often performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, recently stopped by the studios of National Public Radio (NPR) for a Tiny Desk Concert.

He played three movements, and he talked about his long experience with playing and learning and exploring Bach to students, who loved him.

It is well worth listening to.

Here is a link: https://www.npr.org/2018/08/16/639206471/yo-yo-ma-tiny-desk-concert

What do you think?

Do you have an opinion about Ma’s current readings of solo Bach versus his past ones?

The Ear wants to hear.


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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