The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Schubertiade last Sunday afternoon explored the influence of Beethoven on Schubert with insight and beauty

February 2, 2020
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ALERT: In early editions of my last post, I mistakenly said that the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform the Verdi Requiem on May 25 and 26. The correct dates are APRIL 25 and 26. The Ear regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most informative and enjoyable events of the Beethoven Year – 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – came early.

It took place last Sunday afternoon in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison.

It was the seventh annual Schubertiade, and its theme was “Schubert and Beethoven: Influences and Homages.” A classic contrast-and-compare examination of two musical giants who lived and worked in Vienna in the early 19th century, the concert took place for almost three hours before a packed house. (Schubert is below top, Beethoven below middle, and the sold-out audience below bottom)

The annual event is organized by co-founders and co-directors UW piano professor Martha Fisher and her pianist husband Bill Lutes (below, greeting the crowd), who also perform frequently, especially as outstandingly sensitive and subtle accompanists.

They make the event, with audience members sitting onstage, look easy and informal. But it takes a lot of hard work.

The two sure know how to choose talent. As usual, all the singers and instrumentalists – UW alumni and faculty members (below) — proved very capable. The concert cohered with consistency.

Nonetheless, The Ear heard highlights worth singling out.

Baritone Michael Roemer (below) sang exceptionally in “An die ferne Geliebte” (To the Distant Beloved) by Beethoven (1770-1827). His voice brought to mind the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the inviting tone and direct delivery of the first song cycle ever composed. It was also the one that inspired the younger Schubert (1797-1828) to compose his own song cycles, and you could hear why.

Soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below right), accompanied by Bill Lutes and cellist Karl Knapp (below center), brought warmth, ease and confidence to the lyrical beauty of “Auf dem Strom” (On the River).

Tenor Daniel O’Dea (below) showed how Schubert’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” – the same Romantic poem made famous in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” – ended up much more lighthearted than the more familiar, serious and intense symphonic version.

Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes, who also sang as well as narrated and accompanied, showed complete blending and tightness in Schubert’s first published composition: “Eight Variations on a French Song.” It was for piano, four-hands – a sociable genre that Schubert favored and wrote a lot of.

Soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below) sang Schubert’s song “Elysium” in which it is unclear whether it is a pastiche or a parody of Beethoven, who remained a mentor until Schubert died at 31. Could that ambiguity point to Schubert’s maturing sense of himself and his own art as compared to Beethoven’s?

One year after Beethoven’s death – Schubert was a pallbearer — Schubert put on his only formal public concert of his own work. That was when he premiered his Piano Trio No. 2, the bravura last movement of which was played by Bill Lutes with cellist Parry Karp and first violinist David Perry (below), of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

Then all four members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) – with violist Sally Chisholm and second violinist Suzanne Beia – played the last two movements of Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, the work that Schubert requested to hear performed as he lay on his death bed in his brother’s Vienna apartment.

Of course there were other moments that pleased and instructed. There was a set of four songs – one coupling sung by mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple (below) — in which the same texts were set to music by both Beethoven and Schubert.

We got to hear Beethoven’s final song, “Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” (Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament).

Then there was the heart-wrenching “Nachthymne” (Hymn to the Night) by Schubert, again beautifully performed by Jamie Rose Guarrine. (You can hear “Hymn to the Night,” sung by Elly Ameling, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So in the end, what were the big lessons, the takeaways from this year’s Schubertiade?

One lesson is that for all his more familiar symphonies and concertos, his string quartets and piano trios, his piano sonatas and his sonatas for cello and violin, Beethoven was also a much more accomplished song composer than the public generally knows.

But for The Ear, the biggest lesson of all is that despite Beethoven’s deep influence, Schubert retained his own special voice, a voice full of unforgettable melodies and harmonies, of lyricism and empathy.

And using a mentor to find, refine and retain one’s own identity is the highest homage any student can pay to a teacher.

 


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Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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Classical music: You must hear this – how Debussy provided a soft way to end a season

May 24, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems perfectly normal and natural that big groups like to close their season with a big ending.

So the Madison Symphony Orchestra closed this past season with the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek, which used a lot of brass and a large choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra went for an all-Beethoven program that featured the Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist John O’Conor, and the forceful, driven Fifth Symphony.

Yet there was something particularly soothing and reassuring about the way the Ancora String Quartet (below) closed its 17th season last Friday night. (Member, below from left, are Wes Luke and Robin Ryan, violins; Benjamin Whitcomb, cello; and Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola.

The group opened with a welcome rarity: the fourth and final string quartet by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It proved a fine offering, especially noteworthy for the hymn-like slow movement that brought to mind the open harmonies of Aaron Copland.

But the concert ended ever so quietly and warmly with the only String Quartet, Op. 10, written by French composer Claude Debussy (below).

The poet T.S. Eliot said the world ends not with a bang but a whimper.

But this ending was neither bang nor whimper.

The Ear would call it a sigh, a long and sensual sound bath that left you leaving the performance less with admiration or wonder than with gratitude for the group and for the music.

Plus, it was all the more affecting for the way that violinist Wes Luke (below) clearly explained how the main themes of all movements grow out of one motif and cohere.

The Debussy string quartet, he explained, is one of the most performed and recorded of the entire string quartet repertory. Yet its sensuality always makes it seems so fresh and so French.

The highlight was, as always, the third movement, the slow movement. And as the spring season completes winding down and the summer seasons starts to pick up, here it is for your enjoyment in a YouTube video of the Juilliard String Quartet.

What did you think about the season-closing concerts this spring? Did you have a favorite?

What do you think of the Debussy string quartet?

If you know of a better slow movement from a string quartet, please leave a COMMENT and a link, if possible, to a YouTube performance.


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