The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW Choral Union and soloists succeed impressively in Bach’s massive “St. Matthew Passion.” Plus, a FREE concert of Leonard Bernstein songs is at noon on Friday

April 25, 2018
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features two husband-and-wife teams. Singers bass-baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and pianists Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer will perform an all-Leonard Bernstein program in honor of his centennial. The program includes selections from Arias and Barcarolles,” “Mass,” “Peter Pan,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Songfest.” The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

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 photographs.

By John W. Barker

It comes a bit late for this year’s Holy Week, but the UW Choral Union’s impressive mounting of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last Sunday was still a major contribution to our music this spring.

Running at almost three hours, this is Bach’s longest single work, and is regarded by now as one of the musical monuments of Western Civilization. But its length and its demands make it something performed only on special occasions.

No antiquarian, conductor Beverly Taylor, who directs choral activities at the UW-Madison, tried to follow carefully Bach’s elaborate specifications, which call for both a double chorus and a double orchestra, along with soloists.

A traditionally ample agency, the Choral Union this time fielded a total of 100 singers, plus a 12-member children’s choir, as against a pair of student orchestras numbering 14 and 12 respectively, all playing modern instruments.

This was hardly a balanced combination and Bach himself could never have assembled, much less managed, so huge a chorus as this. It certainly overwhelmed the orchestras, and quite drowned out the children’s group in their appearance at the beginning and ending of Part I.

Still, there is no denying the magnificence of such a large choral force. It was just a bit challenged by the turbae or crowd passages. Nevertheless, to hear such a powerful choir sing so many of the intermittent chorales in Bach’s harmonizations is to feel the glory of the entire Lutheran legacy in religious expression.

A total of 16 soloists were employed, in functions of varying consequence.

At the head of the list stand two. Tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below left) has a voice of more Italian than German character, to my taste. But he not only carried off the heavy duties of the narrating Evangelist, he also sang the tenor arias as well, with unfailing eloquence.  And faculty baritone Paul Rowe (below right) was truly authoritative as Jesus in the parts reserved for the Savior.

The arias were otherwise addressed by a double cast of singers, two each on the other voice parts. Of the two sopranos, Sara Guttenberg (if I have the identity correctly from the confusing program) was strong and splendidly artistic.

Talia Engstrom was more a mezzo-soprano than a true contralto, and not an equally powerful singer, but I did like her very engaging singing. (You can hear the lovely contralto and violin aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The sharing of the alto arias with a countertenor was, however, not a good idea. Of the two bass-baritones, Matthew Chastain (if I have his identity aright) sang with strong and rich tone.  The other singers, mostly singing the character parts in the Gospel text, were generally students, ranging widely in maturity and appeal.

Taken as a whole, though, this performance was an admirable achievement for Beverly Taylor (below). Her tempos were on the moderate side, accommodating especially the large chorus. Above all, her enterprise was obvious in tackling this massive work, while the choral singers obviously found a special thrill in participating in it.

Compliments should be given the program, which contained the full German text interlarded with the English translation. With full house lighting, this wisely allowed the audience to follow along closely.

But the performance was divided into two sittings, one for Part I at 4 p.m., the second for Part II at 7:30 p.m., with a break in between of over two hours — really too long, I found.

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Classical music: Performances by this year’s seven Handel Aria Competition finalists are now on YouTube

July 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even if they change your opinion about who should have won what prize in this year’s fifth annual Handel Aria Competition, it’s too late.

That’s the thing about a competition: No second-guessing and no second chances — at least not this year.

But it’s not too late to enjoy the competition all over again

This past week, 14 performances by all seven finalists, who did two each, were posted on YouTube.

Here is the official announcement:

“The Handel Aria Competition is pleased to announce that first prize in the 5th annual competition, held on June 9 in Madison, Wisconsin, went to mezzo-soprano Nian Wang. Wang performed two fiery Handel arias, “Where Shall I Fly?” from Hercules and “Crude furie degl’ orridi abissi” from Serse (Xerxes).

Wang (below in a photo by Mary Gordon) is a New York-based mezzo-soprano originally from Nanjing, China. She graduated from the opera program at the Curtis Institute of Music, and in 2014 was selected as a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow.

“Along with Wang, tenor Gene Stenger (below left, in a photo by David Peterson) won second prize and the audience favorite award, while mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski (below right) took third prize in the competition.

“Seven finalists (below), selected from a field of more than 100 singers, each sang two arias accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians under the direction of Trevor Stephenson.

Finalists in the 2017 Handel Aria Competition are pictured below (top to bottom, left to right): Gene Stenger, Clara Osowski, Nicole Heinen, Brian Giebler, Nian Wang, Andrew Rader and Johanna Bronk.

UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe, Craig Trompeter and Alessandra Visconti served as the professional judges for this year’s competition.

Every finalist received some votes for the hotly contested audience favorite prize.

The Handel Aria Competition was established in 2013 to encourage emerging singers to explore the operas and oratorios of George Frideric Handel. It is held annually in Mills Hall of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

The competition, founded by Carol “Orange” and Dean Schroeder (below), was inspired by Mr. Schroeder’s passion for Handel’s operatic works.

Please note:  The arias by all seven finalists can now be seen on our YouTube channel. (As an example, winner Nina Wang‘s two arias are at the bottom.)

Bios of the winners and the other four finalists are on our web site.”


Classical music: The fifth annual Handel Aria Competition is this Friday night – and the event has grown into a major event with broad cross-cultural appeal

June 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

In a short time, it has become one of the year’s MUST-HEAR local events for fans of Baroque music, fine singing, and the music of composer George Frideric Handel.

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the fifth annual Handel Aria Competition will take place.

Handel Aria Competition tickets are $15 for general admission, and will be available at the door.

For the third year, the Madison Bach Musicians, led by the keyboardist founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson, will accompany the seven finalists who were selected from over 100 applicants from China, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and 26 states including Hawaii.

Finalists in the 2017 Handel Aria Competition are pictured below (left to right): Gene Stenger, Clara Osowski, Nicole Heinen (who studied at the UW-Madison), Brian Giebler, Nian Wang, Andrew Rader and Johanna Bronk.

In addition to the professional judging for first, second and third prize, there will be a cash prize for Audience Favorite.

The Handel Aria Competition is an annual event held in Madison, Wisconsin to promote the performance of Handel’s extensive vocal repertoire.

Once connected to the Madison Early Music Festival in July, it has evolved into a separate event due to logistics and staffing.

Founders Dean and Orange Schroeder (below) are enthusiasts of George Frideric Handel’s music and lifelong supporters of the arts.

They write:

“In the spring of 2013, we started the Handel Aria Competition with no real experience, using only the Handel Singing Competition in London – the world’s only, at that time – as a model. We were inspired by the recent groundswell of interest in Handel’s operas and oratorios, most of which have been rarely performed for some 300 years!”

Since then, the competition has grown from 50 to 105 applicants and features orchestral accompaniment as well as large, enthusiastic and often partisan audiences.

You can follow the competition, with news and background stories on the Facebook page for the Handel Aria Competition at https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=handel%20aria%20competition

For more information, including extensive biographies of the finalists and the results of past competitions as well as advice about how to apply for the competition and how to support it, go to the website HandelAriaCompetition.com

Countertenor Eric Jurenas, winner of the 2016 competition, can be heard in the YouTube video below:


Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians perform their sixth annual Baroque holiday concert this coming Saturday night. Plus, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Messiah” on Friday night is close to selling out

December 5, 2016
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ALERT: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and its acclaimed music director Andrew Sewell are pretty busy these days playing the accompanying music for the Madison Ballet‘s multiple performances of Peter Tchaikovsky‘s holiday ballet “The Nutcracker.”

Then on this coming Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton, the WCO, the WCO Chorus, the Festival Choir of Madison and guest soloists, all under the baton of Sewell, also give their annual and usually sold-out performance of George Frideric Handel‘s oratorio “Messiah.” The Ear has been told that this year’s performance is also close to selling out to. For more information and tickets, go to: 

http://www.wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah-at-blackhawk-church-middleton/

By Jacob Stockinger

At 8 p.m. this Saturday night, Dec. 10, the Madison Bach Musicians (below top) will give their sixth annual Baroque Holiday Concert.

mbm-baroque-holiday-2015-all-singing

The event will once again be held in the beautiful and sonorous sanctuary (below) of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue.

mbm-baroque-holiday-2015-audence-and-players

MBM holiday 2014 Marc Vallon on bassoon JWB

There is a free pre-concert lecture by the always witty, informative and entertaining MBM founder, artistic director and harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson (below) at 7:15 p.m. NOTE: Trevor Stephenson will also discuss the upcoming holiday concert and play excerpts from past ones TODAY AT NOON on The Midday program aired by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Trevor Stephenson full face at keyboard USE

The program will feature: a cappella (solo vocal) masterworks by Orlando di Lassus and Josquin des Prez performed by a vocal quartet; a Christmas Cantata for soprano and strings by Alessandro Scarlatti—featuring soprano soloist Chelsea Morris (below top); a trio sonata by Johann Joseph Fux; an intriguing  Partita for two scordatura violins (scordatura means the open strings are re-tuned into a new interval configuration!) by Heinrich Biber; the Sonatina in A minor for baroque bassoon and continuo by Georg Philipp Telemann ― with soloist and UW-Madison professor Marc Vallon (below bottom, in a photo by James Gill); one of the Christmas Cantatas, BWV 122Das neugeborne Kindelein (The Newborn Baby) by Johann Sebastian Bach (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); and a bonus feature ― a preview of MBM’s upcoming April performance of Bach’s oratorio  St. John Passion, the tenor aria Ach, mein Sinn.

CHELSEA Shephard

Marc Vallon 2011 James Gill (baroque & modern)[2]

Advance-sale discount tickets: $28 for general admission, $23 for students and seniors 65 and over. They are available at Orange Tree Imports, Farley’s House of Pianos, Room of One’s Own, and Willy Street Co-op (East and West) . You can also find online advance-sale tickets at madisonbachmusicians.org 

Tickets at the door are: $30 for general admission; $25  for students and seniors 65 and over.
 Student Rush tickets are $10 at the door and go on sale 30 minutes before lecture (student ID is required)

Musicians will include: Chelsea Morris, soprano; Joseph Schlesinger, counter-tenor; Scott Brunscheen, tenor; Matthew Tintes, bass; Kangwon Kim and Brandi Berry, baroque violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt, baroque viola; Martha Vallon, baroque cello; Marc Vallon, baroque bassoon; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord


Classical music: Old music and new music mingle superbly at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival through a concert with viols, a countertenor and a new composition by John Harbison

September 1, 2016
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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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also provided the performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The second of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival’s three public concerts, which took place on Tuesday evening, was a study in the old and the new, and the mingling thereof.

The program title was, in fact, “Viol Music, Then and Now.” The performing group was the Second City Musick Consort of Viols of Chicago (below)  — three players from there, plus visitor Brady Lanier.

Craig Trompeter, Russell Wagner, Anna Steinhoff at the Planetarium, Chicago, May 30, 2013

Craig Trompeter, Russell Wagner, Anna Steinhoff at the Planetarium, Chicago, May 30, 2013

Much, but hardly all, of their contributions were consort pieces of the 16th and 17th centuries, although a certain number of transcriptions — ironically, of later music — were involved.

Three Fantasias for three viols by William Byrd and one by John Jenkins for four viols were prime specimens. Two pairs of examples from Henry Purcell’s Fantasias in 4 Parts represented a late contribution to the consort literature, but were probably intended — primarily, if not exclusively — for members of the violin family, not viols.

Token Creek viols JWB

With the addition of countertenor Nathan Medley, groups of “consort songs” were presented: three by Byrd and one each by four different composers of the late-Elizabethan and early Stuart periods. These were capped by one of the favorite airs of Purcell, “Fairest Isle”— which is a part of his large “semi-opera” King Arthur.

Token Creek viols and countertenor closeup JWB

The program’s centerpiece, however, was a new work by festival co-founder and co-artistic director, John Harbison (below), who won a Pulitzer Prize and has been a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellow and who teaches at MIT.

John Harbison MIT

The nature and the scoring of this work, The Cross of Snow, was defined by the patron who commissioned it. This was local businessman William Wartmann (below), who intended it as a tribute to his deceased wife, the painter and singer Joyce Wartmann.

wiiliam wartmann

It was understood from the outset that it would be written for countertenor and consort of viols, and that the texts set would come from 19th-century poetic literature.

The choice eventually fell on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who also lost his wife tragically, in a fire. The three poems set are: The Cross of Snow, Suspira and “Some day, some day.” All of them deal with the deep and enduring pain over the loss of a loved one. The three settings are framed by a Prelude and a Postlude for the consort alone. (You can hear the poem “The Cross of Snow” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Harbison has a strong sense of tradition and a genuine sympathy for Baroque music. Still, in this composition he by no means attempts simply to imitate long-past styles. While he is interested in exploring the special coloring and harmonics of the viols, he also brings to them a lot of the playing techniques familiar from writing for modern stringed instruments, but alien to viols. Indeed, the instrumental role in this work could pretty easily be transferred from viols to modern strings.

Nevertheless, Harbison’s stylistic assimilations run deep. The five movements, and especially the quite contrapuntal Postlude, are built upon allusions to chorales by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). And, quite wisely, the consort played transcriptions of three such pieces in conjunction with Harbison’s score.

Bach1

Moreover, it was decided to perform Harbison’s new work twice, once in each half of the concert. This was most helpful in allowing a deepened appreciation of the emotional content of both the poetry and the music. The vocal lines are strongly etched, and were beautifully sung by countertenor Medley, a superb artist.

With the final program, on this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., the spotlight will be exclusively on Franz Schubert (below) — his “Die Schoene Muellerin” (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter) song cycle and the famous “Trout” Piano Quintet — music in a world between the two evoked by this concert.

Schubert etching

For more information, visit: http://tokencreekfestival.org


Classical music: This year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival celebrates local ecological restoration with “water music”

August 22, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an overview of the upcoming 27th Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, which starts this Saturday, Aug. 27, and runs through Sunday, Sept. 4.

TOKEN CREEK, WIS. – Years in the planning, summer 2016 marks the completion of a major ecological restoration project on the Token Creek Festival property in the northeast corner of Dane County, part of the watersheds vital to the hydrology of Madison and southeastern Wisconsin.

TokenCreekentrance

TokenCreekbarn interior

During the 1930s, one of the most important feeder streams in the area, and its only cold-water trout stream, was ruined when it was widened to support short-lived commercial interests and development. Now, decades later, in a monumental effort, that stream has at long last been relocated, restored and rescued.

Festival-goers will be able to experience the project firsthand on the opening weekend, when each concert is preceded by an optional stroll along the new stream, with conversation guided by restoration ecologists and project managers.

Celebrating this monumental ecological project, the season theme of this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival is: Water Music. Virtually all of the works programmed evoke brooks and streams and rivers and water in its many forms, with its ritual meanings, associations, allusions, and as metaphor.

In keeping with the theme, the Festival has adopted Franz Schubert (below) as the summer’s featured composer. His poetic, melancholic, ultimately organic and inevitable relationship to the natural world was expressed in composition after composition, wedded to his intense involvement with the poetry of his era, itself so infatuated with birds, fields, clouds and streams.

Franz Schubert big

The second program emphasis continues the festival’s most persistent theme: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach1

Three strands of Bach’s music previously explored at Token Creek will be taken up again. We will present our third complete cantata performance, O heiliges Geist und Wasserbad, a mysterious and poetic piece from early in the composer’s career, with soloists from the Madison Choral Project (below).

Madison Choral Project color

We will conclude our survey of the three Bach violin concertos, this year the E major, co-artistic director Rose Mary Harbison (below top) again as soloist. And we take up our sequence of fugues from The Art of Fugue, co-artistic director and composer John Harbison (below bottom), who has won the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius grant,” adding three more to his personal odyssey with this work, due to conclude in 2030.

RosemaryHarbison

JohnHarbisonatpiano

NEW ARTISTS

Token Creek is pleased to introduce several new artists this season, including Grammy Award-nominated mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore, who has been praised for her “glorious instrument” and dubbed an “undisputed star…who has it all – looks, intelligence, musicianship, personality, technique, and a voice of bewitching amber color.”

Ms. Lattimore will offer works of Franz Schubert and John Harbison on the Festival’s opening concerts, By the Brook (August 27 and 28), where she will be joined by pianist Molly Morkoski.

www.margaretlattimore.net

Margaret Lattimore

Ms. Morkoski (below), who last appeared at Token Creek in 2013, consistently garners praise for her refined virtuosity and “the bold confidence and interactive grace one wants in a devoted chamber music maker.” In addition to the opening program, Morkoski will also be heard on the season finale in Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet (Sept. 2 and 4).

http://www.mollymorkoski.com/

molly morkoski

On that same concert, tenor William Hite and pianist Kayo Iwama join forces in Schubert’s devastating and tragic song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter), in which a brook functions prominently as the protagonist’s confidante. (You can hear the legendary baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing “The Miller and the Brook” from the flowing song cycle in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini has called Hite (below) a “breathtaking communicator of spoken nuance” for his ability to reveal the meaning and emotion embodied in the text and the music, solidifying his reputation as an engaging and expressive artist.

http://www.williamhitetenor.com/

william hite

Kayo Iwama (below) is associate director of the Bard College Conservatory of Music graduate vocal arts program, the master’s degree program for classical singers, and she also coordinates the vocal studies program at the Tanglewood Music Center. Her frequent concert partners include Dawn Upshaw and Lucy Shelton.

http://www.bard.edu/academics/faculty/details/?action=details&id=1838

Kayo Iwama

VIOLS AND WILLIAM WARTMANN

Finally, the “technically faultless and consistently sensitive and expressive,” consort of viols, Second City Musick (below), based in Chicago, will offer a guest recital on Tuesday, Aug. 30, anchored by John Harbison’s The Cross of Snow.

Craig Trompeter, Russell Wagner, Anna Steinhoff at the Planetarium, Chicago, May 30, 2013

Craig Trompeter, Russell Wagner, Anna Steinhoff at the Planetarium, Chicago, May 30, 2013

Commissioned by local businessman and philanthropist William John Wartmann (below) in memory of his wife, mezzo-soprano Joyce Wartmann, this evocative new piece, on texts of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, blends the ethereal lushness of violas da gamba with the haunting clarity of the countertenor voice, here Nathan Medley (below bottom), to explore the emotions of grief, loss and love.

wiiliam wartmann

Nathan Medley

At its first performance in Chicago last May, a local critic praised both the work and the musicians: “The Chicago-based ensemble was ideally suited to premiere this profoundly affecting work, and the shared sensibility between composer and performers was noticeable.”

Tuesday’s program will also include works of Henry Purcell, William Byrd, John Jenkins and Johann Sebastian Bach.

www.secondcitymusick.org

Other festival artists this season include vocalists Rachel Warricke, Sarah Leuwerke, Daniel O’Dea, and Nathan Krueger; violinists Rose Mary Harbison, Laura Burns, and Isabella Lippi; Jen Paulson, viola; Karl Lavine, cello; Ross Gilliland, bass; Linda Kimball, horn; and John Harbison, piano.

HERE ARE FESTIVAL PROGRAMS AT A GLANCE:

Program 1: By the Brook – Schubert, Bach and Harbison

Saturday, Aug. 27: 6:45 p.m. – optional guided stream stroll*; 8 p.m. – concert

Sunday, Aug. 28:  2:45 p.m. – optional guided stream stroll*; 4 p.m. – concert

*(The stream stroll is free, but reservations are recommended)

Program 2: Music for Viols, Then & Now

Tuesday, Aug. 30, at 7:30 p.m.

Program 3: Water Colors = Two Schubert Masterworks

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

Sunday, Sept. 4 at 4 p.m.

Concert tickets are $32 (students $12). The preview stream stroll on opening weekend is free to concertgoers, but advance reservations are recommended.

Reservations can be made in several ways:

  • Online:    https://www.eventbrite.com/e/token-creek-chamber-music-festival-2016-tickets-26070692142
  • Website (printable order form): www.tokencreekfestival.org
  • Phone: 608-241-2525 (voicemail only, please leave a message)
  • Email: info@tokencreekfestival.org
  • U.S. mail: P.O. Box 5201, Madison WI, 53705

Performances take place at the Festival Barn, on Highway 19 near the hamlet of Token Creek (10 minutes north of Madison) with ample parking available. The venue, indoors and air-conditioned, is invitingly small—early reservations are recommended.

Token Creek 2011 Mozart Trio, Levin, Harbison, Ryder

More information about the Token Creek Festival and all events and artists can be found at the website, www.tokencreekfestival.org or by calling 608 241-2525.


Classical music: New York Polyphony opens the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival with a perfectly rendered composite portrait of Elizabethan sacred music. Plus, the winners of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition are announced

July 11, 2016
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ALERT: In case you haven’t yet heard, the winners (below) of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition, held on Friday night in Mills Hall and accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians, have been announced.

Eric Jurenas (center), countertenor, won First Prize; Christina Kay (right), soprano, won Second Prize; and Nola Richardson (left), soprano, won Third Prize and Audience Favorite.

Handel Aria winners 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear left the concert hall thinking: Well, this will be an easy review to write.

Just give it an A-plus.

An easy A-plus.

On Saturday night, the acclaimed a cappella quartet New York Polyphony (below) opened the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) with a flawless performance.

new york polyphony

This year, the MEMF is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of poet and playwright William Shakespeare (below top) and the 45-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I (below bottom), who oversaw the English Renaissance.

shakespeare BW

Queen Elizabeth I

And the program – performed before a large house of perhaps 450 or 500 enthusiastic listeners — was perfectly in keeping with the festival’s theme. It used sacred music rather than stage music or secular music, which will be featured later in this week of concerts, workshops and pre-concert lectures.

In fact, the program of New York Polyphony was based on two of the group’s best-selling CDs for BIS Records and AVIE Records: “Tudor City” and “Times Goes by Turns.” It was roughly divided into two masses, one on each half. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Adding to the variety was that each Anglican or Roman Catholic-based mass was a composite, with various sections made up like movements written by different composers. Thrown in for good measure were two separate short pieces, the “Ave Maria Mater Dei” by William Cornysh and the “Ave verum corpus” of William Byrd.

The Mass on the first half featured music by Byrd, John Dunstable, Walter Lambe and Thomas Tallis. The second half featured works music by Tallis, John Pyamour, John Plummer and excerpts from the Worcester Fragments. The section were typical: the Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

There was nothing fancy about this concert, which marked the Wisconsin debut of New York Polyphony and which spotlighted superbly quiet virtuosity. The four dark-suited men, who occasionally split up, just stood on stage and opened their mouths and sang flawlessly with unerring pitch and superb diction.

New York Polyphony MEMF 2016

A cappella or unaccompanied singing is hard work, but the four men made it seem easy. The countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass each showed confidence and talent plus the ability to project clarity while not overshadowing each other. This was first-class singing.

The beautiful polyphony of the lines was wondrous to behold even, if like The Ear, sacred music from this era – with its chant-like rather than melodic qualities – is not your favorite fare.

New York Polyphony provided a good harbinger of the treats that will come this week at the MEMF from groups like the Newberry Consort of Chicago with soprano Ellen Hargis (below top) and the Baltimore Consort (below bottom) as well as from the faculty and workshop participants. On Friday night is an appealing program that focuses on Shakespeare’s sonnets and music.

MEMF newberry consort

Baltimore Consort

And on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., with a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m., will be the All-Festival concert. That is always a must-hear great sampler of what you perhaps couldn’t get to earlier in the week. This year, it will feature the music as used in a typical Elizabethan day.

Here is a link to the MEMF website:

https://artsinstitute.wisc.edu/memf/

And here is a link the website of New York Polyphony if you want to hear more:

http://www.newyorkpolyphony.com


Classical music: Fourth annual Handel Aria Competition announces the 2016 finalists who will sing for prizes next FRIDAY (NOT Thursday) night

July 1, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement:

The Handel Aria Competition is pleased to announce the finalists for this year’s fourth annual event.

The final round of the region, national and international competition is presented as a public concert in conjunction with the Madison Early Music Festival in Madison, Wisconsin.

Handel etching

It will take place on next FRIDAY night July 8, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall at the UW-Madison School of Music, 455 North Park Street. (An earlier version mistakenly said Thursday night. The correct date is FRIDAY night, July 8. The Ear apologizes for the error.)

Tickets are $10, general admission, and are available in advance, through Orange Tree Imports, in person at 1721 Monroe St., Madison, WI, and by phone: (608) 255-8211; or at the door They are now available online through UW Arts on Campus (use the link below) and at the Memorial Union Box Office.

https://itkt.choicecrm.net/templates/UWIM/index.php?&event_ids=3974

Seven finalists and two alternates were chosen from a field of almost 100 singers from around the world.

The finalists are:

Each singer will present two arias from an opera or cantata by George Frideric Handel, accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians (below, at the 2015 competition) under the direction of Trevor Stephenson.

Handel Aria 2015 Madison Bach Musicians

Three professional judges will select a first, second and third prize winner, and all those in attendance will be invited to vote for the recipient of the “audience favorite” prize.

For more information about the competition, visit:

https://handelariacompetition.com

Below are the 2016 Handel Aria Competition Finalists – from upper left, clockwise: Fiona Gillespie Jackson; Christina Kay; Nola Richardson; Elena Snow; Pascale Brigitte Boilard; Adele Grabowski; and Eric Jurenas.

Processed with MOLDIV


Classical music: The Ear thinks Handel Himmel is here to stay as the annual Handel Aria Competition matures into permanence.

July 20, 2015
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Thursday night, The Ear attended the annual Handel Aria Competition.

And once again, he found himself in Handel Himmel.

Handel etching

The contest – sometimes likened to a smack-down or a classical Baroque “American Idol” — is affiliated with, but not a part of, the Madison Early Music Festival.

This was the third year in a row for the competition, which was founded by local merchants and music patrons Dean and Orange Schroeder (below).

Carol %22Orange%22 and Dean Schroeder

Here is a link to a Q&A post in 2013 with Dean Schroeder discussing the genesis of the competition:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/classical-music-qa-organizer-dean-schroeder-talks-about-the-inaugural-handel-aria-competition-at-this-years-madison-early-music-festival-on-monday-night-july-8/

And it sure seems that, with more incremental improvements yet again this year, this third time could prove the charm in establishing the competition as a permanent event.

Here is a link to the competition’s home website with news of the winners soprano Sarah Brailey (first, below center), countertenor Andrew Rader (second, below right) and mezzo-soprano Margaret Fox (third and audience prize, below left), the last of whom did graduate work at the UW-Madison School of Music:

http://handelariacompetition.com

Handel Aria winners 2015

For one, the attendance seemed bigger and applause sounded  louder than in the past two years. The word is out.

Handel Aria audience 2015

Also, the competition returned to Mills Hall, which has better seating, better sight lines and better acoustics — to say nothing of better restrooms — than Music Hall, where it was held last year.

Here are some other things The Ear especially liked about this year’s Handel Aria Competition:

The Madison Bach Musicians — with harpsichord, two violins, cello, viola and especially an oboe — accompanied the singers.

That felt much more authentic for opera and oratorios than the solo harpsichord the first year or the small group last year. It sounded great and added a depth that allowed you to really hear how Georg Frideric Handel bounced parts back and forth.

One organizer told me she hopes that the ensemble will return next year. The Ear hopes so too. Everybody hopes so. They did an outstanding job and added a lot.

Handel Aria 2015 Madison Bach Musicians

There were only seven contestants (below). Even so, the event started at 7:30 and ran until almost 10 p.m. That makes for a long night. Splitting them into four and three, then adding in time at the end for judging by the judges and the audience, made it more manageable than in previous years. But The Ear would like to see the finalists whittled down to five or six.

Handel Aria contestants 2015

This year also saw more unusual repertoire offerings. I heard less from such well-known works as, say, “Messiah” — which should be banned from the competition — and more from unusual works such as “La Resurrezione,” “Siroe Re di Persia,” “Orlando” and “Teseo.”

That helped me to appreciate the range of Handel’s music. (Listen to the lovely aria “Ferma l’ali” from “La Resurrezione” in a YouTube video at the bottom. It was the opening piece sung by winner Sarah Brailey.)

The contestants also seem to get more evenly matched and more professional every year, showing greater ease and better stage presence. That is probably only to be expected as news of the competition spreads among early music enthusiasts.

BUT: There was one sour note. I did hear some very strong complaints from quite a few very knowledgeable listeners that soprano Kristen Knutson (below) did not receive any prize.

Yet she seemed to possess the complete package. She demonstrated a strong and expressive voice, with great pitch and diction plus terrific ornamentation, and she showed a fine stage presence.

Was she shut out — or robbed, as one listener bluntly put it — because she went first? Whatever the reason, she deserved much better recognition than she got. The Ear hope she returns next year and does as well as she deserves to.

Handel Aria 2015 Kristen Knutson

What did you think of this year’s competition?

Of the performances and of the judging?

 

 


Classical music: The third annual Handel Aria Competition takes place this Thursday night.

July 14, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Ear Friends and local merchants Dean and Orange Schroeder, who sponsor a lot of local classical music, write about an event they created and that is being held in conjunction with this week’s Madison Early Music Festival, which is exploring early Eastern European music:

Dear Jake,

We are hoping that you might help us promote this year’s third annual Handel Aria Competition (below, in 2013). It takes place on this Thursday, July 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall at the UW-Madison School of Music. (Chelsea Morris, who won last year’s competition can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Handel etching

Handel arias Winnie Nieh

Music critic and emeritus UW-Madison history professor John W. Barker will be giving a free pre-competition talk at 6:30 p.m., probably in 2650 Humanities Building.

John-Barker

Tickets are $10, general admission, and are available in advance at Orange Tree Imports, 1721 Monroe Street, and online through Brown Paper Tickets (see www.handelariacompetition.com for the link).

There should also be tickets available at the door.

We have seven wonderful finalists coming to perform. And we are particularly excited that, this year, the accompaniment will be more than a harpsichord and will be provided by the Madison Bach Musicians with Trevor Stephenson (below).

Kangwon KIm with Madison Bach Musicians

We asked each of our seven finalists to answer the question “Why I love to sing Handel,” and I thought your readers would enjoy their answers.

Handel Aria Competition Finalists for 2015

Sarah Brailey, soprano (a finalist in 2014), NY, NY

Corrine Byrne, soprano, NY, NY

Audrey L. Dawson, mezzo-soprano, Springfield, OH

Margaret Fox, mezzo-soprano, Chicago

Kristin Knutson, soprano, Brookfield, WI

Andrew Rader, countertenor, Bloomington, IN

Jacob Scharfman, baritone, Boston

Here are their answers:

—————————————————————-

jacobscharfman.com

“Handel’s is “perfect music,” as Joyce DiDonato joked in a recent master class, music he whipped up almost thoughtlessly. Some composers slave over their works, but Handel—like Mozart—captured the pacing, moods and nuances of his characters immediately.

“It’s for this immediacy that I love to sing Handel. His genuine showmanship has enthralled audiences for centuries, and I commend the Handel Aria Competition for sustaining that legacy.”

Jacob Scharfman (below)

Jacob Scharfman

—————————————————————–

www.corrinebyrne.com

“Why I love singing Handel: This is so hard to answer briefly, because I basically spent my doctorate pondering the joys and intricacies in the vocal works of Handel. His writing is like a puzzle, where I can dive into the subtle meanings of every elegant gesture to create the most meaningful interpretation I can.

“When I’m singing a Handel aria, I get to become not just a vehicle for his music, but a composer myself as well as a researcher and a historian. There’s nothing more exciting than ornamenting Handel, because the music is ever-changing and alive!”

Corrine Byrne (below)

Corinne Byrne

—————————————————————–

www.margaret-fox.com

“I love to sing Handel because his music encapsulates the simplest and most complex of emotions, simultaneously, just like real life!”

Margaret Fox mezzo-soprano (below)

Margaret Fox

—————————————————————–

“Handel is one of my favorite composers to sing. From a personal standpoint, Handel will always hold a special place in my heart because my first breakthrough in my vocal studies was achieved with a Handel aria, and many of my subsequent vocal successes were accomplished with his arias.

“I love to sing Handel because his music is incredibly expressive and evocative, and so very exciting and stimulating to sing.”

Audrey Dawson

Audrey Dawson

—————————————————————–

www.KristinKnutson.com

“High on my list of “Great Singing Fears”– along with forgetting my audition dress, or running out of breath mid-vowel–is the fear of being boring. What is the point of all the effort to be a good singer if the audience leaves feeling cold and un-moved?

“Put simply, Handel’s music gives me something real and heartwarming to say. He wrote to persuade the listener, at a deep level, of what the text expressed, and is therefore an easy friend to any singer looking to relate story and emotion effectively. What a privilege to share his music with an audience!”

Kristin Knutson (below)

Kristin Knutson

—————————————————————–

www.sarahbrailey.com

“I love to sing Handel because of the great variety and flexibility it allows us as singers. Name an emotion and there is a fantastic, dramatic, exciting Handel aria that explores it.

He was so prolific–we truly have a treasure trove at our disposal, especially as sopranos! And how often do we get the opportunity to improvise or compose as classical singers? Ornamenting Handel stretches my brain in a way that few other things do in my career. It’s a very gratifying challenge.”

Sarah Brailey (below)

Sarah Brailey

—————————————————————–

www.andrewraderct.com

“For me, Handel’s music is like coming home. No matter what other repertoire I explore, his scores (whether operas, oratorios, cantatas, what have you) can be opened, set on the stand, and they just speak themselves as self-evident. With far fewer exceptions than other composers, not much must be added to bring their magic to the fore.”

Andrew Rader (below)

andrew rader

Adds Andrew Rader:

“I would like to thank you for sponsoring this event. Handel’s music deserves a wider audience than it has in this country, and these scores need support from people like yourselves if they are ever to become more well-known gems in the public spheres of music.

“Regardless of who officially places first in the competition, we are all successful in being winners, due to the experience of putting together this type of performance.”

 


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