The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Let us now praise — and program — Lou Harrison, the prophetic American composer who pioneered both personal and professional diversity in music

May 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has heard the name of Lou Harrison.

But he doesn’t recall ever actually hearing any music by Lou Harrison (below).

Maybe that will change, now that the centennial of Harrison’s birth is being marked.

Perhaps the UW-Madison or a smaller local group will do something, since neither the Madison Symphony Orchestra nor the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has programmed anything by Harrison in their next seasons.

The Ear certainly hopes to hear some of Harrison’s intriguing and prophetic music, which seems to be a harbinger of contemporary globalism and world music, performed live. Harrison’s work seems to presage Yo-Yo Ma‘s crossover and cross-cultural Silk Road Ensemble, but was way ahead of its time and without the commercial success.

In any case, it seems very few composers pioneered and championed both personal and professional diversity through Asian sounds and an openly gay identity. Completely genuine, Harrison seemed creative and imaginative in just about everything he touched and did.

If you, like The Ear, know little about the maverick Lou Harrison, an excellent background piece, recently done by Tom Huizinga of National Public Radio (NPR), is a fine introduction.

Here is a link to the story:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/05/13/525919082/lou-harrison-the-maverick-composer-with-asia-in-his-ears

Harrison composed a lot of music, including concertos for piano and violin, that shows Asian influences and combines them with traditional Western classical music. Below is a YouTube recording of his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Javanese Gamelan from 1981-82.

Have you heard or performed Harrison’s music?

What do you think of it?

Would you like to hear it programmed for live performance more often?

Leave your opinion in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Sound Out Loud will perform Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” for FREE this Wednesday night at UW-Madison

May 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has heard the following news to post:

On this Wednesday night, May 10, from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. in Music Hall on Bascom Hill, the Sound Out Loud ensemble will give a FREE performance of “Pierrot Lunaire” by Arnold Schoenberg (below).

Schoenberg’s expressionistic masterpiece features poetry that details the ravings of a lunatic clown. The group will feature UW-Madison vocal faculty member Mimmi Fulmer (below).

“Pierrot Lunaire” is in music what Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is to painting or James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is to literature. These three revolutionary works, written in the first decades of the 20th century, completely redefined the accepted aesthetic standards of their time and opened wide new paths to artistic creation.

American soprano Mimmi Fulmer first performed “Pierrot Lunaire” in 1978 at the famed Tanglewood Music Festival. (You can hear the opening section of “Pierrot Lunaire,” with English translation subtitles, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Sound Out Loud is thrilled to be hosting this encore performance under the guidance of such an experienced and knowledgeable performer of the work. Brief remarks by Professor Leslie Blasius (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) about the work will begin the performance.

For more information, go to:

www.soundoutloudensemble.com

http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/mimmi-fulmer/


Classical music: UW Choral Union sounds magnificent in Haydn’s “The Creation”

April 26, 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 took the performance photos.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra (both below) again pulled off a choral spectacular on Sunday afternoon.

Choral Union and Chamber Orchestra Creation JWB

The one-time concert was devoted to the great Classical era oratorio by Franz Joseph Haydn, The Creation, which is too big a work to be performed very frequently. But Haydn modeled it admiringly on the great Baroque oratorios of George Frideric Handel, which we almost NEVER get to hear — let’s not talk about the quite unrepresentative Messiah — by comparison. So we can be grateful for the opportunities we do have.

As always, the campus and community Choral Union sounded magnificent. It is supposed to, with a complement of 116 listed singers, as against an orchestra of a mere 34 players. So it could not avoid overshadowing and overawing all other factors. And particular power, volume and homogeneity resulted from the practice of mixing the singers completely, instead of having them stand as members of vocal sections.

This follows the pernicious gospel preached, going way back, to Robert Fountain, who founded the UW Choral Union many decades ago. One argument for it was that each singer should become more self-reliant, less dependent on the one next to him or her.

But if this practice makes for blockbuster, socko sound, it does so at the cost of part-writing clarity, especially in fugal segments. It misrepresents musical texture by exchanging its definition for a power-oriented blend, a hyped-up sludge.

It strikes me as strange that advocates for applying this doctrine to choruses do not also demand it for orchestras. Think of it: each violin individually next to a trombone, each viola mixed in with the trumpets. Now there would be a chance for socko homogeneity!

The UW Chamber Orchestra’s winds were strong enough, but the strings were woefully understaffed. At times, the ensemble sounded just a tad under-rehearsed, but on the whole it did well under its handicaps.

The soloists played a multiplying game. In Parts I and II, the three Angels, Gabriel (soprano), Uriel (tenor) and Raphael (bass), who narrated and celebrated the stages of the Creation, were taken by a fixed trio (below).

Choral Union Creation Trio JWB

The familiar Jamie-Rose Guarrine (below top) has a strong and beautiful soprano voice. Faculty tenor James Doing (below middle) is also a valued local standby. Baritone Benjamin Schultz (below bottom) has a pleasant voice, but it lacks a true bass range.

Jamie Rose Guarrine 2016

James Doing color

Benjamin Schultz 2016

In Part III, when Adam and Eve come on the scene, Guarrine shifted to the latter role, and another baritone weak in the low-register, Benjamin Li (below top), took over as Adam. For the final ensemble, a choral alto slipped in to round out the solo quartet (below bottom).

Benjamin Li 2016

Choral Union Creation Quartet JWB

I note the title of the work as The Creation, rather than giving its original title, Die Schöfung, because the performance was sung in a modernized English translation.

Once in a while, those English words came through, but much of them were simply lost in mixed diction values. It might have been better — if not easier for the singers — to have kept to the original German. But all praise for an unusually ample program booklet, containing the full English text as sung.

Beverly Taylor (below), the conductor of the choir and orchestra, led with consistent energy and enthusiasm. Certainly the audience responded with great enthusiasm. (You can hear the famous chorus “The Heavens Are Telling” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

This was, to be sure, not an ideal performance, even a lopsided one. But, after all, the point of these events is to give the choristers a chance to participate in this wonderful music, and to give the audience a relatively rare opportunity to encounter it. On those counts, this was a highly successful event.

Now, even if we are not likely to get a follow-up with Handel, we at least have Haydn’s own successor oratorio, Die Jahreszeithen, or The Seasons. That would be wonderful to hear in its turn.


Classical music: Turning chaos into order. Conductor Beverly Taylor explains what makes Haydn’s “The Creation” special and fun to listen to. The UW-Madison Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra with soloists will perform it on Sunday afternoon.

April 18, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the campus-community UW-Madison Choral Union (below), the UW Chamber Orchestra and soloists will perform the oratorio the “The Creation” by the Classical-era master Franz Joseph Haydn.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

First, The Ear wants to clear up any confusion about the date of the performance – which is ONE-TIME ONLY. (In the past, the Choral Union usually gave two performances.) The performance was originally scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Then it was moved to Saturday night and then, after a conflict with the Jewish Passover was seen, moved back to Sunday afternoon.

Tickets are $15 for the general public, $8 for students. For more information about tickets, the work and the performers, here is a link:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union2/

Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music who will conduct the performance, agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

What is the place of Haydn’s “The Creation” is the choral literature? Was it influential? Popular?

It’s considered wonderful and innovative. Its choruses are magnificent, and the opening depiction of Chaos is unlike anything that had been heard up to that time.

It was written late in Haydn’s career, and showed many aspects of his wonderful talent, including musical depictions of non-musical things—water, birds, dawn — and has terrific pacing of the extended choruses building to majestic climaxes.

The premiere was enthusiastically received. It was indeed popular, although the composer’s late masses also deserve great attention. The other vocal works by Haydn (below), such as “The Seasons,” are more slowly paced, and although they contain great music, they are not often felt to be as compelling as “The Creation” with its easy-to-follow sequence of creative days.

Haydn

Are there special moments or parts of the work you would like to point out to the public? How about special aspects of the performance?

Yes! One thing to do is to listen with an open mind to Chaos. (You can preview “Chaos” in a YouTube video at the bottom as performed by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music.)

When I first heard a dull performance of it years ago, I wondered what the big deal was. Then I took a good look at it: It contains chaotic oddities — a horn suddenly blaring loudly with no reference to other instruments, a trilling flute that never resolves its trill, bassoons and clarinets who play bubbling and pointless arpeggios until it all settles down to begin the first day of the Creation (famously depicted below by the British artist and poet William Blake).

Creation and God William Blake

There are also delightful musical depictions and sound paintings of weather that can be confusing unless you know that the orchestra depicts the weather before the bass tells us about it. That way hail won’t sound like snow! The same holds true for the description of animals — we hear the leaping stags before our singer tells us.

There will be terrific moments in the work — orchestral playing, fabulous choral singing. And there will be wonderful solo work by our experienced alumni and faculty artists soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine (below top), tenor James Doing (below second), bass-baritone Benjamin Schultz (below third) and baritone Benjamin Li (below bottom). It’s a pleasure to make music with them.

Jamie Rose Guarrine 2016

James Doing color

Benjamin Schultz 2016

Benjamin Li 2016

Composer John Harbison says that Haydn is the most neglected of all the great composers. Why do you think Haydn isn’t thought of more highly and performed more often?

Among musicians, Haydn is certainly thought of highly, and many people enjoy his work, especially the element of surprise in his work — sforzandos, sudden silences, changes of rhythm.

But many of his works are chamber works designed for smaller rooms and audiences. And in our modern life, the size of the orchestra and special instruments and added theatrical elements often attract more people. Haydn’s chamber works are fabulous, but sometimes subtle. However, they repay well those who pay attention to them.

The Creation poster 2016

What else would you like to say about the composer, this particular work or this performance?

Haydn was influenced by and had influence on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, on all the European composers. But what inspires audiences — including, we hope, ours — is the immediacy of the beauty of the music. You don’t need special training to jump right in and listen.


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all-20th century program of works by Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky and Poulenc this coming Saturday night. Plus, conductor Beverly Taylor talks about how severe budget cuts are hurting the choral program at the UW-Madison.

December 8, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Choral Union, a campus and community chorus, and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all 20th-century program. (Both are below.)

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Featured are the “Symphony of Psalms” by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; the “Gloria” by French composer Francis Poulenc; and the Overture to “The Wasps” by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Tickets are $15, $8 for seniors and students.

Here is a link to more information, including how to buy tickets:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union1/

Beverly Taylor, who heads up the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who is assistant music director at the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct.

Taylor agreed to a recent email interview with The Ear:

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

This year, you are giving only one performance, both now and in the spring for “The Creation” by Franz Joseph Haydn. For many years, you have generally given two performances. Why the change? Is it an experiment or trial, or is it permanent?

Three things combined:  Really, the main reason was that the hall and players were only available one night.  As more groups emerge and the hall is booked, and string players may be playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra or several new chamber groups, it’s hard to get everyone together on the same night.

Also, we thought we’d pack them in for one night, although with all that goes on in town, we may leave some people out.

Third, because we did not have a full chamber ensemble yet available at the time we planned “The Creation,” and knowing I’d have to hire some additional players, we planned on one night for budget reasons.

Next year?  Who knows?  Check back in February …

UW Choral singers

It is a great program of very different 20th-century works. What was your idea or reason for linking them by putting them on the same program?

Great question, and yes I’ve given it a fair amount of thought.

Before I answer that, I should say that I’ve added a bonus piece to the program in the form of the orchestra-only Overture to “The Wasps” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Because the program is a bit on the short side, I had an overture in mind, but hadn’t confirmed it till I saw how quickly the orchestra took on the challenges of the Poulenc and Stravinsky.

One of the great things about programming 20th century music — and I expect will be the same as we add more 21st century music — is the astounding variety of styles available to us. And many of the 20th-century composers lived long enough to provide differing styles within their own work.

UW Symphony violins 2015

UW Symphony Strings cellos

What can you tell us about the work by Stravinsky (below)?

Stravinsky’s earliest works were late Romantic, then, with pulsing rhythms, sometimes called primitive; later there was neo-Classicism, and 12-tone, etc.  If forced to choose a title, I would call “Symphony of Psalms” a mixture of the primitive and the Romantic.

What makes it Romantic is the writing for the choir, which entails long lines, some stunning dynamic changes from loud to soft, and a pure, almost disembodied gentle melody at the end.

What makes it Primitive is the pulsing rhythms in the orchestra in movement III and the unexpected chord interpolations in the first.

What makes it clever intellectually is the difficult, jagged but fascinating double fugue in the second movement; and what makes it a wonderful sonic treat is the elimination of Violin I, II and Viola in favor of FIVE flutes, FIVE oboes, FOUR bassoons, FOUR horns, FIVE trumpets, THREE trombones TWO pianos, ONE harp and ONE tuba, some cellos, double basses and a partridge in a pear tree.

When you get four flutes and a piccolo, playing sometimes a half-step apart, you set up weird shimmering overtones.  It’s fascinating to hear, although I may be deaf after the concert from being so close to them.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

What about the work by Poulenc (below top)?

I wanted to contrast the modern instrumentation of the pulsing rhythms of Stravinsky with an equally interesting 20th-century work with a different flavor.

What makes Poulenc’s “Gloria” (heard in a YouTube video at the bottom) hard to sing is what we hear all the time in popular music — the major seventh chord — think C, E, G and B natural.  For performers, singing C’s against B’s can be hard to tune, but the chords are closely allied with jazz and the piano bar!  And the piano was Poulenc’s composing instrument.

With long lines in the strings, we are treated to the lushest of lines in the third, fifth and sixth movements. The first movement is regally strong; the second and fourth are playful.

Our wonderful soprano soloist, Tyana O’Connor, sings gorgeously in three of the movements, both powerfully direct, and then in soft floating sounds.

Francis Poulenc

And the work by Vaughan Williams?

I chose the Vaughan Williams for its length, its instrumentation (lots for the upper strings, which weren’t playing in the Stravinsky, and nice parts for the harps that we have already playing in the Poulenc and Stravinsky) and its buoyant, positive nature as an opening to our concert.

Vaughan Williams (below) wrote it while he was fairly young, as occasional music to a production of Aristophanes’ play “The Wasps.” He makes a nod to “The Wasps” in the form of a string buzz in the opening and toward the end. But for the most part the overture is formed of two tunes — a perky, angular march and a warm, lush tune aligned with English folksong.  These tunes are presented separately and then combined.

By choosing three different flavors of 20th-century music, I hope to present a balanced evening with appeal to everyone.

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

Have steep budget cuts to the UW-Madison hurt the Choral Union? Do such cuts affect your ability to hire guest soloists? Do they account for the reduction in performances? Do they alter the repertoire that you can do?

Yes, they have hurt the Choral Union in certain ways, although I don’t think our excellence will be any the less.

Without the availability of some discretionary concert funds, we have had to increase some fees for members, and we have had to postpone some special works that might include high rentals of materials or special instruments or another venue to perform in.

We sometimes program using the great soloists available to us from our faculty and graduate students, and save funds for when we need to hire a professional voice that we don’t have. With more money we might do that more often, but we are lucky to have gifted people within our reach.

Good classical music has costs that the public often doesn’t know about — high costs for copyrighted parts and scores (below) for recent works, and specialty instruments such as viols or oboes d’amore and portative organs for early music.

Beethoven Symphony 5 score

What else would you like to say?

I’m so glad you asked me to write.  Although this concert by the Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra is a ticketed event, the great majority of our concerts are FREE.

We encourage listeners of all types and generations to TRY to listen to something new and LIVE, and perhaps in a different genre than they’ve ever tried before.

 


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