The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Summer Choir celebrates its 10th anniversary with one of the best concerts of the year

July 20, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Summer Choir (below) celebrated its 10th anniversary on Wednesday night at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Each year’s program has had a theme, and for this one it was “Old Wine in New Bottles”— though it might as well have been the other way ‘round.

The idea, though, was that the selections showed their composers looking back to the techniques and tastes of earlier generations while writing new music. Conductor Ben Luedcke (below) introduced each work to explain how such approaches worked out.

The first half of the program was devoted to four works, dating from three different centuries.

Two were by contemporary composers. A setting in English of the Psalm text “By the Waters of Babylon” by Sarah Riskind (below top) was followed by Amor de mi Ami, a tribute to his wife, in Spanish, by Randall Stroope (below bottom).

Each work had instrumental additions — in the first, piano with cello, in the second, just piano) which personally I found unnecessary. Riskind’s choral writing is attractively full and quite idiomatic, while Stroope achieves a natural lyricism. I would be interested to hear just the choral parts alone for each work. (Editor’s Note: You can hear the work by Randall Stroope in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These two items were framed by music of earlier epochs. The Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song) by Johannes Brahms showed his ability to create his own version of both pre- and post-Baroque polyphony. And Mozart’s Psalm setting Laudate pueri, from one of his Vespers collections (K. 339), showed his assimilation of Baroque counterpoint.

Bruce Bengtson played the part Brahms included for organ (or piano), and he also played the organ reduction of the orchestral part for the Mozart.

It was partly the acoustics, but also a weakness in diction that made the words in those four pieces all but indistinguishable, in whatever language was being sung—my one serious criticism of the performances.

The second part of the program was devoted to the first of the numbered Mass settings by Anton Bruckner. In some ways, such large-scale sacred works were studies for his majestic symphonies yet to come.

In this Mass No. 1 in D minor, Bruckner saw himself in the line of earlier Austrian church music, but anyone expecting bald imitations of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven would be disappointed.

In his dense and highly chromatic writing — something like a step beyond Schubert — Bruckner created some very fascinating music. It reached really exciting power in the Credo, and the words “dona nobis pacem” at the conclusion had a deeply moving sense of serenity.

The choir, of 68 mixed voices, was joined for the Bruckner by four soloists — Chelsie Propst, Jessica Lee Timman, Peter Gruett, Christian Bester (below on the left) — who sang their parts handsomely, and by an orchestra of 30 players, who provided strong and sturdy support.

Luedcke deserves particular praise for giving a chance to hear the Bruckner Mass, which was thought to be its Madison premiere. It climaxed a really enterprising event, one that I think will stand as among the Best Concerts of the Year.

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Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra deliver outstanding performances of great music by Mozart and Brahms

December 12, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The program for the first concert this season by the UW Choral Union (below), mercifully, had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, and just offered great music.

There were only two works, one by Brahms and the other by Mozart. Surefire!

Johannes Brahms composed three relatively short works for chorus, without soloists, and orchestra. Of these, I wish conductors would get busy with two of them in particular. The Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates) and Nänie are simply superb works by one of the greatest of all choral composers.

The third, the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54, I would rate just a bit lower for musical content, but that is the one of the three that is more frequently performed, and that was the one we heard.

That said, there is much quite beautiful music in the piece, which sets a poem of Friedrich Hölderlin that moves from anxiety to desperation. Brahms (below) preceded the choral setting with a serene introduction that—to satisfy his aesthetics if not the poet’s—he repeats at the end to restore order.

Conductor Beverley Taylor (below) employed rather broad tempos, but this enabled her to bring out some of the melodic material with great beauty.

And, with a chorus of some 124 singers, she was able to give the music tremendous sonority, if a bit at the price of German diction. With the very good UW Symphony Orchestra in fine fettle, too, this was an excellent performance that should alert listeners to neglected treasures.

The main work was the unfinished “Great” Mass in C minor, K. 427, by Mozart (below). This is music inspired by the composer’s marriage and by the new (for him) artistic climate of Vienna. Even incomplete – it has a fragmentary “Credo” and is missing an “Agnus Dei”) — it still stands, with his also uncompleted Requiem, as a towering masterpiece of his sacred choral output.

Taylor displayed a fine feeling for both the overall and individual qualities of the work, projecting them with vigor and discipline.

There were four student soloists (below), with promising young voices.

But eventually the standout proved to be soprano Sarah Richardson (below). The operatic-style aria, “Et incarnatus est” from the “Credo” was apparently sung by Mozart’s wife in its preliminary performance, and is often heard as a separate solo number today. This was sung by Richardson (below) with skill and eloquence. (You can hear the aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This chorus was really a bit oversized for a work like this, but Taylor made it the real star of the performance, in singing with both power and precision.

A truly rewarding concert!


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
2 Comments

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 Q&A: Bach’s Mass in B Minor is perfect music for Easter. It reconciles Catholicism and Protestantism, and is a distillation of Bach’s own Cantatas and Passions, says Trevor Stephenson, the director of the Madison Bach Musicians who, with the Madison Choral Project, will perform the Mass in B Minor on Friday and Saturday nights.

April 14, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear still remembers fondly the beautiful and moving performance he heard five years ago of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” by the Madison Bach Musicians. 

Since then the MBM has turned in many memorable performances of cantatas and concertos by Bach and other early music on period instruments, including works by Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli and George Frideric Handel.

But this Easter weekend will bring a special treat.

The Madison Bach Musicians, will partner with the Madison Choral Project, under Albert Pinsonneault, to perform Bach’s magnificent and monumental Mass in Minor.

Performances are at on this Friday night at 8 pm. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ. And on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison at 900 University Bay Drive, near UW Hospital.

Advance tickets are $20 for adults; $15 for students and seniors over 65; at the door, $25 and $20, respectively. For more information about how to buy advance tickets, visit:

http://madisonbachmusicians.org/tickets/

For more information about the music and the performers, visit:

http://madisonbachmusicians.org

Stephenson (seen below, in a pre-concert lecture in a photo by Kent Sweitzer), who is a knowledgeable, articulate and entertaining speaker about Baroque music, agreed to an email Q&A about the Mass in B Minor.

Trevor Stephenson lecture at FUS October 2012 by Kent Sweitzer

Where do you place the B Minor Mass with Bach’s enormous body of work and choral music? How does it stand or rank in terms of quality and power to, say, the Passions and Cantatas?

Musicians often talk about their “desert island piece”— the work they would most want to have at hand if they were forced to live on a desert island. For me, the B minor Mass has always been my desert island piece. (But if I could sneak in the Well-Tempered Clavier too, that would be great.)

The Passions are incomparable investigations into the relationship between the human embodiment of divine spirit and the dark machinations of this world. The Passions are also Bach’s great statements on the importance of self-sacrifice for the greater good of love. (Jesus gave up his life for love of us, and we should in turn give of ourselves to that which we love.)

The Cantatas are the laboratory where Bach worked out–on a nearly weekly basis–the fusion of musical and textual material toward a spiritual end.

The Mass in B minor focuses more on the relationship between—and really the joining of–the metaphysical and the everyday. Just as an example, as Bach expert John Eliot Gardiner (below) points out in his wonderful new book, “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” look how the opening of the Credo fuses the gravitas, dignity, and mysticism of plainchant (in the voices) with the elegant, bubbling stride of the baroque bass line. And together these elements create a third thing, beyond themselves, a new joy. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the uplifting and joyous “Gloria” movement, performed by Karl Richter leading the Munich Bach Orchestra.)

John Eliot Gardiner

Why did a devout Lutheran like Bach turn to a Roman Catholic musical form? Is it appropriate to the Easter season, like the Passions and certain cantatas? What kind of liberties does Bach take with it? How does he reinvent it, if he does?

In Bach’s family, the work was often referred to as “The great catholic mass”–precisely because it was not usual Lutheran practice to set the entire Latin mass. The first appearance of the Mass in B minor comes in 1733 when Bach and his family copied out a beautiful set of presentation parts for the Dresden court–which had not only one of the greatest orchestras and vocal ensembles in Europe, but was also a Catholic court.

I’ve always felt that Bach’s Mass in B minor is something of a reconciliation with the Catholic church after the spiritual and political upheaval of the 17th century and the devastation of the 30-years War.

The Mass in B minor, though it is certainly Christian, also points toward a more inclusive picture of humanity’s universal — the original meaning of catholic — spiritual quest. It is hard to quantify, but I feel there is something in this music that speaks to—and really helps and inspires–us all.

Bach1

Why will Marc Vallon conduct it rather than you?

Marc and I have been working together for several years now. He has played several bassoon concertos with MBM; also with MBM he has conducted symphonies and concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus, Franz Joseph Haydn and Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach.

Marc, who now teaches and performs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, was principal baroque bassoon—for 20 years—with the internationally acclaimed Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under Ton Koopman. And during that time Marc performed and recorded many of Bach’s Cantatas, Passions and the B minor Mass.

Marc’s tremendous performance background with the Mass, and his infectious enthusiasm for this timeless masterpiece make him perfectly suited to lead the rehearsals and the concerts. I really can’t wait to hear what happens on Friday and Saturday when these amazing musicians and Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) and a great audience gather for the Mass in B minor.

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

What are the special aspects (one-on-one versus larger chorus, for example, or the Madison Choral Project or the period instruments and practices) that you would like to point out about this performance?

The Madison Choral Project is providing a 17-voice choir for the Mass in B minor concerts. In this work, since Bach usually uses a five-part choral texture (soprano I, soprano II, alto, tenor, bass), this comes to about three voices per part, depending on how things are distributed in a particular moment.

In two movements of the Mass (first Credo and Confiteor), we’ll have the soloists sing one-voice-per-part.

The orchestra will consist of 25 players, all on period instruments: 12 strings, 2 baroque oboes, 2 baroque flutes, 2 baroque bassoons, natural horn, 3 baroque trumpets, timpani, and continuo organ, which I what I will play. The balance between choir, soloists and orchestra should work out beautifully. (Below is the Madison Bach Musicians performing the “St. Matthew Passion” in a photo by Karen Holland.)

MBM in 2009 St. Matthew Passion CR Karen Holland

What should the public listen for in the mass both musically and performance-wise?

I would say notice how Bach contrasts grandeur with intimacy, metaphysical inquiry and prayer with rollicking celebration, and yet makes an exquisitely coherent whole. I think the Mass in B minor is a miracle of form.

Also, these concerts will feature an entirely period-instrument orchestra of outstanding baroque performance specialists hailing from throughout the United States — Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

The wonderful thing about playing this incomparable baroque masterwork on instruments that Bach was familiar with, is that the sound becomes fresh and energized in a way that is readily apparent. It really is a way of going Back to the Present!

The 18th-century instruments typically speak faster than their modern descendants — that is, the pitch actually forms more quickly, often by just a fraction of a second. But in music-making—especially very intricate baroque music-making—that fraction of a second can be the critical difference.

Bach’s absolutely amazing counterpoint in the Mass in B minor, which he often weaves effortlessly in 4 and even 5 independent parts is much more transparent when played on period instruments. You can peer more deeply into the infinite world of Bach’s fugues.

Period instruments are also set up to articulate quite deftly, that is, baroque instruments help the players define the shorter musical groupings of connected and non-connected notes. This in turn assists the audience in assimilating the elegant rhetorical shapes of Bach’s lines.

I will also preface both the concerts starting at 6:45 p.m. with a 30-minute lecture on period instruments (below is Stephenson discussing the keyboard action of an 18th-century fortepiano), approaches to singing baroque music, and the structure and history of the Mass in B minor.

HousemusicStephensonfortepianoaction

Is there anything else you would like to say or add?

I’d like to say a bit about the two venues where we’ll perform the Mass in B minor. “Where is it?” is one of the first questions most people ask when they hear of an exciting upcoming musical event. Because–particularly for classical music–the acoustics really matter. And the feel of the place, the vibe, needs to be right too.

The sound will be rich and the mood will be spiritually focused on Friday and Saturday as the Madison Bach Musicians and the Madison Choral Project collaborate in two performances of J. S. Bach’s monumental masterpiece the Mass in B minor, BWV 232.

The Friday concert will be given in the magnificent setting of the sanctuary at First Congregational United Church of Christ, at 1609 University Avenue, a landmark building in Madison’s cultural life.

MBM Bach canata 2013 Dec

The Saturday concert will be in the acoustically brilliant Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. The performances will feature a 24-piece period-instrument baroque orchestra, 5 outstanding vocal soloists, and a 17-voice professional choir from the Madison Choral Project.

Bach composed the Mass in B minor during the final 18 years of his life; adding, editing, and re-working it into his final year, 1750. The result is about 100 minutes of music that is instantly engaging, highly varied in its variety of ensemble and style, unified to the Nth degree, and structurally perfect. And somehow the Mass in B minor it is at once both magnificent and intimate.

The First Congregational United Church of Christ, with its neo-Georgian design (begun in 1928), captures the 18th-century ideals of dignified ambiance and sonic balance that Bach understood. The sound has tremendous detail, yet everything contributes to the warm cumulative tonal glow.

The much more recent Atrium Auditorium (below), built in 2008, at First Unitarian Society brings out the immediacy of the music-making. The sight lines are direct, and the acoustics brilliant; the audience feels very connected with the performers.

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

Both venues are absolutely perfect for period-instrument performance, which emphasizes the detail and vitality of the music rather than sheer decibels.

Seating is limited at both venues, so purchasing tickets in advance is highly recommended.

 

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