The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The 29th Token Creek Festival closes with the world premiere of a song cycle by John Harbison and dramatic, affecting Schumann

September 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. 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 third and final program of this summer’s 29th Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, held in a refurbished barn (below) was given on last Saturday afternoon, when I caught it, and then was repeated the following day.

There were adjustments down to the wire, as co-director John Harbison noted in his opening comments. The originally planned opening piece, Mozart’s Sonata in G Major, K. 301, for Violin and Piano, was cancelled, and the program actually began with Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E Major (H. XVI:22).

Harbison (below) played this himself, having observed that, if not noteworthy, it was representative of its kind. In fact, it is a worthy work, its third and final movement is a little set of delightful variations on a minuet tune. Harbison obviously loves this whole Haydn literature, and he played the piece with affection.

Then it was vocal music, sung by tenor Frank Kelley — who has worked with Harbison in the Emmanuel Music activities in Boston — with pianist Janice Weber.

Their first offering was the world premiere of a cycle-in-progress by Harbison, titled In Early Evening, to texts by poet Louise Glück (below): specifically, of its first three songs. The texts are dreamy and nostalgic, and the composer has attempted to capture their multi-layered implications.

The two performers (below) then completed the concert’s first half with a presentation of the complete 16 songs of the cycle Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) by Robert Schumann. This sets the reflections on failed love, written by the great German poet Heinrich Heine.

Kelley is not an ingratiating singer. His voice sounds raw and worn. Nevertheless, he has splendid diction, in both English and German. He sounded much more confident and secure in the magnificent Schumann cycle, which he sang without a score. In this music he conveyed the varying moods and emotions with genuine engagement and expression.

But pianist Janice Weber (below) proved a real discovery. In his program notes, Harbison rightly pointed out that Schumann’s piano writing was not so much accompaniment as individualized piano writing with its own character and even independence. Indeed, the final song of the Heine cycle ends, after the voice is finished, with a substantial little epilogue of reflection for the piano alone.

Weber projected that very strong piano dimension wonderfully, and she repeated the feat when, for the program’s second half, she was joined in Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63, by violinist and Festival co-founder Rose Mary Harbison and cellist Karl Lavine.

This is a lively and quintessentially Schumanesque work that the audience loved. (You can hear the energetic first movement, played by the Beaux Arts Trio, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I found the ensemble not well balanced. Lavine was surprisingly mild, deferential and understated in his playing. But Weber provided the sturdy backbone of the performance. We should hear more of this splendid artist.

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Classical music: The Mendota Consort’s outstanding concert of music by the early Baroque master Johann Schein left one wanting more of both the music and the singers

July 25, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

The Mendota Consort is to some extent a spin-off of the Madison Early Music Festival, first in 2017 and now this year.

Its membership has been shifting, though the versatile Jerry Hui has been a cornerstone, and the drive for its continuity has been the work of Maya Webne-Behrman.

The group’s concert at Luther Memorial Church on last Saturday night was the last of three performances given around the state. There are plans for several concerts in the season ahead, around the country, despite the members’ diverse and far-flung individual residences.

The group performing this latest program are five singers. As shown in the photograph below, they are (from left): sopranos Webne-Behrman and Chelsie Propst; bass Matt Chastain, alto Hui, and tenor Drew Ivarson.

Their program for these current concerts was devoted to selections from the collection Fontana d’Israel, or Israel’s Brünnlein, published in 1623 by Johann Hermann Schein (below, 1586-1630), one of the important composers of the early German Baroque, and a distant predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach in his position in Leipzig.

The collection’s title is conventionally translated as the “Fountain of Israel” but might also be rendered as “Israel’s Wellspring.” It consists of 26 relatively short pieces setting texts that the composer selected from various books of the Old Testament, texts with messages both personal and communal between Jehovah and His Chosen People.

These five-voice pieces — with optional basso seguentefor organ — might readily be construed as choral works in the post-Renaissance polyphonic style. But that would be a mistake, for the publication’s long subtitle stipulates that these are “in a special, graceful Italian manner.”  In other words, they are madrigals, not motets. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They show a German composer learning particularly from Claudio Monteverdi, constantly using his early trick of turning the five-voice writing into exchanges between two “trios,” consisting of Soprano-Soprano-Alto against Alto-Tenor-Bass, with the alto voice singing in both.  (So Jerry Hui never got any rest!)

The clever part-writing deserves to be heard with absolute clarity. And that is what these five singers gave us, with admirably precise German diction as well. They performed only nine selections from the full 26, effectively only one hour’s worth of music, but demanding the most disciplined part-singing, which can be very tiring for the vocalists.

This seemingly short program left one craving more, but it was a beautiful treasure in itself. It makes one hope earnestly for the Mendota Consort to continue to flourish and mature — and to return to Madison as soon as possible.


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

December 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. 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: The Token Creek Festival splendidly captures the poignancy and intimacy of late Schubert through songs and smaller piano works

September 1, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival for this year is presenting three concert programs of what the directors consider “Necessary Music” — as MacArthur “genius,” Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and festival co-artistic director John Harbison (below) puts it, “We did not even know we needed it until it appears.”

Of the resulting concerts, the first, on last Saturdays night and Sunday afternoon, featured music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Joseph Haydn, plus Harbison, suggesting their interaction.

The third program, to come on this coming Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. explores various works in waltz form, old and new. (For more information about the program and tickets, go to www.tokencreekfestival.org.)

And in between, on this past Wednesday night, came Franz Schubert. That was the concert I caught.

Three performers were involved.

To begin with, the two pianists, Ya-Fei Chuang (below foreground) and Alison D’Amato, played the slow movement from Schubert’s so-called “Grand Duo,” D. 812.

That full-length, four-movement work has been claimed by some commentators to be the surviving bit of Schubert’s supposed “Gastein” Symphony. It is splendid music in its own right, and I rather wished it had been played complete, especially with two such polished performers at hand. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Next, Chuang played the six pieces that constitute the collection known as the Moments Musicaux, D. 780. These pieces, mostly in ABA form, bring Schubert’s inherent lyricism into a range of moods that go far beyond mere entertainment. Chuang played them with deeply probing intensity.

The second half of the program was entirely devoted to Schubert’s final collection of Lieder, his Schwanengesang, or “Swan Song,” as the publisher titled it.

It is not a true cycle, but a gathering of 14 songs on which Schubert had been working in his last years, published after his death. One can, to be sure, find common themes among them of longing, loss, isolation, loneliness and apprehension — themes that preoccupied the composer at the end of his all-too-brief life.

The singer, Charles Blandy (below), joined D’Amato in a deeply involving performance. His lyric tenor voice is flexible, with particularly fine German diction and a capacity for subtle variations in the moods of the individual songs. The pianist was a sensitive partner whose careful support offered a musical dimension of its own. The texts and translations were provided to the audience, allowing full immersion in these songs.

All of this music came from Schubert’s later years, when the composer, knowing that he was soon to die, concentrated his thinking so poignantly.

In bypassing the larger of the final works, too, this program stressed personal intimacy and demonstrated that Schubert’s reflections on the human condition do, indeed, make his music “necessary.”


Classical music: The inventive and unpredictable Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society wraps up its 26th season with an impressive display of virtuosic vocal and piano music as well as hip-hop dancing

June 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson, who also took the performance photos. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season is in the books.

This weekend’s Friday performance at the Overture Center’s Playhouse Theater was repeated in Spring Green on Sunday afternoon and was entitled “Cs the Day,” which continued the series’ Alphabet Soup theme. It was a full-bodied program that left the audience in full anticipation for what the BDDS will bring next summer.

Bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below) — whom the Madison Symphony Orchestra featured last month in its performance of Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem — has a wonderfully rich, dynamic voice.

In the collection of songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) and Roger Quilter (1877-1953) — all of which were aptly named “Carpe Diem” songs in the program booklet — Jones showcased the sensitivity of his higher notes and the power of his mid-low register, all the while showing a bit of charm and theatricality. I felt at times that the rich sonorities from the piano covered up Jones’ diction, so texts of the English poems came in handy.

A surprise performance came after the art songs. The night’s entire cast of musicians — Stephanie Jutt on flute, Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Hye-Jin Kim on violins, Ara Gregorian on viola, Madeleine Kabat on cello, and Jeffrey Sykes and Randall Hodgkinson on piano — began playing an arrangement of music from Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville.

They were quickly joined by Blake Washington (below, in a  file photo), a hip-hop dancer who studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He performed a rendition – in movement – while the ensemble played. Judging from the audience’s approval, it’s safe to assume that similar collaborations would be welcome in the future.

One annual program event is a chamber music arrangement of a complete piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

This year, Jeffrey Sykes was keen on presenting the Piano Concerto in D Major, K. 537 (1788), called ”Coronation.” Sykes (below) labeled the work a “miracle piece” in brief remarks before the musicians listed above, minus Hodgkinson, began.

As a pianist, I sympathize with anyone who takes on such a Mozart work, since the smallest of mistakes – uneven passage work, unclear ornamentation or misplayed notes – are magnified. Nonetheless, it’s a treat to hear such an expansive work in an up-close, intimate setting like the Playhouse Theater at the Overture Center.

Judging by the audience’s reaction alone, Carl Czerny’s Grand Sonata Brillante in C minor for piano four-hands, Op. 10 (1822), proved the highlight of the program.

Not only does the work live up to its “grand” and “brilliant” title, but Sykes’ and Hodgkinson’s dexterity and acrobatics throughout were displayed – literally – for all to see.

A camera was suspended over the keyboard, and that eagle’s-eye view (below) was projected onto the large, white backdrops at the rear of the stage. Czerny’s four-hand sonata was the perfect piece to utilize this multimedia aspect, as well as show off two virtuosic pianists. (You can see and hear the first movement of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Last on the program was Cool Fire (2001) by American composer Paul Moravec (b. 1957). All of the performers on stage — the same cast from the Rossini on the first half of the program minus Sykes — were completely committed to the demanding and energetic score.

There were moments of athleticism in everyone’s part, and several times, the hands of Hodgkinson (below) — and his body — had to jump the length of the keyboard in an instant. His playing, in general, has always been vigorous and brawny – similar to Madison’s own Christopher Taylor. Fittingly, the two pianists studied with the same teacher, Russell Sherman.

This season of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society was exceptionally consistent. Every concert featured interesting music, skilled musicians and engaging surprises.

In the first week, attendees were treated to sandwiches served by the Earl of Sandwich and the Queen of Sheba. In Week Two, Madison’s City-Wide Spelling Bee Champion proved his expertise in musical lingo. Lastly,  Week Three provided dance moves of fellow Wisconsinite Blake Washington.

It was nice to encounter many works I had never heard. In future years, I hope the BDDS’s repertoire list can be widened more to be inclusive of non-Western and female composers. Through continued diversity of programming, the BDDS should not only retain its most loyal of patrons, it might also broaden its audience base even further.


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: Assistant conductor and chorus director Beverly Taylor explains her duties and discusses “Carmina Burana,” which the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus plus soloists perform this weekend. Plus, a FREE MSO hymn sing is Saturday at 11 a.m.

April 27, 2016
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ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) will offer a free hymn sing with Principal Organist Samuel Hutchison in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, in this Saturday, April 30, at 11 a.m. All ages are welcome to join in the singing with the Overture Concert Organ. No tickets or reservations are needed for the free Hymn Sing, which will last approximately 45 minutes.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will close out the current season this weekend with three performances of Carl Orff’s popular 1937 secular or profane oratorio “Carmina Burana” and Ottorino Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome.”

Also participating are Boychoir members from Madison Youth Choirs, Michael Ross, Artistic Director; soprano Jeni Houser, who was acclaimed for her role in the Madison Opera’s recent production of “The Tales of Hoffmann”; tenor Thomas Leighton; and baritone Keith Phares.

The concerts are in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

For more information, visit:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/carminaburana

Single tickets are $16 to $85 each, available on the MSO website; the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, www.madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Here is a link to program notes by Michael Allsen:

http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1516/8.AprMay16.html

Here is a link to translations of the Latin texts:

http://madisonsymphony.org/media/CarminaBuranaTextsTranslations.pdf

This season also marks the 20th anniversary of assistant MSO conductor Beverly Taylor, who also directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

The ever-busy Taylor agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear about her duties and the program:

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

You are the very busy director of choral activities at the UW-Madison. But this is your 20th anniversary directing the Madison Symphony Chorus and serving as assistant conductor of the MSO. Can you take us behind the scenes and tell us what your MSO duties are?

They are three-fold.

First, I’m a “cover” conductor, meaning I’m supposed to be prepared to take over for John DeMain on short notice in case he’s suddenly sick or injured. This hasn’t happened in 20 years, but I HAVE covered some rehearsals by schedule when he’s been out of town or we fear a delayed plane arrival.

Normally the cover conductor conducts the concert if the delay or injury occurs at the beginning of the concert. If it happens in the second half, orchestras often just end the concert—like calling a baseball game after the five official innings.

My second job is preparing the chorus to sing for John De Main. Our rehearsals are like any other chorus rehearsal at first. We focus on notes, intonation, rhythmic accuracy, pronunciation and diction, beautiful phrasing and appropriate tone and balance.

Then closer to the performance, I check with Maestro De Main (below, in a photo by Prasad) on any special markings or tempos he may want. During my early years he often came to our last chorus rehearsal, but we’ve worked together for so many years now that he trusts me to put his choices into the chorus’ training.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

In the long term, my duties also include programming and conducting our non-orchestral concerts, auditioning new singers and ensuring that returning singers keep their abilities high.

My third job is challenging, interesting and fun. It’s to give Maestro Demain information from the audience’s point of view. That means balances between guest soloist and orchestra, balances and rhythmic acuity between sections of the orchestra, and any other notes or opinions that he might find useful.

His own hearing is acute, but anyone who conducts can tell you that the instruments right in front of you make so much noise, that you can’t always judge the relative balances of the orchestra as they project outwards.

Depending on how much time is available in the rehearsal, I make fast notes as the orchestra plays, and give him the notes after the Maestro has done most of his rehearsing. If we’re out of time, I give him the notes backstage and occasionally am asked to pass these notes on to the players involved – for example, a little more triangle, less cello and bass on measures 45-48, etc.)

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

How has the chorus changed over the past two decades?

I think the biggest way in which the chorus has changed is that it sight-reads better and is more acute with a cappella intonation. The main point in having good sight-readers is that it is a HUGE time saver in rehearsal and allows us to get deeper into musical decisions and development. Having said that, we do still take some people with fast ears and good voices who can prove they can keep up.

MSO Chorus CR Greg Anderson

What do you think explains the immense popularity of “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff (below)? How does it compare in popularity to other choral works, especially modern ones?

I think the work is easy to understand. The rhythms are clear, pulsing, repetitive and engaging, and the melodies are memorable and singable. In many ways, it has the appeal of musical comedies. The use of percussion instruments also is appealing and is familiar to people used to bands or popular music. (You can hear the mesmerizing opening in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

While perhaps not the most profound work, it is well crafted. And who hasn’t heard the opening tune in commercial after commercial?

The “modern” style today can’t be well defined because so many composers do so many things. I giggle a bit when audiences say they don’t like dissonance when five minutes in a movie theater with eyes closed will make the listener aware of FAR more dissonant music than in most modern concerts.

Many modern works can be understood at first hearing. Others yield more with a little study. It’s not really different from sports. You may have one person go to a baseball game for the weather, popcorn and home runs who will be disappointed if they miss those. Others will go noticing bad calls for strikes and balls, the stance of the batter, and will quote statistics from past games. They may have a richer experience because they know more, but it doesn’t mean people can’t go and get what they want out of it. Just go to concerts with open minds!

Carl Orff

Are there special things you would like to point out to the public about “Carmina Burana” in general and about this performance in particular?

There are three basic sections to “Carmina,” with an introduction and ending. The opening is based mainly on the subject of Fortune (the introduction) and songs that come out of the monk’s life—some of them were obviously sent to the monastery without a vocation!

The second section is for tenors and basses only—“At the Tavern,” and it’s operatic in its depiction of the fun of mocking life at the monastery, concluding in the great drinking song sung by the men in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan — excuses to toast everyone of every shape and size, and listing who drinks, which is everyone!

The third section, known as the court of love, is beautiful and emotional as the women who know the off-duty monks think about love and if they should yield or not. We finish off with the monumental “O Fortuna” — if Frank Sinatra was singing it would be “sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down.”

There are techniques commonly and cheekily attributed to late Romantic works, especially Tchaikovsky: fast is good, loud is better, fast and loud is best. Orff follows this: his pacing builds steadily so that you are swept up in the excitement.

Carmina Burana Fortuna Wheel

Is there anything else you would like to say?

This isn’t the only thing on the program. Most people will adore the gorgeous “Pines of Rome” by Ottorino Respighi (below), full of color, majesty and the sound of trumpets all through the hall!

Ottorino Respighi profie

Plus, I give the pre-concert lecture this weekend. It’s free for all ticket-holders and is held in the hall an hour before the performance, lasting for half an hour. This means on Friday, it’s 6:30-7 p.m.; Saturday 7-7:30 p.m.; and Sunday 1:30-2 p.m.


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: John W. Barker reviews conflicting concerts by the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra and the choral group Voces Aestatis.

August 24, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a two-fer or double 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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Scheduled train-wrecks are, sadly, all too familiar in the regular music season, say in October and April. But at the very end of August? Absurd! Unacceptable!

And yet there it was. Last Friday night, August 21, we had two concerts needlessly set at loggerheads. One had been scheduled for months; the other was hastily set and on terms that had little to do with the risks of spoiling the logical audience for both.

The two events were: the second and final summer concert by the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO); and the only summer concert by the new choral group Voces Aestatis (Latin for Voices of Summer).

Feeling the need to report on both, I was boxed in and forced by circumstances to review one concert directly and the other though its dress rehearsal.

That is grossly unfair to the disadvantaged choice, the MAYCO concert, for obviously the ensemble needs to be judged on its definitive public performance. Still, rehearsals are themselves often fascinating, and so I hope my approach is not without merits of it own.

MAYCO

The MAYCO rehearsal (below, in a photo by John W. Barker; other performance photos were taken by The Ear) was held on Thursday morning, August 20, in the venue of the concert itself, Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill on the UW-Madison campus.

The program is one that was connected to that of the earlier concert this summer, on June 20, in that each explored approaches to the Baroque ensemble idiom of the concerto grosso and brought together examples old and new.

MAYCO rehearsal 2015 JWB

This second program opened with an outstanding example of a Late Baroque masterwork, the fifth of George Frideric Handel’s great set of 12 Concerti Grossi, Op. 6.

Conductor and ensemble founder, Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below) showed his fresh and enterprising approach in so many ways.

Mikko Rankin Utevsky MAYCO 8-15

He used the supplemental wind parts that double merely the string voices but are authentic survivals. He opposes first and second violins, allowing the concertino’s trio of soloists a proper place in the texture. He had the players (save for cellos) stand for the performance, rather than sit. (In the rehearsal, too, he himself conducted while playing the viola part.) The performance stressed vitality and vigor, and showed that the 19 string players could make a quite coherent ensemble sonority.

By contrast, the second work was a modern counterpart, Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Strings and Piano, the latter played by UW-Madison student Jason Kutz (below). Composed in 1925 — and followed by a second one some years later — this is a remarkable example of neo-Classicism, in which a Baroque form and mentality could be recast in 20th-century harmony.

Bloch knew that the piano could not match the harpsichord as an “authentic” continuo instrument: while he often uses it to reinforce the string bass line, he gives it roles across the texture, while even allowing it tiny solo moments. The style is richly varied, with elements of folk dances, and an overall suggestion of the neo-Hebraic sound with which he was becoming identified.

Jason Kutz MAYCO

The final work was Franz Joseph Haydn’s beloved Symphony No. 94 in G major, the “Surprise.” Utevsky showed a thorough command of the score’s varieties and possibilities, exploiting them with some fine subtleties.

At the dress rehearsal and at the performance, Utevsky also gave two of his conducting students Maynie Bradley and Majestic Lor (below top and bottom respectively)  the chance to lead parts of the slow movement, as an introduction to actual podium experience — a wonderful idea!

Maynie Bradley

Majestica Lor

This has been the MAYCO’s fifth summer season. Utevsky promises to be back leading it at least one more year. He deserves every encouragement to arrange the extension beyond that, as an extension of this wonderful program he has created to allow talented young student players to have orchestral experience.

SUMMER VOICES

The conflicting choral concert was held Friday night in St. Andrew’s Church on Regent Street.

The group “Voces Aetatis” (Voices of Summer) is in its second season and offered a single concert. The group consists of 16 mixed voices, four singers to a part. They are devoted to “early” choral music, predominantly from the Renaissance, an age that offers particularly superlative choral writing just waiting to be exploited. Conductor Ben Luedcke has shaped them into a finely balanced ensemble, with beautifully nuanced overall sound.

Voces Aestatis 2015

The first (and larger) part of the program was devoted to sacred music by eight composers, chronologically: Jean Mouton (1459-1522), Jean Lhéritier (1480-1551), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594), William Byrd (1540-1623), Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1512), Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), and Antonio Lotti (667-1740). Of the last two, Gesualdo is a very late Mannerist, while Lotti is really a Baroque composer, represented by his retro-polyphonic warhorse, the eight-voice Crucifixus. Otherwise, the selection represented some prime Renaissance art.

The selections sounded lovely — and all the same. Director Luedcke (below) takes everything at a consistently smooth and stately pace, often rather too slowly to get at the textual and spiritual meanings. Only the Gesualdo Tenebrae motet conveyed any propulsive power. Pieces by Byrd and Gabrieli should have surged in excitement, but did not.

Ben Luedcke conducts voces aestratis

The program’s second part was devoted to madrigals by Jacques Arcadelt (1507-1568), Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), John Bennet (1575-1614) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). Now, the problem is that madrigals are not (and were not) intended as choral music. The particular attention to the texts the composers so carefully set is simply steamrollered by the blurred diction of a sizable chorus.

The ideal is one singer per part, and it is a pity that Luedcke did not pull out individual singers from the ensemble in varying combinations of such limited scale.

The obscured clarity of the Italian texts was bad enough, but was disastrous in the English pieces. The words to The Silver Swan (at bottom in a YouTube video) by Orlando Gibbons (below), offered as an encore, and to his What Is Our Life? were totally lost — a particular injustice since the latter sets an ironic poem attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh as he awaited execution, with interesting Shakespearian parallels. To render the words unintelligible is no way to treat madrigals, however prettily.

Orlando Gibbons

This ensemble has so much potential, and is a brave vehicle for an area of musical literature too little performed. One hopes it can mature in future years to the effectiveness of which it is capable.

And without competing with another event for attendance.

 


Classical music: Here are seven big things The Ear liked about the latest concert by the Madison Choral Project and two small things he did not like. Go this afternoon and see if you agree.

May 31, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night, The Ear attended the latest concert by the estimable Madison Choral Project. He was very glad he did. It was terrific. You should go hear it.

MCP group 5-15

The concert was called “Music of Our Time” and was programmed and conducted by the legendary Grammy-nominated conductor Dale Warland (below top). Edgewood College professor Albert Pinsonneault (below bottom), who just got a new job at Northwestern University near Chicago and who founded and directs the Madison Choral Project, studied under Warland.

Dale Warland

Albert Pinsonneault 2

It was and will remain a memorable event, and I encourage music fans to attend a repeat performance this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave. (Free parking is available two blocks west at the UW Foundation.)

Tickets are $20 general admission; $10 student admission; and $50 for preferred seating to support the outstanding organization.

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

Here is The Ear’s review in the form of points he liked and didn’t like:

SEVEN THINGS THE EAR LIKED ABOUT THE CONCERT:

  1. The program was not too long, yet it featured a wide variety of repertoire, texts and composers.
  2. The chorus sang with seemingly exemplary diction in English, Latin and Russian.
  3. The many a cappella portions were broken up by adding other instruments. UW-Madison professor John Aley (below top) played the trumpet, especially in a haunting finale where he played from a distance. Eric Miller (below bottom) played the cello with energy, sensitivity and lyricism.

MCP John Aley

MCP Eric Miller

  1. UW-Madison piano professor Martha Fischer (below) played with mastery, never too loudly or too softly. She demonstrated the art of blending. Little wonder that she heads the collaborative piano faculty – that is what used to be called the art of “accompanying” – at the UW-Madison School of Music.

Martha Fischer color Katrin Talbot

  1. The chorus showed absolute precision with crisp attacks and unbroken releases. There was no sloppiness to discern. Warland’s hands were expressive “batons” to observe.
  2. The chorus displayed an exemplary mastery of balance. Too many choral performances sound monolithic, with all parts being emphasized pretty much equally when it comes to volume and dynamics. Instead, conductor Dale Warland brought out lines and gave each piece a foreground, mid-ground and background. That added a richness you often don’t get to hear.
  3. The acoustics and atmosphere of the church seem ideally suited as a concert venue for choral or vocal music. You have to love all the dark wood, the color scheme and especially the rows of organ pipes as a metaphor for the human voices and human “pipes.”

MCP church setting

TWO THINGS THE EAR DIDN’T LIKE:

  1. Too many of the songs had the same slow tempo. The Ear loves ballads, elegies and laments as much as — and maybe more than — the next person. But only one piece really jumped out as an upbeat contrast, and that was with very mixed success – as you can see below.
  2. The Ear doesn’t like choruses or conductors that think they have to entertain the audience and do something active besides stand there and sing well. I don’t like it, for example, when singers clap their hands and stomp their feet during spirituals in mock-folk, mock-slave style that comes awfully close to being something out of a minstrel show. Luckily, the singers did not spoil the fabulously beautiful and stirringly poignant version of “Deep River” with such shenanigans.

For that reason, I did not like the chorus waving their hands and turning their heads as if being buzzed by stinging bees in one third-rate song “Of Crows and Clusters” by Norman Dello Joio (below), who used a third-rate poem by Vachel Lindsay. (You can hear it in a YouTube video at bottom, where the University of Southern California singers forego the cliche theatrics.) Yet most of the audience seemed to like the novelty piece a lot, right along with the rest of the program that deserved the enthusiastic reception it got.

MCP audience

But The Ear found it too cute, completely unconvincing and totally unnecessary. The Ear doesn’t do cute -– at least not in music.

Norman Dello Joio


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