The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Great choral singing by the Madison Chamber Choir and the Madison Choral Project should serve great choral music – and fewer second-rate novelties

May 25, 2016
6 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 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. He also provided the performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Two of the city’s important choral groups joined forces for a program presented at the First Congregational United Church of Christ last Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

Albert Pinsonneault (below), who used to teach at Edgewood College and now teaches at Northwestern University, and who is the director of both groups, conducted.

Albert Pinsonneault 2

Each group had its own showcase in the program’s first half.

The Madison Chamber Choir (below) led off with the “Serenade to Music,” a setting of lines from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which Ralph Vaughan Williams  composed in 1938 for 16 of his favorite singers, with orchestra. He adapted this for full chorus, but that transition did not quite produce a work truly choral in character.

The choir sang the beautiful work very handsomely, but the substitution for the orchestra of a piano accompaniment was uncomfortable and, indeed, a disruption of diction. (You can hear the original version for chorus and orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Madison Chamber Choir JWB

The Madison Choral Project (below top) came next with a performance of “Images, Shadows, Dreams: Five Vignettes” by the late David Baker (1931-2016, below middle).

Baker was a noted scholar and promoter of jazz, and his goal was a “fusion” of jazz with classical forms. To the five composed poems, Pinsonneault added readings of poems written by five young participants (below bottom) in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Odyssey Project activities in cultural and educational support.

Madison Choral Project JWB

David Baker

Madison Choral Project jazz Odyssey student JWB

All this represents noble and praiseworthy efforts on behalf of disadvantaged African-Americans. But high ideals do not necessarily guarantee artistic achievement. Baker uses a combo of five instrumentalists, which bangs away behind the choir, hardly “fusing” anything in styles—neither honest jazz nor multicultural synthesis.

Madison Choral Project jazz drum and bass JWB

The choir, in its turn, sings mightily at music of generally simplistic technique — mostly unisons and chordal declamations. There is little to remember or admire, once the “messages” have worn off.

Fortunately, the intermission yielded to the one work of substance on the program, the Mass for Double Choir, by the Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974, below), a combination of neo-classical and modernist styles that is better appreciated in Europe than here.

Frank Martin

For this, the two choirs (below) merged, then divided into the requisite two components.

Martin’s writing is subtle, and his juxtaposition of the two choirs is not just antiphonal but artfully varied in their interaction—to which is added a great deal of harmonic experimentation. This is one of the choral masterpieces of the 20th century.

Pinsonneault and his 57 choristers gave it a glorious performance, showing what this conductor can do to make great choral sound out of great choral music.

Madison Chamber Choir and Madison Choral Project combined JWB

The final programmed piece was a somewhat pretentious setting by contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan (below) of a ballad by poet Robert Burns. As an encore, the singers perpetrated a glitzy, but uncredited, arrangement of “Loch Lomond”—the only piece that brought the audience to its feet.

James MacMillan headshot

This concert was an undeniable testimony to the splendid choral groups we have here, and to what Pinsonneault is accomplishing with these groups. But I kept returning to the dichotomy at which I hinted earlier.

Choral singing is a wonderful activity both to listen to and to participate in, and I share some of the enthusiasm for that. But I wonder how many in the audience were there seeking great CHORAL singing. I was there seeking great choral MUSIC.

Our choirs can give us the former, no question, and audiences can justly admire it. But has all this musical talent been applied responsibly to the latter? How much do our choral programs deal with trivia and little sweetmeats, rather than digging into the vast literature of magnificent choral art?


Classical music education: This Thursday, Music con Brio will hold its first-ever “Summer Shindig” to raise money to support music education for diverse and economically disadvantaged young people. Plus, check in on the last day of WYSO’s tour in Argentina.

August 4, 2014
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ALERT: The Youth Orchestra under University of Wisconsin-Madison conductor James Smith (below), of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), just concluded its 10-day tour to Argentina. Here is a link to the live blog where you can catch on up all the entries and events, including a final word from WYSO executive director Bridget Fraser:

wysotour2014.blogspot.com

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

Normally, The Ear doesn’t post about fundraisers. There are just too many of them given by too many groups.

But certain kinds of fundraiser stand out as special, especially since The Ear considers money spent on music education the best possible investment one can make for both the future of musical performance and music appreciation by audiences.

So I have invited Music con Brio to submit a post. Think of it as “A friend writes” column from the New Yorker magazine.

Here it is, with photos by Scott Maurer, as written by Carol Carlson, who holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who is a co-founder and co-director of Music con Brio (Music with Force)

Musc con Brio

“In summer, the song sings itself.” From American poet William Carlos Williams

What a beautiful time it is in Madison right now! The flowers, the birds, the Dane County Farmers’ Market in full bloom –- it’s enough to make anyone hum a little tune with a spring in their step.  And what better place to enjoy all that the Madison summer has to offer than the beautiful Capitol Square?

You are cordially invited to Music con Brio’s first-ever Summer Shindig on Thursday, August 7 from 6-8 p.m., generously hosted by the Boardman Law Firm, 1 South Pinckney Street, in downtown Madison on the Capitol Square.

Music con Brio, Inc. is committed to offering high quality music lessons at an affordable graduated tuition schedule to a diverse mix of Madison area students, forming an inclusive, supportive community to build students’ self-esteem and pride in their talents. (A sample of Music con Brio’s music-making from a 2013 appearance at Emerson Elementary School can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Music con Brio 1 CR Scott Maurer

Music con Brio’s first-ever Summer Shindig will be held on this Thursday, August 7, from 6 to 8 pm, generously hosted by the Boardman Law Firm. The Pecatonica String Quartet (below) will be performing, as well as Music con Brio’s own Eagle Feather Fiddlers and advanced violin group. The Shindig will feature goodies by Barriques and artisan brews by Mobcraft Beer.

For a suggested donation of $10 per person or $20 per family, you can:

– Check out the fantastic view of the Capitol from Boardman’s beautiful balcony terrace.

– Enjoy Barrique’s goodies and Mobcraft beer.

– Bid on the fabulous silent auction filled with awesome, local arts-related items.

– Meet current Music con Brio students.

Music con Brio 2 CR Scott Maurer

And you can do all this while listening to the beautiful music of the Pecatonica String Quartet, featuring Music con Brio’s own Carol Carlson and Amber Dolphin.

Check out more event details and RSVP here.

Donations of items for the silent auction are greatly appreciated -– if you have something you’d like to contribute, please email info@musicconbrio.org to let us know.

Music con Brio, Inc. is committed to offering high-quality music lessons at an affordable graduated tuition schedule to a diverse mix of Madison area students, forming an inclusive, supportive community to build students’ self-esteem and pride in their talents.

Music con Brio 3 CR Scott Maurer

Now beginning its fourth year, the organization serves almost 100 students in 1st-9th grade, representing 10 different Madison schools. In addition to lessons in violin, cello, piano and percussion, Music con Brio presents an annual Community Concert Series around Madison in collaboration with local bands such as The Handphibians, Yid Vicious, and The Big Payback.

Contemporary percussion group Clocks in Motion (below), an affiliate ensemble with the UW-Madison School of Music, will be in residency with Music con Brio during 2014-15, which will include performing with Music con Brio on the Community Concert Series.

Clocks in Motion outside

The Pecatonica String Quartet was founded in 2008 by young, vibrant musicians in the Madison area. The name of the group comes from a quaint, twisting stream in southwest Wisconsin, the Pecatonica River. The PSQ plays frequently around southern Wisconsin at weddings, private parties, schools, and in concert. Their performance for Music con Brio will include all types of music, ranging from arrangements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos to contemporary rock.  The quartet is happy to take requests as well.

Pecatonica String Quartet

For more information visit www.musicconbrio.org or write to carol@musicconbrio.org

Thank you so much for your support of Music con Brio!

Carol Carlson

 

 


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