The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians will perform its ninth annual Baroque Holiday Concert this coming Saturday night

December 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

On this coming Saturday night, Dec. 7, the Madison Bach Musicians will present its ninth annual Baroque Holiday Concert (below, in  2014, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer).

The concert, using period instruments and historically informed performance practices, is again at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., near Camp Randall Stadium. A pre-concert lecture by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson is at 7:15 p.m. followed by the concert at 8 p.m.

Advance-sale tickets are $35 at Orange Tree Imports and the Willy St. Co-op (East and West). Online advance-sale tickets are available at Tickets at the door at $38 for general admission and $35 for seniors. Student Rush tickets are $10 at the door and go on sale 30 minutes before the lecture.

The program features masterworks by Bach, Handel, Purcell and Torelli which, in their appealing Baroque way, explore the fusion of celebration, reflection and ultimate renewal often felt as the year’s end approaches.

MBM welcomes baroque trumpet virtuoso Kathryn Adduci (below), who will show how wonderfully vintage brass resounds in the magnificent Old World acoustics of the church.

Other performers are: Ariadne Lih, soprano (below); Lindsey Meekhof, alto; Ryan Townsend Strand, tenor; Michael Hawes, bass; Christine Hauptly Annin and Nathan Giglierano, violins; Micah Behr, viola; James Waldo, cello; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord.

Here are a couple of fun facts, provided by Stephenson, about each piece on the program.

Sound the Trumpet, by Henry Purcell (1659−1695, below)
1. This piece was composed in 1694, the year before Purcell died at the age of just 36. It is part of a birthday ode — Come Ye Sons of Art, Away! — for Queen Mary II of England, wife of King James II.
2. There is no trumpet in it at all, but the two voices implore the trumpet to play and they emulate trumpet-style writing with long, swelling notes mixed in with brilliant decorative flourishes.

Trumpet Concert in D major 
by Giuseppe Torelli (1658−1709, below)
1. Torelli was one of the most prolific trumpet composers of all time.
2. The baroque trumpet has no valves and is designed to play in one tonality at a time. Favorite baroque keys were D major and C major.

Comfort Ye and Every Valley from Messiah, by George Frideric Handel (1685−1759, below)
1. After the instrumental Overture to Messiah, this Recitative and Aria are the work’s first sung pieces.
2. Handel was 56 years old when he composed Messiah in 1741 in London; the work was premiered, however, in Dublin in 1742, much to the chagrin of Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens.

Cantata BWV 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Exult in God in Every Land), by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685−1750, below)
1. Composed around 1730, this is one of the very few Bach cantatas requiring only one singer.
2. In Bach’s Leipzig church, where the work was probably first heard, the soloist would have been either a male falsettist (or castrato) or an exceptionally skilled boy soprano.

Contrapunctus XIX and Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before Thy throne I stand), from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, by J.S. Bach
1. According to Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel (CPE), this fugue is the last piece his father wrote — though scholars hotly contest this claim.
2. In measure 195, Bach’s own name appears suddenly as a musical motive: B (B-flat in the German scale) – A – C – H (B natural) and the fugue has no ending but simply trails off in measure 239.

Grosser Herr, o starker König (Great Lord, O Powerful King) from Christmas Oratorio,BWV 248, by J.S. Bach
1. It features dance-like melodic figures in dialogue between trumpet and solo bass voice. (Heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
2. Text celebrates the birth of the savior, which makes the powers of the Earth irrelevant.

Cantata BWV 196, Der Herr denket an uns (The Lord thinks of us),by J.S. Bach
1. With its textual focus on blessings (from Psalm 115), the work is likely a wedding cantata.
2. Written probably when Bach was only 22 years old, the work is absolutely perfect in its structure and easy concision; its high-energy but quiet final cadence has a curiously modern, neo-Classical charm that might have made Stravinsky smile.

Chorale: Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe (What joy for me that I have Jesus),from Cantata, BWV 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life)by J.S. Bach
1. The famous opening figure in the strings is really just Bach’s ingenious obligato lead-in to a chorale tune that parishioners in his church would have instantly recognized.
2. This work has enjoyed tremendous popularity as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” since it was arranged for one and then two pianos in 1926 and 1934 respectively by English pianist Myra Hess. It has since been arranged for myriad combinations of instruments and voices.

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Classical music: Here are the Top 10 things to know about Handel’s “Messiah.” The Madison Bach Musicians will perform it with period instruments this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

April 4, 2016

ALERT:  Tomorrow on Tuesday, April 5, there will be two on-air events about the Madison Bach Musicians’ performances of Handel’s “Messiah”: On Wisconsin Public Radio’s Midday program on WERN (88.7 FM) noon-12:30 p.m., MBM director Trevor Stephenson will be Norman Gilliland’s guest. They’ll play and discuss selections from “Messiah.” Then MBM will perform two arias from “Messiah” live on the CBS affiliate WISC-TV Channel 3 “Live at 4” program 4-5 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday night and Sunday afternoon, the Madison Bach Musicians will perform the well-known oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel (below). The performances feature period instruments and historically authentic performances practices.

handel big 3

Here are the details:

FRIDAY: 6:45 p.m. lecture followed by a 7:30 p.m. concert

SUNDAY: 2:45 p.m. lecture followed by a 3:30 p.m. concert

Both performances are at the First Congregational United Church of Christ (below), 1609 University Avenue, Madison, near Camp Randall Stadium.

MBM holiday 2014 singers and instrumentalists JWB

The forces and period instruments MBM has assembled for this event are similar in many respects to those used by Handel in the world premiere of “Messiah” in Dublin in April of 1742.

For more information, including a complete list of performers, visit:

The concerts feature an all-baroque orchestra ─ with gut strings, baroque oboes, natural trumpets and calf-skin timpani ─ plus eight internationally-acclaimed soloists, and the Madison Boychoir (part of Madison Youth Choirs), which will collaborate in the “Hallelujah” Chorus and Amen, under the direction of early-music specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill), professor of bassoon at the University of Wisocnsin-Maidson School of Music.

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

Pre-concert lectures at both events will be given by MBM founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below), who is as entertaining as he is enlightening.

Prairie Rhapsody 2011 Trevor Stephenson

Advance-sale discount tickets are: $33 general, $28 students and seniors (65+). They are available at Orange Tree Imports, Farley’s House of Pianos, Room of One’s Own, and Willy Street Co-op (East and West)

You can also buy advance sale tickets online at

Tickets at the door are $35 general, $30 students and seniors (65+), Student Rush: $10 on sale 30 minutes before lecture (student ID required) Visit or call at 608 238-6092.

To prepare you to appreciate the oratorio, here is Trevor Stephenson’s Top 10 list of things – a la David Letterman — that you should know about it:


#10. Its title is “Messiah” not “The Messiah”

#9. Handel, at 56 years of age, wrote Messiah in just 24 days in the late summer of 1741.

#8.  Some of the pieces ─ like “For unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep” ─ Handel borrowed or adapted from pieces he had composed earlier, usually by laying the new text over the existing musical material. This technique, known as “parody,” was employed by most composers as a way of recycling good musical material.

#7. The original words to the tune we know as “For unto us a child is born” were  (Italian) “No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi, cieco Amor, crudel Beltà” — meaning roughly “No, I won’t trust you, blind Love, cruel Beauty” (Hear the YouTube video at bottom.)

#6. Messiah premiered in 1742 in Dublin, Ireland two weeks after Easter (March 25 that year) on April 13. By uncanny dumb luck, this 2016 period-performance of Messiah by MBM will also take place two weeks after Easter (March 27) on April 8 and 10.

#5. Handel divided this oratorio into three parts. Part I: a world in need of salvation; the promise that salvation is on the way; arrival of the savior in the world; Part II: Christ’s passion and crucifixion, descent to hell and resurrection, beginnings of the church, triumph of truth over death (Hallelujah); Part III: Faith and the world to come; the awakening of all souls (The Trumpet Shall Sound), paean to the Lamb of God; closing, majestic meditation on Amen.

MBM Messiah poster

#4.  In a baroque orchestra the string instruments use gut strings—made from dried and carefully processed sheep intestine. Gut strings assist in the performance of baroque music in two important ways: 1) because gut as a material is very supple, the tone it produces is naturally “warm” in an acoustic/aesthetic sense; therefore, vibrato is not necessary in order to produce a pleasing sound and the player’s attention can focus more on pitch. 2) Gut strings, because they are very textured, produce a natural friction with the hair of the baroque bow which ensures that the instant the player’s bow hand moves the pitch is in the air. This optimizes the sense of directness in performance.

#3. The harpsichord and organ were used as continuo instruments in baroque music. MBM will be using both instruments in the upcoming Messiah performances. 18th-century keyboard tunings were generally of the un-equal/circulating variety known as Well Temperaments, as in “The Well-Tempered Clavier” of Johann Sebastian Bach. In these tunings, every tonality has a unique acoustic color, ranging from the transparently clear and harmonious keys (C major, A minor and other keys near the top of the circle of fifth, unencumbered by accidentals), then shading all the way down to the lugubriously opaque and gnarled keys in the basement of the circle of fifths, like G-flat major and E-flat minor. Notice in Messiah the contrast between the acoustical openness of the initial Sinfonia in E minor (one sharp) and the rigid density of the passion-of-Christ choruses near the beginning of Part II, “Surely, He hath borne our griefs” and “And with His stripes we are healed” both in F minor (four flats). 18th-century temperament will bring such differences into keen relief.

#2. Messiah was very successful and greatly admired in Dublin at its premiere. When Handel led performances of it in London several months later, the reception was much cooler. Nevertheless, from there on the popularity of Messiah grew steadily and it was performed often in Handel’s lifetime under his direction. Though much of Handel’s music was widely published in his lifetime, Messiah was not published until a few years after Handel’s death in 1759.

#1.  In Messiah, the balance between the sense of play and sense of purpose is unrivalled (though a different animal in many ways, a blood brother of Messiah in the movie domain might be The Wizard of Oz). Indeed, it is almost as if in Handel’s world, these two elements — play and purpose — do not oppose, but rather fuel each other. Handel’s descendent in this regard is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose also could consistently fuse melodic joy with harmonic and theatrical pacing, pushing scene after scene ever-higher until it seems the roof opens to the realms of limitless joy.

Classical music: On Saint Patrick’s Day, The Ear explores Irish classical music and classical music in Ireland -– who composed it, who played it and how important it has been.

March 17, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day.


There will be big, loud. colorful and music-filled parades (below top), complete with leprechauns, around the country and around the world wherever the Irish gather and celebrate their heritage. Even the Chicago River even turns green (below bottom).

And a lot of us who aren’t remotely Irish will nonetheless eat the traditional Saint Patrick’s Day dinner of corned beef and cabbage.

saint patrick's day parade albany 2010 leprechaun

Green Chicago River on Saint Patricks Day

So The Ear asks: What about Irish classical music? And what about classical music in Ireland?

After all, the Irish seems a deeply musical culture. But there must be more to Irish music than Riverdance (below top), Celtic Woman, The Irish Tenors and The Chieftains (below bottom), don’t you think?


The Chieftains

For all the immense popularity of Celtic music these days, for all the justly famous Irish literature by William Yeats, James Joyce, John Millington Synge, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien, Roddy Doyle, Maeve Binchy and many others –- especially fiction, poetry and plays -– one never hears very much about Ireland and classical music.

(To be fair: The Ear does recall a memorable and rare performance a couple of seasons ago of a John Field piano concerto by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell, who also happens to be an adventurous programmer.)

So today seems a fitting occasion to take a look both those issues.

Oh, there are some well-known composers.

In the 19th century John Field (below), who spent much of his career in Russia, is said to have invented the nocturne form that Frederic Chopin turned to and mastered and made famous. He also wrote quite a few piano concertos and a piano quintet.

John Field

Of course Irish singing and fiddling are justly famous. But how did it affect the classical music tradition.

These days the early 20th-century composer E.J. Moeran (below) seems to be undergoing something of a revival. He had strong Irish roots, but is technically an English composer if you look at his biography.

e.j. moeran

So who are the Irish classical composers – and their masterpieces – that we should know about?

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford seems to be one candidate. 

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford

What about Irish classical music performers? Perhaps the most well-known candidate today is the prize-winning and award-winning pianist John O’Conor, who, concertizing and teaching at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, has championed Irish piano music as well as the piano music by Ludwig van Beethoven and other standard classical composers?

John O'Conor_1

And what about the role that some famous, non-Irish classical music composers and performers –- including George Frideric Handel, who premiered his oratorio “Messiah” in Dublin, the violinist Paganini and the pianist Franz Liszt -– played in the history of Irish culture?

Here are some links to help you explore the question of Irish classical music and classical music in Ireland.

And here are two sound samples to help celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day.

The first is the Irish Rhapsody No.1 by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford:

And the second sound sample is the lovely Nocturne No. 2 in C minor for solo piano by John Field as performed by John O’Conor:


And the chances are good that some of you readers know more about Irish classical music and classical music in Ireland than The Ear does.

So be sure to leave what you know in the COMMENTS section along with links to websites, blogs and YouTube videos that will illuminate me and other readers.

The Ear wants to hear.

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