By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Bach Musicians (below), which specializes in authentic period performances of early music, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” this coming Friday and Saturday nights, both at 7:30 p.m., in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.
On both nights at 6:45 p.m., MBM founder and music director Trevor Stephenson (below) will give a free pre-concert lecture on the “Structure and Performance History of the St. John Passion.” In his remarks, Stephenson said he will discuss the question of anti-Semitism in the famous work.
(NOTE: Stephenson and some of the players will also be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland TODAY at noon.)
At the end of Part I, the Rev. Michael Schuler of the Unitarian Society will give a talk focusing on “Theological Reflections on Bach and the St. John Passion.”
This is only the second time the work has been performed in historical style in the state of Wisconsin. For more information and explanation, see the story in the Wisconsin State Journal:
Tickets are $28-$33 and are available online, at Orange Tree Imports and at the door. Ticket information is at www.madisonbachmusicians.org
Trevor Stephenson writes the following about the work and the performance:
Bach was 38 years old when he composed the monumental St. John Passion during his initial year of employment in Leipzig, 1723-24. The work was first performed at the Nikolai Church during the Good Friday service on April 7, 1724.
As was the custom, no concerted music had been played in church during the previous six weeks of Lent, and the airing of the St. John Passion ― music of unprecedented complexity, lasting for over two hours — must have had an overwhelming effect on the fresh ears and devoted souls of the parishioners.
From its outset—with the whirling gear-like figures in the strings beneath the moiling of the oboes—the St. John Passion has an otherworldly aura of a story that has been foretold. Bach’s genius is in how he balances this inevitability with a sense of forward dramatic thrust: the passion story must happen, has already happened, but it also must be played out in real-time by living people, step by painful step. Time is at once both linear and circular. (Below is the manuscript for the “St. John Passion.”)
I believe that the objective of Bach (below) in setting the St. John Passion was to tell as vividly as possible the story of Jesus’ cruel earthly demise while at the same time tempering this vividness with frequent textual reminders, as well as an overarching tone, that convey the firm belief that Jesus’ Passion had not only been prophesied long before his birth but that Jesus’ suffering and death on earth was the only solution for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins.
The Evangelist John is our guide for the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. John sings his narration in the dry and angular recitative style, addressing the audience directly. He summarizes some scenes and introduces others, which are then played out in present-tense tableau format by various characters: Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Court officers, the angry mob.
Bach uses two techniques to pause and comment upon the narrative: first, with arias for solo voices and instrumental obbligato, that employ freely-composed poetry to reflect upon the story in a personal way — like the thoughts of someone observing the action; and second, by chorales which use tunes and texts that would have been familiar to Bach’s parishioners to elicit a broader communal response to the passion story. Many of the chorales are like a spiritual balm, providing moments of much needed rest throughout the work.
For the upcoming April 14 and 15 concerts of the St. John Passion ― on Good Friday and Holy Saturday ― the Madison Bach Musicians has endeavored as much as possible to recreate the early 18th-century sound world of that first Leipzig performance in 1724. MBM will use a 17-member baroque orchestra, conducted by UW-Madison bassoonist and performance-practice specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill).
The orchestra will play entirely on 18th-century style instruments:
These instruments will join with 10 outstanding vocalists—specialists in singing both solo and choral baroque repertoire.
Internationally recognized, and Grammy Award winning tenor, Dann Coakwell (below, in a photo by Mary Gordon) will sing the part of John the Evangelist.
The Passion will be sung in its original German; but an English translation of the text will be projected in supertitles scene-by-scene throughout the performance.
MBM is thrilled to be presenting this masterwork in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) at First Unitarian Society, a space beautifully suited to early music. The sightlines are superb, and the acoustics offer a great balance of clarity, crispness, and spaciousness.
Seating is limited, so advance ticket purchase is suggested.
By Jacob Stockinger
Several years ago, artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) decided to use the season-opening concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra to spotlight the symphony and its first-chair players as soloists.
No big-name imported guest soloists were to be booked.
Such multimedia events increasingly seem to work as a way to build audiences and boost attendance by new people and young people. After all, a music director has to sell tickets and fill seats as well as wave a baton.
And it seems that, on both counts, DeMain’s strategy proved spectacularly successful.
All sections of the orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) — strings, brass, winds, percussion — played with energy, precision and subtlety. The MSO proved a very tight ensemble. Each year, you can hear how the MSO improves and grows increasingly impressive after 23 years of DeMain’s direction.
The public seemed to agree. It came very close to filling the 2,200-seat Overture Hall for all three performances with more than 6,100 audience members, according to Peter Rodgers, the new marketing director for the MSO. Especially noteworthy, he said, was the number of children, students and young people who attended.
In fact, so many students showed up for student rush tickets on Friday night that the performance was delayed by around 10 minutes – because of long lines at the box office, NOT because of the new security measures at the Overture Center, which Rodgers said worked smoothly and quickly.
But not everything was ideal, at least not for The Ear.
On the first half, the playing largely outweighed the music.
True, the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 by a very young George Enescu (below) received a sizzling and infectious performance. With its catchy folk tunes, dance rhythms and Gypsy harmonies, the fun work proved an irresistible opener – much like a starting with an encore, which is rather like eating a rich and tasty dessert before tackling the more nutritious but less snazzy main course.
The music itself is captivating and frequently played – although this was its surprising premiere performance by the MSO. Little wonder the Enescu got a rousing standing ovation. Still, it is hardly great music.
Then came the Chaconne for violin and orchestra by the American composer John Corigliano (below), who based the work on his Oscar-winning film score for “The Red Violin.”
Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) impressed The Ear and most others with her mastery of what appeared to be a very difficult score. The ovation was for her, not for the music.
That music also has some fine moments. But overall it seems a dull and tedious work, an exercise in virtuosity with some of the same flaws you find in certain overblown piano etudes by Franz Liszt. Once again the playing trumped the music.
Then came The Big Event: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” coupled with clear, high-definition photos of the planets taken by NASA that were projected on a huge screen above the orchestra. Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s and Venus’ clouds and Mars’ landscape (below) have never looked so impressive.
The orchestra again struck one with its exotic and “spacey” sound effects and with what must have been the difficulty of timing simultaneously the music and the images.
Yet ultimately Holst’s work became a sound track — music accompanying images rather than images accompanying the music. The Ear heard several listeners compare the admittedly impressive result to the movies “Fantasia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That says something.
At some moments the sound and images really matched and reinforced each other, especially in the dramatic opening section, “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Holst’s score also succeeds nicely with “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” and to a lesser degree with “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.”
But overall “The Planets” reminds The Ear of colorful and dramatic programmatic showpieces such as Ottorino Respighi‘s “The Pines of Rome” and “The Fountains of Rome.” (Earth, curiously, is not included in “The Planets.” Makes you wonder: What would Earth bring?) Enjoyable music, to be sure, but not profound fare.
The Ear’s extensive library of CDs has none of the three works on the program. And it will probably remain that way.
While Holst’s work does have great moments, it grows long, repetitive and finally uninteresting as it ends not with a bang but with an underwhelming whimper – which was beautifully enhanced by the atmospheric singing of the MSO Women’s Chorus. There are just too many planets!
Listen to the YouTube video at the bottom, played by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you will see: Mars rules!
Add it all up and despite three standing ovations, in the end The Ear found the concert less than fully satisfying. The music, however likable and appealing, was not, for the most part, great music. Moreover, it was mostly trumped first by the performances and then by the visuals.
So on a personal note, here is The Ear’s request to the MSO, which scored an undeniably brilliant success with this program: Keep the same all-orchestra and first-chair format for season-openers and use multimedia shows whenever appropriate. But please also include at least one really first-rate piece of music with more substance.
Is that asking for too much?
Is The Ear alone and unfair in his assessment?
Other critics had their own takes and some strongly disagree with The Ear.
Here is a link to three other reviews:
By John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:
By Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:
And by Greg Hettmansberger (below), who writes for WISC-TV Channel 3 and his Classically Speaking blog for Madison Magazine, and on his own blog, What Greg Says:
What did you think of the music, the performances and the visual show?
How well did they mix?
What did you like most and least?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has received the following notice:
The final SoundWaves event of the year will be on this Friday, April 29, at 7:30 p.m. at the Town Center of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discover (WID), 333 North Orchard Street, across from the Union South.
SoundWaves events explore a broad theme through different lenses from the sciences and the humanities, ending with a related performance.
The title of Friday’s event is “Let’s Start at the Very Beginning: Origins in Science and Music.”
The presenters are John Yin, speaking about the COOL (Chemical Origins Of Life) Project; Clark Johnson speaking about the first billion years of the Earth’s history; Elizabeth Hennessy on the interaction of man and animal in a pristine environment (the Galapagos) and about Darwin; and the School of Music’s own composer Laura Schwendinger (below), speaking about the inspiration for the creation of new works.
Then, SoundWaves Curator Daniel Grabois (below, in a photo by James Gill), horn professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Music, will speak about the process of creating a new CD recording.
The event will conclude with a performance by School of Music pianist Christopher Taylor (below). He will be playing a dual-manual piano (a piano with two keyboards).
This is an instrument that creates whole new possibilities in piano performance, and Professor Taylor will be performing selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations as well as his own arrangement of Liszt’s “Paysage” (“Landscape” from the Transcendental Etudes) made for this instrument.
(You can hear the haunting opening Aria from Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, from the second recording made by Glenn Gould, in a popular YouTube video at the bottom that has almost 1.9 million hits.)
Admission is free.
Cash bar opens at 7 p.m.
Registration is suggested at www.discovery.wisc.edu/soundwaves
By Jacob Stockinger
There are many great violinists playing today. But arguably the most important and innovative is 36-year-old Hilary Hahn (below), the thoughtful virtuoso who returns to perform a MUST-HEAR recital in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater at 7:30 p.m. this coming Sunday night.
The last two recitals there by Hahn were two of the most memorable live chamber music performances The Ear has ever heard.
Tickets are $27.50 to $50.50. UW-Madison students are $10.
Here is a link to information about tickets, the program and audio samples:
During her 20-year career, Hahn – who often mixes the old and new both in live performances and on recordings — has consistently turned in astounding performances of the violin repertoire, including classics. Those works include concertos and sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Niccolo Paganini, Johannes Brahms, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Charles Ives, Jean Sibelius, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Samuel Barber, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein and others.
But she also frequently commissions and adds new works to the repertoire, including a concerto by Edgar Meyer and a Pulitzer Prize-winning concerto by Jennifer Higdon, who teaches composition at the Curtis Institute of music where Hahn studied. Plus, she is a talented and charming “postcard” blogger and interviewer.
Both sides of Hilary Hahn’s artistry – the classic and the contemporary — will be on display during her Madison recital. The very busy Hahn (below, in a photo by Peter Miller) recently agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:
You have long been known as an innovative artist. What are your new and upcoming projects, including recordings and commissions?
I’m in the middle of a 14-month-long artist residency at the Vienna Konzerthaus. It’s my first such experience, so I feel like a kid in a candy store, getting to try out ideas sequentially that I would otherwise have to stretch over several years.
I’m excited to include among my residency performing as soloist with five different orchestras in the same hall, as well as giving a recital there and developing local initiatives to bring the community and classical music even closer together. Next year, I will be in residence in Seattle and Lyon. It’s been fun seeing what residency activities I want to carry over and what I can add that is specific to each city.
As far as commissions go, over this season and next, I’m world-premiering and touring a significant new contribution to the solo violin repertoire, Six Partitas by Antón García Abril (below), written for me.
That is a meaningful project for me, because I sensed that Mr. García Abril would write a fantastic set of pieces if I could convince him to take on the assignment. He decided to do it and the music turned out to be more wonderful and inspiring to play than I could have imagined. It feels like those phrases breathe with me and the notes fit in my hands.
In addition, I am in the process of wrapping up the original trajectory of my project, In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores. After some concerts on this upcoming tour, as encores, my recital partner Cory Smythe and I will be giving world premieres of the Honorable Mentions from my Encores contest.
Finally, in the fall, the complete edition of the sheet music for all 27 original works will be published as a single edition, with my fingerings, bowings and performance notes.
Is there an underlying unity or purpose to your program of works by Mozart, Bach, García Abril, Copland and Davidson?
I hope the listeners will find their own versions of unity and purpose in the program. The pieces weren’t assembled randomly, but then again, everyone listens differently.
García Abril’s Six Partitas, of which I will play No. 1, entitled “Heart,” are solo polyphonic works. The violin alone carries multiple melodic lines, as well as providing its own harmonies. Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) wrote his polyphonic Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin in 1720. I felt it was important to carry forward this particular type of composition into the present day, so I commissioned Mr. García Abril (below bottom, in a photo by Julio Ficha) to create this set of works. (You can hear Hilary Hahn interview Anton Garcia Abril in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
His writing for violin is compelling, fluid, emotional, clever and expressively rich in a way that I felt needed to be explored further. Especially as this is the premiere tour of his Partita No. 1, I wanted to juxtapose the new work with one of Bach’s, namely the Third Sonata with its complex and multifaceted fugue.
As for the duo pieces on the program, the compositional styles — though they span 250 years — have a certain openness in common: the writing is not densely layered, leaving lots of room for imagination.
What about the works by Mozart and Copland?
Mozart’s set of sonatas for keyboard and violin is one of the most extensive for this instrumentation, and since I was a student, I’ve been adding at least one to my repertoire annually. It’s wonderful to explore such a prolific composer’s work over a long stretch of time. This particular sonata vacillates among stormy drama, lyricism and playfulness.
The piece by Aaron Copland (below) is gorgeous, revealing. In this sonata, Copland’s musical language is clearly recognizable, but the texture is more sparse than in his famous larger-ensemble works, making it boldly direct and engrossing to listen to.
And the music by Tina Davidson?
The work by Tina Davidson (below) follows on the tonality of the Copland, but the composer’s treatment of the music goes in an entirely different direction. “Blue Curve of the Earth” was written in Wyoming during an artist residency, and was inspired by a photo of the edge of the Earth from space. The music is dreamy yet dimensional, angular yet lush. “Blue Curve of the Earth” is from the Encores project.
What would you like the public to know about composers Antón García Abril and Tina Davidson and their violin music or music in general?
I like to picture where pieces were written; the surroundings can add another dimension to the music. Environment influences the creative process. The studio is the private stage. Antón works in a studio outside of Madrid that his son, the architect by the same name, designed for him. Tina is based out of a refashioned church in Pennsylvania, with vaulted ceilings and a garden.
Both write beautifully for voice. Since violin can be a lyrical instrument and is tonally varied, capable of both sustaining and articulating, the ability to write expressively for voice transfers to the violin. Also, I have the impression that both composers start from a strong conceptual point with their works. When I play their music, the big line is the first thing that jumps out at me; the myriad fine details support the gestures.
If you play an encore or two, will they be from the ones you commissioned a couple of years ago and won a Grammy for?
That’s the plan! I feel very close to those pieces. Great encores exist from previous centuries, too; I never rule out the classics.
Why did you commission 27 short encores?
I began to notice that new encore pieces were not being showcased as much as other types of contemporary works. Shorter pieces remain a crucial part of every violinist’s education and repertoire, and I believed that potential new favorites should be encouraged and performed as well.
How successful have they been with the public and with other artists?
The public embraced the project. The music contained within the Encores is varied and imaginative. Each composer had a different concept of what an encore can add to today’s musical landscape.
I think every listener can find at least one work that is particularly poignant. I want the audience to discover these pieces for themselves. It is thrilling to listen to music that you have never heard before and, uninfluenced by other people’s opinions, be free to feel your own response.
This project is something I’ve been working on for a long time; I would estimate that my direct involvement in all of the different parts will wind up having a 15-year arc. What I have learned on musical and creative levels from working with the composers will stay with me for my whole career, and the logistical lessons from organizing such a big project will influence my future work.
Most importantly, I hope the Encores themselves will continue in the active repertoire beyond my lifetime. That will be up to other performers, of course.
You have played here several times, both concertos and solo recitals. Is there anything you would like to say about performing in Madison and about Madison audiences?
I really enjoy Madison itself. It’s in a beautiful part of the country. I’ll never forget the first time I visited, in the winter, when the city was covered by snow and one of the sidewalks featured a table topped by a tower of knit hats and sweaters. As for the Madison audience, their curiosity and involvement are energizing.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
REMINDERS: This Saturday night from 6 to 10 p.m., the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) will hold its annual “Art of Note” fundraiser at CUNA Mutual. Auctions, fine food and live music will be featured.
For more information visit: http://wyso.music.wisc.edu/artofnote/ and https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/classical-music-education-wysos-art-of-note-benefit-on-april-18-seeks-to-raise-50000-to-benefit-music-education-in-greater-madison-area/
Also: The Madison Bach Musicians presents two performances of “Pygmalion” by Jean-Philippe Rameau It’s a 1784 Baroque opera-ballet done in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.
The first performance is tonight with a 6:45 p.m. lecture and 7:30 p.m. concert. The second is on Sunday afternoon with a lecture at 2:45 p.m. and a 3:30 p.m. concert.
Internationally recognized UW-Madison early-music specialist Marc Vallon will direct a full baroque orchestra, dancers and an outstanding vocal cast as they tell the tale of a sculptor who falls in love with his beautiful creation—and then, through the power of Venus, the statue comes to life. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door.
For more information, go to: http://madisonbachmusicians.org/concerts/current-concert-season/
ALERT: At 2:30 p.m. this Sunday afternoon, in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, the Edgewood Chamber Orchestra will give its Spring Concert.
Admission for the public is $5 and will benefit music scholarships. Admission is FREE with an Edgewood College ID.
The Edgewood Chamber Orchestra will play under the director of Blake Walter (below, in a photo by John Maniaci). Included on the program are the Symphony No. 32 in G by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy and the Pulcinella Suite by Igor Stravinsky.
Also being performed is the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19, K. 459, featuring pianist Stephanie Crescio (below), the winner of the Edgewood College Music Department Student Concerto Competition.
By Jacob Stockinger
Madison-based music publicist and activist Jon Becker writes:
Wisconsin’s Earth Day Heritage will be celebrated in music and words this Saturday, April 18, and on next Wednesday, April 22. (You can hear a short history of Earth Day in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
Music broadcasts will feature the voices of the descendants of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Earth Day Founder U.S. Senator and former state Governor Gaylord Nelson, set to the symphonic music of Wisconsin composer John Harmon.
There will be several opportunities to hear a “sneak preview” of Earth Day Portrait, music celebrating Earth Day values, before its international release on CD later this year.
For the third year, the music will be “broadcast” in the Rotunda of Wisconsin’s State Capitol building (below). Listeners should gather at the bust of “Fighting Bob” La Follette (the East Gallery entry is closest).
On Saturday, April 18, the music will be broadcast 10 times on the half hour, starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 2 p.m.
On Wednesday, April 22 — which is Earth Day — there will be broadcasts at 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Earth Day Portrait is a symphonic setting of eco-moral texts of John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Earth Day founder, former Wisconsin Gov. and U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson (below). For the CD recording, the words of these environmental legends were read by their descendants: William (Muir) Hanna, great-grandson; Nina Leopold Bradley, daughter; Gaylord Nelson Jr., son; and Kiva Nelson, grand-daughter.
Patty Loew, an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, narrated connecting texts that paint intimate, personal portraits of Muir, Leopold, and Nelson, while recalling their unique mutual connection to Madison, Wisconsin.
All this is woven together by the story of the passenger pigeon’s extinction. Members of the Madison Youth Choirs (below, in a photo by Karen Holland) recorded a call-and-response part that -– at concert performances -– is spoken by audience members.
Earth Day Portrait was composed in 2001 by John Harmon (below), who graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and who makes his home on the Wolf River, near Winneconne.
Harmon’s music was recorded in Glasgow by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, led by conductor Marin Alsop, the first conductor to win a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. London’s EMI-Abbey Road Studios produced the master recording. Voiceovers were recorded at Audio for the Arts in Madison and at Umbrella Studios in Los Angeles.
For the forthcoming Earth Day CD, Harmon’s composition will be paired with Hymn to the Earth, by American composer Edward Joseph Collins (1886-1951, below). Composed in Door County, and inspired by Wisconsin’s seasons and landscapes, Collins’s ode to nature also may well be the first Western classical composition to refer to our home planet as “Mother Earth.”
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has been waiting for this.
And now it is at hand,
Today we are about to turn the corner.
Officially, the Winter Solstice arrives at 5:03 p.m. CST in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Ear has even heard about quite a few parties being held to mark the event.
And parties need music.
Here are a few selections of classical music to get you in the right frame of mind to celebrate the Winter Solstice.
The composers include well-known works and composers like the Baroque violin concertos “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi; the Classical-era oratorios “The Creation” and “The Seasons” by Franz Joseph Haydn; a section of a Romantic symphony by Peter Illich Tchaikovsky, and a piano miniature by the Impressionist Claude Debussy.
But there are unknown ones too.
But perhaps you have other favorites.
If so, please tell The Ear all about the music you listen to when you want to mark the Winter Solstice.
And here, in another version by Roger Norrington with the Handel and Haydn Society, is the “Winter” part of Haydn’s oratorio “The Four Seasons” that looks like it has been blocked from the link because of copyright infringement.