The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir celebrates 20 years with a retrospective concert and alumni singers this Saturday night

April 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a retrospective concert that includes alumni.

The performance is at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program features favorite works from the choir’s history.

Founding conductor Gary McKercher (below top) will join current artistic director Robert Gehrenbeck (below bottom) – who directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — to lead the choir in this special performance.

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Familiar composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Franz Joseph Haydn share billing with Jean Belmont Ford (below), whose Sand County, a setting of Aldo Leopold’s words, will be performed.

Also on the program are a set of pieces by Howard Helvey (below top) that the WCC commissioned in 2002, and the U.S. premiere of Utyos by longtime WCC member Albrecht Gaub (below bottom).

Alumni of the choir will participate as guest singers in the final two works on the program: Haydn’s humorous Eloquence; and Gregg Smith’s serene Now I Walk in Beauty, which is based on a Navajo prayer and can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom. 

Immediately following the performance, audience members are invited to join the singers for cake and refreshments to celebrate this milestone in the history of one of Madison’s premiere music ensembles.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres of commissioned works.

Artistic director Gehrenbeck has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

Advance tickets for the April 13 performance at are available for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets.

Tickets are also available in Madison from Orange Tree Imports, all three Willy Street Co-op locations, and from members of the choir. Tickets at the door will be available for $20 for adults and $10 for students.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra, with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, closes its eighth season impressively by shining new light on music by Schumann and Brahms

June 2, 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.

By John W. Barker

The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its eighth season with another program of mainstream works. Maestro Steve Kurr clearly likes to challenge his players not only with demanding music, but also with works so familiar that audience expectations are extra high.

Of the two works presented, the first was the beloved Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. He wrote it for his wife, born Clara Wieck and an acclaimed pianist, to show off her talents. The soloist was the ubiquitous Thomas Kasdorf (below), a Middleton native and UW-Madison graduate who finds the MCO a wonderful platform in which he can have experience with a range of concertos.

Kasdorf is clearly working to make this concerto his own. He strove to integrate the polarities of melodiousness and showiness in the first movement, and seemed to have settled nicely into the extravagance of the final movement.

But it was the middle movement that intrigued me. (You can hear that movement, played by Sviatoslav Richter, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Usually treated as a simplistic interval between the other movements, it emerged here as music of true delicacy, much of it a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. I daresay Kasdorf (below) will be able to make even more of this work as he grows in it, but he is off to a persuasive start.

The other warhorse — if you will — on the program was the Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms. Kurr was the more daring in tackling it since the Madison Symphony Orchestra had already performed it just this past February. It is a deliberately monumental work, an ostentatious demonstration by Brahms that he had truly arrived as symphonist. Consequently, the composer made his players work hard to bring this off.

Though it sounds unfair, my initial grading would be an “incomplete”: a performance in the making. This was true certainly in the first movement, which did not yet have full coordination and coherence.

A major problem was the orchestra’s horn section. Brahms certainly wrote strong music for them in this work, but these players were occasionally inaccurate and, most damaging, far too loud and out of balance with the full ensemble. That distorted or undercut the performance all the way.

On the other hand, the string choir (below) continues to mature, and it delivered a very satisfying sound in the passages featuring it.

Most important of all, however, was Kurr’s interpretative approach, particularly in the second and third movements. These are usually presented as bits of superficial repose between the big flanking movements. But Kurr almost made them the genuine center of the work.

Taking much slower tempos than we usually hear, Kurr (below) turned the slow movement into a flow of beautiful sound, the third movement a subtly clever piece of whimsy. And the introduction to the finale, again taken more slowly than usual, unfolded with a powerful eloquence of its own, the more to pave the way for the Big Tune in the remaining body of the movement.

I am not sure I would advocate always treating Brahms’s First this way. But I salute Kurr for making me think anew about a score I had assumed I already knew well. He was able to lead his players, despite any shortcomings, in a performance of genuine artistic perceptions—an achievement in which this orchestra can take great pride.


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

December 12, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A truly rewarding concert!


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players complete their cycle of Beethoven sonatas for strings with impressive beauty and sensitivity

October 10, 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. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

In another distressingly overcrowded weekend, hard choices had to be made about which event to attend. I picked the performance by the Mosaic Chamber Players last Saturday night at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

For the past four years, this group has pursued a “complete” survey of Beethoven’s sonatas for strings and piano. Since he composed 10 for violin and piano plus five for cello and piano, it was easy to organize them into five concerts, each with two violin sonatas and one for cello. In addition, it was possible in many programs to draw on all three periods of Beethoven’s output.

This year’s concert was thus the fifth and the last in the series, climaxing a really impressive achievement for artistic director and guiding spirit Jess Salek and his colleagues.

As pianist in all three of the works presented, Salek (below) provided more than accompaniment, since the role of the piano was generally put on terms of equal partnership, sometimes even of relative superiority. He played bravely, justly showing palpable pride in the total achievement.

Laura Burns (below), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet, was the violinist in the early Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 12, No. 2.

This happens to be the first of these Beethoven sonatas that I came to know and love in my youth, via an old Jascha Heifetz recording, so it had particular reverberations for me. To its wit and sprightliness Burns brought an added warmth of sound and spirit.

The Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2, was the last one Beethoven composed for this medium, and one of two that dates from the composer’s late period. A great deal of very serious thinking went into it, with a slow movement particularly notable for its spiritual depth. Cellist Kyle Price (below) delivered it with genuine feeling and with great strength of tone.

Also Beethoven’s last work for its medium, the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, comes from late in the composer’s so-called middle period. It is a work of almost kaleidoscopic variety, with frequent changes of mood and character.

Its core is another slow movement of amazingly personal eloquence and breath-taking beauty. And the theme-and-variations movement finale seems to have everything (almost) in it but the kitchen sink. (You can hear Wes Luke and Jess Salek performing another theme-and-variations movement from a different Beethoven violin sonata in the cycle, Op. 30, No. 1, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was clear that violinist Wes Luke (below), who is also the first violinist of the Ancora String Quartet, was having a whale of a good time playing it, relishing almost every note.

Luke’s printed program notes were particularly excellent, and included notice that the group’s spring concert will juxtapose piano trios of Beethoven and Brahms.

The Mosaic Chamber Players do not receive a great deal of publicity, but their concerts offer some of the most lovely and thought-provoking chamber music repertoire to be found, even in a town so full of wonderful music-making as ours.


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