The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Wisconsin Public Radio will air the Madison Opera’s productions of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Magic Flute” this Saturday afternoon and next Saturday afternoon

May 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Saturday live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera ended for the season last weekend.

But opera on the radio continues.

The Madison Opera is partnering with Wisconsin Public Radio to present recorded broadcasts of Charles Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet on Saturday, May 20, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute (below) on Saturday, May 27. (Photo are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

Both broadcasts begin at 1 p.m. Listeners can tune into their local WPR station or stream online at www.wpr.org/listen-live.

Each spring, two operas from Madison Opera’s season are presented by Wisconsin Public Radio to let listeners re-live the season.  These broadcasts cap off the end of the season of live radio broadcasts from The Metropolitan Opera that run from December through May on WPR’s News and Classical Music Network.

“We are committed to showcasing some of the best music and arts performances in Wisconsin. Our broadcast partnership with the Madison Opera, and organizations and musicians throughout the state, help to ensure everyone has access to live and local concerts no matter where they live,” said Peter Bryant (below), director of WPR’s News and Classical Music.

Charles Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet opens the broadcast series on Saturday, May 20, at 1 p.m.  In 14th-century Verona, Romeo meets Juliet in a crowded ballroom, setting in motion a chain of events that will change both their families. With soaring arias, impassioned scenes and plenty of sword fights, Gounod’s gorgeous opera brings Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers to vivid life.

Madison Opera’s cast features UW-Madison graduate and Lyric Opera of Chicago alumna Emily Birsan (below right) as Juliet, John Irvin (below left) as Romeo, Sidney Outlaw as Mercutio, Stephanie Lauricella as Stephano, Liam Moran as Friar Lawrence, Allisanne Apple as Gertrude, Chris Carr as Tybalt, Philip Skinner as Lord Capulet, Benjamin Sieverding as the Duke of Verona, Nathanial Hill as Gregorio, James Held as Paris, and Andrew F. Turner as Benvolio.

John DeMain conducts, featuring the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra. The broadcast includes an intermission feature with Birsan, Irvin and DeMain, interviewed by WPR’s Lori Skelton.

On Saturday, May 27, at 1 p.m., the broadcasts conclude with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute. A prince, a princess, a bird-catcher and a host of other fascinating characters invite you into a fantastical world of charmed musical instruments, mystical rituals, and a quest for enlightenment and wisdom.

Written in the last year of his life, Mozart’s sublime opera is part fairy tale, part adventure story, and all enchantment.

Madison Opera’s cast features Amanda Woodbury as Pamina, Andrew Bidlack as Tamino, Alan Dunbar as Papageno, Caitlin Cisler as The Queen of the Night, Nathan Stark as Sarastro, Scott Brunscheen as Monostatos, Amanda Kingston as the First Lady, Kelsey Park as the Second Lady, Anna Parks as the Third Lady, Anna Polum as Papagena, Matthew Scollin as the Speaker, Robert A. Goderich as the First Priest/Armored Man, and James Held as the Second Priest/Armored Man.

Julliard professor Gary Thor Wedow conducts, featuring the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The broadcast includes an intermission feature with Woodbury, Bidlack, Dunbar and Wedow, interviewed by WPR’s Lori Skelton.

Madison Opera is a non-profit professional opera company based in Madison, Wisconsin.  Founded in 1961, the company grew from a local workshop presenting community singers in English-language productions to a nationally recognized organization producing diverse repertoire and presenting leading American opera singers alongside emerging talent.  A resident organization of the Overture Center for the Arts, Madison Opera presents three productions annually in addition to the free summer concert Opera in the Park and a host of educational programming.


Classical music education: On Sunday, the Madison Youth Choirs presents “Hide and Seek: Cracking the Musical Code” with music by Bach, Handel, Grieg, Poulenc, Britten, Holst, Copland and others

May 10, 2017
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ALERT: This week is the season’s last FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. Featured are violinist Maureen McCarty and keyboardist Mark Brampton Smith in music of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Antonio de Cabezon, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Pachelbel, Jules Massenet and Spirituals. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Youth Choirs have sent the following announcement to post:

This spring, Madison Youth Choirs singers are sharpening their critical thinking, analytical and investigative skills as they identify patterns, puzzles and secret structures in a variety of complex musical compositions by artists including Johann Sebastian Bach, Francis Poulenc, Gustav Holst, Benjamin Britten, Georg Frideric Handel, Aaron Copland, and other composers. The results will be presented this Sunday in “Hide and Seek: Cracking the Musical Code.”

MYC’s Cantabile and Ragazzi choirs will also present excerpts from a world premiere score by Wisconsin-based composer Scott Gendel (below) inspired by the beloved novella The Snow Goose.

Please join us as we dive deep into these classical and contemporary choral works, discovering the great rewards of seeking brilliance and beauty wherever they hide.

The concerts are at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., near Camp Randall Stadium.

Here is a schedule of times for various groups to perform:

Sunday, May 14, 2017

1:30 p.m. Girlchoirs

4 p.m. Boychoirs

7 p.m. High School Ensembles.

Tickets are available at the door. General admission is $10, $5 for students 7-18, and free for children under 7. A separate ticket is required for each performance. 

See below for complete programs.

These concerts are generously supported by the American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank, the Green Bay Packers Foundation, the Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, the John A. Johnson Foundation, a component fund of the Madison Community Foundation, Dane Arts with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, The Evjue Foundation, Inc., charitable arm of The Capital Times, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. This project is also supported by the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. 

About the Madison Youth Choirs (MYC):

Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community. Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self-confidence, personal responsibility, and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond. (You can hear a sample of them singing in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information, go to www.madisonyouthchoirs.org

Here are the concert programs for this Sunday:

1:30 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Girlchoirs)

Choraliers

Lachend…Cesar Bresgen

Two Childhood Songs…Randall Thompson

Fairest Lady (from The Nursery Rhyme Cantata)…Nick Page

Con Gioia

O Lovely Peace (from Judas Maccabeus)…George Frederic Handel

Ewig Dein…Ludwig van Beethoven

Kentucky Jazz Jam…Traditional folk songs, arr. David J. Elliott

Capriccio

Musica est Dei donum optimi…Orlando di Lasso

Herr, du siehst statt gutter Werke auf (BWV 9)…Johann Sebastian Bach

Camino, Caminante…Stephen Hatfield

Think on Me…James Quitman Muholland

Amavolovolo…Traditional Zulu, arr. Rudolf de Beer

Cantilena

Bonny Wood Green…Traditional Irish Ballad, arr. Stephen Hatfield

Ah! Si mon moine voulait danser…Folk song from Quebec, arr. Donald Patriquin

Cantabile

Love is a Rain of Diamonds…Gwyneth Walker

No Time…Traditional camp meeting songs, arr. Susan Brumfield

Combined Choirs and Audience

Blowin’ in the Wind…Bob Dylan

4 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Boychoirs)

Combined Boychoirs

Das Hexen Einmal-Eins (The Witch’s One-Times-One)…Franz Joseph Haydn

Purcell

Wind on the Hill…Victoria Ebel-Sabo

Mangwani M’pulele…Traditional Zulu, arr. Theodore Bikel

The Old Carrion Crow…Nova Scotian folk song, arr. Mary Goetze

Britten   

Missa Brevis in D…Benjamin Britten

Wenn Sorgen auf mich dringen…J.S. Bach

I’se the B’y…Newfoundland folk song, arr. John Govedas

Holst

Tourdion…Anonymous, 16th century, arr. Pierre Attaignant

Bawo Thixo Somandla (sung in Xhosa)…Mxolisi Matyila

A Miner’s Life…Traditional Irish song, arr. Seth Houston

Ragazzi

Zion’s Walls…Setting by Aaron Copland, arr. Glen Koponen

Seigneur, je vous en prie…Francis Poulenc

Brothers, Sing On…Edvard Grieg

Combined Boychoirs

Blowin’ in the Wind…Bob Dylan

7 p.m. Concert (Featuring High School Ensembles)

Cantilena

Domine Deus (from Mass in G Major, BWV 236)…J.S. Bach, arr. Doreen Rao

maggie and milly and molly and may…Vincent Persichetti

Bonny Wood Green…Traditional Irish Ballad, arr. Stephen Hatfield

Ah! Si mon moine voulait danser…Folk song from Quebec, arr. Donald Patriquin

Ragazzi

Zion’s Walls…Setting by Aaron Copland, arr. Glen Koponen

Seigneur, je vous en prie…Francis Poulenc

Brothers, Sing On…Edvard Grieg

Cantabile

Suscepit Israel (from Magnificat in D, BWV 243)… J.S. Bach

Love is a Rain of Diamonds…Gwyneth Walker

No Time…Traditional camp meeting songs, arr. Susan Brumfield

Cantabile and Ragazzi

Excerpts from The Snow Goose…Scott Gendel

Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal…Traditional shape-note, arr. Alice Parker

Combined Choirs and Audience

Blowin’ in the Wind…Bob Dylan


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Classical music: Sound Out Loud will perform Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” for FREE this Wednesday night at UW-Madison

May 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has heard the following news to post:

On this Wednesday night, May 10, from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. in Music Hall on Bascom Hill, the Sound Out Loud ensemble will give a FREE performance of “Pierrot Lunaire” by Arnold Schoenberg (below).

Schoenberg’s expressionistic masterpiece features poetry that details the ravings of a lunatic clown. The group will feature UW-Madison vocal faculty member Mimmi Fulmer (below).

“Pierrot Lunaire” is in music what Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is to painting or James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is to literature. These three revolutionary works, written in the first decades of the 20th century, completely redefined the accepted aesthetic standards of their time and opened wide new paths to artistic creation.

American soprano Mimmi Fulmer first performed “Pierrot Lunaire” in 1978 at the famed Tanglewood Music Festival. (You can hear the opening section of “Pierrot Lunaire,” with English translation subtitles, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Sound Out Loud is thrilled to be hosting this encore performance under the guidance of such an experienced and knowledgeable performer of the work. Brief remarks by Professor Leslie Blasius (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) about the work will begin the performance.

For more information, go to:

www.soundoutloudensemble.com

http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/mimmi-fulmer/


Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra closes its season with the German Requiem by Brahms and the American premiere of Charles Villiers Stanford’s 1921 Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra

May 1, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger 

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), led by music director John DeMain, will close out its current season this coming weekend.

For the season-closing concert, soprano Devon Guthrie and bass-baritone Timothy Jones will make their MSO debuts when they join the orchestra for Brahms’ A German Requiem.

The concert will open with the American premiere of Charles Villier Stanford’s Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra featuring Nathan Laube (below top), who is returning to the MSO.

The finishing touch to the 2016-17 season happens in the second half of the concert, when more than 100 members of the Madison Symphony Chorus (below) take the stage with the orchestra and organ to perform Johannes BrahmsA German Requiem.

Featured vocal soloists in the Brahms German Requiem are soprano Devon Guthrie (below top) and bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below bottom), who is familiar from multiple appearances with the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

The concerts in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., are on this Friday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m.; this Saturday, May 6, at 8 p.m.; and this Sunday, May 7, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16-$87. For more information, go to: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/brahms

Charles Villiers Stanford’s Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra was completed on April 15, 1921. Stanford (below) is one of the leading figures in what is sometimes called the “Second English Musical Renaissance” — which was a movement in the late 19th century, led by British composers.

Stanford (below) believed in more conservative English contemporary music, rather than the music of Wagner, for example. He composed in all genres but had a great commitment to the organ.

His Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra was never performed or published during his lifetime. This is the piece’s debut performance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and the American premiere of the work.

Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem was completed between 1857 and 1868. The word “Requiem” is Latin for “rest” or “repose” and in the Catholic faith the Requiem is the funeral Mass or Mass of the Dead. (You can hear the opening movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

While usually filled with “terrifying visions of the Last Judgment and pleas for intercession on behalf of the souls of the dead and the living,” Brahms however puts death in a different light. He took sections of the Bible that are religious, but not necessarily Christian, and tells a story of salvation for all.

Although upon its completion, Brahms (below) called this piece, “Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der Heiligen Schrift” (which translates to; “A German Requiem, from Words of the Holy Scripture”), he was quoted saying that his piece should really be called “A ‘Human’ Requiem.” It is believed to be dedicated to Brahms’ mother, and his musical father and mentor, Robert Schumann.

One hour before each performance, Beverly Taylor (below), MSO assistant conductor and chorus director, as well as director of choral activities at the UW-Madison, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, visit the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below) at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/8.May17.html

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

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center 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: 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.

Find more information at madisonsymphony.org

Major funding for the May concerts is provided by: Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, Inc., Larry and Jan Phelps, University Research Park, and BMO Wealth Management. Additional funding is provided by: WPS Health Solutions, Carla and Fernando Alvarado, and Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Magic Flute” proved enjoyable, opulent and superb

April 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend and opera veteran filed this review:

By Larry Wells

I attended last Sunday’s matinee performance of the Madison Opera’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” (Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

The opera’s mystifying combination of fairy tale and Masonic ritual has been better explained by others, including the legendary Anna Russell. Those who know her only through her analysis of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle should seek out her lecture on “The Magic Flute, which is accompanied on the CD by an equally humorous look at Verdi’s “Nabucco.” A search through the iTunes store will easily yield these treasures.

The scenery and costumes (below), which were borrowed from Arizona Opera, were superb. I was captivated by the clever set, the opulent costumes and the amazing props.

The choice to have the spoken dialogue in English, while the sung parts remained in German with supertitles in English, was a smart move and helped move the ridiculous plot lines along.

The playing by members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor from the Juilliard School, Gary Thor Wedow, (below) was, as usual, brilliant.

And the singing was, for the most part, first-rate.

Special mention should be made of Andrew Bidlack (below top) as a consistently arresting Tamino and Amanda Woodbury (below, right, with Scott Brunscheen as Monostatos) as a crystalline Pamina. Their first act duet was perfection.

Likewise, Caitlin Cisler played the Queen of the Night (below center) and her vocal fireworks were spectacular, plus she was a delight to watch in her bizarre winged costume. (You can hear the Queen of the Night’s astonishing and virtuosic aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I enjoyed Alan Dunbar’s Papageno (below). He has a gift for comedy.

And probably my favorite characters, the three ladies (below, from left, with Tamino) portrayed by Amanda Kingston, Kelsey Park and Anna Parks were brilliantly sung and acted.

UW-Madison graduate Anna Polum (below) did not disappoint in the smaller role of Papagena, and we will be fortunate to hear her again soon in Johannes Brahms’ “German Requiem” with the Madison Symphony Orchestra next month.

The three spirits, sung by local schoolboys, were fun to watch with their steampunk attire and props, but they were vocally rather thin.

Nathan Stark’s Sarastro tested the limits of his vocal range. It’s a difficult role in any event since Sarastro has the unfortunate habit of stopping the opera’s action in its tracks whenever he appears.

The audience loved the whole thing, laughing at the comic absurdities and applauding whenever the music paused. But I cannot help wondering why “The Magic Flute” is such a popular opera. Its plot is basically incomprehensible, its second act goes on a half hour too long, the Queen of the Night’s downfall is never satisfactorily explained, and despite a number of memorable tunes, there are, in my mind, many more musically satisfying operas.

Next season we can look forward to yet another of the countless performances of Bizet’s “Carmen” and yet another Mozart opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” Madison does seem to love its Mozart. But we will also be hearing the late Daniel Catan’s lush, Puccini-esque “Florencia en el Amazonas,” for which I give praise.

I got to thinking about what other lesser performed operas that are not 200 years old might please the Madison crowd and quickly came up with: Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul”; Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide”; Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe”; Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa”; and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love.”

Each of these is as melodic as “The Magic Flute” and each has certainly more compelling storylines.

What are your suggestions?


Classical music: Mozart masterfully melds the emotional and the intellectual, says maestro Gary Thor Wedow, who will conduct two performances of “The Magic Flute” this weekend for the Madison Opera. Here is Part 1 of his two-part interview with The Ear

April 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute this Friday night, April 21 at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. (Production photos are courtesy of the Arizona Opera, from which the Madison Opera got its sets and costumes.)

Here are an introduction and some details, courtesy of the Madison Opera:

Written in the last year of his life, Mozart’s opera is part fairy tale, part adventure story, and is filled with enchantment.

Set in a fairy-tale world of day and night, the opera follows Prince Tamino and the bird-catcher Papageno as they embark on a mission to rescue Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Pamina had been kidnapped by Sarastro, the leader of a religious order. But it turns out that exactly who is “good” and who is “evil” is not always what it appears.

Along the way to happily-ever-after, Pamina, Tamino and Papageno face many challenges, but are assisted by a magic flute, magic bells, a trio of guiding spirits and their own clear-eyed sense of right and wrong.

“The Magic Flute has been beloved around the world since its 1791 premiere,” says Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “It has been called a fairy tale for both adults and children, with a story that works on many levels, all set to Mozart’s glorious music. I’m so delighted to be sharing it again with Madison, with an incredible cast, director and conductor.”

The opera runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets are $18 to $130.

“The Magic Flute” will be sung in German with English supertitles.

For more about the production and cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/

And also go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/cast/

Dan Rigazzi, who has been on the directing staff at the Metropolitan Opera for 10 years, makes his Madison Opera debut with this beautiful production that incorporates some steampunk elements into its fairy-tale setting.

Gary Thor Wedow, a renowned Mozart conductor, makes his mainstage debut with this opera, after having conducted Opera in the Park in 2016 and 2012.

Conductor Wedow (below) recently agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:

Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers?

Hello! I’m an American conductor, born in LaPorte, Indiana. A faculty member at The Juilliard School, I spend a lot of time with music of the 18th century — Handel and Mozart and often earlier, like Monteverdi, Purcell and Cavalli. But I conduct everything and grew up in love with the Romantics. I’ve also always done a lot of contemporary music. I love it all.

Mozart’s music sounds so clear and easy or simple, but the reality is quite different, musicians say. What do you strive for and what qualities do you think make for great Mozart playing?

Mozart engages both the brain and the heart. He challenges your intellect with amazing feats of counterpoint, orchestration and structure while tugging at your heart, all the time pulling you along in a deep drama.

Mozart was an Italian melodist with a German contrapuntal, harmonic engine – like an incredible automobile with an Italian slick body and a German motor.

Do you share the view that opera is central to Mozart’s music, even to his solo, chamber and ensemble instrumental music? How so? What is special or unique to Mozart’s operas, and to this opera in particular?

From all accounts, Mozart (below, in his final year) was a huge personality who was full of life and a keen observer of the human condition; his letters are full of astute, often merciless and sometimes loving evaluations of family, colleagues and patrons.

Mozart’s music speaks of the human condition: its passions, loves and hopes— no matter what genre. His music is innately dramatic and primal, going immediately to the most basic and universal human emotions with breathtaking nuance, variety and depth. (You can hear the Overture to “The Magic Flute,” performed by the Metropolitan Opera orchestra under James Levine, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tomorrow: Tricks to conducting Mozart and what to pay special attention to in this production of The Magic Flute.


Classical music: A new recording of Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” captures the Russian qualities the composer prized in this sacred music

April 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a record 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

For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.

A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.

Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.

Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).

It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”

It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.

Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)

Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.

The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.

Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.

Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.

I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.

They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.

While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.

One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.

This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.


Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians perform Bach’s “St. John Passion” this Friday night and Saturday night in authentic early music style

April 11, 2017
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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:

http://host.madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/st-john-passion-to-be-performed-on-all-historical-period/article_0e6e3d51-c03e-5803-9230-faed6a48ed1d.html

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:

  • Gut-strung violins, violas, cellos, and bass played with baroque bows which facilitate articulation and phrase grouping
  • Early 18th-century single-keyed wooden traverso flutes and single-keyed wooden oboes―uniquely warm-sounding and clear-toned. Plus the baroque ancestor of the modern English horn, the tenor oboe da caccia
  • A baroque chamber organ with wooden pipes tuned in 18th-century Well Temperament
  • And specialty instruments—even by 18th-century standards. The viola da gamba, featured during the tombeau– or tomb-like Es ist vollbracht (It is fulfilled) aria heard after Jesus’ death; and two violas d’amore, delicate and velvet toned, replete with sympathetic strings for a haunting after-glow of sound. (You can hear that aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

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.


Classical music: First Unitarian Society of Madison will give two performances this Sunday of the “German” Requiem by Brahms in the more intimate “London version” that featues duo-pianists instead of an orchestra

April 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday, April 9, the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will give two performances of the “German” Requiem, Op. 45, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

Instead of an orchestra, the prize-winning duo-pianists Stanislava Varshavski and Diane Shapiro (below) will be featured.

The performances are at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Admission is a free will donation.

FUS music director Dan Broner (below), who will conduct the performance, explains:

“We are using the four-hand piano accompaniment and singing in English.

“However, we are including the fifth movement, with solo soprano, that was not included in the first London performance.

“More intimate than the orchestral version, the “London” version was a hit in New York City last season where they also had three performances of the “German” Requiem.”

NOTE: You can hear the first movement of the “London version” of the “German” Requiem in the YouTube video below.


Classical music: Native daughter violist Vicki Powell returns from her globe-trotting career to solo this Friday night in music by Vaughan Williams with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

March 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison has produced its share of important classical musicians who have gone on to achieve international reputations.

Among them was the composer Lee Hoiby (1926-2011).

More recently, there are the Naughton Twins, sister-duo pianists Christina and Michelle, who perform around the world.

And there is violist Vicki Powell (below), who was born in Chicago but started music lessons in Madison where she studied with the husband-and-wife team of violinist Eugene Purdue and Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm, both of whom have taught at the UW-Madison.

She then attended the Juilliard School in New York and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. (You can see her typical day at Curtis in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Powell, who recently finished a tour of Asia and whose playing has garnered rave reviews internationally, returns to Madison this Friday night to perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

WCO music director Andrew Sewell will conduct. Unlike Sewell’s typical eclectic programming that mixes music from different eras, this concert feature music from a single period – the mid-20th century.

It offers “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” by British composer Benjamin Britten, who studied with Bridge. Also included are two other British works: the Suite for Viola and Chamber Orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with Vicki Powell, and “Benedictus” by Sir Alexander Mackenzie. All three works are rarely performed.

The concluding work, on the other hand, is the popular and well-loved “Appalachian Spring” – a timely work for the coming of spring yesterday morning — by the American composer Aaron Copland.

For more information about the program, about how to get tickets ($10-$80) and about Vicki Powell, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-iv-2/

And here is a link to Vicki Powell’s website with a biography, concert bookings, recordings, reviews and her community outreach projects:

http://www.vickipowellviola.com


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