The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How did a reformation in religion and a revolution in printing change music? The 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) offers answers and samples this week. Part 2 of 2

July 3, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this Saturday and running through the following Saturday, the 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival will explore the profound effects that the Lutheran Reformation and the invention of printing had on Renaissance and Baroque music of the time.

The festival is called “A Cabinet of Curiosities: A Journey to Lübeck.” For a complete listing of programs, lectures, concerts and workshops, with information about tickets, go to: https://memf.wisc.edu

Soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe — who directs the festival with UW Arts Institute’s Sarah Marty and her husband and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe — recently agreed to do a Q&A with The Ear about the upcoming festival. Here is Part 2 of 2. And, if you missed the beginning, here is a link to Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/07/02/classical-music-this-saturday-the-19th-annual-madison-early-music-festival-memf-starts-a-week-long-exploration-how-the-500thanniversary-of-the-lutheran-reformation-in-changed-western-music-part-1/

How does early north German music differ from its counterparts in, say, Italy, France, Germany and England. What is the historical origin and aesthetic importance of the music from that era in that part of the world?

One of the biggest changes during the Reformation in Germany began with sacred music and the far-reaching changes in the way it served the church. The music of mass, motet, psalm and hymn heard in the great urban cathedrals, cloistered chapels and royal palace churches of Catholicism represented the “otherness” of the divine, a God unreachable by the untutored masses.

Written in an intellectual language which required years of rigorous training to learn and understand, it was only the disciplined, practiced choir boys and men who could perform this sacred polyphony in all its wonder and glory.

Luther sought to traverse this divide. Though he held the existing music of sacred polyphony in high esteem, he felt that music could be used to even greater effect in furthering the education and religious commitment of the people.

Luther (below) chose the hymn form as the principle means to his musical aims. A prolific hymnodist himself, he authored hymns such as the famous “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God“) several settings of which begin the All-Festival concert, attempted to connect existing high art with folk music in a style that would appeal to all classes, clergy and laity, men, women and children. His texts were in the German vernacular in order to convey messages that would be understood by all in a way that the Latin of preexisting hymns were not.

The culmination of those first 100 years of reformed musical development and the composers whose works will be performed throughout the week at MEMF, launched the reformed hymnody of Luther (below) and his followers into the stratosphere of such giants as Heinrich Schütz, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Sebastian Bach (all the Bachs for that matter) and on, a trail that continues to the present day.

What music and composers of that era have been most neglected and least neglected by historians and performers? Does rediscovery of works and composers play a special role this year?

Throughout the week we will be featuring compositions from the Choir Library from the Marienkirche in Lübeck (below) is a collection of music that Lübeck scholar and Buxtehude biographer Kerala Snyder catalogued and reconstructed.

The collection ended up in Vienna in the 19th century, and is a comprehensive data base that includes compositions by German and Italian composers, including Heinrich Schütz, Hermann Schein, Palestrina – the list starts with Agazzari and ends with Zucchini.

Besides the Choir Library compositions, audiences will have an opportunity to hear works of Buxtehude that have never been performed in Madison.

Can you tell us about the program and performers for the All-Festival concert on Saturday, July 14?

The All-Festival Concert (below)  includes all of our workshop participants and faculty. We work together to prepare the concert all week and it is truly a MEMF community project.  The music will be drawn from settings and compositions based on Lutheran chorales such as Ein Feste Burg and from the Choir Library of the Marienkirche.

The concert concludes with Buxtehude’s Missa Brevis and concludes with his grand motet, Benedicam Dominum in omne tempore, written for six contrasting choirs, which Buxtehude surely composed to match the structural design of the Marienkirche. (You can hear the Kyrie from Buxtehude’s “Missa Brevis” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Are there other sessions — guest lectures, certain performers, particular works — that you especially recommend for the general public?

All the planning that goes into each festival leads me to encourage the general public to attend everything. The concert series, lectures and workshop have so much to offer.

Special events include a dance with a live band drawn from the MEMF Faculty with dance instruction by Peggy Murray, Tanzen und Springen,at Memorial Union in the Grand Hall on Thursday night.

The lecture series features some well-known Madison scholars — John W. Barker and J. Michael Allsen, plus Michael Alan Anderson (below top), director of Schola Antiqua and professor of musicology, and Jost Hermand (below bottom), Professor Emeritus at the UW-Madison.

There will be a special exhibit created for MEMF in the lobby of Memorial Library by Jeanette Casey, the Head of the Mills Music Library and Lisa Wettleson of Special Collections at Memorial Library.

This curated display reflects the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The exhibit will be in the lobby of Memorial Library and open to the public through Thursday, July 19, 2018, with a special talk about the exhibit during the festival on Monday, July 9, at 11:30 a.m.  This wonderful partnership allows the library to display rarely seen original and facsimile publications, some dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries within the context of the MEMF theme.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Martin Luther, who was a great lover of music, said: “The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits…”

Join us to hear what Luther was talking about! Get your tickets for the concert series! Attend the lectures! Take some classes! You’ll find a link for all the information about MEMF at www.madisonearlymusic.org

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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: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


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/


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